Systems and Schools as Learning Organizations

Updated: Nov 5, 2020


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).