Learning Organizations

What is a school?  What do we do?  What are we here for?  The answer, I am sure, seems obvious.  We are here to teach. However, is it that simple?  Here is what is behind my thinking.  Teachers are all professionals.  We go to University, get two degrees and then hit the schools. We are, arguably, intelligent people.  Of course, like any organizations, there are ranges.  I have met many, many teachers who simply amaze me with their obvious high intelligence and I often wonder why they did not seek to teach in organizations like universities.

But, if it was just about “teaching” would it not be the case that our schools would all be high achieving institutions?  If the only factor was the intelligence and skills of teachers, to “teach” we would all be doing wonderfully.  However, that is not the case.  In many years of thinking about this stuff, I have come realize more and more it has never been about the teacher.  Well, it is a bit, because teachers have to have the great repertoire of teaching strategies, solid foundations in assessment and behavioiur management, but there is a factor that is so absolutely fundamental to what we do:  The kids and how they view school, and more importantly, how they view learning.

Our kids have to want to learn.  Ultimately, they have to want to learn for the sake of learning.  As soon as that happens, then learning will be unbounded.  If I can offer a rather ineffective analogy, if a student is a very rough piece of hardwood, and all you have is one sheet of very high grit sandpaper, all the great sandpaper skills in the world will not get that piece of wood smooth.  The great “wielder of sandpaper” not only does not have the correct tools (i.e. teaching strategies) but the wood itself is just not ready to be sanded, in its current state.  The best techniques will simply have no effect.

I am afraid I did not really think out that analogy too well, but I hope it offers a small glimpse into what is going on in my mind.  We have spent, in Ontario, lots of money and time in investing in developing the best strategies to work with our students.  We have had many, many successes as our staffs learn to take advantage of the success of other jurisdictions and a the wealth of educational researchers out there.  However, as with the rough piece of maple, or oak, or purple heart, or whatever wood you want to imagine, what if the wood is not ready?  What if the students are stuck in a mindset that does not respond to their natural learning desire?  What now?

In our practice, we are finding that students who do not show a great desire to learn, who do not want to put in the extra effort, are also at times very focused on marks.  “Will this count Miss?” is a very common question. So, when we offer descriptive feedback, extra practice, when we use spaced and mass practice, and work towards mastery learning, these kids are shutting off.   They seem to be losing, or in some cases never really developed the intrinsic understanding that learning for the sake of learning, and learning to learn, are the most important enduring elements of schools.

So, what do we do?  We need to develop a culture in our schools, where marks are the final byproduct of learning, and are important only as a guide to how much a student has learned.  They need to view marks as currency.  The higher the mark, the more they have learned, and how do we impress on the kids, the value of the formative stage of marking?  If they do not see the formative marks, and conversations, and observations as leading to an eventual high mark, which is what they all seem to only want to focus on, then how do we change that?    And, in conjunction with this, what do we do, how do we motivate when marks and the magic “50+1” has been something that is acceptable to a student, or a group of students for a long time?  If one can envision marks as currency, in our world, there are those we all know, who due to their capacity and intelligence and skills could probably earn more in their lives, but are satisfied with where they are.  We often wonder about these people, but we let them go on in their own way, telling ourselves they are happy with themselves.  Many years ago, I met an older gentleman on a plane coming home from Kyiv, Ukraine.  He had immigrated to Canada as a young man in the 50’s and had been trained as an electrical engineer in Soviet Ukraine.  Now, if we reflect on the space race in the 50’s and look back upon Soviet science and technology, we can be pretty sure that an electrical engineering degree from a university in Kyiv was probably close to equivalent to an electrical engineering degree in Canada.  He probably would have had to do some sort of upgrading, etc, but he probably could have worked as an engineer in Canada, after a fairly short period of time.  For whatever reason, though, he preferred to work as an electrician.  He willingly lowered his potential income for his entire life, for whatever reason, but to me that was not even close to something different or abnormal….it was what he wanted to do.  Sadly, we have students who, for a whole host of reasons, some of which we can control, many of which we cannot, do not at this point in their lives, want to do better.

So, while this has rambled on much longer than I wanted it to, I am getting to the point, I think.  I am continually asking myself now, how do we change this?  How do we make this a learning organization, instead of a school?  How do we change the culture, so that our kids, want to learn, and understand learning for the sake of learning?  I know we have to look at everything we do….what are we teaching them?  What are we asking them to do?  How are we asking them to do it?  We have in our practice, looked at all these questions and are constantly working on answering them in different ways.  However, at the end of the day, I believe humans want to learn, instinctively.  We are only a few thousand years removed, at best, from our days as cave people, where learning, was literally the difference between life and death.  Perhaps not cell phones and computers….but much of what we have in our modern lives has essentially come out of the need to survive.  From agriculture to clothing to shelter, it all developed because we needed to stay alive.  I am pretty sure that evolutionary biologists will tell us that 2000 years will not wipe out the instincts of the previous 10 000 years, so there must be an instinct in us to learn.  And, there is!  We see it in our lives all the time.  Sometimes a young person will pick up a guitar, and learn, or be taught by someone, a chord…..and then BAM….they are unstoppable!  They are fascinated with music and spend hours and hours and hours learning the next chord, and the next, and the next and the next.  We can apply this to anything…..video games anyone?  So, how do we harness this?  It is not just curriculum.  We know that some of our curriculum is just not interesting to kids, even with the best and most dynamic teachers.  We know that we can look at Big Ideas and overall expectations and be creative and provide learners the opportunity to learn something differently, however if we can develop in our students a greater desire to learn, a recognition that the learning, is learning for itself, not just for the currency of the day, the marks, or whatever other currency we can think of to use!

I want to change my school from being a school, with all the connotations that the word “school” has, which have been developed over the last 150 years in Canada and Ontario, and make it a learning organization.  How about, when I retire, in less than 5 years, my last act as principal is to join the staff and students in renaming this building we are in, from Hornepayne High School and Hornepayne Public School, which make up the collective Hornepayne Elementary and Secondary School to:  The Hornepayne Learning Organization?  A place where every person in the building, sees learning for learning sake as the only thing we do here.

However, how do we do it?  How do we effectively change this culture?  Where do we start?  We have done lots and have made great improvements, but what if we are trying to build on top of a foundation, a culture that does not look at things from the perspective of learning?  With the improper foundation, can we still do it, or do we have to start with a new foundation?

The Hornepayne Learning Organization.  Imagine the possibilities!


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