The School as a Learning Organization*
By James W. Keefe and Eugene R. Howard
Any given school environment represents the interplay of school cultural values; the curricular, organizational, and human resources of the school; and student productivity, all seen through the lens of student, teacher, and parent perceptions of the school’s climate. The environment of the school is not the actual cultural norms and expectations as lived and experienced but also the perception of that reality by the “significant others” of the school — student, teacher, and parent/community. The perception, in fact, is often more significant than the reality, since people act and react as they perceive something to be.
Once Upon a time there was a man who strayed from his own country into the world known as the Land of Fools. He soon saw a number of people flying in terror from a field where they had been trying to reap wheat. “‘There is a monster in that field,” they told him. He looked and saw that it was a watermelon.
He offered to kill the “monster” for them. When he had cut the melon from its stalk he took a slice and began to eat it. The people became even more terrified of him than they had been of the melon. They drove him away with pitchforks, crying: “He will kill us next, unless we get rid of him.”
It so happened that at another time another man also strayed into the Land of Fools, and the same thing began to happen to him. But, instead of offering to help them with the “monster,” he agreed with them that it must he dangerous and by tiptoeing away from it with them he gained their confidence. He spent a long time with them in their houses until he could teach them, little by little, the basic facts that would enable then not only to lose their fear of melons, but even to cultivate them themselves.
This Sufi teaching story, “The Water-Melon Hunter,” paints a larger-than-life picture of the most basic challenge of education: how to motivate learners to do things for themselves. Formal education has progressed in fits and starts over the ages, with the latest innovations becoming old dogmas. Education has its unreal monsters aplenty. Personalizing learning for students and self-renewal for schools are two of these.
Young children learn instinctively and love the process. Only when they are exposed to formal schooling do many come to see learning as only memorization or drudgery, or a thousand other pejorative terms. All learning starts with information, but information is not learning. Learning is a change in the way we view the world, in the way we do things, and in the way we relate ideas to each other. It is a function of how we use the information available to us.
Schools must become self-renewing learning organizations. In his seminal work, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, MIT professor Peter Senge (1990a) tells us that learning organizations are places in which “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” Learning organizations discover over time how to work together to create what the members mutually want to do.
Senge’s focus is primarily on corporate management and systems thinking, but the basic premises of his work have direct application to public and private education. Schools can become learning organizations only if all stakeholders are learners. Senge proposes the mastery of certain basic disciplines that characterize the learning organization and distinguish it from a traditional bureaucracy based on control. He calls these capabilities “disciplines” because they represent a long-term commitment to mastery. They are like the “component technologies” of architectural and industrial design; i.e., the interdependent parts of a computer or an automobile that form the new whole. As these proficiencies develop, the learner’s vision both broadens and focuses to provide a new way of looking at things.
Learning organizations discover over time how to work together to create what the members mutually want to do.
The Five Disciplines
The learning organization grows from a commitment to studying and mastering five “learning disciplines” (Senge 1990a; Senge et al., 1994). Each discipline must be mastered separately, but together they build the learning organization.
1. Building Shared Vision. The first discipline starts with group commitment to developing shared “images of the future” and then to the pursuit of the principles and practices of the learning cycle.
Vision building never ends. It is not just building a “vision statement,” although that may be an acceptable starting point. It is an ongoing process that engages all members of the organization in continually reflecting on what they, together, want to create. All must see the picture of the future clearly, not just the leaders. In a school, it involves a commitment from the principal to work with all stakeholders to discover (not dictate) the vision, to actualize it in the school, to regularly reflect on its evolution, and to accept the fact that it will and must change.
2. Personal Mastery. Like the first discipline, the second builds on the commitment of the organization to the individual. Personal mastery is creating and clarifying one’s own vision and helping to create an organization that supports individuals in developing their personal skills. Developing personal vision is the foundation of shared vision. Individuals must feel they can create their own lives in terms of what really matters to them. Real shared vision can develop in an organization only when all the individuals feel support in their personal quest for mastery.
Few schools or districts encourage this kind of individualized growth. It is not just an issue of staff development or access to training but of encouraging people to make a difference. A school benefits from a highly skilled staff but relatively few educators try to achieve personal mastery in the skills that matter to them and that can make a real difference in their organization. After the early years of teaching, teachers often settle into a comfortable rut. They lose the excitement and commitment of the early years. Many are no longer learners but only technicians.
Some educators do achieve personal mastery, but they can become more frustrated than those who are simply putting in their time. Personal mastery is always accompanied by creative tension. The highly skilled learn to live with some dissatisfaction. Those who truly strive know that their quest will never he finished but they are vitalized by the continuing challenge. A learning organization must feed on the vitality of those who are leading the way.
3. Mental Models. The third discipline involves Understanding how our personal beliefs, ingrained assumptions, and pictures of the world affect and shape our thoughts and actions. We filter our judgments and decisions through the mental models we have of reality. indeed, we tend to confuse reality with our picture of it. We readily assume that what we believe something to be is what the person or thing actually is.
Organizational learning entails confronting our individual mental models, sharing them in risk-free and supportive settings, and striving to achieve a shared mental model for the organization. Most of us are not consciously aware of our mental models. We can easily operate on such assumptions as “the boss is untrustworthy” or “Joe is
not very bright” without ever really testing them. Organizations can share mental models that are equally deceptive. Principals often believe, and teachers accept, that vision should come from the top. School leaders may think of themselves as highly participative because they have a leadership team, but fail to recognize that their school structure is bureaucratic and their decision making highly authoritarian.
Mental models influence what we do because they color what we see. Organizations can have great difficulty achieving a shared vision when the personal visions of their members are quite divergent. When individuals do not share their personal visions, they cannot confront the differences to mold a shared synthesis. To achieve long-term improvement, schools and districts must change their shared mental models, initially by confronting their differences and then by creating, through dialogue, a new consensus.
4. Team Learning. Organizations can confront the differences in their members’ mental models and personal visions through team learning. The fourth discipline stipulates that teams, not individuals, are the fundamental units of learning in a modern organization. Peter Senge (1990a) likes to point out the difference between “discussion” and “dialogue” in the development of team learning. Discussion means to bat an idea back and forth as in a game, while dialogue connotes a conversation between people with a free flow of meaning. In discussion, we are trying to win, but in dialogue we attempt to go beyond individual understanding to gain new insight. The purpose of dialogue is to communicate individual differences in view so as to move beyond the differences.
Schools traditionally operate on a “king of the mountain” principle whereby administrators guard their prerogatives, teachers close themselves inside self-contained classrooms, and faculty meetings variously resemble lecture halls or debating societies. Discussion, not dialogue prevails, Administrators and teachers present and defend their own views. Compromise is the highest goal, not shared vision and collective thought.
School leaders committed to team learning use dialogue to explore complex issues or problems. Senge puts it this way (1990a, pp. 241-42): “Individuals suspend their assumptions but they communicate their assumptions freely. The result is a free exploration that brings to the surface the full depth of people’s experience and thought, and yet can move beyond their individual views…. In dialogue, people become observers of their own thinking.”
In all this, there must he a balance between discussion and dialogue. Discussion is needed to present and defend opposing views, to provide a useful overview of a complex situation, or to reach decisions on such issues. Discussion supports convergent thinking; dialogue, divergent thinking. Dialogue does not seek agreement but rather a greater grasp of complexity. The successful learning team uses both processes depending on the objective.
5. Systems Thinking. The fifth discipline is the conceptual framework that integrates the other disciplines. Systems thinking is a philosophy and set of principles that lends coherence to team learning, mental models, personal mastery, and shared vision. It is a body of knowledge and tools–information and processes — that helps a learning organization discover its underlying operational patterns and how they can he changed. These patterns are usually the impediments to substantive change in an organization, not the people or events. The tools of systems thinking — causal loop diagrms, archetypes, and computer models — enable the people in an organization to understand and talk about the interrelationships among the key components of the system. (Isaacson and Bomberg, 1992).
A system is a gestalt, a group of components that “hang together hecause they continually affect each other over time and operate toward a common purpose.” Systems include biological organisms (like the human body), natural entities (like the solar system), human organizations (like families and teams and schools), and inventions (like the telephone or the factory). The systemic structure of an organization is not just its flowchart or its processes and procedures, but the pattern of interrelationships among the key components of the system (Senge et al., 1994, p. 90).
The first principle of systems thinking is that “structure influences behavior.” Systemic structures tend to cause particular patterns of behavior. These structures are not interrelationships among people but among such system components as population, resources, and methods of production. In a very real sense, a system causes its own behavior. To understand any organization, event, or problem, we must look beyond people or bad luck to the underlying structures that influence and shape individual and group actions.
Senge (1990a) proposes 11 laws of systems thinking that help to explain how an organization will react in complex situations. The laws are as follows:
1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.
Former solutions may cause or occasion today’s problems. A rise in the number of math
failures in a school may result from the adoption of a new, more complex textbook. Solutions often
shift problems from one part of the system to another.
2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes buck.
Systems thinking calls this “compensating feedback.” The harder you work, the more work there seems to be. People work hard to quit smoking and find themselves gaining weight or under more stress. Schools work hard to improve, attract new students, and then find they cannot adequately provide for them. (Services are cut.)
3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse. Faced with complex problems, leaders can usually make things look better in the short run. But compensating feedback eventually short circuits the short-term benefit. The solution may strengthen one’s power base or remove the source of contention only for it to return later and perhaps worse. Greater vigilance for drug use on the campus may move the problem across the street from the school.
4. The easy way out usually leads back in.
We use familiar solutions to problems because we know them and they feel comfortable. Pushing familiar solutions while problems worsen is a sign of non-systemic thinking. The familiar argument for “back to basics” in schools says we should give struggling students more of what they already have trouble doing.
5. The cure can be worse than the disease.
The easy or familiar solution can he dangerous or addictive. Many government programs shift the solution from the local community to state or federal assistance (e.g., welfare programs), leading to more profound dependency and more need for help. Schools obtain state or federal funds to help a target population, only to drop the program — after creating heightened expectations — when the money stops.
6. Faster is slower.
H. L. Mencken, the early 20th century journalist from Baltimore, once said that “For every deep and complex problem facing our society there is a simple answer, and it’s wrong.” Quick fixes to complex problems are inevitably wrong. Solving a student’s learning problems by letting him or her drop a class or by resorting to less challenging textbooks for some students always results in other more difficult problems.
7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
Complex problems usually have several levels of explanation. Drug abuse or unemployment may have causes at the personal level, but the root cause(s) probably lie in social conditions beyond the control of individuals. Poor student achievement in a given subject area may have little to do with the motivation or application of the students but much to do with outmoded district courses of study or home conditions that make study difficult.
8. Small changes can produce big results — but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
Solving a difficult problem involves finding the point of highest leverage — where the least effort can do the most good. But these points are usually not obvious. We have to search for them. Senge (1990a) cites Buckminster Fuller’s classic metaphor for the principal of leverage, the “trim tab.” The trim tab is a small movable section of a ship’s rudder. To turn an ocean liner left, the stern is pushed to the right by turning the rudder to the left. But the rudder needs help against the oncoming water, which it gets when its trim tab is turned right. None of this is obvious to the casual observer. In a similar way, schools must help students become more self-directed to raise achievement levels throughout the school. This relationship is hardly obvious.
9. You can have your cake and eat it too — but not at once.
Many organizational problems aren’t real but rather artifacts of one-shot versus systems thinking. American automobile manufacturers have found that (like the Japanese) they can improve quality and reduce costs by developing new skills and assembly methods. But costs may go up in the short run because of start-up costs. Schools involved in restructuring always have start-up costs and need time to implement new structures. In time, quality improves and costs can decrease, hut only in the long term.
10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
Senge (1990a) recounts a Sufi story about three blind men and an elephant. The first, gripping an ear said, “it is a large rough thing, wide and broad, like a rug.” The second, holding the trunk said, “I have the real facts. It is a straight and narrow pipe.” The third, holding a front leg said, “It is mighty and firm, like a pillar.” The story concludes, “Given these men’s way of knowing, they will never know the elephant.” These three blind men are like the chairpersons of (say) science, language arts, and athletics in many schools who see only a part of the larger system. They do not comprehend all the forces within the school that are needed for a workable (systemic) approach to schoolwide improvement.
11. There is no blame.
We tend to blame others or outside circumstances for our problems. In systems thinking, there are no others and no outside to blame. The system itself is the problem, or rather, the patterns within the system that are dysfunctional or disconnected. In education, for example, policymakers and politicians often call for more accountability from administrators and teachers. But this is usually nothing more than a subtly veiled attempt at irnputing blame for the shortcomings of the system.
Designing the School Learning Organization
Moving schools away from traditional visions of schooling and factory models of organization is no mean task, as countless schools in the current restructuring movement have discovered. The purpose of this publication is not to detail all the processes of the school as learning organization but to help schools initiate the process.
At this point, the reader is probably asking: “What really is a learning organization? Would I know one if I saw it? How do you do this in a real school? Where do I start?”
Nevis et al. (1995) define organizational learning as “the capacity or processes within an organization to maintain or improve performance based on experience.” This definition implies that the organization has “formal and informal processes and structures for the acquisition, sharing, and utilization of knowledge and skills.” Typically, successful learning organizations exhibit three characteristics that enable them to initiate and sustain improvement:
1. Well-developed core competencies that serve us launch points for new products and services. In schools these competencies would involve such components as teacher selection and induction, staff development, instructional strategy, student services, etc.
2. Attitudes that support continuous improvement. The cultural norms and expectations of the school must support a climate of student support and continuous improvement of the school’s curriculum, instructional programs, communication structures, etc. The school climate must be positive, actively sustained, and risk-free.
3. The capability to redesign and renew. Improvement is not an event but a process that must he continuously renewed and revitalized. Schools must have a design process in place that makes this possible.
School improvement is an exercise in change. School leaders must learn how to plan and manage change and to do so in the face of a rapidly changing world. Some contemporary organizations are reconceptualizing their planning processes as learning opportunities. This means that the benefits of planning are not just the mission and vision, the objectives and strategies, the outcomes and the assessments that emerge from the process, but also the learning that occurs during the planning. “If learning is a goal, then the way you structure the planning process and who you involve in it can make an important difference” (deGeus, 1988, p. 70).
Learning organizations take time to build, but some actions can he taken right away to get started. The most basic step is to cultivate and support an environment in the school that is risk-free and conducive to learning. School leaders must make time to think and reflect, to develop and update strategic plans, to assess the utility of current school programs, and to design new structures and procedures. Meetings, workshops, and task force groups that cut across departmental or stakeholdler lines open up the boundaries between groups and encourage the exchange of ideas. Once teachers, parents, community leaders, students, and others are more comfortable with real exchange, the school can move to more formal learning events like staff retreats, school audits by staff and outside consultants, visits to other schools, and symposia on targeted topics.
The catalyst for the school learning organization and subsequent school improvement is the school management/design team. Such a group can arise out of the principal’s cabinet or advisory council but should represent different stakeholders in the school chosen for their commitment to getting the job done. Schein (1993) suggests several strategies that can help a management/design team become a learning team.
1. Leaders must become learners. Principals and other school leaders must overcome their school’s cultural biases and learn about new ways and structures for doing things. They can accelerate this process by spending time outside the school learning about other schools and attending workshops and conferences that expose them to new ideas, other leaders, outside consultants, etc.
2. The team must undergo its own learning process. For the management/design team to function as a change agent in the school, it must develop its own cultural norms, trust level, and commitment to making innovative changes. Only then can it hope to lead a school staff and comrmunity in a comprehensive redesign of the school’s system components.
3. The team must design the organization ‘s learning process. The first step in this is diagnosing the school’s learning needs and forming task forces (other learning groups) to deal with each of the major components of the emerging design. These task forces are working groups.
4. The task forces must develop detailed plans, including specifications for new programs and strategies. The work of these task forces will become the Design Statement for the school.
5. The management/design tearn must maintain communication and coordinate the work of the task forces.Systemic change requires attention to many elements of the organization at the same time and a studied attempt to move the process of change along in a coherent way. Things can become too complex and lose momenturn. It is the responsibility of the school team to provide a sense of direction and a supportive environment for the continuous learning and action that will be needed if the school is to redesign itself.
*This article is taken from NASSP’s recently published Redesigning Schools for the New Century: A Systems Approach. Copies of the full monograph may be ordered from the NASSP; ask for #2109702.
James W. Keefe is former NASSP director of research, the designer of the CASE-IMS concept and its project director. He currently heads his own consulting firm, JK Consulting, Ltd. Eugene R. Howard is one of the developers of the CASE-IMS School Improvement Process, and a member of NASSP’s Task Force on School Environments. He is the field director of the NASSP School Design Project.
Text from the NASSP Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 589, May,1997, used with the permission of the National association of Secondary School Principals. For more information about NASSP services/programs, call 703-860-0200, or visit www.principals.org