Schools That Learn

shifting-conversations-logoEvery now and then when I have some free time between basketball tournaments and conference presentations I actually do some reading using these things called “books.” Some of them I actually have to hold in my hand and manually turn paper pages. Shocking, I know. Some have been on my shelf for a long time, like The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Education Reader. If you’ve been reading my columns here at EML or the posts on my blog, you know that Sarason is a huge influence on my thinking about schools. Some of those books, on the other hand, get one-click delivered, like Schools That Learn by Peter Senge. Suffice to say, those two books have me thinking this week.

First, let me say that just the idea of “schools that learn” is compelling to me. It’s a question that I’ve already started asking administrators and teachers at the districts I visit: “Is this a school that learns?” While I’m going just on intuition here, by the looks that I get when I offer up that question, I’m guessing few have ever been asked that before. What does a learning school look like? What’s the culture of a school that learns? How does it happen? And second, the question provokes a real sense of irony, because rarely have I visited a school where learning throughout the organization and not just in the classroom is a feature, not a bug.

Senge states it clearly: “Institutions for learning can be designed and run as learning organizations.” But it’s complex.

This means involving everyone in the system in expressing their aspirations, building their awareness, and developing their capabilities together. In a school that learns, people who traditionally may have been suspicious of one another–parents and teachers, educators and local businesspeople, administrators and union members, people inside and outside the school walls, students and adults–recognize their common stake in each other’s future and the future of their community .

So what exactly is a school that learns?

In our view, a learning school is not so much a distinct and discrete place (for it may not stay in one building or facility) as a living system for learning–one dedicated to the idea that all those involved with it, individually and together, will be continually enhancing and expanding their awareness and capabilities.

21859638800_3ba3d5d3c0_cI really like that description, “a living system of learning.” To me, that speaks of a place where everyone is engaged in work that matters in the world, in discussing important, hard to answer yet crucial to engage questions that allow us to grapple with the uncertainty of our kids futures. I think it’s fair to say that there may never have been a more important time for schools to be “living systems of learning” as almost everything from curriculum to assessment to school structures and more are being challenged by the new networked world we suddenly find ourselves in.

Creating a school that learns is no easy task, one reason why Senge and his co-authors churned out almost 600 pages on the process. (Just fyi, I’m about 200 pages in and it’s almost all good.) But I think for anyone interested in starting the process, Seymour Sarason gives us a great, important starting point. Again, Sarason’s most provocative and important truth, to me at least, is this: “Productive learning is learning that engenders wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn more, the process is unproductive.” Meaning that it only when we have a deep passion for the subject that the learning we do will stick. (Senge reiterates that in a slightly different way: “Learners retain only that which they truly want to learn (25).”) And to Sarason, the goal of schools is to “create those conditions that make students want to learn; not have to learn but want to learn more about self, others, and the world (228).” Those conditions aren’t rocket science. It’s about freedom, agency, authenticity, real audiences, meaningful questions, and fun (and more.) We know this.

But here’s the thing: it’s not just creating those conditions for kids. It’s about creating those conditions for teachers to become learners as well. And this is something we rarely if ever prioritize in our schools. Sarason again:

Teachers cannot create and sustain contexts for productive learning unless those contexts exist for them. Teaching is not a once-and-for-all learned craft. It is (should be) a developmental process that today is hindered by teachers being in an encapsulated classroom with no time, opportunity, or forums where the issues and problems of teaching are discussed, not in the abstract but in terms of concrete children and teachers. To be helped and stimulated by others, or to stimulate and help others, requires forums where that is expected and possible. If teaching is a developmental process, it must also be a self-correcting one. Contexts for productive learning are as necessary for teachers as they are for students. Where they exist for neither–which is generally the case today–you get learning but not productive learning: the sense that one’s understanding is being enlarged and propelling one willingly into the future (229).

I’ve said this many times before, but I think it bears repeating again here. Schools are cultures of teaching, not cultures of learning. The conditions we create and subject kids to–desks in rows, bell schedules, age groupings, discrete disciplines, one size fits all curriculum and grading–those conditions support teaching, not learning. By and large, the contexts and conditions for productive teacher learning do not exist. 

This is a serious, serious roadblock to moving toward more progressive practices in schools that this moment now demands.

So the question to leaders especially is more than just “Is this a school that learns.” Even more, it’s “What are you doing to create the conditions in your school that will allow both students and teachers (and others) to learn productively and powerfully each day?”

Would love to hear your responses.

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Photo credit: Alan Levine

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

Comments

  1. Our school is a classical-curriculum model. That should NOT mean a “rows and columns required” format as it has been commonly linked to delivery a classical curriculum. That being said, it has taken some prodding and pulling to begin having teachers look at pedagogy so that they can move away from what I consider to be “default delivery.”

    Discussion-based learning in the middle school (via the Paideia Seminar) has been the biggest success and consistent change to our culture here. DBL has reestablished how we are helping students learn. As a parallel benefit, these student-led discussions have allowed children to connect their personalities to their learning. They can share how they see their learning; not how a teacher expects it. At the same time, teachers have grown to appreciate student opinion on a new level, because learning can become more personalized than ever before. Mutual respect has developed, and thus trust has ensued. We are a much happier place this year than I have ever witnessed.

    And this is just from ONE pedagogical adjustment.

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