Knowledge is Power

Culture: The secret path to excellence

Culture: The secret path to excellence
  • PublishedJanuary 12, 2018

The establishment of a culture of excellence, in schools as well as in the broader community, is far more powerful in delivering outstanding outcomes than any amount of resources one can mobilise to achieve the same ends. By Fred Swaniker

In 2010, Maranda High, located in rural Siaya County in Kenya, achieved the 4th-best results in Kenya’s KCSE national examination. That year, the school had produced 51 students who scored straight As. The following year, the school ranked number one in all of Kenya.

Although it is an old school, Maranda was hardly the typical prestigious, well-resourced private school with state-of-the art infrastructure, cutting-edge learning resources and highly paid teachers. The opposite is true. The school is poor, its infrastructure fairly dilapidated, and it has a very high student to teacher ratio. So how was this school able to post such outstanding results?

Maranda High School, and many others like it across Africa, makes for an intriguing paradox for policy makers and educators. Often, the debates around education in Africa are preoccupied with the subject of resource constraints – the lack of teachers, books, computers and other inputs. These are real and frustrating challenges that keep many of us in education up at night. How then do you explain the high performance of low-resourced schools in Africa?

Educational outcomes are not solely dependent on financing and infrastructure. There are several intangibles at play that deserve further examination. Chief among them is the culture of educational institutions, which I believe plays a key role in determining outcomes.

Sociologists have long argued that beyond resources such as textbooks and computers, a significant part of why students succeed has a lot to do with the performance culture of the school. They call this “expectation theory” – students perform according to the standards set for them. Therefore, cultivating a culture of high standards produces high quality results and vice versa.

Schools like Maranda have understood this masterfully; their tagline, which emphasises “Discipline, organisation and time management”, is testament to this. The tone is set from the very top, and all students who attend the school know they have an obligation to rise to the school’s culture of strict discipline and high standards of behaviour and academic excellence. A culture such as this can clearly be nurtured, regardless of whether a school is well equipped or not.

In many spheres outside education, we’ve seen how potent a force culture can be in setting the tone for high performance and results. In management science, research has shown companies with effective cultures outperform those that don’t.

In 1992, Professor James Heskett at Harvard Business School, researched the corporate cultures of 200 top companies with the goal of determining the role this played in impacting the bottom line. His research found that organisations which deliberately built what they called “performance-enhancing cultures” significantly outperformed those companies that did not. These companies intentionally promoted a culture of valuing employees and customers and fostering self-leadership at all levels.

Heskett found that “half of the difference in operating profits”  could be attributed to organisational culture. Over an 11-year period, he also found that companies with performance-enhancing cultures achieved 900% appreciation in stock price growth versus their counterparts that only achieved about 75%.


Culture is destiny

Countries also benefit from promoting a high performance culture at the national level. The rapid economic development of East Asian Tiger economies was heavily predicated on cultural norm-setting. As Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s prime minister, who spearheaded Singapore’s economic miracle from 1959 to 1990 famously quipped: “culture is destiny”.

Lee Kuan Yew believed engendering specific cultural values was key to delivering prosperity, and worked to promote a “culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and for learning.”

It made a difference. Singapore has risen to become a First World country, with a highly educated population, first-rate infrastructure, a population where 90% of people are homeowners, and a national unemployment rate of only 2%.

To achieve similar results in African education, educators, policymakers, and parents need to adopt a similar mindset in designing the organisational culture of schools. If “culture is destiny” in firms and governments, it is crucial that we help inculcate a culture of high performance in our schools.

People often think of ‘culture’ as being abstract and emerging from organic or spontaneous processes. But as in the case of Singapore, it’s clear culture can be deliberately engineered for excellence. It involves setting high expectations, norms, and systems that foster and reward excellence.


Essential qualities

To benefit from the impact of culture in education, we first need to determine what kind of criteria will make up the culture needed to drive student efforts: what are the essential qualities of the teachers who drive student success and can we distill those norms into a formula that can be replicated?

Given all that we know about the neuroscience of how students learn best, why not take the discoveries of that science and use that as a basis for shaping these norms?

Then we need to institutionalise and reinforce these qualities in every setting where students learn. How can parents begin to reinforce performance-enhancing educational cultures at home? How can we get students to embrace the traits that can improve their motivation and success, such as discipline, self-regulation, and ownership over their own learning?

Ultimately, culture is perhaps the single most cost-effective intervention that can improve outcomes in African education. What is unique about culture is that it is the one variable in the educational equation that we can actually control, considering we have limited control over resources like teachers and textbooks. Furthermore, once those core tenets are embedded, they will be passed on like tradition from generation to generation, with little need for continuous intervention or resources – the marginal cost of improving upon culture is financially zero.

Inculcating effective, high-performance culture in schools doesn’t require donor funding or government dollars, but the acquiescence and commitment of schools, headmasters, teachers and students to transform mindsets and attitudes. It is low-hanging fruit we would be remiss not to take advantage of to improve the state of our educational systems.

Every teacher in Africa must take is as a given that it is possible to make any C student an A student. Students on their part should be made to understand that nothing but excellence is expected of them, and that it can be done. NA 

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New African

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