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Are our schools learning organizations?

Is your school a learning organization? What a silly question, we’re a school for crying out loud. We teach, our students learn, hence we are a learning organization. But students are not the only agents of learning in schools. We forget that teachers need to grow and learn as well, just as it is in any profession.

This might explain why schools and teachers are constantly inundated with initiatives from outside of their school organization. Most of the initiatives confronting schools, like Common Core Academic Standards, Standards-Based Grading, and Professional Learning Communities are well-researched and grounded in strong theory. Yet, for the most part, these initiatives came from outside of the school, with little if any support from educators. Why? It’s because most schools are not learning organizations.

In the 1990’s Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline, in which he argued that organizations are continually faced with shifting technology, customer preferences, and intensifying competition. To combat this shifting scenario, organizations need more than a clear vision and strong leadership. They need to be a learning organization. Learning organizations garnered much attention within the private sector, but not as much within the public school arena. If schools were set up as true learning organizations we would have employees (educators) who were skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. Knowledge that would transform our schools into true learning organizations and promote high academic achievement.

In their article “Is Yours a Learning Organization” (Harvard Business Review), authors Gravin, Edmondson, and Gino, offer up a quick assessment tool to see where your company (school) stands as an organization that “fosters knowledge sharing, idea development, learning from mistakes, and holistic thinking.” They also offer three building blocks to a learning organization: 1) A supportive learning environment, 2) concrete learning processes and practices, and 3) leadership that reinforce learning. While the tool was set up for businesses all you need to do to apply it to schools is replace unit (as in a company unit) with school, and manager with principal.

Psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to new ideas and time for reflection make up the first building block. We need our schools to be safe places for teachers to engage in collaborative thinking that allows for constructive conflict. Schools where the culture demands tight compliance to edicts from on high, without debate, are not safe. When people are overstressed and do not have the time to reflect they become “less able to diagnose problems and learn from their experiences. Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause in the action and encourage thoughtful review of the [school’s] processes.” When is the last time you saw a teacher with the opportunity, during the school year, to do this?

Building block two focusses on the processes by which organizations generate, collect, interpret, and disseminate information. For educators this entails the social science practice of action research. It promotes experimentation to develop new strategies, time to gather data and analyze the results, as well as opportunities to educate and train their colleagues. For educators time is the key resource necessary to complete this work. Collaboration among educators takes dedicated time away from the act of teaching and funnels it into strategic time spent working with colleagues. We already know that the top international schools’ teachers spend less time “on stage” with students, about 30% less, than do American teachers. If this was taking place in our schools we would see a shift from top-down, fix-it, and one-size-fits-all professional development to a more growth-driven, inquiry-based, collaborative, and tailor-made type of professional development.

The third building block advocated by the authors, focusses on building leadership that reinforces learning. Principals, who invite input from others, recognize their own limitations with regards to knowledge, information, and expertise, who provide time, resources, and venues for identifying problems and recognizing challenges encourage teachers to learn. Teachers in this environment feel empowered to offer new ideas and options. This type of learning environment requires a leader who is comfortable and even encourages professional discourse that is not seen in most schools today.

We know that teachers enter the profession needing time and space to learn. Regardless of what teacher preparation program a teacher comes from, there is no way for that new teacher to have the necessary skills to be successful on day one. We also know that the practice of teaching is not a fixed skill. Teaching, like all professions, relies on a workforce that is adept at making the necessary changes to fit a changing society and its students. In other words, we need a teaching profession that learns as it engages in its daily practice, a profession that demands precision in what it does, while at the same time looking for new ways to innovate and respond to a shifting and changing student body. It is time for us to look at schools as places of learning for students and educators.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.