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Systems and Schools as Learning Organizations

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Organizations such as schools, have been undergoing major cultural transformations as they’ve struggled to survive in an increasingly competitive, financially-strapped and uncertain world economy. Change in teaching requires major transformation in the culture of a school, a complex undertaking. 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 increasingly ubiquitous social media and technologies, adoption of which most had successfully previously resisted.

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

Whether prompted from inside or outside the organization, the stimulus for OL begins with gaining better knowledge and understanding of the changes needed. For example, Organizational learning processes might entail informal discussion of new ideas among teachers, and personal professional reading, with the intention of making sense of the environment and mastering the challenges posed by that environment.

We certainly have a stimulus for our 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 a place to look for much needed reassurance and solution-gathering. According to that literature and also practitioner commentary, these leaders consider 5 ‘Big Ideas’ (Sharratt, 1996):

  • Vision

  • Structure

  • Strategy

  • Resources

  • Culture

Vision is the number one big idea in developing systems and schools as Learning Organizations for a reason. Strategic leaders realize that a sustainable vision for system and school improvement work:

  1. The Vision

  • 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’

What are the Lessons Learned about Vision?

  • Leaders of LOs 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);

Leaders of LOs begin with and return to the vision of having shared beliefs and understandings often (Parameter 1). 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.

Here is an example of a practitioner from the field, Jill Maar, Principal, York Region District School Board, who walks the talk about the importance of having a shared vision of what is possible for ALL students – an equity and excellence issue for Jill and for me.

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 time in the school day for teachers to co-construct meaning are often discussed in the research literature. Structures that are enablers include:

  • Considering the relationship between vision and structures;

  • Sharing expertise among colleagues through ‘joint work’;

  • Celebrating voices of emerging student and teacher leaders;

  • Working across silos within and between schools and the system;

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

What are the Lessons Learned About Structure?

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 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

My Research indicates that an evidence-proven framework for leaders’ self-assessment and reflection on improvement that explicitly outlines actions is necessary. The following two Figures are Graphic Organizers displaying the circular and iterative dynamic of the 14 Parameters (Sharratt and Fullan, 2012; Sharratt, 2019).

The following graphic and video clip are from Roisin McVeigh, Assistant Principal and Middle Leader Coach, Diocese of Maitland/Newcastle, NSW, AU who has aligned all the Australian national expectations documents with the 14 Parameter framework. It is critical to see how structures are aligned and connected from national to classroom levels to reinforce that “this is the work”.

Similarly, Sally Llewellyn, Regional Lead for Research and HEI (?) Partnerships in Wales, developed the following Graphic Organizer, in Welsh and English, to demonstrate the complete alignment of their Learning Organization focus to the 14 Parameter framework. Similar to McViegh’s graphic, this illustrates to leaders and teachers that the intent and purpose of the 14 Parameter improvement work is rigorous and connected to the Priority in Wales.

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 classrooms (Assessment practices that improves instruction – Parameter 3);

  • Have a ‘Knowledgeable Other’ at their side (Parameter 2);

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

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

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

From this work in determining the characteristics of systems and schools as Learning Organizations, I have learned some seemingly basic Lessons about the importance of Strategy. Strategic Leaders understand that:

  • Technology enables a focus on 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?

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

  • Leaders celebrate new leaders who have emerged (Parameter 14).

Sandra Meilleur, Principal, Seine River School Division, has done current research into the strength of the strategies surrounding the Assessment Waterfall Chart (Sharratt, 2019, p.124). Sandra’s work is inserted here along with her video to demonstrate the importance of specificity when implementing evidence-proven strategies.

4. Resources

The fourth consideration of leaders in Learning Organizations is resources available and accessible to do the necessary work of increasing all students’ growth and achievement. 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 that resourcing must be considered a vital part of the LO, not a separate admin 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;

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

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

Practitioner, Consultant and Technology Guru, Todd Wright, Ontario, Canada conveys these very critical messages to system and school leaders.

5. Culture

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

  • Leaving positional titles and ego at the door before joining learning sessions (Parameter 4);

  • Establishing and enforcing ‘Codes of Behaviour’ (Parameter 1);

  • Nourishing a collaborative learning environment through non-judgemental sharing (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 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 use of technology and empowering teachers with quality Professional Learning - both are necessary but different (Parameter 11);

Culture is the hardest element to change. Here are the Lessons Learned about Culture from the work that I do in School Systems globally:

  • Networks are critical for safe sharing;

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

  • ‘Ways of doing business’ can be changed 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.

I work with Bernie Bolton, Regional Director of Education, Victoria Australia and his words about the critical importance of culture resonate with the Learning Organization literature.

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 world economy – acerbated during this pandemic of epic proportions. Leaders of Learning Organizations understand the challenges of online learning for teachers and students and support differentiated approaches when 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. ‘Fail Fast’ is my motto!

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


One of the leadership dimensions in my research is the ability of leaders to adapt to the changing times. I really believe that if ‘Everyone’s a Leader’, then we can all exhibit ‘Adapt-ability by:

  • leading through and embracing the ambiguity of chaos in these changing times;

  • seeing technology seamlessly integrated into the school day to be effective and efficient;

  • using technology to advantage as a tool – often learning from, with, alongside students and teachers; and,

  • managing little and leading often, modelling and monitoring, flexibly changing course if needed.

Todd Wright, Practitioner, Curriculum Consultant and Technology Guru, Ontario, Canada gives us many examples to consider from his experience in the following video:


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. 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). 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.

How are we progressing in 1. co-constructing a vision 2. enabling structures to own all students’ learning needs 3. ensuring growth-promoting strategies 4. realizing ‘just-in-time’ resources and 5. creating an open-to-learning culture?

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: Doubleday.

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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