Reimagining schools as learning organisations

Published: May 12, 2020

Girls attend a class at a school in Mingora, a town in Swat Valley. PHOTO: AFP

Any organisation, to be sustainable and successful, needs to be a ‘learning organisation’, especially in the face of the evolving challenges of the 21st century. Many well-meaning school leaders think that converting schools into learning organisations only depends on a clear vision, giving teachers the right incentives, and providing lots of training. These are essential but we need a lot more to make that transition, as eloquently presented in The Harvard Business Review by David A Garvin, Amy C Edmondson and Francesca Gino in their article ‘Is Yours a Learning Organization?’ There are three basic building blocks that contribute to making any organisation, a learning one, but I took the liberty of adapting these so that they can apply to schools.

The first building block is a supportive and enabling environment for a school’s teachers. They must feel psychologically, as well as physically safe. They must be comfortable with disagreeing with peers and authority figures, asking naive questions, owning up to mistakes and presenting view points that the majority does not share. Opposing ideas and competing perspectives should be welcomed as this enables innovative thinking and creativity. Teachers should be encouraged to explore and experiment and come up novel approaches. They should feel safe to take risks. Reflective teaching should be encouraged and time for this needs to be built into the school schedule and culture.

A culture of ‘errors and investigations’ needs to be replaced with a culture of ‘accidents and analysis’ to promote responsible action, collaboration and transparency. Teachers must be encouraged to collaborate and perform as  ‘professional learning communities’. Collaboration and the collective expertise of teachers deeply impacts student attainment, as expounded by renowned Australian educator, John Hattie. They must feel autonomous and their input and advice must be valued and respected. When teams of teachers work together, they can engage in co-construct understanding, creating new knowledge and addressing adaptive challenges more effectively. Sharing wisdom with colleagues, working on school improvement plans, challenging the status quo are an alternative to top down, formulaic, and short-term strategies.

Encouraging a growth mind-set, an idea proposed by researcher Carol Dweck at Stanford University, in the school will make teachers more confident and self-actualised. A growth mindset enables teachers to take responsibility for improving their practice by taking setbacks and feedback as learning opportunities. Such teachers will then have high but positive expectations from their students.

The second building block is for schools to have concrete learning processes and practices. The learning must not only be based on developing an outward perspective but one that looks inwards too. Sharing best practices and collaboration beyond physical borders is essential. Research, leading to learning and resulting in development will enable the school to become a learning organisation. Facilitation for voluntary participation in adaptive, emerging and flexible goals will in turn ensure the well being of teachers. It is also the need of the hour to incorporate an analysis based on questions like what worked well and even better if for giving feedback to students. Even while planning coursework questions like what would work well and what could go wrong ensure essential information to move quickly and efficiently, and goes a long way in achieving institutional excellence. An ‘After Action Review’ process, framed by four simple questions: What did we set out to do? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What do we do next time? (Which activities do we sustain, and which ones do we improve?) is also vital for successfully attaining goals.

The third building block to increase organisational learning is strongly influenced by the behavior of school leaders. They must have the ability to ‘actively listen’ and to understand some bits of the unspoken word too. They must encourage dialogue and debate, while enabling multiple perspectives to come forth for probable solutions. They must demonstrate through their own behaviour a willingness to entertain alternative points of view, enabling teachers to feel emboldened to offer new ideas and options. Open-minded discussions based on ideas without any fears of being rebuked enable a flourishing learning environment. These building blocks of organisational learning also corresponds with McKinsey’s MECE method.

Jim Knight’s seven partnership principles can also be incorporated as a guiding beacon for a school looking to convert itself into a learning institution of excellence. Effective leadership behaviour helps create and sustain supportive learning environments, which in turn, make it easier for teachers to execute concrete learning processes and practices, smoothly. This leads to a virtuous cycle where concrete processes provide opportunities for leaders to behave in ways that foster learning and to cultivate that behaviour in teachers.

In practice, a school that has this environment will be one where you see student-centred learning in the classrooms. Google shared spaces can also be looked into where teachers can share practices that worked for them and undertake discussions. Starting enrichment programmes for both students and teachers will enable meaningful interactions that go beyond school work. Activities such as gardening, cooking, other do it yourself projects. AI, music and many more can enable a more holistic form of learning.

Digital-learning Capacity Building and Research, Learning and Development teams need to be employed to actively create need-based programmes so that teachers can be trained as they go forward in their careers. Of course for all these things to work, the voice of students is the most pivotal and all the strategies mentioned above, must correspond to that final goal, ensuring the best for the students without thwarting their voice.

I have personally ensured that these learning blocks are in practice at the school that I lead, with a high performing team by my side, that has enabled us to go from strength to strength as an educational institute that aims to be a learning organisation. In fact, as the practices mentioned above already incorporate aspects of online learning and coordination, which made it very easy for us as a school to shift to an entirely online model of education during this pandemic. Our academic, enrichment and counseling services adapted to the digital medium, while teacher teams joined hands and created the perfect virtual school. The best thing about all of this is that we believe, as a learning institution, in sharing good practices so that other schools can benefit from them and we hope to continue to do so.

Ainee Shehzad

Ainee Shehzad

The author is a Valedictorian Commonwealth scholar with an MA in Education and International Development from UCL, IOE and also has a Civil Engineering degree, too. Apart from being the principal of a leading school, She is an educational consultant that focuses on excellence in academic institutions

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.