20 Questions To Gauge the Culture of Compassion, Curiosity, and Character Formation in a School

When I talk to people about school models, I get mixed reactions. Some are inspired by the stories that I tell about learning communities that are rich with curiosity and compassion. Others listen, but are skeptical. Still others are quick to dismiss what I share as rare and unrealistic for their particular context. Yet, I’m at a stage in my research that I am confident in my stance. It is entirely possible to create a school of compassion, curiosity, and growing character in pretty much any context in the world. It takes time. It will not be a utopia. It will be a work-in-progress. Nonetheless, progress in this direction is indeed possible, and there are countless inspiring examples of schools that have gone incredibly far in this direction. I’ve seen, studied, and learned about enough examples that I cannot deny this wonderful and very real possibility. Yet, our school communities too often remain content with what they are doing, emotionally tied to the things as they are, uninspired or unconvinced about what is possible, or inhibited by doubts or uncertainly about how to make it happen.

Even amid well over a decade of focused study, I cannot guarantee that a community will be rich with compassion, curiosity, and positive character formation. Or rather, there seem to be many ways to achieve this, and ample challenges on such a grand but noble quest. Yet, in every school that seems to be making progress in this regard, I find people who are asking tough questions about what they what to be, why, and how to get there. There is hope and vision, there is persistence through the challenges, and there is a constant self-assessment that informs what they are doing.

With that in mind, I put together the following questions. These can be used by parents and students seeking out a new school. They can be used by administrators and teachers who are open to some serious school soul-searching. They can also be used for almost anyone who wants to gauge the type of culture that dominates a given school. These questions reflect some of my personal values and priorities, but most of them simply help us reflect upon traits that consistently indicate a school that is embarking on the quest to create a more hopeful, compassionate, and curious community; one where each student is also on a journey of learning, growth, and character formation.

  1. Do administrators, teachers, and students in your school know the difference between having a high grade point average or high test scores and having genuine intellectual curiosity? How do they describe this difference?
  2. If you ask students what it means for a student to be smart, how many answers start with statements about grades and test scores?
  3. How many teachers and administrators in your school believe that the only “realistic” way to get students motivated to learn is through academic carrots and sticks like quizzes, tests, and grades?
  4. How common is it to overhear student lunchtime conversations about great ideas, good books, projects, learning challenges, or significant issues in society…and not just in preparation for an upcoming exam?
  5. How does the trophy case for intellectual and social accomplishments compare to the trophy case for athletic accomplishments at your school?
  6. Compare these two statistics in your school: 1) the percentage of students on an athletic team, 2) the percentage of students who read at least a book a month for personal interest (as an extracurricular).
  7. How much of a priority does your school place upon care and kindness? If you had to prove that level of priority in a court of law, what evidence would you provide?
  8. How much time do students have for life beyond school, homework, and school-sponsored events? What does the school do to honor and support family and life beyond school? Look for specific examples, preferably things that point to policies or persistent practices, not simple anecdotes and one-time efforts.
  9. Look at the “decorations” in 3-5 random rooms in the school and at least 2 hallways. If what you see on the walls is the only indication of the culture and top priorities in the school, what would that tell you about the school?
  10. How much of the school culture revolves around athletics? How does that compare with a celebration of music, the arts, service, and intellectual pursuits? Look for evidence that goes beyond a few anecdotes.
  11. How often do students work on focused projects / challenges (other than traditional research papers) that require them to engage in independent, persistent work for an extended period (6+ weeks for middle school, 8-12+ weeks for high school)?
  12. Ask students to describe how much of their time is focused upon study and preparation for quizzes and tests compared to solving problems, exploring questions, cultivating new skills, or achieving goals. What does this tell you?
  13. Ask 5-10 random students to describe 3-5 people in the school community who inspire, challenge, or encourage them to be better people in one way or another.
  14. Ask a class of students to write down the number of students in the school they know who do not have any friends. How many are there?
  15. Does the school seek and use frequent feedback from students and parents? How? What is the best evidence that this is important to leadership and teachers at the school?
  16. Spent a morning at the school and look for the number of one-on-one interactions between students and teachers compared to one teacher to a whole class interactions. How much coaching, mentoring, and personalized teaching can you observe?
  17. Observe 3-5 random classrooms for 5-10 minutes each. How much of the time is dominated by the teacher talking versus the students discussing, doing, debating, creating, and learning?
  18. Ask 5-10 people at the school to define “academic success.” What does this tell you about the goals, values, and priorities in the school?
  19. Ask the school leaders to list the top two current problems or challenges in the school community. Then ask what they have done and are doing to address these two challenges. How much of a priority are these issues?
  20. If you shared this list with administrators and teachers at your school, how many of them would mock or laugh at the list as unrealistic?

There are plenty of other great questions, but I offer these as a good starting point. Join me in imagining an education ecosystem shaped by this sort of soul-searching. What would be different in education if we valued and asked such questions more often? How would our schools be different? How would the lives of learners be different? Over time, how would our communities be different?

Using Celebration Innovations to Create a Vibrant Culture of Learning

I am writing this as the end of the traditional school year draws near. As such, there is much planning underway in many schools. Some are planning each detail of the graduation day events. Leading up to that, this is also the time when K-12 schools and Universities prepare to celebrate various accomplishments. Awards banquet planning is underway, with many winners already selected. Hearing educators talk about this led me to think more about the idea of celebrations, and more specifically what I am calling celebration innovations.

What we celebrate says something about who we are and what we value. As such, what will we celebrate in our schools and learning communities this year (this goes for pretty much any community, not just schools)? Consider a few of the more common ones.


If you are in a traditional school, there is probably a time to celebrate and acknowledge the valedictorian, often heavily weighted on the basis of the grade point average that one maintains throughout school.  This person is sometimes chosen to represent the student body, offering some sort of speech or public remarks during graduation.

Honor Roll

Scan the local newspapers, especially in smaller towns, and you will see honorees sorted by their grade point averages. Honor goes to those who earn the highest letter grades which translate into this overall numeric representation of academic performance.

Perfect Attendance

This is especially common in some elementary schools. Students are recognized for not getting sick (or coming to school even if they are sick), having family with no challenges that impact attendance, as well as family members who resist taking their kids on sometimes incredible travels and learning experiences.

The Trophy Case

In most schools, these are heavy on athletic achievements of teams and individuals. Individual records are celebrated. Team rankings and ratings are celebrated. Sometimes massive trophies are placed in glass cases within the hallway for all to see well into the future.

A Few Thoughts

There are, of course, many other things that we celebrate, but each of these examples and the many others say something about our culture and what we value. They speak to our priorities. They become part of our culture.

It is with this in mind that I often wonder about the role of revisiting our learning community celebrations. What do we value? If those are the things that we truly value, how do we celebrate in accordance with our values? In other words, what celebration innovations are useful to help nurture the culture that we want, and to amplify the values that are most important to us?

The answers will vary by school, because not every school shares the same values and culture. However, I am not convinced that all of our current celebrations support what is most important to many in the community. We unknowingly undermine our culture and then find ourselves frustrated when things do not seem to be the way that we want. Culture is powerful. It can undermine a mission and it can also be a key to achieving our mission.

Celebration is a part of culture, and it is something that we can influence. I have to wonder what would happen to a school that gathered teachers, leaders, parents, students, and other key stakeholders together to talk seriously and deeply about what they value. Then, based upon what they surface, they could intentionally seek out celebrations that align with those values. They commit to being critical about their celebration choices, recognizing that there are often hidden messages in a celebration. Nonetheless, this sort of intentional celebration innovation could be a powerful way to help build that rich culture of learning that so many of us want to see in our schools.