Creating a Learning Organization. ERIC Digest.
by Lashway, Larry
School leaders in a whimsical mood sometimes play a parlor game called
'Spot That Jargon,' in which the goal is to name as many past educational
fads as possible. The list is usually impressive: dozens of would-be reforms
that were introduced with great fanfare and then quickly faded away.
The game is played with tongue in cheek, but it often stirs some sad
reflections. Why are schools so susceptible to enthusiastic but short-lived
fads? What makes it so difficult to turn a promising idea into a lasting
Such questions have recently sparked interest in yet another new idea:
'the learning organization.' According to some theorists, schools that
dedicate themselves to systematic, collaborative problem-solving can "continually"
develop and implement new ideas, thereby not just improving but transforming
themselves. Does research support this optimistic view? Or will the learning
organization, five years from now, be just another entry on the jargon
CAN SCHOOLS BE LEARNING ORGANIZATIONS?
Kenneth Leithwood and colleagues (1995) define a learning organization
"a group of people pursuing common purposes (individual purposes as
well) with a collective commitment to regularly weighing the value of those
purposes, modifying them when that makes sense, and continuously developing
more effective and efficient ways of accomplishing those purposes."
Although this is an inspiring vision, schools may be far from achieving
it. Teacher isolation, lack of time, and the complexity of teaching present
significant barriers to sustained organizational learning (Larry Lashway
Not surprisingly, researchers have often found that substantive changes
in teaching practices are elusive. Richard Elmore and colleagues (1996)
discovered that even when teachers were willing to learn new methods, they
often applied them in a superficial or inconsistent way, offering the appearance
but not the substance of real change.
Moreover, while rhetoric on learning organizations is plentiful, thoughtful
research is harder to find. Summing up their study of the literature, Leithwood
and colleagues noted that 'we have almost no systematic evidence describing
the conditions which foster and inhibit such learning.'
Despite this vein of pessimism, other researchers have begun to identify
schools in which entire faculties have become proficient in new forms of
instruction, resulting in immediate impact on student learning and behavior.
The remainder of this Digest highlights several key findings from this
HOW CAN STAFF LEARNING BE FOCUSED?
Educational reforms are often undertaken in a rushed atmosphere, with
a dozen different initiatives going on simultaneously. Training may consist
of a one-day workshop, with little provision for practice and feedback.
Beverly Showers, Carlene Murphy, and Bruce Joyce (1996) studied three
schools that undertook a systematic, sustained reform that focused on several
models of teaching with a strong research base, including cooperative learning,
concept-attainment, and synectics. These models were designed to supplement
teachers' existing strategies, not replace them.
The models were taught in three steps to all teachers. The first phase
was designed to give teachers a theoretical understanding of the new concepts.
This was followed by multiple demonstrations (mainly videotapes of classroom
instruction) and opportunities to practice the new skills in the workshop
Showers and colleagues note that this intensive workshop model is sufficient
for teachers to introduce new strategies in their classrooms, but without
additional support fewer than 10 percent will persist long enough to integrate
the new skills into their repertoire. They maintain that proficiency requires
twenty to thirty trials under classroom conditions. Thus they encouraged
teachers to use the new methods immediately and frequently, and to organize
themselves into study teams for sharing, observation, and peer coaching.
The results were notable. At the end of the first year, 88 percent of
the teachers were using the new strategies regularly and effectively. In
one middle school, promotion rates soared, while the average achievement
test score jumped from the twenty-fifth to the forty-second percentile.
In addition, disciplinary referrals dropped to about one-fifth the previous
HOW IS LEARNING DRIVEN BY DATA?
Bruce Joyce and Emily Calhoun (1996) note that schools are 'both information-rich
and information- impoverished.' School personnel collect a prodigious amount
of information, from test scores to attendance figures, yet rarely link
this wealth of data to school-improvement efforts.
Joyce and Calhoun cite the case of a middle school in which only 30
percent of the students earned promotion at the end of each year. Although
these figures were known for years to everyone in the school, the faculty
had never met to reflect on the failure rate or study the causes. When
a staff development program finally focused attention on the figures, the
situation began to change. Within two years, 95 percent of the students
were being promoted.
Focusing on data confronts staff with hard evidence that may challenge
existing perceptions of success; discrepancies raise sharp questions about
what is happening and why. In addition, monitoring data provides a good
way of tracking the effects of change efforts. Joyce and Calhoun point
out that this is especially important in convincing faculty that students
can achieve more than they thought possible. Finally, study of data often
leads to a desire for more information. As reform efforts proceed, the
school generates increasingly sophisticated data and uses it in a meaningful
WHAT CHANGES IN THE WORKPLACE SUPPORT ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING?
Some studies point to changes in the workplace as a key to successful
First, schedules and assignments should allow time for collective inquiry.
Joyce and Calhoun argue that significant reform is "nearly impossible"
in a typical school workplace; at best, people will move forward as individual
'points of light,' but they will be unable to form a learning community.
Thus, schools must provide time for teachers to work and reflect together.
Some schools, using early dismissal one afternoon a week, have been able
to clear out significant blocks of time. In addition, Sharon Kruse and
Karen Louis (1993) point out the importance of well-developed communication
structures such as email and regular faculty meetings, as well as a common
space for working.
Collective inquiry may be strengthened by more democratic forms of governance.
Joyce and Calhoun advocate the formation of 'Responsible Parties' to lead
the school community in improvement efforts. These groups, composed of
administrators, teachers, parents, and community members, would not be
traditional parliamentary decision-making groups, but would act as champions
for extended inquiry.
Guiding such diverse groups (whose members may have differing agendas
and little experience working together) is especially challenging for leaders.
Laura Lipton and Robert Melamede (1997) suggest that the key to successful
group dynamics is dialogue rather than debate, with the emphasis on listening,
suspending judgment, and seeking common understanding. In successful dialogue,
participants learn not to march directly toward the nearest solution but
to examine assumptions and share multiple perspectives that open the way
to new types of collective learning.
Finally, new strategies appear to be best learned in small groups that
provide motivation, support, sympathetic sounding boards, and technical
assistance (Joyce and Calhoun).
WHAT IS THE LEADER'S ROLE?
Creating a learning organization requires a deep rethinking of the leader's
role. Principals and superintendents must see themselves as 'learning leaders'
responsible for helping schools develop the capacity to carry out their
mission. A crucial part of this role is cultivating and maintaining a shared
vision (Lashway, Leithwood and colleagues, Lipton and Melamede). The vision
provides focus, generating questions that apply to everyone in the organization.
Learning becomes a collaborative, goal-oriented task rather than a generalized
desire to 'stay current.'
At a more mundane level, leaders must tend to the organizational structures
that support continuous learning, squeezing time out of a busy schedule,
collecting and disseminating information that accurately tracks the school's
performance, and creating forms of governance that support collective inquiry.
Perhaps most important, leaders must view their organizations as learning
communities, for faculty as well as students. This requires casting school
improvement in terms of hypotheses to be tested rather than solutions to
be handed out, attacking the barriers to collaboration, and making decisions
democratically rather than bureaucratically (Joyce and Calhoun). When the
spirit of inquiry permeates the daily routine, schools are on their way
to becoming true learning organizations.
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edited by Arthur L. Costa and Rosemarie M.
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