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

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.Continue reading “Cultural practices, political economy and social psychology in the similarity of practices in schools”

An investigation of culture and habitus in teaching

A surprisingly popular blog post I wrote was on cultural scripts in teaching. I want to develop the ideas from that here in the form of a public writing experiment. To inform the theoretical considerations, I draw on observations from the research I have been doing with Underground Mathematics looking at how teachers incorporate new tasks and activities into their teaching. This is in the context of A Level mathematics in England. The understanding of the impact of culture and habitus in teaching could be helpful in a wider range of teaching and contexts. Culture and habitus in teaching are ideas that have not been given a great deal of attention, the emphasis has been on a) how teacher thinking impacts on their teaching and b) what practices result in greater learning gains? Culture and habitus do not replace these ideas, but I think give us much better understanding of why teachers teach in the way they do.

The following is an investigation of ideas that will be a component of a future publication. I share it here for discussion and comment.

What is culture?

The idea of culture comes to us as a critique of evolutionism. Anthropologists rejected the idea that all human societies progressed through the same stages of development. From a social evolutionary perspective different groups must pass through the same developmental stages. Franz Boas was a foundational thinker in the development of modern cultural anthropology. He argued that the world was populated by distinct cultures.

There has been an emphasis on behaviours, artefacts and symbols: the external actions and symbollism. For example, Meade (1953, p. 22, cited in Prinz, 2016) says culture “is the total shared, learned behavior of a society or a subgroup.” More recently there has been a turn to meaning and semiotics, “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols” Geertz (1973, p. 89). It is these ideas that are fundamental to my discussion later.

There is a complex and rich sense of what culture means, almost defying definition. The moment one becomes specific the general sense is lost. And if the idea is too general then it becomes unusable. The following idea gives a sense of the issues:

…most definitions characterize culture as something that is widely shared by members of a social group and shared in virtue of belonging to that group. As stated, this formulation is too general to be sufficient (a widespread influenza outbreak would qualify as cultural). Thus, this formulation must be refined by offering a specific account of what kind of shared items qualify as cultural, and what kind of transmission qualifies as social. (Prinz, 2016).

Overall, culture means shared behaviours within a group. In my previous post on international comparisons in mathematics education, the international comparisons of teaching practice relied on the idea of distinct cultural practices in the different countries studied. Cultural anthropology provides the basis for making this assumption.

Habitus and habits

As an individual many of our habits are idiosyncratic, they are ours. The original meaning of habit was how a person holds themselves, their demeanour. This has developed to include apparel, then on to dispositions, behaviours and ways of doing things. “A settled disposition or tendency to act in a certain way, esp. one acquired by frequent repetition of the same act until it becomes almost or quite involuntary; a settled practice, custom, usage; a customary way or manner of acting” (OED Online, 2016). According to Camic ‘the term “habit” generally denominates a more or less self-actuating disposition or tendency to engage in a previously adopted or acquired form of action’ (Camic, 1986, p. 1044).

Pierre Bourdieu argued that habits are not idiosyncratic, especially in the context of professional practice. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus represents culturally acquired habits. Habitus is developed socially which result in enduring patterns of behaviour (Bourdieu, 1984). Habitus represents a socially acquired cultural basis for routines and patterns of behaviour.

This then is the basis of my discussion, that habits (habitus) is a cultural phenomenon, I look at this in the context of teaching, developing from extant ideas about the nature of teaching, practice and pedagogy.

Theories of teaching

Teachers’ beliefs

The tradition of theorising pedagogy and practice emerged from psychology (this is looking from the perspective UK and the USA in particular). Firstly, behaviourism explained behaviour as a consequence of external stimuli and behaviours are developed through reinforcement. While this was a dominant theory of learning, it does not adequately explain how teachers learn to teach and the practices they use. Later, theories of practice evolved around constructivist views of learning. We are talking about Vygotsky and Piaget. In simple terms individuals construct a view of objects and actions. This sort of cognitive functioning was absent in behaviourism. Within constructivism people have agency which contrasts with the behaviourist model, where agency is a kind of random action that is disciplined through reinforcing responses.

The dominant explanation of pedagogy and practice since the 1970s has been influenced by constructivism but in a particular form. Teachers’ views about practice that ultimately guide their actions are described as ‘beliefs’. Paul Ernest (1989) proposed that in mathematics teaching, the way teachers teach is based on their belief about the most effective way of way of teaching and learning and their beliefs about mathematics. I have a previous blog post on this.

While there has been extensive research on the relationships between teachers’ beliefs and practices, a consistent link between beliefs and practices has not been found. It is frequently observed that enacted beliefs (what is observed in the classroom) is different to what teachers say they believe in, their espoused beliefs. Ernest explained this difference as the effect of social context, meaning that teachers do not have full agency. They may believe that teaching and learning takes place in a particular way, but the way in which they teach is influenced by the expectation placed on them by the students, parents, colleagues, the schools’ leadership and policy expectations.

Situated cognition

In the 1990s more attention was given to the social aspects of learning. That people learn to adopt cultural practices as they become part of a discourse community. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) suggested that professional communities have a dominant discourse, including language as well as practice. There are, in discourse communities, legitimised language, grammar and behaviours. As we become part of a discourse community we learn what they are and the extent to which they can be deviated from.

In my role in initial teacher education, at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, I am well aware of the socialisation that trainee teachers experience as they train in our partner schools. They learn the dominant forms of practice and some develop the confidence to subvert and extend existing practice. They also learn the routines of practices and language forms that teachers use to talk about their work, the progress of students and in describing learning. This is within the constraints of policy and accountability, these factors in addition to the disciplining character of social interactions normalise behaviours. As individuals we still maintain a degree of agency and configure these performances to our own preferences. While there are characteristics of what we do that are consistent with a dominant form, each of us acts in an individual way.

In the last three years I have increasingly discussed this with trainees. It is important to understand the socialisation process that we need to undertake in order to enter professional practice. I sometimes wonder what trainee teachers think the learning process is, whether they see it as the acquisition of skills, which is only partly true, or whether they see learning to teach as socialisation. I think the former is the more likely explanation based on my questioning at interview and in the early part of the course. So to understand social learning, to understand your own learning as social learning is valuable in understanding your progress. You understand why it is necessary to observe teaching, as well as interactions with pupils and colleagues and the exchanges that happen in staff-rooms and corridors. While it is easy to understand the idea of situated cognition and social learning, the processes in which this takes place is a little more demanding. To explain this I am going to draw on the ideas of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy, reflexivity and observational learning.

Social Cognitive Theory, self-efficacy and reflexivity.

A more in-depth explanation of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1997) is available in a previous post, here I am just going to recall a few key points. The important point about social cognitive theory is that it integrates the social aspects of learning and learning through the acquisition of knowledge. Within social cognitive theory is the construct of self-efficacy and vicarious (observational) learning.

Self-efficacy is a self-assessment or self-belief. When doing something new we consider the situation and consciously construct an approach, we plan for the situation. We also assess how successful we will be. Self-efficacy is partially dependent on knowledge but importantly it is dependent on the belief the individual has in being able to apply existing knowledge to a novel context. Teaching self-efficacy is the belief a teacher has that, as a result of the teaching approaches used, students will make progress in their class.

Self-efficacy is a useful construct as it operationalises knowledge, it connects affective aspects with knowledge. It is not just knowledge and skill but the belief an individual has in being successful in a context. It explains then why, when teachers are tired or stressed, they generally become less effective even though their subject and pedagogical knowledge is still intact.

The second aspect of social cognitive theory vicarious learning. It was Miller and Dollard (1941) who highlighted the vicarious nature of learning. While they referred to imitation, they did not mean that we learn by copying precisely what others do, we adapt observed behaviour as part of the process of vicarious or observational learning. This was famously demonstrated in Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment, in which children observed adults engaged in violent behaviour toward a Bobo doll. The children were then observed to imitate the modelled behaviour but also, and importantly, they introduced novel behaviours.

Lortie’ (2002) aphorism that learning to teach is based on an apprenticeship of observation is a significant acknowledgement of vicarious learning processes in teaching. We spend hours, as students in classrooms, observing teachers and then, but to a lesser extent, as trainee teachers on a one-year training programme. Observational learning is an essential part of cultural transmission.

Social cognitive theory involves both self-efficacy, a cognitive and affective basis for the formation of behaviour, and observational learning. In this frame we can see a reflexive dimension of behaviour formation. There is continuity from existing established practices that are communicated vicariously, at the same time the individual can adapt and personalise the existing practices.

Automaticity and routinization: the basis of habitus

Malcolm Gladwell’s (2009) claim in Outliers, that we need 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a particular human endeavour or profession, is something of a ponderous assertion in the context of learning. I think what Gladwell is really trying to get at is the point at which a learner no longer has to consciously think about what they are doing in their professional role or in a field of endeavour. Many skills once learnt can be carried out efficiently by drawing on established patterns of behaviour that exist in our long term memories. What Gladwell probably means is that 10,000 hours is necessary to develop professional habitus.

According to Bandura, once we have become self-efficacious in a domain of activity our actions become routinised and we do not need to mentally model each of our actions in advance, we can draw on scripts and patterns that we have already become confident with. This is equivalent to Bourdieu’s notion of habitus but a professional and occupational context.

This makes sense from the perspective of neurophysiology and in human evolutionary terms. Our working memory capacity is limited and conscious reasoning uses up a lot of energy. It is natural that we preserve our bodily resources for times when we are under threat or when we really need to think through a problem. To do this all the time is simply too demanding, we have to rely on established patterns of behaviour most of the time and respond almost intuitively. Human beings are animals capable of reasoning but only a limited amount of our behaviour is guided by conscious reasoning (Johnson-Laird, 2009).

When I observe trainee teachers, they have to consciously think about most of what they do. This is very demanding, it can be and often is stressful (Chaplain, 2008) and is certainly very tiring. This is a result of the demand for conscious reasoning in preparation for action in the classroom and in the school milieu. What is more, without actually carrying out an action, it is impossible to know the outcome, the contexts of classrooms and schools are complex and predicting the consequences of certain actions is also impossible. In this analysis, it can be seen how important the role of the school-based mentor is, an experienced teacher who can help guide, construct and evaluate the trainee’s proposed actions.

As the trainee’s self-efficacy develops they exhibit routinized action, in which they have greater confidence in the outcome. They know what to expect. Leinhardt (1988) describes experienced teachers’ cognition as situated in the context and relying on almost automatic responses based on heuristic thinking. How I understand this is that teachers are able to recall patterns of pedagogical behaviour in long term memory they match these to the situations they meet and probabilistically evaluate as an appropriate response. Action is contingent, a teacher encounters a situation and is able to adapt and reconstruct a previous response. Teacher cognition is based on rule-of-thumb and the heuristic use of previous actions that are in long-term memory – it happens in an instance.

Let me now return to culture and habit more directly. Observational learning alludes to a cultural impact on practice, that cultures of teaching are transmitted through observational means. The development of routinization, automaticity and the use of heuristics as self-efficacy develops underpins the formation of teaching habits. In the next section I consider how these aspects connect together.


Roger Scruton’s (2001) idea of conservatism rests on the value of, and indeed social capital of, customs, traditions, institutions and laws. There is value in such things as ‘constants’. Quinton Hogg went as far as saying,  “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself” (Hogg, 1959). Although I identify myself with the left of politics, I can’t help but to find myself in agreement. Especially when we locate the political and philosophical ideas of conservatism in the context of state schools and classrooms. And in my experience as a school teacher, I was as much a conservative as Scruton and Hogg. Indeed schools are conservative institutions and the practices observed there are conservative and teachers, by-and-large, are conservative. All this with a little ‘c’.

This has not always been so true, not to the extent that it has been since the late 1980s and increasingly so over time. In the 1960s in England there was a widespread progressive movement, with attempts to break away from traditional schooling and to responding to new thinking about learning and development. But still at the core were conservative curricula and practices. Similarly in the US where traditional teaching, like in England, followed patterns of practice where teachers explained and demonstrated followed by students engaging in practice or exercise. A time-honoured tradition that goes back to the grammar schools of sixteenth century England, at least. Larry Cuban, a historian of public education in the US, observed the traditional teacher-centred teaching had been there in perpetuity through a century or more of public education. Yet the progressive movements of the 1960s did not, according to Cuban (1993), significantly unhinge conservatism in schools. He observed what he described as “teacher-centred progressivism”, the essence of which are the traditional routines but with progressive features such as tables set out in groups – indicative of dialogic approaches – rather than desks and tables in rows for the traditional didactic approach. The same can be observed in England’s state schools, the mainstay of practice is traditional routine and conservative pedagogy, but with superficial ‘progressivism’. The traditional nub has proved to be impervious to fundamental change.

It was Cuban’s view that the perpetuity of pedagogical conservatism is down to day-to-day practical demands on teachers. State schools in the UK and US are resource-constrained, a secondary school teacher needs to be able to keep a class of students busy, they need to be able to maintain standards of behaviour. They may have six, seven or eight classes each week, each with up to 30 or more students, some of whom – because school is mandatory – will not want to be there. Naturally then, the most efficient pedagogy is a traditional teacher-centred approach. The teacher explains and demonstrates a central idea or method, then students work at a similar pace with the express aim of becoming more proficient in what is being taught. The work is routine enough to keep the students busy and the teacher can assess progress by observing how far students have worked through the task and how accurate their answers are.

While others have attributed the actions of the teacher and the pedagogy that is formed as a function of teachers’ beliefs about what is effective teaching and learning (see previous blog) , the practical explanation above is the more likely explanation. It is also an explanation that Stigler and Hiebert drew on in the analysis of eighth-grade mathematics classrooms in Germany, Japan and USA in 1995. They saw pedagogy as culturally distinct: there was more variation in practice between countries than there was within them. They saw pedagogy as following a cultural script, established routines within which teachers and students knew what was expected and what was likely to happen. This is similar to Hogg’s conservatism -“a constant force” based on institution, tradition and rules. While it corresponds “…to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself”, its permanence and constitutionality is much over stated and my view, like Arendt (2006) for example, is that there is a fundamental tension and dialect between progressivism and conservatism; between tradition and future. Or in Archer’s (2012) terms between structure (and culture) and individuality, that is between the self and the social, cultural and institutional context in which we act. It is on this I will finish, but before so doing, I want to consider very briefly why schools and classroom practice are generally conservative.

I left school in 1980 and did not set foot in a state school until 2000. I had an overwhelming sense that schools had become more conservative, I didn’t understand why. My expectation, based on a naive assumption that progress meant more progressivism, was that schools would be more progressive. Schools had in fact become more conservative. In the last few years I have been working on a hypothesis that helps me understand why. It was my initial view that this phenomenon was a consequence of policy, latterly I have expanded this to consider that a key influence on school culture is political economy at national and global level. I wrote about political economy in education in a previous blog. It is from this analysis, I show that the shift from liberal state interventionism to neoliberalism in the late 1970s had a profound influence on the nature of teachers’ work. Teachers’ jobs became more demanding and their teaching subject to greater scrutiny. The appearance of performativtiy (Ball, 2003), where teachers are frequently observed in a high-stakes accountability context, leads to the normalisation of practice. It leads to greater conservatism in the classroom. The reason for this can be explained through social cognitive theory. This more intense professional experience leads to higher levels of anxiety, this reduces self-efficacy and teachers are more likely to sustain conservative practices than to innovate. This is ironic since some of the policy -led reforms were supposed to be progressive, but in accountability contexts the opposite is achieved because of the impact on teachers’ levels of stress.

The cultural dimensions of teaching: structure, culture and agency

I have developed the idea that teaching is a cultural act. That pedagogy follows cultural scripts that participants (teachers, students and even parents) recognise and within which they can predict actions and responses. Teaching is not just a matter of imitating the practices of  previous generations and unthinkingly doing the same as was done in classrooms of previous decades. Yet there is a recognisable cultural and historical constancy. As actors in contexts, as teachers in schools we have agency, but behaviours in such institutions are not expressions of teachers’ preferences. Their preferences and individualism transact with cultural practices and scripts to form actions that are personal but culturally consistent. There is a further dimension: structures. Here, I have talked about the defining factors of institutions on cultural practices. It is the interaction and transaction between structure, culture and agency that shapes individual thinking and action through a process of reflexivity (Archer, 2012).

Taking the English context, the normalising effects of high-stakes accountability in a neoliberal setting, are likely to diminish innovation. As a consequence, there is a tendency to sustain more traditional forms of teaching. Interestingly activist groups have appeared to argue for a new conservatism. For me this is not critical enough, conservatism in teaching is merely a feature rather than a philosophy of education.


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