If you want to change anything within a school, culture is crucial. As Tom Bennett argues in Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour, culture is “the way we do things round here”. His advice to school leaders is to purposely design the culture you want in your school and then work hard to communicate your vision so that it becomes something that lives in the minds of everyone within the school community. Easy to say, hard to do.

Any attempt to change culture has to start with acknowledging and then shifting what’s considered socially normal. If the social norm in your school is that it’s ‘cool to be clever’ every strategy you put into place is likely to bear fruit. But if it’s socially normal not to work hard or to see academic success as nerdy, then you’re on a hiding to nothing.

Back in the 1950s, Solomon Asch designed a series of experiments to investigate the extent to which people want to fit in with a group. He showed groups  of people a line (x) and then asked them to compare the lengths of three other lines (1, 2 and 3) and determine which was the same length as the original line.

As you can see, the answer is obviously 1. But, craftily, only one of the people in the group was a genuine participant in the study, the rest were stooges who had been instructed to give the wrong answer. What Asch found was that many of his participants would go along with a wrong answer even though they knew it to be wrong. Only 25% of participants were able to consistently ignore the behaviour of the group and maintain faith in their own judgement.

Social influence clearly matters to most of us, and if you want to change the social norms within a school, it’s worth understanding the different components of social influence. Cialdini & Goldstein (2004) identified three goals which constantly and subtly tug at our behaviour:

The goal of accuracy – we all want to make good decisions and not act in a way which makes others think we’re foolish. If we find ourselves in an unfamiliar environment we look at what others are doing to help us determine how we should act. Students will have an implicit understanding that what’s socially acceptable in a NQT’s lesson will not go down well in the headteacher’s office and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

The goal of attribution – most people are highly motivated to fit in with their groups. We want to have a clear sense of belonging so we ape the attitudes and behaviours of our peers. Students are under pressure to speak and act like the most popular members of their peer groups. When a majority of students want to work hard, it becomes increasingly difficult for any to slack off.

The goal of maintaining a positive self-concept – we all see ourselves as consistent in our judgements and behaviour. We tend to do what we’ve always done. If students are usually allowed to sit wherever they want and eat crisps, they will come to see this behaviour as not only normal but as their God-given right. We hate seeing ourselves as inconsistent, so if students decide they “hate maths” they are likely to want to act in a manner consistent with their stated beliefs.

Using normative messages

Human beings are social animals and as such are finely attuned to picking up messages about what’s socially acceptable. If we want to change students’ behaviour, we need to change the messages we broadcast about what is socially normal. These normative messages are often tacit and can be communicated by such mechanisms as classroom routines. If routines vary across a school, children get mixed messages and some students struggle far more than others to adapt to new rules each time they change classrooms. Helpfully, in a review of the factors that influence alcohol consumption amongst students, Brian Borsari, and Kate Carey identified three factors of which we should be aware when considering how to communicate social norms:

Descriptive and injunctive norms – we feel pressure to align our behaviour with those around us and will tend approve of what we see. When it comes to drinking, if everyone else is drinking to excess, we will be more likely not only to join in but to see it as the correct way to enjoy a night out. If students see everyone else getting down to work without fuss, they will see this as the right way to behave and want to join in so as to be approved of by their peer group.

Pluralistic ignorance – we tend to think we’re more conservative than others so if even if we only drink, say, five pints, we will assume everyone else has drunk six or seven pints. Children are likely to view their own anti-social behaviour as less extreme than others’ even though to an observer it would seem to be identical.

Attribution theory – we assume what we see is normal. If on our first acquaintance with a group everyone gets horribly drunk we will assume they always drink like that and up our own consumption accordingly. Everyone else will make the some observation and also drink more leading to an elevation of social norms. This suggests behaviour tends to extremes. If one child gets away with not handing in their homework then clearly it’s normal to get away without doing one’s homework and eventually handing in homework becomes the exception rather than the norm.

Let’s say we want to communicate the normative message that everyone hands in homework on time, how would we start? Firstly, we don’t need to communicate this message directly to every student in a school. If farmers need to eliminate a disease from a herd, only a critical mass of the cows need to be immunised for the spread of the disease to be prevented. We can achieve this sort of ‘herd immunity’ in the spread of normative messages; if enough children are told handing in homework is normal, everyone else will fall into line. If a new student arrives at the school they’ll see everyone else handing in their homework and quickly realise this is the right and proper way to behave.

Instead of randomly picking students to spread our normative message, it’s worth knowing that some students have a disproportionate social influence. In a fascinating study across 56 schools, Elizabeth Paluck and colleagues identified the students most likely to spread positive normative messages to prevent the spread of bullying. They surveyed students about which of their peers they most sought out to spend time with both in and out of school and on social media and found that a relatively small group of highly influential students emerged in each of their schools. These ‘social referents’ acted as a weather vane changing the social climate of their schools; if they acted a certain way or stated a belief, their peers would be more likely to fall in line. These ‘seed groups’ then spread the normative message throughout the whole group creating a herd immunity towards certain bullying behaviours.

To summarise:

  1. Culture has to be explicitly designed, communicated and adopted by everyone within a school community. What you say is far less important than what you do.
  2. Students will assume that what they see around them is normal and will want to be seen to fit in with these social norms.
  3. If you want to change behaviour you have to change social norms.
  4. Normative messages act to shift perceptions of what is socially normal
  5. Normative messages only need to convince a critical mass of influential students to change the behaviour of the whole student community.

If you’d like more detail on any of these points see Chapter 19 of What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology written by Nick Rose. In Part 2, we will look at group dynamics and consider how schools can harness the power of in and out groups to change their cultures.