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date: 18 February 2018

School Culture

Summary and Keywords

Over the past several decades, scholars have focused special attention on the relationship between schooling and culture. The first forays focused on curriculum matters, trying to understand how educational policies affected the selection of content and its dissemination in schools. More recently, the concept of school culture has emerged as a frame for researchers, thanks to its ability to problematize how teachers and pupils experience school in terms of time and space. Placing these individuals in the center of the schooling process, the concept of school culture enables scholars to create a more comprehensive analysis of what happens inside classrooms and schoolyards. This tool offers an opportunity for researchers and teachers to debate the merits of tradition and innovation in education, pay attention to material culture as a part of school practices, and consider school community as a social actor. The concept has become commonplace in the academic production in many areas, such as educational sociology, history of education, educational anthropology, philosophy of education, and educational psychology.

Keywords: culture, schooling, educational reform, school practices, knowledge, curriculum, leadership, change, innovation


Emerging from the writings in the educational field in the late 1960s, the category of school culture has become commonplace in the academic production. Researchers from the areas of educational sociology, history of education, educational anthropology, philosophy of education, and educational psychology, as well as those interested in themes such as educational reform, violence, gender, bullying, childhood, adolescence, public policies, and leadership, among others, often employ this category for its potential to explain events within the educative milieu. The fortune of the formula, however, tends sometimes to inhibit the understanding of school culture as constituted within school practices, in a dynamic and constantly negotiated way between subjects in the school and in society. This may explain why we find articles dividing school culture into negative and positive, endowing each of them with attributes, and creating manuals to deal with their respective features.

In a broad sense, the most common meaning for school culture is the one systematised by Antonio Vinão Frago (1995, p. 69) as “the whole of school life: facts and ideas, minds and bodies, objects and conducts, ways of thinking, saying, and doing” (the authors’ translation). It is reflected in publications easily found on the Internet, such as The Glossary of Educational Reform (, which says:

The term school culture generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions, but the term also encompasses more concrete issues such as the physical and emotional safety of students, the orderliness of classrooms and public spaces, or the degree to which a school embraces and celebrates racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural diversity.

The amplitude of understanding made possible by the use of this category in analyses can reduce its explaining potential, however. An alert is given by Daniel Hameline (1995, p. 6), when he questions:

How do ideas reach the intellectuals that think about educative practices? Through which channels do they circulate? How does the meaning of formula evolve in time? Do the migrations of a formula from the language of the experts to that of practitioners or of politicians, or vice versa, mean its success or defeat? What value has in pedagogy the success of a slogan? (the authors’ translation)

Accepting the provocation of the French researcher, it seems stimulating to investigate what made possible the emergence of the category of school culture within the educational field, and how this category has been understood. To such ends, it seems advantageous to move in three directions. Initially, trace the decisive interest in culture and its forms of dissemination that had emerged by the late 1950s, reach the human sciences more consistently in the 1960s and 1970s, and constitute therein a new paradigm. Next, inquire about the conditions for the emergence of the category of school culture within the educative arena. Finally, recover definitions that have been circulating within the educational sphere, and scrutinize their effects upon analyses, particularly those of educative reforms.

Culture: A Polysemous Word

A polysemous word, as Peter Burke (1997) would put it, or a trap word, in the terminology of Edgar Morin (1969), culture has been present in the studies of human sciences for the last 50 years. Resorting to this category allowed the renewal of the analysis of the relationship between the social subjects and their historical time in at least two senses. First, it considered cultural elements as constitutive of human actions on a par with economic and social conditionings. Second, it alerted one to the fact that, immersed in the cultural universe, researchers were themselves also subjects and objects of analysis. In this latter sense, it placed under suspicion the whole of scientific investigation, ringing a continuous alarm for the need to problematize the academic practices of knowledge production, in the wake of what De Certeau (1975) called the historiographic operation, Bourdieu (1994) considered as the scientific field and its properties, and Ricoeur (2000) emphasized through the neologism representance.

The debate about culture and its forms of dissemination was certainly not new. Since the late 18th century, the term had been coined to distinguish human accomplishments from the raw facts of nature (Bauman, 1999). However, as pointed out by Eagleton (2000), etymologically culture emerges as a concept derived from (and not opposed to) nature in the agricultural context. For the British literary critic, the Latin root of culture, colere, implied simultaneously colonus (settler, farmhand) and cultus (cultivated).

Raymond Williams, when making an inventory of the meanings of culture for its entry in his book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, first published in 1976, associated the etymological perspective to a historical understanding of the term, noting the different meanings that culture assumed in at least three languages: English, French, and German (Williams, 1983). At the same time, he reminded us that the term refers to important concepts in several intellectual disciplines and systems of thought. According to Peter Burke (1997), North American scholars identified more than 200 definitions of culture.

Unravelling the thread of this tangle is a task beyond what we propose in this article. Experts have devoted themselves to this issue, and much has been published on the theme. It seems, nevertheless, important to emphasize, as did Williams (1983, p. 123), that the complexity does not lie in the word culture, “but in the problems which its variations of use significantly indicate.” For the sake of our argument, it is worth recalling Burke’s observation that those are competing definitions. Thus, although they are historically constituted, meanings that underlay the word culture that existed in the 19th century, such as civilization, superior intellectual knowledge, refinement, and distinction between high art and popular entertainment, compete nowadays with meanings derived from the anthropological turn that occurred in academia since the late 1950s and, more recently, with the poststructuralist strand.

The turn that classic studies such as Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, published in 1958, allows us to exhibit is grounded in questioning about the ways in which the concepts of culture and the popular had been acquiring intelligibility for the intellectual field. They brought with them the marks of the revisionism that affected Marxism with the divulging of the Moscow trials in 1956. They were expanded by the need to decipher the consequences of the proliferation of mass communication vehicles in society. One should not forget that it was not only the radio that entered the homes, but also television was becoming increasingly present in people’s daily lives. The 1950s would see the first TV color transmissions.

The identification between the popular and the primitive that had sustained the neocolonial actions of the 1800s (or that still supported the valuation of erudite culture in radio programs in the 1920s) was seen with suspicion by a new intellectual class that perceived signs of class domination in the historical exclusion of popular forms of expression. On the other hand, in an independent movement, industry and commerce were turning the popular into the order of the day, benefiting from the growing acceptance of communication vehicles and devices on the part of the population, and seeking to increase the number of consumers and audience rates.

The change in interpretations within the academic field was associated with the dissemination of the anthropological concept of culture which, taking over the human sciences, shifted the attention toward the subjects and their actions as objects of research. Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, published in 1973, gave the dimension of the renovation proposed, placing the subject at the center of the investigations about culture and its meanings, from the point of view of both the practitioner and the interpreter.

In the words of E. P. Thompson (1978), the turn emerged under the label of experience, a concept through which it became possible to reexamine customs, visible and invisible rules of social regulation, symbolic forms of domination and of resistance, laws, institutions, and ideologies, among other concepts, within a Marxist perspective, paying attention to the not always conscious part of the subjects’ actions. Engendered by the material life, and structured in terms of class, experience expressed the social will. Therefore, it was never conceived in its individual dimension.

In De Certeau’s words (1990, p. 52), it appeared under the designation of “arts de faire avec” (ways of doing with) or “pratiques” (practices). It translated the author’s refusal to see popular culture as naive, spontaneous, and childlike, and the people as passive and disciplined. The two categories, being historical, displayed the signs of class domination and disseminated ethnocentric prejudices, according to De Certeau. It was necessary, therefore, to distinguish a succession of acts of resistance and transformation (not always conscious) that reinvented the uses of cultural goods, and constituted, as a repertoire, the lexicon of the social practices.

Born partly in opposition to the structuralist interpretation, cultural studies were driven by the recognition of the unconscious and resistant portion of human actions, and placed under suspicion the conceptual guidelines that locked the subjects into class determinations. By privileging the understanding of the exchanges among classes and of the appropriation made by the various social groups of the cultural products in circulation in society, the keys to understanding innovations were found, without losing focus on the continuities.

This perspective, apart from refusing a priori social divisions, made an attempt at observing the relationships of dependency between the worlds. By recovering from the exchange processes meant to construct identities, it interwove the symbolic experience and the experience with materiality. Along this path, intellectual and material culture were put in mutual contact, making it possible to revisit the production/consumption division, otherwise seen by the Marxist tradition under the sign of alienation. At the same time, it imposed the knowledge of the cognitive strand of the consumption process, understanding the ways of organizing, classifying, counting, and managing as exercised at all levels of reality, as affirmed by Daniel Roche (1997, pp. 48–49) when he says that “culture is a production that is consumed as it is produced” (the authors’ translation).

One cannot fail to associate the development of the various meanings of culture to the movements of construction and deconstruction of the national state. This dimension is even more necessary when we attempt to deal with the relationship between culture and education, particularly after the 19th century. As a modality of distinction between “us” and the “others,” the notion of culture historically has sat at the root of the constitution of national identities, has underlain processes of political and economic domination, and has fed xenophobia in the strengthening of national projects. In such scenarios, cultural circulation was understood based on the ideas of dissemination, transcultural exchange, assimilation, hybridism, mestization, or cultural transplantation.

Nowadays, the blurring of geographic borders and the rearrangement of imaginary territories of belonging bring fresh challenges to the interpretation of culture and its forms. To Bauman (1999), we are moving from culture as system to culture as matrix—a basis for a multiculturalist worldview in which cultural symbols tend to float freely, tensioning an inside/outside division. In this sense, he proposes that mobility, uprootedness, and global availability/accessibility of cultural products and patterns now constitute the primary reality of culture, and that cultural identities result from a long chain of secondary processes of choosing, retaining, and collective recombination.

Sometimes conceived in contrast to nature or to civilization, sometimes perceived as intrinsic to human expression (intellectual, artistic, or religious fact), sometimes taken in the broader sense of way of life, and also sometimes understood as a matrix of significations, culture’s only point of convergence in the writings of sociologists, anthropologists, and historians is the affirmation of its dynamic, historically constituted character—an enduring object of dispute. In its sheltering of tension and conflict, it lends itself to a reading of social changes. At the same time, the regulation that it houses allows the analysis of the homogenization (albeit temporary) of the social.

Nevertheless, although the use of this category implies an interdisciplinary dialogue, it continuously rekindles a feeling that academia is not the only forum to produce cultural meanings. Others combine to produce visibility through the action of mass communication media and, more recently, of social networks. Here, culture can be presented in the singular, in the plural, or in the multiple. It can be understood as hegemonic, counterhegemonic, erudite, popular, primitive, derived, autochthonous, national, regional, local, relative to a group of people, or fluid. Among cultures, signs of hierarchy, distinction, difference, domination, or simply free circulation can be established. It is from this cauldron of meanings and senses that the problem of school culture arises.

Culture, School, and Education

In the 1960s and 1970s, when framing questions about culture, academia found itself facing the phenomenon of mass media. School emerged as in a double crisis. On the one hand, the accusations that this institution was a reproducer of dominant values, as stressed by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (1970) in their famous study Reproduction in education, society and culture, signaled a refusal of hegemonic culture; on the other hand, the growth of mass communication industry increased educators’ fears of losing control of cultural dissemination, as Michel De Certeau (1972) pointed out.

In a society in which values were questioned and where information was disseminated through various channels, a question emerged: What is the function of mandatory schooling? It is no accident that in 1971, Ivan Illich wrote Deschooling Society. According to him, it was necessary to rethink the relationship between school and culture to avoid the institution itself became obsolete.

In the answers to the diagnostics of crisis, educators faced the challenge of understanding how school manifested itself in the social, and how it built its daily workings. Looking into the school and reflecting upon how school knowledge was produced, as well as what effects their production had to society, constituted a proposal that inspired the work of André Chervel since the publication of L’orthographe (Chervel & Blanche-Benveniste, 1969). The movement instigated by Chervel indicated that school was seen as a place for the production of its own culture—the school culture. Taking into account the organization of school and the attachments that people involved in school have to their ways of working, Seymour Sarandon, two years later, published The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (1971), in which he advocated the importance of discerning overt behavioral and programmatic regularities in order to change the school culture.

The new attention paid to the action of social subjects, their experience or practice, affected incisively the investigations of the educational field. Not only did it place teachers, students, and principals at the center of the analyses about school and schooling, expanding the range of approaches through the examination of the not-always-conscious choices they made, but it allowed for seeing the school-culture pair from a perspective other than that of cultural transmission, following the epistemological changes inaugurated with cultural studies. From this new analytical perspective, the school needed to be invaded, scrutinized in the internality of the processes that it conducted, and interrogated about how it translated social demands into school actions and organized, classified, counted, and managed its daily life.

Culture was no longer considered as a fact external to the institution, as something with which it dealt in the performance of its social functions; it became an internal object whose examination allowed for understanding schooling as a possible negotiation between the interests of different social groups, the logic of institutional functioning, and the pragmatics of the actions of educational subjects. The approaches threw into relief the singularity of school culture, stimulating analyses that took into account the experiences of teaching and learning, of living together and socializing, of regulation and subversion, and of the classification and hierarchization attempted therein. They also stimulated the perception of social and political consequences of the progressive institutionalization of school, expanding the access and permanence of students and teachers in its spaces. Finally, they prompted the recognition that the different levels and modalities of teaching corresponded to distinct school cultures, revealing the existence of a primary school culture, secondary school culture, and professional school culture, among others.

By this perspective, school no longer emerges simply as the endpoint of pedagogical innovations and of legal norms or reforms, performing solely the function of cultural transmission. Rather, it also appears as the locus of a constant negotiation between the imposed and the practiced, and even of the creation of knowledge and actions that return to society either as cultural practices or as problems that require regulation within the educative sphere. In the former case, the unforeseen effects that the school institution produces upon culture and society due simply to its very existence should not be underrated, as pointed out by Chervel (1998). In the latter case, the interactions between educational policy and the actions of school subjects, both in their translation of political decisions into institutional actions, and in their transformation of problems faced by the institution into questions publicly debated and subjected to the work of political elaboration, should not be neglected, as highlighted by Chapoulie and Briand (1993).

Following the trajectories of subjects implied a third mutation in the ways of conceiving the relationship between school and culture, which linked the two previous functions (transmission and production). Considered on the basis of the passage and attendance of individuals and social groups, the school was then understood as the point of contact of cultures (children, juvenile, adult, religious, and ethnic, among others). Breaking into the school “black box” (Julia, 1995), also took as its objective to examine the interpersonal relationships constituted in school daily life, either as a function of power relations established therein or a view of the diverse cultures in contact. Thus, the perception of tensions and conflicts within the school environment and the forms in which the school is exteriorized in society has nuanced the homogenizing vision of the school institution as a device of social reproduction.

The concepts of school culture in circulation in the educational arena are addressed to different dimensions of the questions described so far. They may explore the relationship with society and culture, or they can insist on the multiple relationships between the subjects and their modes of subjectivation with the materiality of school; or they may emphasize the cultures in contact. We shall now take some of these meanings as examples.

Definition of School Culture

An initial form of presenting the definition of school culture is to examine it as an object of analysis. In an attempt to understand school culture historically, Dominique Julia emphasized the study of school practices and the internal functioning of schools. His speech at the International Standing Conference for the History of Education (ISCHE), published in Paedagogica Historica (1995), is an invitation to those who study school to question themselves about daily school practices. At the core of the definition of school culture proposed by Julia (1995, p. 354) is the relationship between the notions of norm and practice:

To be brief, one could describe school culture as a set of norms that define knowledges to be taught and conducts to inculcate, and a set of practices that allow the transmission of these knowledges and incorporation of these behaviors; norms and practices coordinated to finalities that can vary according to different times. Norms and practices cannot be analyzed without taking into account the professional body of agents called upon to obey these orders and, therefore, to use pedagogic devices responsible for facilitating their application; namely, the primary teachers and other teachers. (the authors’ translation)

What was generally treated in an external way by the history of pedagogic ideas, by the study of school institutions, and by the sociology of the school populations was then considered under an internal perspective, according to a history of the school disciplines. Thus, Julia (1995) warned about the need to recontextualize the sources at one’s disposal to understand the school. The studies by André Chervel about orthography (Chervel & Blanche-Benveniste, 1969), grammar (Chervel, 1977), dictation (Chervel, 1989), and French composition (Chervel, 1999) in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as his critique of the explanatory systems that had the notion of school as a simple agent to transmit knowledge developed outside it were extremely influential in this sense.

Having as its basis the reasoning that school produces a specific, singular, and original culture, Chervel (1998) rethought the social and political consequences of schooling based on the culture that the school delivers to society. Among the premises of his interpretation, we find on the one hand that the school culture is partly translated into expected results by the official teaching programs, and on the other hand that it reveals unforeseen effects, engendered independently by the school system. It seems to Chervel that the school system produces creations so spontaneous and original, such as orthography and grammar, that it deserves very special attention. Largely as a consequence of this fact, his attention focused on the facts specific to the school, which could not at any given moment refer precisely to the sciences, the arts, or any other cultural practices (Chervel, 1998).

If, to some extent, the analyses by Julia and Chervel gave support to a more accurate understanding of the relationships that school culture maintains with other cultures contemporary to it, and with the society of which it is a part, they have also contributed to an increased interest in the terms under which the contact of subjects with the materiality of school occurs. An important part of the current research on textbooks, school architecture and heritage, pedagogic materials, and the memory of education recognizes the notion of school culture as a category of analysis. Indeed, the discussion of school culture has resulted in an analytical repertoire that covers from pedagogic printed materials to reading and writing practices, also spanning the study of teaching methods and of school time and space (see, among many others, Escolano Benito, 1993; Vinão Frago, 1993; Burke & Grosvenor, 2008).

Also in France, Anne-Marie Chartier and Jean Hebrard used a perspective akin to those of Julia and Chervel to consider school practices. The various studies by Chartier and Hebrard about reading and its learning, primary schooling, and teaching insist above all on the peculiarities of the school discourse. Their analyses converge at the same time onto the recognition of the capacity of the school to transform into prescriptions discourses disseminated in society, and onto the recognition that, in the school, the uses of theory in practice do not follow directly from technical considerations.

There are also ethical norms related to conceptions of education and of the teaching work. Just as there are instrumental knowledge and the time to transmit its rules of authentication, there are also practices through which knowledge is empirically constructed. In this sense, the experience described by Anne-Marie Chartier (1993) when thinking about teaching practices, and that Jean Hebrard (1985) reveals in Jamerey Duval’s autodidacticism, is a relevant theme for understanding the school as a place where teachers and many other subjects construct and credit (or, conversely, resist to) an ordinary action.

Other works have made contributions along the same lines. Julio Ruiz Berrio (2000) gathered a number of them under the title La cultura escolar de Europa (Europe’s school culture), offering a wide panorama of different trends. Marie Madeleine Compere, Alain Chopin, and Pilar Ballarin Domingo, for example, reflected on time and the school manuals and disciplines, affirming the main lines of the arguments of Julia and Chervel about school culture. They identify teaching practices and elements of schooling that motivated the works, the disputes, and so many stories of this peculiar place. Under this perspective (albeit not an unequivocal one), the ways of acting at school bring together analyses that converge onto the comparison of routines, of materials utilized, and of spaces where models of learning and teaching strategies circulate.

But the idea of school culture has not been explored only from the point of view of a general and homogeneous construction. There is a growing tendency to think of school culture as a category to study the schooling process that takes place at a particular time and space. It can be represented by the book La Escuela Cotidiana (Rockwell, 1995). Organized by Elsie Rockwell, also one of its contributors, the book brings together ethnographic studies conducted by Citali Aguilar, Antonia Candela, Veronica Edwards, Ruth Mercado, and Etelvina Sandoval with the objective of recovering the schooling experience of parents, teachers, and pupils, a discussion generally absent from pedagogic debates and public policies.

To Viñao Frago (2001), it seemed more fruitful and interesting to speak of school cultures as a plural, both for understanding each school as a particular case and for considering the cultural specificity of each teaching institution, of each educative level, and of each group of actors that intervene in the daily life of education establishments. From a historical perspective, he observed that educational policies focus on ways of doing and thinking that are already stable and persistent in school institutions. Even recognizing that there are reforms without changes and changes without reforms, Viñao Frago (2001) showed a particular interest in the school changes brought about by educative reforms. Under his optics, however, the analysis privileges the contextual, circumstantial, and sometimes unpredictable character of the educative task, as well as the complexity of educative systems and the consequent impossibility of taking all the factors and intervening elements into account.

To devise the circumstances and factors of educative changes in political terms, Viñao Frago proposes a new adaptation of the meaning attributed to the notion of school culture previously proposed by Chervel and Julia. He suggests that there is a school culture that separates reformers and managers from teachers. In this respect, the basic idea of Viñao Frago (2001, p. 35) is that “the different positions and viewpoints of reformers and teachers determine the relative failure of educative reforms” (the authors’ translation). In such analysis, the fundamental differences between the priorities and preoccupations of managers and teachers imply cultural differences that put in opposition groups of beliefs, mentalities, and practices of work and interaction acquired, deep-rooted, and transmitted, not without modification, from one generation of teachers to the other, and to the formal-bureaucratic procedures of educational policies. However, Viñao Frago distinguishes three school cultures, following Agustin Escolano Benito (1999). Thus, he warns that in the school, there coexist a culture of knowledge, specialized, produced in the academic world; a political-institutional culture produced in the administrative-bureaucratic environment of the educative services; and an empirical-practical culture developed by teachers in the practice of their profession, which constitutes the corporate memory of teaching. The tensions among specialists, administrators, and teachers are crucial to explaining the relationships that reform policies maintain with school cultures (Viñao Frago, 2001, the authors’ translation):

[Institutes of education] work within a given legal framework and within a given policy, which have their own culture administrated by reformers, managers, and supervisors with their own and specific school culture—their conception or way of seeing it—and in interaction with a science or sciences of education—fundamentally pedagogy, psychopedagogy, and sociology of education—that influences educative reforms, that conditions the school culture, and whose protagonists—pedagogues, psychologists and sociologists—elect themselves as holders of the specialised and scientific knowledge within the educative sphere. This double interaction and challenging of the culture of primary and secondary teachers by the cultures of reformers and managers, and those of specialists or scientists of education—always tempted, when political circumstances allow, to convert themselves into reformers—is what explains to a large extent the failure of educative reforms. (pp. 34–35)

In the sense given by Viñao Frago, the category of school culture appears as an element of resistance to changes in schools. Thus, his understanding about school culture is different from the notions proposed by Julia and Chervel, who employ this concept to express their belief in pedagogic innovation. School culture is, therefore, a category of analysis with competing meanings. These differences of conception are clearly perceived, especially in the relationships between the subjects and their modes of subjectivation and the materiality of the school. Whereas Viñao Frago and Escolano Benito value the difference between teacher knowledge and technical knowledge, Chervel and Julia consider the teacher as someone who drives the working of school devices. With respect to changes, Viñao Frago argues for the small permeability of school culture to transformations. Julia and Chervel, on the other hand, consider in their analyses the small-scale ruptures, paying attention to the inflections of this term in the study of the productive or creative capacity of original cognitive configurations that the school displays.

At any rate, these examples show more than the existence of competing meanings for school culture. Despite convergences, even the more general and structuring analyses recognize the specificities. As showed by the analyses of Viñao Frago and Escolano Benito, a culture of managers—one of specialists and still another of teachers—coexist inside the school. Similarly, primary school culture and secondary school culture have different natures. Anne-Marie Chartier (1992) does not overlook such specificity, pointing out that as opposed to the work of the secondary school teacher, the activity of the primary teacher includes a kind of hand-to-hand interaction with the class. This is a perception that Julia (1995, p. 373) understands as a separation of two modalities of teaching with objectives so distinct that “they cannot but accentuate the opposition of the two cultures, primary and secondary” (the authors’ translation). In many ways, the notion of school culture also has been explored to discuss, in the context of school disciplines, what distinguishes them from their academic correlates.

On the teaching practice, Chervel (1988, p. 84) believes that its activities “are much more similar to those of an orator committed to persuading and pleasing than to those of a college teacher who … reads his notes or recites the syllables of a text fine-tuned twenty years earlier” (the authors’ translation). The same has happened in the studies of the different compositions of school populations, as in the case of schools for immigrants, or of the forms of schooling of different social layers. Analyses of this kind corroborate the perception of Julia (1995, pp. 353–354) that the school culture is always a culture in relation: “[I]t cannot be studied without the precise analysis of the conflicting or peaceful relationships that it maintains in each period of its history with the group of cultures contemporary to it: religious culture, political culture, or popular culture” (the authors’ translation).

Within the Anglophonic context, and, in particular, that of in the United States, two terms, even though they have different meanings, emerge associated with the approach to the school workplace: organizational climate and culture. According to Hoy (1990), the genesis of both terms harks back to the 1960s and concerns the questioning of school effectiveness and the reform movement in education, which has become commonplace in the discussion and study of school.

According to Hoy (1990, p. 152):

The organizational climate of a school is the set of internal characteristics that distinguishes one school from another and influences the behavior of its members. In more specific terms: school climate is the relatively enduring quality of the school environment that is experienced by participants, affects their behavior, and is based on their collective perceptions of behavior in schools.

This same author states that, on the other hand, the study of school culture is of a more anthropological and sociological nature, with a greater tendency to be more theoretical than empirical analyses. With the intent of offering a framework for the investigation of organizational culture, Hoy, referring to the work of Firestone and Wilson (1985), suggests that three symbol systems communicate the basic contents of an organization’s culture: stories, icons, and rituals. He also recognizes the existence of other analytical models. At any rate, however, he asserts that “the determination of culture at this level of analysis is not easy. The core values of a school may be easier to determine than its tacit assumptions, but the analysis remains difficult and time consuming, a factor that probably explains why there is more rhetoric than empirical analysis of school culture” (Hoy, 1990, p. 161).

Despite identifying differences between climate and culture, Wayne Hoy observes that the concept of climate remains indeterminate and has been used in a wide sense, covering all features of the school, including its culture, and characteristics of successful schools. In his interpretation, “researchers and reformers need a handy term to describe all the features of school organizations that have been related to achievement in one study or another. Climate has been chosen, but increasingly it has a rival in culture” (Hoy, 1990, p. 163).

According to Seymour Sarason (1971, 1996), it has been only in the post–World War II era that public schools became a major and controversial aspect of the federal government in the United States, and the attempts to change and reform the school system a problem. The massive insensitivity to the culture of schools, however, prevented the success of these efforts. To him, “any attempt to introduce a change into the school involves some existing regularity, behavioral or programmatic,” and discerning it requires a look at the school culture “from a nonjudgmental, noninterpretive stance” (Sarason, 1996, p. 4). Only by identifying the regularities would be possible to “ask why they exist and what alternative ways of thinking would give rise to different regularities” (p. 5). It is also essential to dismiss the idea of an encapsulated school, recognizing that even though schools have physical borders, their boundaries are porous in all other respects.

The school principal emerges in this scenario as a key actor. His or her actions are crucial to determining the fate of the change process. That is the reason why Sarason questions the substance of university training programs for principals, claiming that they do not take into account the realities of the school culture. Therefore, they do not really prepare principals to face “the increasing complexity and built-in dilemmas of the role: on one hand, the bewildering array of pressures from the community with which the principal must deal and, on the other hand, the pressures on the principal within the school to preserve and protect strongly held attitudes and practices” (Sarason, 1996, p. 5).

However, to Sarason, “although it is true that the principal is the gatekeeper in regard to the change effort, the ultimate outcome depends on when and how teachers become part of the decision to initiate change” (Sarason, 1996, p. 5). More than that, he states that only by compromising parents and community groups can changes in the school culture be achieved. Their involvement implies a commitment to the process and outcomes. And although it is neither a sufficient condition for success nor a guarantee, commitment is necessary to any attempt to change the school culture, Sarason argues.

The core issues systematized by Sarason—the implementation of centralized reforms and the efforts to interfere in the school culture—gave rise to considerations on how to forge manners of introducing planned changes in schools. School culture in some sense had to be changed for centralized reform ideas to be implemented (Finnan & Levin, 2000). Tightly linked to American capitalism, the idea of successful corporate cultures contaminated the discussion.

To Terrence Deal and Allen Kennedy (1982), culture is more important to the long-term prosperity of a company than attention to the rational aspects of managing. Inner values, rites, rituals, and heroes influence powerfully the success of an organization. Therefore, building and nourishing a strong corporate culture can sustain companies through both fat and lean times. On the other hand, diagnosing the state of a corporate culture and manipulating it to create desired results could be the key to change. Many school principal and superintendent preparation programs read this literature with the idea of transferring it to schools. Guidelines were written to support principals’ actions and give a sense of the steps to be followed in order to shape the school culture.

The understanding of the school organization and its relationship with the efficacy of the reforms also emerges from reflections published by David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1999). They coined the expression grammar of schooling to explain that in highly schooled societies such as the United States, there is a tendency to consolidate a notion of what the school truly is and to refuse everything that departs from this model, posing obstacles to change. Proposing to analyze the school institution based on its invariable elements, focusing their attention on the norms and structures of time-honored functioning, Tyack and Cuban (1999) found the stable forms of school organization for education in the format of the classrooms and in the manner in which the school divides space and time, classifies pupils and distributes them in classes, and splits knowledge into disciplines.

Under their perspective, the continuities in the practices of school organization are investigated based on the approach to the structuring strategies of the educative system. Akin to European studies of the set of norms and practices that define contemporary school functioning, the analysis by Tyack and Cuban, nevertheless, revealed that in the United States, a graded school and the Carnegie unit are lasting institutional forms characteristic of the North American system of schooling.

The studies about educational changes by Stephen Ball and his coworkers (Ball, Bowe, & Gold, 1992), and those by Thomas Popkewitz (1991, 1994) in Great Britain and in the United States , called attention to the historical and relational character of structures of schooling. They deal, above all, with a theoretical framework that allows for establishing a relation between the practices and discourses upon which daily activities and individual thinking are established at a moment of reform in education.

Both authors make use of so-called poststructuralist analysis to investigate the constructive role of language in the establishment of education reforms. Basically, both Ball, Bowe, and Gold and Popkewitz understand change and power as aspects of given relationships within a social space. Thus, they have proposed analyses in which the diversity of practices produced by emerging patterns of discourse is recognized and thought of as an answer to a stable system of dispositions inculcated through socialization onto individuals. The results that Ball, Bowe, and Gold and Popkewitz obtained with this kind of approach are representative of the attempts to analyze educational policies or reforms as social practices.

They diverged from Viñao Frago’s explanation about the relationships that reform policies maintain with school cultures. Instead of the relative failure of reforms, they concentrate on understanding the epistemological and institutional patterns of the educative reforms that effectively operate changes in schooling practices and processes. This is a concerned shared by Diana Vidal when, in her analysis of the Brazilian school, she adopts the category of school culture to affirm (Vidal, 2006, p. 88):

The question that presents itself, therefore, is no longer “why do reforms fail?” but what representations of school and of its subjects, practised by different social groups—and here one has to think of the multiple and shifting compositions of these groups—compete with each other in the elaboration, imposition of, and resistance to educative reforms? What are the resistances operated and the appropriations made by the various school subjects in the impositions of space at moments of time? And what does this struggle reveal about the different social meanings of school?

Popkewitz (1991) analyzed the historical construction of epistemologies that he sees as basic to contemporary schooling, as well as the forms in which educational reform is constituted. It is by recognizing, above all, as Michel Foucault did, that social structures are objects historically formed and that educational reforms are an intersection of knowledge with power and with historically situated practices. The discussion that Popkewitz makes regarding the epistemology and the implementation of educational reforms encourages the investigation of institutional practices and of the regimes of truth (Foucault, 1969) that are modified in the course of time.

Having in mind the relationships between epistemology and the social and historical contexts, Popkewitz (1991) insists that the political administration of education has been historically structured and has interacted through multiple social relationships. In this sense, his theoretical contributions to the study of change in education are particularly effective to understand the structural relationships within which schooling occurs. In the studies by Popkewitz (1991, 1994) relating to educative reforms and their power policies, the notions of structure, mentality, and long duration reveal an explicit and thoughtful focus on the possible connections between historical categories of analysis and explaining models associated with the social sciences.

Ball, Bowe, and Gold (1992) have developed an analytical typology for the study of public education policies, through which they propose that educative reforms result from continuous cycles of public policies. In so doing, even without using the notion of school culture, they offer an explanation about educative reforms attending to the connections between the interests of actors, the production of legal and political texts, and the contexts of practice through the notion of the policy cycle. Particularly in the terms that they use to discuss the question, the idea of approaching the policy cycle allows for unveiling the relationships among places of articulation of the influence of representative groups, the official and political texts, the formal or informal commentary on official texts, and the processes of interpretation and appropriation of the reform guidelines carried out by teachers.

Each of these levels is treated as a different context of formulation and implementation of educational reforms, as they constitute spheres or arenas to outline conflicts and discrepancies among discourses, groups, and labor categories. This approach offers instruments to circumscribe the processes of institutionalization of education services in a policy cycle. In this sense, the contribution by Ball, Bowe, and Gold (1992) to a reflection about the results of public policies for education signals with instruments for the critique of the regimes of truth perpetuated by institutions when they exclude competing discourses and other reform agendas.

Even if they are not of the same kind and are not constructed for the same purposes, the notions of culture, climate, grammar of schooling, and policy cycle contribute to highlight both the variety and the strength of the interactions among the several perspectives to approach school practices. They are particularly helpful to answer Julia’s provocations about what he once called the school “black box”: What happens within the school?

Final Comments

Be it as an answer to the interest shown in education research by subjects in contact with the materiality of the school, as a challenge made by school practices to the research and the concern about the efficacy of educational reforms, or as a tool to implement changes in the school workplace, school culture has established itself as a category of analysis based on different definitions and perspectives. Its use has already reached a scale sufficient to allow identifying some of the main recurrences.

First, through this category, the attention to the cultural effects of school in society has consolidated studies about the teaching disciplines, school times and spaces, didactic materials, and practices and sensibilities associated with learning and organizing a school. In many aspects, the concern with a school’s ways of operating has given support to analyses about experiences in which discourses, appropriations, uses, representations, and entire repertoires of memories of what the school was, of what it is, and of what it could be were displayed.

Taken as a whole, these analyses reveal the importance that the understanding of the practices that exist around the school has to the perception of contemporary educational questions. Indeed, much of what has already been advanced about the understanding of school culture and of its history has reverberated in the reflection about the facts of school classifications in domains of the social life away from the school, and that prolonged themselves beyond the end of schooling into the dissemination of cultural models and the doctrinal control of entire segments of the population. For this reason, one has to see school culture not only as a category of analysis, but also an object of research central to studies on education or attempts at changing.

Furthermore, the study perspectives that the category of school culture has promoted suggest both new questions to explore in research on education and new answers to well-known questions. Above all, working with different durations of time, encompassing more global processes of schooling, seeking in daily practices the understanding of the group of actions within a school, and collecting strategies, studies based on school culture also began to discuss the forms through which the decisions of individuals or small groups exert influence on the social development of education.

In so doing, not only was the question asked about the conditions under which the representations of school and the discourses about education were formed in the political sphere of the state actions, but also the problem of the accentuated distance or discrepancy of school practices with respect to technical knowledge and to educative laws and reforms was stated. On the other hand, the daily practices themselves—the appropriations and mediations of cultural models that the school has historically promoted in society—have developed approaches that are more aware of the relationships that individuals establish with the objects that circulate among them.

Finally, the school culture category, its study as an object of research, has driven an expansion of the theoretical perspectives of the discussions about the role of the school and of the education system in the maintenance or alteration of the appropriation of discourses, in the establishment of the subjects’ roles, and in the representations about these roles. In this sense, the discussions about culture derived from the work of Raymond Williams, Clifford Geertz, Edward Thompson, and Michel de Certeau, and the understanding that human formation is an unavoidable question in any attempt to understand the social practices became deeply embedded into educational research. Also, the suggestions by Roger Chartier (1989) and Robert Darnton (1990) about the study of the book and the reading supported the use of appropriation, tactics, and representation as categories of analysis.

Other domains of concern in the study of social action and of the elements constitutive of the identity of individuals, such as the categories of gender, affirmative policies, and the anthropological conceptions of culture, also contributed to turning the category of school culture into a resource for articulating different methodologies of approaching cultural practices and of using their theories. Even without being defined by an unequivocal concept, the notion of school culture has helped to formalize the attention paid to the many modes and artifices of the socialization of school knowledge and to react to the models of analysis that reduced the school to a place of mere social reproduction.

In view of these considerations, one can recognize that school culture has consolidated itself into a category of analysis capable of giving meaning to different dimensions of the schooling process. However, as significant as this category has been to the research in education during the last five decades, its appropriation has sometimes been made oblivious to human action. As often happens in the wide dissemination of a concept, the use of school culture to resolve interpretation problems and as a starting point of the analysis dissipates, rather than allows, exploration of the tensions that ultimately one strives to understand. Notwithstanding, and despite the questions that it raises as a category of analysis, school culture seems to have been definitely incorporated into the discussion of fundamental aspects of a more accurate understanding of changes in education, school, and educative practices.

Above all, the broader view that it affords of social, political, and institutional questions in education has not only been shown to be richer than that of reproductivist theories, but also has driven the inventory of strategies, schemes of school practices, rituals, values, and icons. It has both paid attention to the actions of individuals in their myriad ways of dealing with the materiality of school and has opened up perspectives to rethink the discussion of innovation in education in terms of the policies of reform and practices of teaching and school organization.

In this latter sense, the use of school culture amplifies the focus on change and examines the notion of the school as an already known reality. The main consequences that the use of the notion of school culture in education research presents are, first, the understanding of changes in school practices based on the exchange with society and history; and, second, the understanding that the technical knowledge and educative reforms are also constituted in the interplay of competing representations about what the school is and how it should act. In a discussion of these terms, the marks of the modeling of school practices are as relevant as the evidence of daily subversions of this model, as well as of the inventiveness that they impart to school practices.

The challenge remains, finally, of exploring the operational limits of this category, of questioning its explaining potential, and of identifying the blank spaces that it leaves in the interpretations. And, along this path, we must point to the limits of the solutions brought by school culture in the construction of intelligibilities about the past and the present of the school, and of its subjects and the materiality with which they live. It is stimulating to ask, as does Bauman (1999) when he writes about culture, if the definitions of school culture do not themselves establish an “inside” and an “outside,” making them impervious to the perception of the free fluctuation of cultural symbols.

After all, the walls that separated school from society and that constituted it as a specific place, distinct from all other social spaces, are being demolished by the penetration of the new information technologies, by the multiple interactions made possible by social networks, and by the new learning environments, such as e-learning. Mobility, uprootedness, and global availability/accessibility of cultural patterns and products are also, in this scenario, constitutive of school practices.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the diagnostics of the school crisis made school culture emerge as a category of analysis, with historical meanings that have been altered in later decades. If the category is to continue to offer elements to the understanding of the school universe, one has to be always alert, as suggested by Hameline (1995), lest it become a formula of success—a new slogan, waned in conceptualization and devoid of the potential to explain.

Further Reading

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Hongboontri, C., & Keawkhong, N. (2014). School culture: Teachers’ beliefs, behaviors, and instructional practices. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(5), 66–88.Find this resource:

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