What can we learn from the learning organisation model?

Stephen Mitchell explores the five disciplines of the learning organisation model and how they can transform thinking in schools and MATs

Author details

Stephen is the founder of Keystone Knowledge and the former chief operating officer of Spencer Academies Trust, with 16 schools, across both primary and secondary. His MBA focused on improving the quality of management in schools, identifying 5...

We live and breathe our work every day – running a school is hard. However, I am drawn to a fundamental conclusion that we have more to do; we can and must continue the journey of improvement.

To continue improving, we should consider how other sectors operate and see what we can learn from them. Let’s not assume that the answers to the future lie within the school walls of the nation.

Why the learning organisation model is an effective approach to school leadership

The ‘learning organisation’ model is one that will help transform school leadership, and works across organisations, irrespective of size. It is rooted in Peter Senge’s research about what makes great organisations work, and we can learn a lot from it.

It is easy to adopt and provides a real structure for thinking about how we go about our work in teams, schools, and across a whole trust.

The disciplines in the model are not discrete. Each one interlinks with all of the other disciplines, and you can jump into the model from any part of it.

Personal mastery

We should be employing great colleagues who are supported to do the best work of their lives for our children by ensuring they receive opportunities for development and deliver exceptional teaching and learning to children.

We can do this by thinking about how we provide access to CPD, engage with research schools, maths hubs, and pedagogical colleagues, both within and outside the sector to ensure ongoing development. It involves a cultural evolution so that everyone, from the CEO to the cleaning staff, recognises they are not the finished article and are learning every day.

Team learning

Too many schools, particularly at secondary level, exist in their own departmental or faculty silos. This discipline is about encouraging collegiate working, and not being overly precious about structures.

Use links with other agencies to support dissemination of best practice, and actively contribute to the wider system development, through sharing CPD.

Be willing to question your assumptions and to challenge the status quo

Sharing of experiences is crucial – experiences can shape how we do something differently, or stop doing something, and it may take another person in the team to see how that can be applied. A considered focus on how colleagues are encouraged to share updates, formal and informal, can have a transformational impact on the organisational knowledge.

Shared vision

Communication is key to the success of any trust, and a lack of it often leads to downfall and challenges.

Take the time to build a team which discuss the vision and values of the school, and how this is brought to life on a daily basis. Mutual accountability is used to hold to the vision and to drive excellence.

I’m struck by the number of times I ask people what their school stands for and what the vision of the school is, and I hear a large silence. Everyone brings their own selves to work, and between them will exist a common shared vision. It may well be different to the published catchy phrase on the website, but it is important we hear it, understand it, and grow it.

Mental models

Recognise that everyone is different and brings the whole of their life to their role, be it pupil, teacher or other staff. This diversity is valuable and through dialogue you may be able to identify other ways of approaching work that will transform a child’s understanding.

Be willing to question your assumptions and to challenge the status quo.

Systems thinking

This is often seen as the final and therefore the keystone aspect of the model, but in reality, each aspect of the model is of equal importance. Systems thinking is the approach of helicoptering up and reviewing the way the different processes and teams in the trust work together.

The use of data is key: measure what you value, identify patterns over time and then bring into focus those parts of the structure that drive those patterns so that performance can be improved.

How can the model help in driving MAT development?

Strong MATs add value to their constituent schools. Adopting the learning organisation model supports trusts to do that by providing a framework which supports the development of a strong culture, where the focus is on continual learning and improvement.

It can act as a lightning rod for establishing a trust culture, and for bringing efforts together around a common theme, as well as providing a structure for emergent central teams.

Organisations that have adopted the learning organisation disciplines are seeing gains in their performance

How can I implement this model in my trust?

This model is rooted in an effective culture within, and throughout, the organisation. To embed the learning organisation model requires commitment from the senior leadership of the trust, as well as consistent, excellent communication.

Given how complex our schools already are, with a multitude of school improvement plans and other day to day initiatives in play at any one time, the roll out of learning organisation concepts should be gradual. Build them in to support and refine existing practices, rather than a revolutionary big impact project.

Take time with senior leaders to build understanding of the five disciplines, to discuss what these may mean in your context, and to gain familiarity with the concepts. Then map existing practices onto each of the disciplines so that ‘groups’ of practices can be discussed under a discipline heading, which gives a natural focus for next steps. For example:

  • personal mastery – lesson teaching quality, CPD
  • team learning – research and best practice dissemination, departmental working arrangements, cross school and/or trust sharing, data reviews
  • shared vision – Inset, communication, feedback loops
  • mental models – QA processes, strategy and progress reviews
  • systems thinking – SIP development, curriculum mapping, integrated planning, data review.

From here, it’s essential to open up the culture to learning. Create designated time and spaces for colleagues to come together to discuss these areas, to reflect, to analyse, to think about future plans and current processes.

What do we learn from the learning organisation?

Senge described learning organisations as places ‘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’ (The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization). To me that sounds like a pretty good school environment!

We know, from the empirical evidence gathered across many different sectors, that organisations that have adopted the learning organisation disciplines are seeing gains in their performance, however and whatever are their key measurement drivers.

Education tends to be silo driven, often looking to learn the lessons from our past only, rather than looking to see what works elsewhere and then transferring those skills and attributes into the education sector.

The learning organisation model creates an opportunity for those trusts that are brave enough to embrace innovation.

Last Updated: 
03 Aug 2020