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Why Focusing On Adult Learning Builds A School Culture Where Students Thrive

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 (iStock/Tera Vector)

When policymakers and school leaders talk about improving schools, much of the focus is on test scores, teaching strategies, curriculum and other services consumed directly by students. Often less attention is paid to the culture of adult learning in a school building, but maybe it’s time that changed. Harvard researchers have been studying the impact of what they call a “growth culture” on the effectiveness and productivity of companies. Now, they’re expanding that work into schools.

“Schools if they’re doing a good job, they’re really designed to be places where kids can learn and grow in powerful ways,” said Deb Helsing, co-author of "An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization" and a Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer. “We just haven’t ever thought that the adult learning and development happening in schools is a necessary and integral part of creating powerful environments for kids.”

Helsing and her colleagues, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, found that when adults continue to learn at their jobs they are better at creating that experience for other people. She says if schools are going to be places where students consistently push against the edge of what they don’t know, testing new theories, and trying things out while learning from mistakes, those same qualities must be present for their teachers. It’s difficult for a teacher to facilitate that type of learning environment if they haven’t experienced it themselves.

“If you are experiencing learning that in some way connects to or challenges fundamental assumptions you are making about yourself and the world, that’s when it’s going to be the most powerful,” Helsing said.

To get to that place, adults need to be part of a community of colleagues who support their growth. They need to feel safe to be vulnerable, to admit failings or mistakes and to trust that their colleagues are giving feedback in order to help them improve. But it also requires that adults are consistently pushing against the edge of what they don’t know.


“How do you create the kind of challenge so people don’t get comfortable, but are constantly identifying new growth edges that challenge basic assumptions they have?” Helsing asked.

Working right at that edge, where fundamental beliefs and mindsets surface and can be examined, is how adults move forward in their learning, said Helsing. This theory of change recognizes that those beliefs may have served the person well for most of their career, but have now become a hindrance to growth. Having time and space to look at those values within the context of their work can help people see that and move forward.

And for a growth culture to truly take hold and become self-perpetuating, the system needs to have structures that support this work as part of the day-to-day functioning of the school or district. Pushing at growth edges has to become a regular part of how the work gets done for it to become cultural change.

These three areas, what Helsing calls “home, edge and groove,” are crucial to a growth culture in any workplace, including schools. But schools are not businesses and don’t operate in the same way as for-profit companies. To test whether this model could help a district change its adult learning culture, Pivot Learning has been working with Monterey Peninsula Unified School District to gather data on the current culture and improve upon it.

“The key thing is how do we make sure this connects with the mission critical work the schools are already doing? This can’t be extra,” said Robert Curtis, vice president of education programs at Pivot Learning.

Curtis understands that teachers and schools already have too many demands on their time. For a growth culture to take hold and actually change how adult learning in the district happens, it can’t be extra work. Instead, Curtis and others encouraged the four schools and one district department who volunteered to participate in the study to consider this a way to move forward on the issues that are already central to them.

“We’re trying to build the internal capacity for them to learn together and create a safe space for leaders to try things out,” Curtis said.

Pivot Learning chose Monterey for this study because it’s superintendent PK Diffenbaugh went through the Harvard leadership training and already believes in the power of growth culture. He was looking for ways to better support his staff to continue their learning journey, convinced by research that shows higher teacher satisfaction, retention and success when a school has a strong adult learning culture.

Monte Vista Elementary School

One of the first things Pivot Learning did was conduct a survey of district staff about how they perceive the adult learning culture in the district. The survey asked questions about how safe people felt trying new things or being vulnerable with co-workers; whether there were internal processes to surface feedback to leaders; are there clear processes for improving the work everyone does?

Of the 1,100 staff in the district 770 completed the survey, which showed Monterey was like many other places – it had room to improve. Then district leadership and Pivot looked for teams interested in working on improving their cultures, eventually recruiting four schools and the human resource department to participate in the study.

Monte Vista Elementary was a clear outlier in the district from survey responses. It was clear that principal Joe Ashby had already been working to create a strong school culture, which was reflected in the survey responses from his staff. His school was also improving more rapidly than schools with lower culture scores.

“Put your teachers through experiences that create special places,” Ashby said. “When you come together as a staff, anchor them in a purpose, build connections and create a space for vulnerability.”

When Ashby became principal five years ago he had done his own survey of his staff. He found they were thirsty for professional development that would connect directly to what they were doing in the classroom. Ashby came in with a strong vision of using student data, instructional rounds and teacher-leaders to improve student achievement. He then worked with teacher leaders to align professional development to those goals. He conducted one-on-ones with staff and helped grade level teams set goals.

“Anything that I was putting out wasn’t just coming from me,” Ashby said. “It was coming from their fellow teachers.”

Ashby’s leadership style naturally aligned with many of the principles of a growth culture, one reason why his school’s staff responses were more positive than other parts of the district. But he wanted to get even better, so he volunteered to participate in the Pivot Learning trainings around growth culture with key members of his leadership team.

Strategies to Build a Growth Culture

Once a month, the participating schools and human resources department would convene to learn together and try out strategies for building culture. They shared with one another how activities went with their school site staff and got ideas from one another.

“We tried to anchor this in what we want for students,” Curtis said. Pivot Learning shared tools and strategies to create space for staff vulnerability and feedback and helped leaders to articulate how individual goals connect to larger shared goals.

They used the Youth Truth survey to bring student feedback into their conversations about improvement. That survey revealed that a majority of students didn’t feel known by their teachers or felt that teachers held low expectations for them. That data got school leaders thinking about how to help their staff build relationships with students.

One practice that Curtis encouraged at every professional development session was a check-in – a chance for each person to say what’s on their mind and what they need to let go of in their personal lives in order to focus on the work at hand. It’s a protocol that acknowledges that every professional has a personal life too. Principals decided to bring that protocol back to their schools to try with teachers during staff meetings. If it was successful there, they hoped teachers would then do something similar with students.

In another activity that school leaders tested in the Pivot Learning professional development, each person had to create a user manual for working with them. Curtis encouraged the principals to reflect on how they like to communicate, what their values are, how others can help or support them and what people commonly misunderstand about them. Practicing the activity together empowered principals and the head of human resources to bring the activity back to their employees.

Along the way, leaders were confronting their own mindsets and how they might get in the way of the work. For example, leaders often thought they were clearly communicating one message to their staff, only to find out through survey responses that staff disagreed.

“There were a lot of assumptions, that they thought they were vulnerable, but then they took the survey and were surprised that most of the staff didn’t think they were open to feedback,” Curtis said.

That was often hard for principals like Ashby to hear, but forced them to reevaluate how they were communicating their own professional goals to staff. It wasn’t clear enough that they truly desired feedback in order to reach those goals. They had to rethink how to open up lines of communication and actively work to make staff feel more comfortable giving them honest feedback.

Realizations like this are central to the growth culture theory of change. It’s only when working right up against the edge of the unknown that that these types of mindsets surface. And only when they are clearly getting in the way of a leader or teacher’s goals, will they be addressed.

“If you’re pouring in resources and time and you’re not addressing underlying beliefs and culture then I don’t think many of these things are going to be successful,” Curtis said of school improvement efforts.

After spending a year with the leadership teams working on strategies to develop a growth culture and encouraging those leaders to use those strategies with staff, Pivot Learning gave Monterey Unified staff another survey to see if they had improved. All the participating sites showed some improvement on the post-survey and the district overall saw a slight improvement.

“The principals are still getting together and continuing to work on this,” Curtis said. “There’s a huge value in the network and having allies across the district that you can connect with.”

One of the biggest unexpected wins for principals may lie with the transformation in the human resources department. As a central office department, the human resources staff didn’t normally get to participate in professional development of this type. But members of that department experienced some of the most tremendous improvement in creating a growth culture of any of the pilot sites. Perhaps more importantly, they were in the same room with principals and teachers as they made themselves vulnerable. They heard the reports from leaders each week about what strategies worked well and which ones didn’t. All that collaborative work gave the human resources professionals a much better idea of who to look for when the district hires.

“Learning is really the engine here and it’s hard,” said Deb Hesling, the Harvard professor whose work, along with colleagues, inspired this approach to professional development. “You’re getting out to the edge of what you know, and you’re testing new ideas out, and making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.”


A big takeaway from this pilot study is that leaders must lead the work in a transparent way. And they have to challenge their own assumptions about how their staff perceive them. For many teachers, a principal who encourages risk taking, failure and learning may feel very different and a bit scary. Leaders can’t assume that all teachers will take them at their word when they say they invite feedback. And when they get negative feedback, they have to model graciously accepting it and making visible steps towards using it.

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