MA Investigations: Establishing the Nature of Teaching & Learning Cultures

This post is one in a series of outcomes from my MA in Education work. It’s a brief discussion – and I welcome all thoughts & ideas from it! It’s highly tentative, and comes with disclaimers and context as described.


Teacher professional development is one of the key factors in generating the best outcomes for students (Sutton Trust, 2011) and has shown to be critical in retention of quality teachers (Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020) and well being and motivation (Howard, 2020). Creating the right culture for teachers to develop is known to be effective (Kraft & Papay, 2014; 2016), and there has been significant interest in this as an area for investigation. The rise in research-informed practice has been one of the methods by which UK schools have attempted to raise standards, though it has not been universally accepted.

For my MA, I used a remotely-gathered random sample of 320 teachers to explore the attitudes towards the relationship between teaching and learning cultures, and the use of research informed practice in the secondary sector, in a relatively under-studied area of existing literature. There are lots of limits to the nature and sample of my work, so I’m sharing these things only for interest – rather than making any claims about What It All Means more widely!

Overall, the study shows that teaching and learning cultures tend to be dominated by purpose: and the extrinsic motivations of OFSTED judgement and exam outcomes are uppermost in the factors which create the culture of a school. Exploring the responses by differentiating categories based on this data enables an insight into how research, wider factors and the cultures vary in response to different contextual needs. The implementation of these methods is key to how positively staff regard their culture: and an investigation into different types of school cultures shows further insight into the role of senior leadership, and structural mechanisms to build confidence and clarity of approach to research, teaching and learning, and unite around intrinsic purpose for their school. Further research is recommended into the implementation of the broad trends identified here, as it has potential to be useful for those looking to develop their teaching and learning culture, or their use of research informed practice alike.

In this post, I’m looking at what I found out about the nature and attitudes towards people’s descriptions of their teaching and learning cultures in schools.

Establishing the Nature of Teaching & Learning Cultures:

Respondents were asked to describe their school culture (focused on staff teaching and professional development; versus the student-focused culture that was being created) in three words, which were then codified and grouped by textual analysis. A large majority (69.2%) of responses were “positive” in nature:

“Aspirational, supportive, reflective”

“Consistent”, “Student-focused”

“Respectful, caring, student driven”

19% of responses were mostly negative, including some relatively critical comments (e.g. “distrustful, archaic, centralised”, “Behind. The. Times”, “sporadic, box-ticking, ignored”, and “limited: Ofsted-driven”).  11.8% of responses showed some mixed feelings: e.g. “inclusive and emerging” or “reasonable, but slow-moving”. Some of these responses seemed to hint at issues in terms of implementation or effectiveness, rather than the aspiration or ambition of the culture.

Distribution of School Culture, according to Ofsted Grading

Having explored attitudes to culture across the whole sample, they were then split according to the self-reported inspection grade of the school. This shows relatively consistent perceptions across the different categories. The biggest difference was between the outstanding/excellent category (75% positive) and the inadequate/unsatisfactory category at 57%, but this was perhaps not quite as significant as expected.

Staff were asked to explore the culture of development further, and were asked about participation ratios. The majority of responses suggested that the majority of staff participated in professional development cultures, but there was not a significant margin here. A substantial number of responses (21.5%) believed that less than a quarter of their staff were involved, while a further 16.25% believed that only 25-50% of the staff were involved. The link between participation in development and performance management was explored by direct question; with only 14.6% of respondents suggesting that there was no link at all. 32% of responses suggested there was a reasonable amount of correlation; and 21% of people believed that it was a major part of their performance management.

Distribution of Staff who Participate in Professional Development Culture

Distribution of the extent to which professional development was integrated in to performance management

Distribution of Drivers of Positive Engagement with Professional Culture

With unclear connections to formal performance management, the drivers of positive and negative engagement in culture were explored further. The responses were open-ended, and codified in to different blocks of response. By far, the most significant driver of positive engagement with was the culture of the school and staff, where it was valued and made to feel important and part of how the school operated. Further drivers suggested the importance and impact of their professional development on students, and reflected positively on where time had been created for them to develop.

Distribution of Drivers of Negative Engagement with Professional Culture

By contrast, very few respondents cited financial incentives or career progression as a reason for engaging within professional development; though this is self-reported, and therefore potentially subject to perceptions and bias in the respondent’s self-image. However, the intrinsic motivations and wider school culture support the original analysis of Kraft & Papay (2014) in terms of creating the wider structures for engagement, rather than individual incentivisation.

A similar distribution of factors was found by specifically asking about what prevented people from participating in the culture of the school: the structural and systematic features of wider school culture and lack of time/workload dominated the responses. A number of responses spoke to the limited impact or poor quality of CPD they had experienced as a reason not to participate further; and very few (4) mentioned lack of financial support as a factor in the teaching and learning culture.

As part of the analysis of the use of education research in creating cultures, participants were asked to identify features of their teaching & learning culture.  

By some margin, the dominant responses to this were structural: 86.25% with specific INSET trg on T&L, 66.25% with named T&L roles in school, and 63% with support for staff wishing to attend external INSET. These stood out significantly more than the other responses, which varied in 25-50% response. The least common features included timetabled allocation (20.6%), journal/book clubs (19.6%) and financial support (17.8%).

Chart showing the frequency of key features of professional development cultures in responses

Similar judgements are made by respondents when asked to explore their perception of the usefulness of these components of creating culture, suggesting coherence between how often they appear, and the perceived utility of them. The structural features identified in previous figure are well represented here, but there is increasing importance for the use of subject networks, associations and professional organisations, together with coaching and mentoring to support staff development. Some structural features (work spaces, libraries, journal clubs and newsletters) appear relatively unimportant to creating cultures, and are reflected in the distributions of opinion.  It is interesting to identify how many of the ‘checklist’ of development features appear on this list, and to contrast the perception of their usefulness, with their utilisation as part of school’s teaching and learning cultures.

Distribution of Opinions on the Importance of Features of Teaching & Learning Culture

First, it is clear that there are a wide range of professional cultures being sampled here. The distribution of features, attitudes and descriptions of the culture all show significant variance in the day to day experience of teachers and their professional development. This is good for the study, though perhaps not the schools! While the literature shows consensus that professional development for teachers is critical, and may be starting to develop some coherence around what helps to generate good teaching, it is clear that the implementation on the ground is variable at best. It is interesting to see how the intrinsic cultural expectations of a school – as well as being important for their development in general (Kraft & Papay, 2014) – appears to be the dominant factor in how teachers engage (or not) with their own professional development. While workload and time, and to a lesser extent, poor experience with previous CPD, contribute to the disaffectation of staff, the teaching and learning culture is by far the most dominant feature of disengagement.

Second, the analysis shows that in the best teaching and learning cultures, there is clearly a lot to be positive about. Large numbers of staff are engaged, a range of provisions are being structurally and collegially implemented, and there are plenty of schools who appear to have a strong ethos of professional development. However, the difficult experience of a number of colleagues in this survey (even if a minority) show that this is not consistent across all schools. This has potential impact on teaching, learning and outcomes, together with retention (Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020) and the development of teachers themselves (Kraft & Papay, 2014). It will be important to try and work out the relationship between the drivers of these cultural differences, and potentially how that links to the use of education research in schools, particularly given that the external inspection judgement does not appear to be the key driver.

Finally, the results show an interesting mixture of structural and school-driven features (staff support for courses, named teaching and learning leads, specific training) and informal teacher-led factors (e.g. informal discussion groups, subject networks). The combination of extrinsic and intrinsic (to the teacher) attitudes will be an important parallel to draw when exploring the purpose and value of educational research.


4 thoughts on “MA Investigations: Establishing the Nature of Teaching & Learning Cultures

  1. Pingback: MA Investigations: Overview of Attitudes to Educational Research |

  2. Pingback: MA Investigations: Establishing the Role of Extrinsic Motivators |

  3. Pingback: MA Investigations: Establishing the Role of Intrinsic Motivators |

  4. Pingback: MA Investigations: What conclusions can we draw? |

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