We can measure student outcomes and teaching performance. With feedback these can be improved. What about the soul of the school?
There are things about a learning environment that no-one can quite put their finger on, yet have a powerful influence over the success of the school or college. There is an ingredient ‘X’. The soul? Without ingredient ‘X’ a school or college in both the physical and conceptual sense must surely be a hollow shell.
It is easy to focus on the tangible, such as teaching performance, student outcomes and even the facilities, because we can see and measure them. But at what cost?
One such intangible, is ‘ethos’. It is something about values, beliefs and a way of doing things that is unique to the organisation. It is something that binds the society together. In some ways it is the ‘soul’ of the school. These are very human qualities outwith the physical existence of the place.
Why do we care? For teachers, the essence of teamwork is the shared beliefs and values of the team members. For parents, the comfort that their child is in a learning place that they themselves feel comfortable with. For students, it might be about feeling connected and safe within the environment.
But how do you articulate it, let alone measure it? No doubt, it is jolly difficult to describe but lots of organisations try. The commercial world is riddled with such attempts, often articulated in mission statements, value statements and summed up in the ‘brand’.
In one primary school project where the school was moving from an old Victorian house to a new building, I asked the teachers, parents and students what they valued about the school and what they wanted to take with them to the new school. Time and again the notion of family was mentioned. They either talked literally about a family or ascribed the quality of ‘domestic’ to the existing school building. Further probing revealed ideas about ‘being connected’, safe and intimately part of a whole, and something unique to that school.
Interestingly the students didn’t use the word family or domestic, but did talk about the size of things and the feeling of being at home (sometimes!). They felt safe and comfortable because they could relate to the physical size of the environment around them. But also, in the words of one eight year old, in this place they were “allowed to make things up”. Ah, creativity!
[Your chance to explore some of these issues at CELE 2012 in Finland 22-24 January 2012: Recipe for Success: Transforming Learning Environments Through Dynamic Local Partnerships. There is a Paper Session on “School Ethos”. Submit an abstract by 16 January.]