Big Potential: Why Culture Trumps Strategy

While I was writing my book, It’s Not Us Against Them: Creating the Schools We Need, I interviewed several hundred students. In my conversations with them, I focused on two essential questions: first, “What makes a school worth going to?” and second, “What makes a teacher worth listening to?”

When I gathered my notes from their responses to these questions, I discovered something astonishing: A very large number of students saw school as a place where their deficits were accented! How must it have felt to them every day to enter their classrooms, knowing that what would be focused on would be their shortcomings and deficiencies? I know how miserable I would feel if I went to work each day and my supervisor came into the room and said, “Your performance yesterday was less than expected. I hope I see a better performance from you today.”

Therefore, I have set out on a mission to identify the ways that educators can defend their students against the many negative influences that override their innately positive mindset for learning. I share my findings in the hope and belief that we can transform schools into places where students desire to spend their time because they know they’ll feel good about their assets and strengths when they’re there.

Negative Messages, Negative Mindsets

For many years, Bill Daggett and I have been sharing thoughts and research about learning and using the expression “Culture trumps strategy.” But what does this really mean? It depends primarily on what kinds of signals you’re sending to the learners in your school. If you’re focused on sending messages about failure and underperformance, you will likely see little change, no matter what you do or what programs you use.

Researchers have caught on to this effect, as demonstrated by preliminary research done at the University of Pennsylvania, which found that individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news reports in the morning were 27 percent more likely to report their day as unhappy a full six to eight hours later. Negative messages lead to negative mindsets, which leads to less successful individuals.

Researchers of positive psychology have known about this for years. What we can learn from them can help us turn this cycle of negative-associating to school around. There’s terrific opportunity around the tenets of “Culture trumps strategy” and big potential. What we’ve been learning in this fast-paced world is that breakthroughs and innovation come from the intersections of the disciplines, not from the silos.

Thinking Positively

In the space of the last 10 years, the research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and network analysis have shaped a new field called positive systems research. The breakthrough discoveries coming out of this field have created powerful new learning opportunities for raising student achievement and success. For example, many of us were taught as young people that if we set goals and worked hard, then we would be successful in life—and that we would only be satisfied and happy in life if we achieved this sought-after success. That theory has been proven to be not only mistaken but also backwards in its logic. The happiness and satisfaction that come from accomplishment, we’ve come to learn, is actually the precursor to success. In other words, happiness is not a result of success; success is a result of happiness. Moreover, the leading research on positive systems indicates that this happiness cannot be fully beneficial for one individual unless the entire community is doing well. Students should think of schools and learning as positive and fun places for everyone to learn.

As educators, we need to understand that students are the potential and not the problem. The path toward happiness and therefore toward success is for all of us to surround ourselves with positive influencers.

If you’d like to learn more about this work and how it can help transform the learning and success in your classroom, school, or system, I’ll be sharing more at this year's Model Schools Conference in Orlando. I hope to see you there and to help orient you in the idea that, as educators, we must be the catalysts for happiness and hope for our students.