Melting the cultural iceberg

One of the great joys of my current work supporting school boards and principals is visiting the campuses of many fine schools.  Having also served as the Head of five schools in four countries over 25 years before focussing exclusively on my current work, I feel I have become quite adept at discerning the culture of any school I visit fairly quickly as I start walking around.  I refer to this colloquially as “sniffing the mood” of the school.

When I refer to the ‘culture’ of a school, I mean the authentic, everyday ways in which the school’s ‘values’ are expressed, ‘values’ being the beliefs, attitudes and consequent behaviours that are viewed as valuable, worthwhile, important and meaningful within the school.

Unfortunately, the significance of a school’s culture can easily become diluted.  At one level, many schools reduce the concept of culture to being a disparate collection of somewhat superficial outward symbols, such as music, food, art, dress and drama, especially when cultural festivals are celebrated.  In the same way that this approach diminishes the richness of the cultures being celebrated, it can blind the school community to deeper facets of the concept of culture – including the ‘school’s own culture’. 

The concept of the ‘cultural iceberg’ can be very helpful in addressing this situation.  The idea is a simple one.  Only about 10% of an iceberg is visible above the surface of the ocean.  As the crew of the Titanic realised far too late, most of an iceberg (about 90% of its mass) is hidden beneath the surface of the water.

In 1976, the American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, Edward T Hall, suggested that culture was like an iceberg, and in doing so, claimed that there are two broad components of culture.  First, he claimed that the external, or surface, culture (which is easily visible) comprises about 10% of the total concept, while the remaining 90%, which is usually hidden below the surface, is internal, or deep, culture.

External surface culture (the visible 10%) is explicitly learned, conscious, easily changeable and mainly comprises objective knowledge.  On the other hand, internal deep culture (the hidden 90%) is implicitly learned, unconscious, difficult to change and mainly consists of subjective knowledge.

The Cultural Iceberg

When people first experience contact with other cultures, they usually interact only at the surface level (the visible 10%), which is (to circle back to the metaphor) just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.  Dealing with the visible 10% of another culture makes a relatively low emotional demand.  It remains superficial and fails to engage in deeper understandings, which would require a much more intense emotional load.  Remaining at the surface level is rarely, if ever, an effective way to develop authentic inter-cultural understanding.

The same principle applies when we are examining school culture.  Most independent schools were founded on the basis of a strong, coherent values position.  These values are communicated through the mission, vision and other documents, and are demonstrated in practice through the behaviours and attitudes that express the school culture on a daily basis.

If we are really concerned to form a school community that gives life to the school’s mission and values position, the school’s leadership must challenge the students and staff to engage authentically with the internal, deep facets of their ‘school culture’.  The external surface culture (the visible 10%) represents an important, necessary, and thoroughly enjoyable beginning, but it ought to be an initial transition step that sets the school on the right pathway – it is neither a sufficient nor ultimate destination in itself.

In the same way that inter-cultural celebrations can play a valuable role in raising awareness but seldom require deep engagement, embedding a ‘school culture’ requires a deep level of engagement that pushes students and staff beyond their comfort zones.

Enhancing school culture is an area where SMART (the Schools Mission Appraisal Reporting Tool) can help school leaders and boards.  SMART is our original ground-breaking instrument that evaluates a school’s performance in achieving its real purposes – its mission, vision and values – or in other words, evaluating culture.  SMART shifts the key question away from “what can be measured easily?” to “what should be measured to ensure the school’s mission, vision and values are brought to fruition?”.

SMART can play a pivotal role as schools seek to embed a culture that is unambiguously intentional. 

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Read more about SMART on the SMART webpage.

You can initiate a conversation about SMART by sending an e-mail to Stephen Codrington at [email protected].

In addition, we offer a range of workshops that address matters related the cultural iceberg such as school ethos and ethics.

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at