Professional Development Opinion

Collaborating to Build a Learning Organization

By Starr Sackstein — March 06, 2018 4 min read
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Being a new leader has offered me a chance to see every decision differently than I would have in the past. As a teacher, although concerned with the good of the whole and how I fit in it, my first concern was always my students and what was happening in my classrooms. Students first, always.

Making this move has forced me to literally relearn a lot of things and opened me up to new perspectives both on the job and in my leadership program. Now more than half-way through my leadership classes, I’ve been fortunate enough to come across Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. And although this book was not written about leadership through the education lens, it applies in so many ways, particularly about developing learning organizations in lieu of managing.

Senge defines a learning organization as “organizations where 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” (3).

What appeals to me about Senge’s definition is the collective learning that is ongoing. This growth mindset oriented paradigm suits people who are trying to model the behavior for lifelong learning.

Throughout the first chapter of his book, Senge addresses five key components successful learning organizations and although I have been a part of organizations where some of these components exist, I can appreciate the value of all of them working in harmony to create the collective practice.

Here are the five key components:

  1. Systems Thinking: We need to see beyond just the micro and have a good understanding of the macro if we want to be successful. So systems thinking is all about big pictures. Senge suggests that in our day to day practice it is often hard to see the patterns emerging, he says, “Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively” (7). As school leaders, we have to be able to see the patterns in the world, address the changes in our own systems and be intentional about how we implement change.
  2. Personal Mastery: This element speaks to each of us acquiring knowledge to develop an expertise to contribute to the whole. The more we nurture the personal learning and focus of the people on our team (first our teachers, then our students), the better we are as a whole. Encouraging personal mastery isn’t to inspire dominance of any kind, but rather invest in the members of our teams so that they feel fulfilled in the work they are doing. As educators, we always must strive for personal mastery. Although we may know a lot about our disciplines and even pedagogy, given the nature of the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to dig deeper, always.
  3. Mental Models: These are our assumptions about the way things work. These are the stereotypes we make based on what we see and understand. Much like at the end of the Breakfast Club when Brian’s essay explains what he thinks the principal believes when he sees each of them, mental models present issues with the way we see things and often we aren’t even aware of the biases we experience because they are that deeply ingrained. Senge states on p. 8, “The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures to the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorous to scrutiny.” The idea is that we take these ideas and have open conversations to expose our beliefs and biases and become stronger as a group for it. This is one area that I fear is left out of the dialogue even though it definitely plays a role in how we behave in organizations.
  4. Building Shared Vision: Shared vision goes deeper than just a vision statement; it’s the fabric of what motivates people in an organization to work toward a common goal. This is essential in schools. It can be very easy to try to thrust your own vision onto other people and I worried about this when I started my current position. Knowing that my vision in progressive, I didn’t want to assume or pressure my team to adopt my beliefs simply because I was their team leader. Instead, I want us to develop a shared vision together where buy-in is higher. Eagerly, I hope to hear all of my team and in doing so, help us adopt a vision that inspires and motivates us all to what is best for kids.
  5. Team Learning: Senge asserts that “when teams are truly learning, not only are they producing extraordinary results, but the individual members are growing more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise” (9). There is a synergy where ideas are shared and then grown together. Teams must learn as a unit and together, we grow as lifelong learners. In this way, students get the most out of what the school, (learning organization) has to offer as do the people involved in the team.

As I grow as a school leader, every day is an opportunity for learning and growth. Working with my colleagues and my team, I know we can build a learning organization we all want to be a part of that both nurtures student innovation and learning. And as my professional learning continues, I will embrace the forward movement as I did as a teacher, fearlessly. At the end of the day, it is all about kids and they deserve the best.

What do you do to contribute to your learning organization? Please share

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