May 7, 2021

Culture and Context in Schools

Author: Mr. Barry Sutherland - Head of School

In early March I took the opportunity to take a school leadership workshop offered by the IB called ‘’Leading with an understanding of culture and context’’. The facilitator was Ms. Darlene Fisher Ed.D., a very experienced IB school leader. 

The virtual workshop focused on how national and organizational cultures interact and impact on beliefs, values and behaviors in schools.  There was also a lot about how to develop a positive organizational culture, which is proven to be closely aligned with high student achievement.  Several great resources were provided which I will be sharing with our faculty in future. The workshop mainly asked us to consider our school’s national culture context (Vietnam with 95% Vietnamese students at AISVN); our curriculum context (an IB education: PYP, MYP and DP); and our organizational/social context – as defined by our school’s mission, vision and guiding statements. We were challenged to define how context and culture fit together for our schools.

Vietnamese students taking part in activities celebrating Lunar New Year

Certainly, the workshop allowed me some time and space to reflect upon the progress we have made in the past school year and how much of our progress as a school is linked to school community culture and why being explicit about our values at AISVN is very important. All our systems are aimed at improving school community culture and at making us better.

Social culture – our Vietnamese context

One of the questions we discussed was ‘’What is ’national culture’ and how can we understand it?’’  At AISVN, we have been inquiring into what our community considers its most important Vietnamese values this school year.  Since 95% of our students are Vietnamese, it is critical that the school better understands the Vietnamese culture of our families to appropriately meet the educational needs of their children. 

How does our experience of ‘the world’ as we’ve lived it, color or influence our relationship with ‘the rest’ of the world?  In western countries independence is often promoted over collectivism, for example, which is the opposite to a country like Vietnam.  We learned that different cultures take different approaches to communicating, evaluating, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling.  We looked at Hofstede’s work and Erin Myer’s Culture Map work. Concepts like ‘time’ and ‘family’ are valued differently across cultures and this can have a large impact on a person’s worldview.

Most of our expatriate teachers come from Western countries.  They have grown up in western families, been educated in the West and these values have shaped their world view. However, they are now living and working in the East – in Vietnam – so their learning of Vietnamese culture is critical to their success.  It is quite likely that our students and their parents have different world views than our teaching faculty.  Embracing this difference is the first step towards dealing with it and of course there is great strength in diversity.

Other areas we explored through the workshop included these important questions:

  • What are our (cultural) values and how do they impact leadership?
  • How can school organizational cultures be improved?
  • How do different cultures communicate?
  • How can we collaborate, build trust and communicate in culturally diverse communities?
  • How can we work with our communities and their potentially different values and beliefs about education?

AISVN Organizational Culture

I was asked to sum up AISVN’s organizational culture – what are the collective behaviours of our community based upon our shared values.   I offered the following: 

AISVN is a Early Years to Grade 12 3-programme IB world school that is accredited by CIS/WASC and has a student body that is 95% Vietnamese nationality. Our teaching faculty is 90% expatriate and mainly from Western countries.  We have well-defined guiding statements which include our mission, vision, IB Learner Profile, Learning Principles, Vietnamese Values and a statement on Global Mindedness.  We communicate high expectations throughout our community for positive relationships, student achievement, faculty collaboration and shared decision-making.  Our aim is to cultivate and nurture a caring culture of learning where everyone is encouraged to improve their skills and abilities to engage with, and both understand and improve themselves and our world.

An IB student at AISVN conducting  experiments in the lab

This AISVN elevator speech could describe any high performing IB school in the world except for our context of being 95% Vietnamese at our school -- that is our main point of distinction.  The question and challenge for us is how to use our context as a great strength. To answer this question, this year we have explored with our community our top four Vietnamese values which we agreed were Family, Education, Respect and Personal Responsibility. Our future challenge will be to embed our agreed values into the culture of our school.  Communicating values across cultures is difficult, but we are up for the challenge.

Putting it all together

Our AISVN community culture is that of a high performing IB school in Vietnam.  Our shared values and our social behaviors combine to make us who we are.  In my view it is a great privilege to work in a complex cultural environment like AISVN which embraces the rich culture of Vietnam.

Mr. Barry Sutherland - Head of School

Resources:

Erin Meyer, The Culture Map, Public Affairs, U.S., Publication City, New York, United States, 2014.
Hofstede, G., and Hofstede, G.J., (2005), Cultures and Organizations - Software of the Mind. London: McGraw Hill, UK.
Walker, A., & Riordan, G. (2010). Leading collective capacity in culturally diverse schools. School Leadership & Management, 30(1), 51-63.
Walker G. – East is East and West is West, International Baccalaureate Organization, 2010.
Westhuizen P.C.; Mosoge, M.J.; Swanepoel L.H.; Coetsee L.D. – Organizational culture and academic achievement in secondary schools, Education and Urban Society, Vol. 38 No. 1, 89-109, November 2005, Corwin Press, Inc.

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