Levels of Culture - Artefacts, School Lore and the Navy SEALs

Levels of Culture - Artefacts, School Lore and The Navy SEALs

Recently I attended an NPQH residential where one of the first tasks we were given was to explain what culture is. Most of the responses to this were around the things that are important to a particular school; the way people behave; or just ‘the way we do things around here’. There was also a mention of values which provoked a lot of thought for me personally as I think that if many of us were asked to identify some core values, we would be able to identify many of the generic values that exist in schools; values such as honesty, aspiration, respect, fairness and resilience. I can understand why schools choose such values, but I think it can be difficult to pin down how these values are manifested in day to day life. Much of the talk around values has always frustrated me as it is one thing to share values but to bring them to life can be very different. Sometimes too much effort may be invested in attempting to inculcate the values by explicitly teaching them or encouraging children to reflect on them. In some schools there is no doubt that you can ‘feel’ what they value just by walking around the school and talking to both staff and children, but this is not always the case. This prompts the question why have some schools achieved this and some haven’t? I have always found discussions around culture to be a bit nebulous, either that or I have always been ill-equipped to articulate my response to what it actually is. It wasn’t until I was introduced to the levels of culture model below by Emily Reynard@MEACReynard - which gives a much clearer framework for culture - that I fully understood how it exists and how it can potentially be created. More specifically, it was the artefacts level that really gave me something tangible to explore.

Levels of Culture Iceberg Metaphor

Artefacts of Culture

Cultural artefacts can take many forms, such as pictures, posters, quotations, sculptures, relentless routines, building designs, and much more. The cultural artefact that I want to focus on though, is school lore. I was fortunate enough to present at ResearchEd Rugby earlier this year(thanks to @Judehunton) and at the beginning of the day we were addressed by the Headmaster of Rugby School. During his welcome, he shared some of the stories that are central to the impressive school’s history. It made me realise just how powerful school lore can be and it made me wonder what stories the children at my school would share. Everyone loves a story and the most engaging speakers I have ever listened to, have weaved such an incredible narrative that It became an experience rather than just a talk. A good story speaks right to the limbic part of our brains, evoking emotion and promoting connection with the story teller. From a practical perspective,it’s made me think what stories we should share at my school; what stories epitomise our values? Which stories do we want to outlive all of our careers and remain as the fabric of our school culture? How many schools share such lore explicitly and intentionally? Imagine if your collection of stories, communicated every one of your values without ever explicitly mentioning them.

I have recently read a book called Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrel and I it gave me and incredible insight into how the US Navy SEALs use experiences to promote their culture, without ever mentioning their values directly.The Navy Seals believe that they are invincible, why? Because the training experiences leave the recruits with the unfaltering belief that they are the best of the best. I have chosen 4 key examples of how planned and carefully crafted experiences, ensure that every Navy Seal, understands, lives and breathes the culture.

Swim Buddies – Teamwork

Throughout the entire Navy SEALs training programme, from Indoctrination through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL(BUD/S) training, and the latter phases, trainees have the idea drilled into them that they are never to be far away from their swim buddy. They experience everything as a pair, are punished as a pair whether they are both at fault or not. If their swim buddy is sent to get ‘wet and sandy’ their buddy goes with them. This instils the belief that they will never be alone and reminds them that teamwork is a non-negotiable.

Hell Week – Survive it and you can survive anything

Early on, the navy seals are told that the body can be subjected to a huge degree of trauma and still continue. They are also told that the training is designed to test mental strength - in short, the body can cope with pretty much anything but they want to know that the trainee’s mind is just as durable. In Hell Week, they are subjected to the toughest ordeals you could ever imagine. More than half the recruits don’t make it through. The half that do, do so with a new sense of invulnerability; any situation they could encounter in future will never be as tough as hell week.

The Water is Theirs – More comfortable in water than on land

The Navy Seals are trained to believe that the water is theirs; that they own it. How? The training programme ensures that they are in the freezing water for hours upon end. It teaches them to be efficient, to move more swiftly through the water than any human should be able to. They are sent to get ‘wet and sandy’ multiple times a day so that they become just as comfortable wet as they are dry.

Pool Competency – Navy SEALs never panic

This test that takes place after hell week and involves instructors holding them under water, ripping off their masks and disconnecting their air ways. The experience teaches them not to panic and instils the belief that they will never panic in the water; that they can cope with anything because the water is theirs.

Whilst you may or may not be interested in the Navy SEALs, I just wanted to exemplify how they experiences we provide for children can lead to an understanding of our values. I am also not saying that the way to develop a culture is to send your students into freezing water every 30 minutes! All I am saying is that whatever your values, it is the experiences and stories that are likely to make the students buy into them. If resilience is one of your core values, what stories exist of how students and staff have demonstrated extreme resilience? What experiences will you provide to ensure that students learn what it means to be resilient?

Thanks for reading,


“In times of war or uncertainty there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our Nation’s call. A common man with uncommon desire to succeed.”

“Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America’s finest special operations forces to serve his country and the American people, and to protect their way of life.”

“I am that man.”

“My Trident is a symbol of honor and heritage. Bestowed upon me by the heroes that have gone before, it embodies the trust of those whom I have sworn to protect. By wearing the Trident, I accept the responsibility of my chosen profession and way of life. It is a privilege that I must earn every day.”

“My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans, always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own.”

“I serve with honor on and off the battlefield. The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men.”

“Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond. We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders, I will take charge, lead my teammates, and accomplish the mission. I lead by example in all situations.”

“I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight. We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me – my technical skill, tactical proficiency, and attention to detail. My training is never complete. We train for war and fight to win. I stand ready to bring the full spectrum of combat power to bear in order to achieve my mission and the goals established by my country. The execution of my duties will be swift and violent when required, yet guided by the very principles that I serve to defend.”

“Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation that I am bound to uphold. In the worst of conditions, the legacy of my teammates steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed.”

“I will not fail.”