Cultural practices, political economy and social psychology in the similarity of practices in schools

24 min read

I have been interested in cultural practices in teaching for a few years. So I was interested how this resonated with Steven Puttick’s recent article in School Leadership and Management , describing an ethnographic study of geography departments.

I say I am interested in cultural practices, by this I mean that I make the assumption that within schools there are shared behaviours. Not exact imitations, but there are characteristic routines and patterns of behaviour and there is a shared language and discourse.

My commentary and response to Steven Puttick’s paper is not so much a direct critique of what is written and claimed, it is more an expression of the ideas that resonate with my own research. Why are there such similarities in practices within and between schools? And how has this been influenced by education policy? I have little disagreement with what Steven has written and it is important since it prompted me to write this. My commentary here examines the theoretical underpinnings and hopefully takes them further. To do this I draw on sociology e.g. Realist Social Theory , social psychology; Social Cognitive Theory   and political economy. I relate these to the ideas and claims in the paper.

Puttick addresses the question: why might separate school subject departments exhibit, in some respect, high levels of similarity? (p. 1). The ethnographic study involves three geography departments in state secondary schools in England. What I do in this commentary is a theoretical elaboration of this research.

The theory that Puttick uses in this analysis is Neo-institutional theory (NIT) , this draws on the idea of structuration . Their assumption is that organisations begin as diverse and innovative institutions and through time they become homogenised through structuration. The process they believe best explains homogenisation, is isomorphism from Amos Hawley’s ideas of human ecology. The three isomorphisms are:

Coercive  isomorphism: pressures leading to similarity

These are pressures from the institution through persuasion and performativity. In DiMaggio and Powell’s  conceptualisation, they see the pressures as a result of political economy. The marketisation and privatisation of state education leads to pressures to perform in particular kinds of way. They portray this as bureaucratisation and it is at the heart of a neoliberal agenda.

Puttick’s ethnography emphasises performativity and accountability in the data: how teachers foreground examination result in their teaching and in the displays in the department. While I accept these as aspects of coercive isomorphism, I take this further through Realist Social Theory and Social Cognitive Theory to examine the nature of coercion more  closely. More on this later.

Mimetic isomorphism: uncertainty leading to similarity

This is where models are used to influence the organisational structure and practice. The motivation for this according to DiMaggio and Powell is uncertainty. When teachers are uncertain they adopt models of practice that they believe will offer greater certainty. Puttick explains how shared resources and lesson plans are a means by which model lessons can be shared. In this commentary, I take the idea of mimetic isomorphism much further by looking at the historical cultural transmission of practices through observational and vicarious means. I also consider the social psychology of this process.

Normative isomorphism: social trends and professionalisation leading to similarity

This focuses on the types of individual within an organisation, similarity of qualifications and experience. Puttick considers diversity here. That professionalisation leads to a ‘closely guarded’ professionalism. This is not diversity in terms of race, gender, disability or sexual orientation, it is more the observation that people entering the profession have similar backgrounds, qualifications and experiences. I disagree with the interpretation here. I accept some of the premises, but there is little evidence that the teaching profession is becoming less diverse. However, I think it more likely that professionalisation is normalising through slightly different means. It is similar to the coercive aspects but at a grander professional scale. That professionalisation within the contemporary political economic context, forces a cultural narrowing and a narrowing of what is acceptable within schools. I expand on this when I introduce theory.

I agree with this article in several respects. Particularly, that there is a homogeneity that it is observable in schools, departments and in classrooms. This is consistent with my own doctoral research  and in subsequent research. My doctoral research was in the context of secondary school mathematics departments in the East Midlands of England. This is perhaps why Steven Puttick’s research resonated – it has an interest in departments.

We both observed that teachers teach in similar ways within subjects, but I believe (and I put forward the evidence for this later) there are similar routines and practices across disciplines. There are similar practices across different schools; in classroom practice and pedagogy and in the organisational and management practices. My disagreement comes from the explanation of the processes through which similar practices come about. Although my theoretical explanation is not incompatible with Steven Puttick’s approach, my theory goes a little deeper into social psychology, sociology, anthropology and political economy. As I say, some of what we observe on the surface is very similar, it is when I look at the underlying mechanisms  that I believe I dig a little deeper.

The cornerstone of the mechanisms of isomoprhism in this article is structuration .  According to Giddens there is a mutual constitution of structure and agency – that action determines structure and vice versa. This interpretation has limitations, there is no temporality in this construction, structures do not exist prior to action. Structuration implies that structures are a consequence of action and behaviour, at the same time structures influence behaviour. Margaret Archer provides a critique of structuration as she puts forward her Realist Social Theory . We are reflexive individuals within existing cultures and structures, we deliberate on how to act. For this reason she criticises Giddens approach as central conflation.  For Archer it is the individual’s point of contact between structure and culture and their agency, there is a reflexive and deliberative act that defines behaviour. The reflexivity of individuals in the context of structure and agency is key to the theory I present here, though I do not necessarily subscribe to all of Archer’s theory. But this conceptualisation gives a sense of a workable sociology of individual action and agency within structural and cultural contexts. That through time structure and cultures can change through collective agency and action.

I have introduced the idea of culture and I must proceed with this next. Culture is the shared behaviour, language and perspective of a group of people. There are two previous posts in which I have considered culture in teaching, practice and pedagogy.

An investigation of culture and habitus in teaching

Cultural scripts in teaching

In education culture represents a historical, socially transmitted way of working. Culture influences pedagogy and practices as well as the routines and discourses of participants’ interactions in the institution of school. Cultural patterns or scripts are important in making it less demanding for students and teachers to navigate the complex social space, such is the school . Cultural scripts introduce predictability in social relations and interactions. An example of a cultural script is the Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) pattern of classroom call and response dialogue . The teacher asks a closed question,  students put their hands up, the teacher invites them to respond, they respond and the teacher tells them whether they are correct or not. IRF is a cultural script with a history that goes back at least a century or two, if not centuries. No one is really sure.

The historical basis of culture and cultural scripts has been studied in the US by Cuban , He identifies sustained patterns of practice that go back to the nineteenth century. Cuban characterises the defining form and pattern of pedagogy as a result of the constraints that institutions place on the work of the teacher.

Within the age-graded school, the classroom itself was (and is) a crowded setting where teachers must manage 25 or more students (50 to 70 a century ago) of approximately the same age (but not necessarily the same interests, motivation, or prior experiences) who involuntarily spend—depending upon grade level—from one to five hours a day in the same room. Those in the community who hired teachers expected them to maintain control of the students, teach a prescribed course of study, capture student interest in the academic content and skills, diversify their instruction to match differences among students, and display tangible evidence that students have performed satisfactorily.

Not an easy task to meet those social expectations and manage a crowd of 5- or 15-year-olds who have to be in school. Within a room no larger than 600 square feet a half-century-ago (now a third larger), teachers and students communicate often (up to a thousand interactions a day in elementary classrooms). Within these schools and classroom settings, teachers have learned to ration their time and energy to cope with conflicting an multiple societal and political demands by using certain teaching practices that have proved over time to be simple, resilient, and efficient solutions in dealing with large numbers in a small space for extended periods of time .

These conditions are an overriding reason for the use of a traditional teacher-centred approach to teaching. Where the teacher demonstrates or explains a key idea, method and then students apply this and undertake practice tasks to develop proficiency. The emphasis is on the acquisition of knowledge. The nature of classroom dialogue between teachers and students and the characteristic patterns of pedagogy are fundamentally about managing behaviour. It is the limited availability of resources that result in the evolution of traditional teacher-centred practices.  Puttick, following DiMaggio and Powell, recognises the influence of political economy in the formation of similar behaviour through coercive isomorophism. However,  I agree with Cuban, that this kind of homogeneity is an evolved historical cultural practice in response to resource constraints. I will return to this, but first I want to look at how established cultural practices are transferred through generations of teachers and within cultures.

Puttick refers to mimetic isomorphism as a means of fostering similarity in disparate locations. The importance of observational and vicarious learning is self-evident in many aspects of human life and especially in teaching and education. Lortie  notably observed teaching as an apprenticeship of observation. Self-evident it may be, but observational learning, imitation and vicarious learning are often underplayed in education research. I think this is largely because it appears to conflict with liberal sensibilities, there is a tendency to think that when we imitate or copy we are not demonstrating our capacity to originate and create. Bandura  explains that, while often, modelled behaviour is through the direct of observation of individuals, models can also take the form of rules or scripts. A lesson plan is a codified model of behaviour therefore. This is consistent with Puttick’s observation of mimetic behaviour through shared lesson plans and resources.

Bandura  has undertaken extensive research into the effects of modelled behaviour building on the work of previous social learning theorist such as Miller and Dollard . Bandura’s important contribution is the recognition from that observed behaviours we are capable of introducing novel behaviours. The condition of being different but the same. This is the ‘similarity’ that Puttick touches on. Bandura has, within his Social Cognitive Theory, the simultaneous phenomena of vicarious learning and agency. To capture this he introduces the concept of self-efficacy.

There is more on Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory in the following post:

Social cognitive theory

The science bit: a social cognitive theory perspective on traditional teaching

Self-efficacy, like Archer’s reflexivity, is an internal deliberative process. When we meet a new situation, we draw from our memory, our experience, and construct a mental model of a possible action. In constructing this model, we asses the likelihood of our success in achieving a desired outcome. The models we conjure, as I say, come from our experience, where we have acted and been more or less successful, but also from the observation of other actors. An assessment of likely success is based on the social acceptability of our behaviour. If we are new to a context, we have limited self-efficacy, we seek models of behaviour to inform our own actions and inform us of likely success and acceptability. Crudely, self-efficacy is like confidence but specific to behaviours and contexts. It is also reflexive in Archer’s realist social sense, as we negotiate ourselves between structure, culture and agency.

When Puttick refers to the normative isomrophism it is akin to the reflexivity of self-efficacy, where established practices are emphasised as individuals grow into that community. The role of observational learning is considerable in the transmission of cultural practices and social mores. Self-efficacy, as individuals develop into a community of practice, is the social cognitive device of normalisation, while still allowing some agency and individuality.

It is important to take this further, Bandura has proposed four sources of self-efficacy which further explain the evolution of similarity. The four sources are as follows:

Enactive Mastery Experience

The main source of self-efficacy is through experience. By attempting something and being successful our self-efficacy grows. In learning to be a teacher there is an identifiable trajectory of self-efficacy growth . Bandura makes it clear that self-efficacy does not develop simply as a result of having successful outcomes. It is necessary that the outcomes, whether they be success or fail, can be related back to the approach or strategy used. Moreover, that the individual has plausible explanations about causal relationship between outcome and strategy.

It is also observed that once novices become experienced the amount of conscious deliberation reduces. Thus experienced teachers can appear to respond to situations and invoke actions that are automatic   or that they are based on heuristics and existing id routines .

Within an established community of practice, such as teaching in state schools, it is easy to see how the learning process leads to consistency of practice in the classroom while still retaining a degree of agency and individuality. It also explains why there are similarities between practices in different subjects, as a result of the practices specific to the subject matter, but overall there are cultural consistencies. The IRF dialogue being just one such example.

I appreciate that through this commentary, I have emphasised classroom practice and pedagogy as candidates for similarity and normalisation. What I have not considered are wider school culture and practices. For example, how teachers interact, the language and ideas through which they talk about children’s learning and development. Also, the management and leadership practices that are at the heart of school structures and cultures. The latter is a good site for further research.

Vicarious experience

A second source of self-efficacy is vicarious experience. It is not as strong a source of self-efficacy, but is still important. If we observe someone being successful in a domain. And, if we identify that person as having a similar capability, then we become more self-efficacious when we attempt a similar activity as that modelled. If we consider the modeller as inherently skilled or knowledgeable then it may undermine self-efficacy. Self-efficacy through vicarious experience is an important means of cultural transmission and normalisation. It can be a highly conservatising mechanism as new entrants to teaching enter the profession. Again, though, within accepted parameters there is the possibility of agency. It is still possible that maverick players can exist within institutions. Although the effects of neoliberalism has limited this. I shall address this in the final part of this commentary when I consider the political economy.

Verbal Persuasion

A third weaker source of self-efficacy is verbal persuasion. Another can persuade an individual that they are going to be successful in an activity. However, if the pursuader talks the person up too much and they fail, this can be highly detrimental. Verbal persuasion is an important mechanism in the development of self-efficacy. It is important that persuasion and coercion are not overplayed as a mechanism through which similarities appear in practice. The main sources of similarity are the result of historically developed cultural practices and the extent to which individuals want to conform. The last source of self-efficacy explains an important dynamic in this process.

Physiological and Affective States

Bandura proposes that neuro-physiological factors have an important relationship with self-efficacy. If we are ill, tired, stressed or upset our self-efficacy is undermined. This impairs our performance day-to-day. An important effect is that diminished self-efficacy undermines our capacity to be creative and innovate. This means that in an environment in which teachers are subject to ongoing observations, where they work long hours and are subject to unrealistic targets, their self-efficacy is reduced. They then tend to revert to established routine practices of traditional teaching almost exclusively, they have limited capacity or belief in their capability to implement innovative methods. This is an important consequence of neoliberalism. It is also important to recognise that although Puttick acknowledges coercion, the means through which this happens is more insidious than persuasion or strong influence. It is the conditions that neoliberalism creates that results in conformity and similarity, centred around traditional cultural practices.

The Impacts of Political Economy

I am not going to introduce an extensive analysis of political economy and its history in education policy and practice, this I develop here:

Education, policy and pedagogy: It’s the political economy stupid!

However, the conditions of neoliberalism are important in my present commentary. Like Puttick and predecessors DiMaggio and Powell consider political economy to play an important role in the evolution of similarity. They view neoliberalism impacting on school practices through structuration. I don’t disagree with the effects of neoliberalism, I disagree with the mechanisms. It is not through central conflation as Archer would say, it is a reflexive negotiation of culture and a response to the pressures created in individuals.

Neoliberalism is a virulent and strident form of capitalism that began to appear in the UK and USA in the 1970s . It rejects state intervention in the economy, replacing this with the expectation that the freemarket, through trade and exchange, is the ultimate arbiter. That allowing the freemarket so to dominate, resources and wealth will become fairly distributed. This has led to the creation of markets, choice and commodification in the public sector, particularly health and education. Schools which were once grant-funded through Local Authorities became funded on a per-pupil basis and are expected to deliver ‘commodified’ learning as measured by results in examination performance . The language and discourse in schools has shifted to the language of corporations and business. Teachers’ work has come under greater scrutiny, the environment is punitive and the definitions of educational success has narrowed. Public servants have transformed into outsourced business managers and operatives. The holistic contribution of education has been replaced by an economic rationality. Schools and educators trade in and implement programmes and settings that are supposed to serve the needs of society.

This has driven schools into a hierarchical managerial form, with the discourse of performance management being imported from sales and marketing settings into .

In the UK, since the 1980s, there has been considerable intensification in teachers’ work. They have been increasingly under surveillance from a hierarchy of line managers and inspectors . Under these conditions, the neuro-physological effects undermine teachers’ self-efficacy. They therefore play it safe in terms of cultural and managerial compliance. They tend to invoke established and safe traditional approaches in schools. As I explained earlier, it is not direct coercion or overt normalisation that creates this culture it is the condition of doubt and uncertainty in the personal assertion of professional identity that is undermined by the neuro-physiological experience of neoliberalism .


I agree with Steven Puttick’s analysis here. There is a prevalence of similarity and homogeneity in schools. This appears to extend beyond subject departments; there are similarities across different subject departments and in the wider cultural and management practices in state schools in England. It is likely that, as Stigler and Hiebert observed, these similarities are specific to particular jurisdictions with similar societal cultures.

Our theoretical positions are similar, although I suggest that a deeper consideration of social psychology i.e. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory and the cultural historical practices inherent in schools reveals more about similarity. Certainly vicarious learning is a key aspect of transmission, longitudinally and cross-sectionally. We agree, I feel: vicarious learning is comparable to mimetic isomorphism.

One advance is in consideration of person-centred reflexivity, in which teachers negotiate their way through structure and culture with an exertion of their agency and free will. Self-efficacy is a useful construct in this respect. The extent to which the individual believes they will be successful in a domain of action, like teaching. Self-efficacy reflects the individual’s extant knowledge, experience and the normalising effect of the social setting.

Finally there is the impact of political economy: in its current form neoliberalism. This results in diminishing agency through undermining self-efficacy and creates a situation in which teachers revert to established practices. Neoliberalism is normalising by debilitation not through coercive conformity.


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