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Leadership Skills and Implementation

Transforming School Culture: A Q&A with Inquiry Schools’ Diana Laufenberg

By Jennifer Gunn

A farm kid from Wisconsin, for the past two decades Diana Laufenberg has taught seventh-12th grade Social Studies in several states, most recently at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on modern learning. It’s here where I first met Laufenberg, at the yearly conference Educon, where she was swarmed by attendees in her always-packed sessions. Laufenberg’s practice has deep roots in experiential education, taking students from the classroom to the real world and back again. Laufenberg was featured on TED.com for her “How to Learn? From Mistakes,” and in 2013, Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a new nonprofit working to create and support learning environments that are inquiry-driven and project-based and which utilize modern technology. I spoke with Laufenberg about her work, and just what it takes to transform a school’s culture.

Your organization Inquiry Schools, is doing great things. Can you briefly discuss your work and what you do for schools?

Inquiry Schools is a small nonprofit that addresses new school development and redesign of existing school programs to focus on inquiry-driven, project-based, and technology-enabled learning. The big idea for the work is to facilitate a smoother open, a smoother transition in creating more relevant, meaningful, and authentic learning environments. This is tough work often requiring extra help with strategic planning and developing expertise. We step into those roles in flexible ways, in a variety of schools and districts.

As the executive director, my work encompasses all facets of grants management, consulting and directing new school projects, consulting with existing schools/districts to plan for a more modern approach to teaching and learning, conducting professional development with teachers and administrators, coaching administrators through the school change process, and coordinating all team-based work with our other consultants.

Through Inquiry Schools, you work on new school development as well as school transformation. You have identified five factors of sustainability for schools. Can you share and introduce us to those factors?

The shifting systems of a learning organization call for five factors of sustainability:  Permission, Support, Accountability, Community Engagement, and Discipline.

  1. Permission for the people in the community to try something new, make mistakes, reflect, and grow;
  2. Support to build skills and capacity in your school community;
  3. Accountability for all school community members that expectations are being implemented/met to satisfaction;
  4. Community Engagement for the changes so one doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time defending but promoting and growing; and
  5. Discipline to hold the line for three to five years… any real change will take years to settle in [and] disrupt old patterns.

Why do you think these are the critical five areas for school sustainability?

I am interested in understanding why one project flourished and another languished… why one school caught momentum for lasting change and another flamed out quickly. This curiosity led me to synthesize the experiences, reading, and research that I have pursued. After working with a variety of schools at varying stages of change throughout the past six years, certain patterns were made clear. The five factors that I landed on are so critical because schools are such asymmetrical problems — if it were more linear or symmetrical, we would have “solved” the issues by now. The problems, however, are complex and require deep thought related to these five factors or a project risks falling prey to the same fate as so many redesign efforts.

What do you think are the biggest contributors to a school’s culture?

I really only have one answer to this and it is relationships. All of them — student to student, student to teacher, teacher to teacher, student to admin, admin to teacher, teacher to family, family to admin. If a school focuses on meeting the needs of all of the humans in its care — culture will be set accordingly. If a school focuses on anything as more important than relationships — the culture will falter. You can only get so far through carrots and compliance, at some point a school needs to own that positive, productive, and healthy relationships are the secret ingredient to good school culture.

How do you think a school’s culture impacts student outcomes? Staff effectiveness? And the general feel of a school?

Throughout my teaching career, I’ve worked in a number of different schools and for at least eight different principals. School culture is incredibly important to the humans in its influence. You have to consider how you are caring for and supporting the adults, the children, and the families. Your reach can only go so far, but with the influence you can and do have, are you using it to improve the human experience? I have walked into hundreds of schools and the general feel of a school is evident almost immediately. Do the humans within the walls feel safe, supported, cared for, and challenged? Positive school culture leads to more settled and secure humans, which then leads to better staff retention and effectiveness, which leads to better teaching and learning across the board.

What are some of the most common school culture-related challenges you see in the schools you visit?

Here’s something to ask yourself the next time you walk into a school — what is easier to figure out: The discipline policy and behavior expectations or what the school believes about learning? In almost every school I visit, there is some version of behavior language prominently posted, but a general lack of anything that communicates the type of learning that is expected. This is problematic. If you want positive school culture, some of that is related to behavior, but some of it is also definitely related to the learning.

Tangentially, many schools struggle to enlist the students in solving school-culture issues. Often there are 20x as many students as adults in any given building and yet we assume the issues are for the adults to ‘solve.’ Forgetting to include students in addressing challenges is one of the most glaring missteps.

Most schools don’t have the ability to start over completely. In working with existing and transforming schools, where would you tell administrators and educators to start with this work and why?

All of this work starts from an understanding that education needs to enter into and stay up with a constant cycle of iterative reflection. Where are you now? How did you get there? Where would you like to be? How might you get there? How will you support your stakeholders through the initial process? How will you continue the conversation? What are the discrete steps? What is short term, what is long term? Who can help us?

But first, who are you and how did you arrive here? We (educators) tend to be frustratingly ahistorical and only want to look forward. While that is important, a truthful reflection is a great place to begin.

Thank you so much. For those looking to engage in this style of work, what resources can you recommend?

For more in-depth ideas from Diana Laufenberg on these topics, check out: To/For By/With, Inquiry, Standards without Standardization, Creating the Classrooms We Need, and For Each to Excel

This interview was conducted via email and edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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