Developing a Learning Culture: How School Leaders Can Use B.A.S.I.C. to Drive Change

by | Apr 10, 2023 | 0 comments

13 min read

The culture of a workplace–an organization’s values, norms, and practices–has a huge impact on our happiness and success. ~ Adam Grant

Developing a Learning Culture

We always say that school leadership is complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Unfortunately, no matter which way you turn, the complexities of school leaders seem to be amplified. You may be feeling like every new initiative adds one more thing to your plate. We’re not going to tell you that it “gets easier” or that it “slows down.” In fact, school leadership stands to get harder and go faster. That’s why school leaders need tools–tips, strategies, and tactics to handle the hard stuff and simplify what seems too complicated to tackle. 

If your system is like ours, your team is focused on multiple initiatives at once: making MTSS more effective, embedding Social Emotional Learning in every classroom, taking a more restorative approach to student behavior, finding ways to tackle unfinished learning, uncovering supports to retain staff, filling vacancies months after the school year has started, and the list goes on. What we know for sure is that none of these initiatives will work in a static environment, and they’ll fail if we see each of them as silos.  

In Passionate Leadership we described a learning culture, defined below. In a learning culture, everyone is a learner. The opposite is a teaching culture where the staff comes to work to impart knowledge but not receive it. For schools to thrive, we need learning cultures. For some schools, this is a huge shift; for others, minor tweaks will get you there. We’re going to unpack the best and simplest path to a learning culture so that every school leader has the tools they need. 

A model learning environment is a space of contentment, comfort, and value with an extreme focus on learning. It’s vibrant and radiates positive activity, grounded in an emotional connection between the students and teachers.


Lifelong learning isn’t just a catchy slogan. It’s a mindset that all staff–paraprofessionals, teachers, counselors, building and district administrators–must embrace. Take a look below at the graphic that describes the fundamental differences between a learning culture and a teaching culture. In a learning culture, schools thrive; in a teaching culture, schools just survive. 

Great school leaders know that a successful school rises and falls on the degree to which the staff engages within a learning culture. That starts with assessing your current reality as a school leader, classroom teacher, or support staff. Take a moment and answer the questions below. Assess your classroom, school, and/or district through the lens of the survey questions. 

Assessing a Learning Culture in Schools 

  1. Is your classroom/school/district culture dynamic or passive? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  2. Is your classroom/school/district culture motivated or uninspired? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  3. Is your classroom/school/district culture courageous or fearful? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  4. Is your classroom/school/district culture resilient or submissive? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  5. Is your classroom/school/district culture supportive or compliant? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  6. Is your classroom/school/district culture authentic or unreliable? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  7. Is your classroom/school/district culture intrinsic or extrinsic? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?
  8. Is your classroom/school/district culture growth or fixed? What qualities distinguish one from the other in your classroom/school/district?

Hopefully, you answered positively to at least some of the 8 indicators of a learning culture versus a teaching culture. Every school can work on culture, some are working to change culture, and others are using tools to sustain what they have. No matter the case, accepting the status quo never works. You’re either working on continuous improvement or you’re watching things slide backward. The status quo never gets better on its own. To help you on your path to a fully functional learning culture, we introduce B.A.S.I.C. as a model to get you there.


The B.A.S.I.C. Strategy to Develop a Learning Culture

To build a learning culture, and to battle the constraints of a teaching culture, we need to keep things B.A.S.I.C. We can’t stress this principle enough–in a time when things are getting more and more complex, school leaders must create simplicity. As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Keeping things simple is at the heart of B.A.S.I.C. When done well, students and staff thrive.



The B in B.A.S.I.C. represents Belief. Beliefs are the fundamental driving force of the school. They are the foundational principles that guide decisions and empower the staff. By identifying what a school believes–the core that guides decisions at every level–clarity is achieved. 

Schools are famous for their vision and mission statements, but they should also have core values, which are the backbone of the belief system within the schools. As an example, does everyone believe that all students can and should learn in a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment? How about this: all staff will hold all students to high expectations in any school activity

One important tip for school leaders who are trying to change culture is that you don’t do so by trying to change beliefs. This might sound counterintuitive, but much of leadership is counter to what we think. To change beliefs, we have to change behaviors. When we have core values, we need to identify the behaviors that are associated with each. People either believe their way into behaving or behave their way into believing, and we’re far better and faster at the latter. That’s why we focus on behaviors first. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

What are my school or classroom beliefs that help guide decisions within our culture?


The A in B.A.S.I.C. represents Alignment. Think back to all of the initiatives we named earlier. There is no shortage of ideas, programs, challenges, and criticism. The superpower of an effective leader is being able to take a multitude of seemingly separate, and sometimes competing, initiatives and align them as all being the same thing. Whatever we name as needing our attention is likely something aligned with student success. The leader keeps the main thing, the main thing. 

For example, many schools are focused on a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) for student achievement, but the question is how does MTSS serve and connect with all of our other initiatives? In other words, how does MTSS fit with restorative practices, social-emotional learning, after-school enrichment efforts, etc? When we take a systems approach–as we described in 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders–the answer is simple. Leaders show everyone else how all of the initiatives are aligned with our greater purpose and school-wide goals. 

One important tip for school leaders is to think of alignment as an illusion. Alignment in schools is a perception. When people say, “This is one more thing,” it’s because they don’t see how all the things connect. It’s the leader who explains the connections so that others understand how it all works together. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

How aligned are your initiatives to what can be considered the main thing?


The S in B.A.S.I.C. represents Support. We cannot overstate the importance of support. Burnout is real and we are seeing it play out in our schools every day. Support is dynamic and can take on a variety of different forms. We mentioned social and emotional learning (SEL), which should include staff SEL as much as it does the students

Support can be demonstrated in many ways, including how school leaders allocate funds, dispense resources, find coverage for classes, assign duties, and a host of other ways. One key to promoting a learning culture is to make sure that supports are in place for people to take risks with new learning. No one can learn in a culture that doesn’t value failure. In a supportive environment, It’s okay to try new things and see things differently than we did in the past. It’s the only path forward. 

One important tip for school leaders who want to foster a supportive environment is to remember that support doesn’t come without pressure. Support without pressure is support for our current conditions–the status quo. Pressure without support is not fair, though, so school leaders have to balance their methods of pressure with the support needed to meet high expectations. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

How are you actively and consistently supporting your students and staff?


The I in B.A.S.I.C. represents Implementation. We often wonder why things don’t go the way we intended–whether in life, school, or business–and we are prone to blame a person, a product, or an initiative. Usually, though, the problem is implementation. One key to implementation that a learning culture gets right is that everyone owns the implementation strategy. As we’ve stated, people either believe in the vision and direction, or they at least understand the expected behaviors necessary for the change to occur. “Ownership of and commitment to change have the greatest bearing on a major change effort’s outcome.”

Implementation requires consistent oversight and widespread ownership. In a teaching culture, people view implementation as someone else’s problem. In a learning culture, we’re all picking up pieces of the implementation life cycle. In a teaching culture, folks wait for conditions to be perfect. In a learning culture, we’re only striving for one or two examples of where progress is being made. 

One important tip for school leaders who are focused on implementation is not to confuse implementation with starting something new. When implementation fails, it’s often because we started something but didn’t adhere to the other aspects of our B.A.S.I.C. strategy. The tip is that implementation requires ongoing feedback. Only with feedback can we sustain the implementation of something new, and in a learning culture, we’re always trying to get better at whatever the new initiative is. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

How well are you giving feedback to the people who are working toward the implementation of a new initiative?


The C in B.A.S.I.C. represents Consistency. We wrap up B.A.S.I.C. with consistency because it is the glue that holds everything together. We cannot know how well something or someone is performing without evaluating how consistent they are. If we’re totally inconsistent with a new change that we’re putting into practice, then we’ll never really know if we’re getting new outcomes. Without consistent efforts, any improved result is due to chance. It’s only with consistency that we can measure our progress.  

Without fidelity of implementation and thorough and consistent effort and execution, we will never know if something is actually working. Consider how often we jump from curriculum to curriculum or from one learning series to another, ultimately blaming the ineffectiveness of the product. In reality, we may not really know why the initiative is failing because of inconsistent practices. 

One important tip for school leaders is that in a learning culture, people stick to the new initiative because they’re hoping for a positive change. In a learning culture, people aren’t afraid of trying something that doesn’t have proof that it will work. The only proof that they need to try something different is that what they’re currently doing isn’t working. 

School Leader Reflection Question:

What initiatives do you have going on that you need to determine how consistently they’re being done with fidelity? 

Using B.A.S.I.C. is a tool for school leaders who want to develop a learning culture so that change initiatives thrive. There’s no doubt that school leadership can feel complicated, and we’re often faced with so many goals that it can seem impractical to achieve them all. But, when we use B.A.S.I.C. within a learning culture, we’re able to find success because of our focus on beliefs, alignment, support, implementation, and consistency. 

As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us, and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.


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