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CLARITY Volume 12 - Systems and Schools as Learning Organizations Seek Positive Solutions!

Virtual learning during the pandemic has changed everything and nothing. Organizations such as schools, have been undergoing major cultural transformations while struggling to survive in the financially-strapped, resource-poor environment created by an uncertain economy. Change in teaching requires major transformation in the culture of a school, a complex undertaking in the best of circumstances. As Huberman forewarned (in Prestine, 1994, p. 31), schooling is a "complex, coherent, and resilient ecosystem . . . with an awesome capacity to wait out and wear out reformers”. Profound change in teaching became an imperative with COVID-19; the capacity for change was underscored by the demand for adoption of increasingly ubiquitous social media and technologies, adoption of which had previously been resisted - successfully.

All of the changes that many say individuals and teams of teachers need to make in schools are likely to require assistance. One body of literature in Educational Administration offers insights that may lead to individual and collective solutions is Organizational Learning (OL) where change is initiated by some event, felt need, or perception of a problem (the stimulus – like COVID19).

Whether prompted from inside or outside the organization, the stimulus for OL begins with gaining better knowledge and understanding of the changes needed. Educators certainly have a stimulus for reflection on changes needed in schooling in this ‘new world order’ brought about by the COVID19 global pandemic.

In my research (Sharratt, 1996-2020), leaders of systems and schools who lead ‘Learning Organizations (LOs)’ may be sources for much needed reassurance and solution-gathering. According to that literature and also practitioner commentary, these leaders consider 5 ‘Big Ideas’ (Sharratt, 1996) in seeking positive solutions in calm and crisis:

  • Vision

  • Structure

  • Strategy

  • Resources

  • Culture

1. The Vision

Vision is the number one ‘Big Idea’ in developing systems and schools as Learning Organizations. Strategic leaders realize that a sustainable vision for system and school improvement work:

  • is built through consensus

    • is understood by all

    • fosters commitment to learning

    • relates to ALL students’ improvement

    • is aligned from system to schools and back again

    • moves the focus from ‘doing’ to ‘learning’

Positive Solutions During a Crisis

In calm and crisis leaders have been rising to lead the way in ensuring staff and student wellness is at the centre of decision-making. Leaders in Learning Organizations:

  • Give staff a sense of overall purpose: Blended learning opportunities include specific tasks that take advantage of online tools for deep learning and collaboration but also rely upon the foundational learning that does not change in an online structure (Parameter 11);

  • Begin with and often return to the vision of having shared beliefs and understandings (Parameter 1) - whether it is ‘learning from home’ or face-to-face. These leaders and teachers believe:

    • All students can learn given the right time and support;

    • All teachers can teach given the right assistance;

    • In having and implementing high expectations, offering early and ongoing intervention; and,

    • Can articulate why they are learning, teaching and leading the way they are.

The importance of having a shared vision through which to explore what is possible for ALL students, wherever the setting, is both an equity and excellence issue for me in times of calm and crisis, whether the road is bumpy or smooth.

2. Structure

Structures in ‘Systems and Schools as Learning Organizations’ can either inhibit or enable learning across the organization. Inhibitors such as a siloed approach to organize schooling or having no time in the school day for teachers to co-construct meaning together are often discussed in the research literature. Enabling Structures include:

  • Considering the relationship between vision and structures;

  • Sharing expertise among colleagues through ‘joint online and offline work’;

  • Celebrating voices of emerging student and teacher leaders;

  • Working across silos within and between schools and the system using enabling technology platforms;

  • Aligning the focus and priorities across a country, state, region, network, and schools.

Positive Solutions During a Crisis

Impactful leaders at a system or school level know they must sensitively and intensively action the following:

  • Communication as the key, constantly referring to the common beliefs for support;

  • Focus on stabilizing operational issues that underpin learning needs;

  • Make changes that are manageable and co-constructed;

  • Co-develop Operating Norms, Learning Intentions, Success Criteria for all staff members’ and students’ learning to ensure some normalcy and steady steering.

My Research indicates that an evidence-proven framework for leaders’ self-assessment and reflection on improvement that explicitly outlines actions is a necessity (CLARITY, 2019). Figure 2.1 displays the circular and iterative dynamic of the 14 Parameter Framework (Sharratt and Fullan, 2012; Sharratt, 2019) that provides the structure to keep a learning focus during challenging times.

3. Strategy

Strategic leaders in Learning Organizations:

  • Use a framework to evaluate progress towards ALL students growing and improving (The 14 Parameters);

  • Focus on quality teaching in all virtual and real-time classrooms (assessment practices that improve instruction – Parameter 3);

  • Have a ‘Knowledgeable Other’ at their side and at the side of all teachers (Parameter 2);

  • Elevate the importance of Professional Learning that is integrated into organizational decision-making processes (Parameters 7 and 8).

  • Ensure a relentless focus on learning (Parameters 1 and 14); and,

  • Are able to keep the distractors away from the learning space (Parameters 1 and 14).

Positive Solutions During a Crisis

I have learned some seemingly basic lessons about the importance of Strategy. Strategic Leaders understand that:

  • Technology enables a focus on learning;

  • Parents are partners in learning;

  • The online world changes nothing and everything. Balancing is crucial: How do you ‘adapt’ so that CLARITY remains? How do you maintain the great things that we have learned from previous pedagogies in the transition to new circumstances? How will we sustain the great lessons we are learning during COVID19?

  • They facilitate conversations that build on staff expertise and bring in ‘Knowledgeable Others” where appropriate and necessary (Parameter 2);

  • They celebrate new leaders who have emerged throughout this time of crisis; new leaders who have stepped up to help colleagues with Technology use and walked beside others in highly reassuring ways (Parameter 14).

4. Culture

In moving Learning Organizations forward, probably the most challenging cultural change is to create the change proposition collaboratively using student data as the rationale for doing so . As a leader, how do you move from a culture of ‘doing things in isolation’ to a culture focused on ‘learning alongside’ and how do you attempt this during a pandemic? System and school leaders in Learning Organizations lead cultural change by:

  • Leaving positional titles and egos at the door before joining learning sessions about new tools to support teaching and learning (Parameter 4);

  • Establishing and enforcing ‘Codes of Behaviour’ in the classroom and online spaces (Parameter 1);

  • Nourishing a collaborative learning environment through non-judgemental sharing, using the technology tools to model this (Parameters 2 and 4);

  • Recognizing and celebrating small wins (Parameters 5 and 6);

  • Slowing down thinking and decision-making processes to be aware of and to challenge assumptions (Parameter 1);

  • Opening up to learning from ‘failing fast’ experiences (Parameter 14);

  • Seeking new ideas inside and outside the school setting (Parameter 11);

  • Training in the use of technology and empowering teachers with quality Professional Learning; note: both are necessary but different (Parameter 11);

Positive Solutions During a Crisis

Culture is the hardest element to change in systems and schools. Positive solutions to changing culture include

  • Networks that are critical for safe sharing;

  • All members shape the future of a school, of a system;

  • ‘Ways of doing business’ must change so that all members feel safe and welcomed to be involved;

  • Teachers and leaders act as (humble) learning agents for the system/schools; and,

  • Teachers and leaders are able to respond, nimbly, to changes in the environment.

5. Resources

The fifth consideration of leaders in Learning Organizations is having resources available and accessible to do the necessary work of increasing all students’ growth and achievement – even during a crisis. Leaders of systems and schools as Learning Organizations:

  • Access resources internally and externally (Parameter 9);

  • Ask teachers what material and human resources they need to support their teaching and learning (Parameter 10) and to sustain equity and excellence; and,

  • Make time for collaborative learning as part of the school day (Parameters 1 and 14).

I have learned that resourcing must be considered to be a vital part of the LO, not a separate administrative function.

Resources must:

  • Be ‘Just Right’ and ‘Just in Time’;

  • Reflect the community of learners;

  • Include ‘Time’ to learn together;

  • Include training in Facilitation Skills needed to do collaborative work in the virtual space and in classrooms;

  • Take advantage of online tools for reflective learning and collaboration; and,

  • Ensure that foundational learning does not change in an online structure.

Positive Solutions During a Crisis

The CLARITY Learning Suite (Sharratt, L., Coutts, J., Walsh, S., Ogram, M., Ogram, M. 2020) is an example of how leaders are learning using technology as an enabler for their shoulder-to-shoulder work with teachers. CLARITY Learning Suite (CLS) is an online, 24/7 Professional Learning Tool for all teachers and leaders in systems and schools. This web-based suite of videos, case studies, vignettes, challenges, and reflective tasks includes 12 Modules that mirror the research and learning in the CLARITY text (Sharratt, 2019). CLS is packed with Learning Leader Facilitation Notes, access to a Membership Directory to build Communities of Practice across jurisdictions, and a 2-year membership that allows participants to return to the learning at any time. This is as a result of realizing the power of just-right, just-in-time learning at learners’ own pace and in their own time and space.

Everyone’s a Leader: Parameter 4

As stated initially, organizations such as schools, have been undergoing major cultural transformations as they struggle to survive in an increasingly competitive, financially-strapped and uncertain economy – exacerbated during this epic pandemic. Leaders of Learning Organizations have that framework that enables them to understand the challenges of online learning for teachers and students. To support differentiated approaches, they:

  • See the opportunities to learn together and to incorporate student leadership in the area of technology and promote online learning as an opportunity that should not be treated as a threat;

  • Model courageous risk-taking;

  • Embrace critical thinking in both online and in-class environments;

  • Have an ‘open-to-inquiry stance’ in the exploration and use of online collaboration tools; they try new approaches and model how to ‘Fail Fast’ (my motto!);

  • Consider various modes of communication online: written, oral, visual, hyper-text.


The outcome of Systems and Schools as Learning Organization is ‘Systems Thinking’. That is, developing dense interpersonal networks for sharing and discussing knowledge and owning the learning needs of all – which Technology platforms like Microsoft Teams, or ZOOM allow us to do.

Systems thinking is more than the singular result of individual increased capacity, reflection and inquiry, and embedding practices within the system and/or school. It is a discipline for seeing wholes and patterns of change, providing a framework for making the interconnectedness among the pieces that give living systems their unique character. A shift of mind is necessary from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality (Senge, 1990, p. 69). AND, we are experiencing the latter during the COVID19 crisis.

Systems’ thinking is seen as an individual and collective responsibility to own all students’ growth and achievement not just ‘students in my class or at my school’ – but ALL students … in the school ‘down the road’. Systems thinking takes hold when we return to the 5 Big Ideas of OL and self-assess to progress our thinking.

So, how are we progressing with stability in: 1. co-constructing a vision; 2. enabling structures to own all students’ learning needs; 3. ensuring growth-promoting strategies; 4. creating an ‘open-to-learning’ culture in times of calm and crisis; and 5. realizing ‘just-in-time’ resources for students and teachers?

Time to take stock.


Prestine, N. (1994). Sorting it out: a tentative analysis of essential school change efforts in Illinois.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: the art & practice of the learning organization. New York:


Senge, P. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook: strategies and tools for building a learning organization.

New York: Doubleday.

Sharratt, L. (1996). The influence of electronically available information on the stimulation of knowledge

use and organizational learning in schools (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Toronto, Canada.

Sharratt, L. (2019). CLARITY: What Matters MOST in Learning, Teaching and Leading. Thousand Oaks, CA:

Corwin Press.

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