Can Schools Become Learning Organizations?

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In the article Can Schools Become Learning Organizations?, Nancy Isaacson and Jerry Bamburg frame several conditions that must be met for an educational system to transition into a learning organization. They start by talking about how educators must challenge their pre-existing mental models with the premise that familiar models of doing will only lead to familiar, predictable results. This made me reflect quite a bit on what learning really is.

If not approached strategically and systematically, “learning” can become nothing more than a rudimentary exercise in assembling facts and ideas to build schemas and construct meaning based on incomplete information. We must accept the limitations created by learning that depends on our fractional sensory perceptions, unique life experiences, and differential interactions with others and the world around us.

Taking such an approach to our learning will ensure that anything that we have learned will remain nothing more than a fragmented, compartmentalized assemblage of erroneous information, clouded with our biases and memory limitations. Furthermore, operating within the boundaries of such thinking, we may suffer the illusion of actually understanding the underlying structure of that that which we believe to have learned.

The authors of the article suggest that learning strategically requires thinking systematically, searching for ways to connect disciplines and break up the patterns of thinking that create stagnation and roadblocks to deeper and more meaningful learning. Out of fragmentation, we must search for synergy and seek out an understanding that dives deeper and more fully explores how all the pieces fit together along multiple dimensions and layers of complexity.

Prerequisite to thinking systematically is being willing to learn and grow, understanding that there is more learning out there to discover. After all, the students should not be the only learners in the building. Therefore, organizational learning is also largely about mindset. For a school to become a learning organization, every person in the school must accept the reality that there is much they do not know – yet. This sense of honesty about the limitations of our learning is an essential component to changing the outcomes of our schools.

This is best captured in the following passage from the article:

“Many problems continue to exist because we think they are inevitable, because we don’t want to rock the boat, because we think we will shoulder the blame, because it is someone else’s job to worry about this issue. All of these become reasons why we choose not to tell the truth in a specific situation.”

This pairs well with a quote from chapter 2 of Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline:

“Even if we feel uncertain or ignorant, we learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain or ignorant. That very process blocks out any new understandings which might threaten us. The consequence, ‘skilled incompetence’, creates teams full of people who are incredibly proficient at keeping themselves from learning.”

To support the learning needs of the people in the organization, Isaacson and Bamburg argue that schools must give people choice and voice in shaping their professional learning. They suggest that professional learning should be just as much about people as it is about paper. I would argue that a people over paper philosophy would be a welcome change in many schools and potentially a key area for leverage for a school seeking to transition into becoming a learning organization.

Taking such an approach to systemic learning, it is essential for the leaders of a school organization to not view its employees as interchangeable parts of some machine, but rather unique human beings with diverse learning needs and interests. After all, isn’t this how we view the student learners in our buildings?

An unintended consequence of schools creating rigid employee categories is the creation learning fragmentation across these categories. This approach can create unnecessary barriers between employees in different categories and can reduce collaboration and communication between employees across these categories. By blurring the lines of distinction between school leaders, teachers, and learners, a structure and culture of collaboration and idea sharing can grow organically within a school.

An inevitable byproduct of this type of inclusive approach can only enable deeper and more meaningful conversations among all members of the organization. From these conversations, fresh perspectives and new ideas will continually emerge that create additive value to the school’s current understanding and approach to doing business.

In my mind, this is the heart of organizational learning. By introducing and implementing new learning derived from systemic thinking and collaboration, schools can create better educational outcomes and experiences for students and staff and better adapt and keep pace with the rapidly changing world around us.

 

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