03 May, 2009

Schools That Learn

A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education

Peter Senge, Nelda Cambron-McCabe, Timothy Lucas, Bryan Smith, Janis Dutton, Art Kleiner

Reviewed by C. Radhakrishnan

In a fast changing world it is very essential for everyone to think about new paradigms in educational theory and practice. Schools That Learn gives us new approaches and system models to build learning organizations that suit the 21st century requirements of the society. Today people around the world see education as the highest form of influence to improve society. When more people than ever are concerned about the ability of today’s institutions to live up to that goal, Peter Senge and his colleagues have released Schools That Learn. This helps us to see our educational institutions in a new perspective – Learning Organisations.

“Capacity building” is a term widely discussed by educationists and policy makers to help schools in developing the skills and knowledge necessary to improve. But what is capacity building? How do schools actually develop capacity? Capacity to do what? This book provides satisfactory answers for all these questions and questions that may arise at the time of building learning organisations.

In Schools that Learn, Peter Senge argues that teachers, administrators, and other members of school communities must learn how to build their own capacity; that is, they must develop the capacity to learn. From the author’s viewpoint, real improvement will only happen if the people responsible for implementation, design the change itself: “It is becoming clear that schools can be re-created, made vital, and sustainably renewed not by fiat or command, and not by regulation, but by taking the learning orientation” (p. 5). Senge, author of the best-selling The Fifth Discipline, has written a highly readable companion book directly focused on education. He proposes five skills or disciplines at the heart of the learning orientation: developing personal mastery, creating shared mental models, establishing a shared vision, engaging in team learning, and thinking systemically. Collectively, these five disciplines represent the component skills underlying the learning process. According to him, if an individual, group, or organisation develops the capacity to do each of the disciplines well, they will have become proficient in learning itself.

The numerous exercises, techniques, and stories included in the book help the people who work with and within schools learn how to develop their capacity to find solutions to the problems that prevent improvement. Schools That Learn is presented in “three nested systems of activity” (p. 11): the classroom, the school, and the school community. In each section along with Senge, more than hundred authors contribute anecdotes about systemic thinking, exercises designed to facilitate learning the disciplines, and lists of resources to connect the reader to other important concepts.

‘Margin icons’ used by Peter Senge is very helpful to the reader to understand the material and easily connect to the related concepts in the book. Icons are used to denote individual and team exercises; the etymology of key words; practical techniques for learning the disciplines; lists of relevant books, articles, and videos; and opportunities for reflection. Three elements of “organizational architecture” are also indicated with icons: guiding ideas or principles, innovations in organisational design, and the theoretical underpinnings of the techniques for learning the five disciplines. These markings are very useful in orienting the reader to help see the connections between the nested systems and find illustrative examples of the concepts that are explained.

The author makes a powerful argument regarding the need for a systems approach and learning orientation by introducing Schools That Learn with a historical perspective on educational systems. Specifically, he details “industrial age” assumptions about both learning — that “children are deficient and schools should fix them” (p. 35), that learning is strictly an intellectual enterprise, that everyone should learn in the same way, that classroom learning is distinctly different than that occurring outside of school, and that some kids are smart while others are not — and schools — schools “are run by specialists who maintain control” (p. 43), knowledge is inherently fragmented, schools teach some kind of objective truth, and “learning is primarily individualistic and competition accelerates learning” (p. 48). These assumptions about learning and the nature and purpose of schools reflect deeply fixed cultural beliefs that must be considered, and in many cases directly confronted, if schools are to develop the learning orientation necessary for improvement.

As per my understanding, author offers no remedies for success. He believes that, in order to be effective, answers must be developed locally, not by “specialists” who sit far outside classroom and school walls. Instead, Senge presents a set of principles and activities, along with illustrative stories, designed to engage the reader in a process of learning and reflection. Schools That Learn is really a must have and read book for every one related to education because it is an excellent resource book for those working to “build capacity” in schools. Policymakers at all levels, school principals, teachers, parents, and students can benefit from the ideas, stories of inspiration, and many tools that are included. In Schools That Learn, Senge simplifies the complex conversation regarding what building capacity looks like in schools and offers practical suggestions for how to begin to do it.

To conclude in a rapidly altering world where school violence is not uncommon, moral standard and tolerance are at the brink of collapse, the value of standardised tests is questioned, where rapid advances in science and technology threaten to leave students sadly unprepared, and increased pressures cause many teachers to burn out before retirement age, Schools That Learn offers much needed fuel for the dialogue about the future of educating children into the coming decades of the 21st century.

About the Authors

Peter Senge is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the chairman of the Society for Organizational Learning, and a recognized pioneer, theorist, and writer in the field of management innovation.
Nelda Cambron-McCabe is a Professor at the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University and a nationally known expert on learning organization work in public education.
Timothy Lucas has been a teacher and administrator in public education for the past 27 years, most recently as the superintendent of the Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey school district, and a recognized innovator with systems thinking tools in classroom and school administration.
Bryan Smith is a vice president of Arthur D. Little, Inc. and a director of Innovations Associates; his work focuses on strategy implementation, corporate governance, and sustainable development.
Janis Dutton is an editor, writer and educational consultant who is active in community and school change efforts.
• Editorial Director Art Kleiner is a faculty member at New York University and the author of The Age of Heretics, a finalist for the Edgar Booz Award for most innovative business book of 1996.

Book Courtesy: The High Range School Library, TTL, Mattupatti.

To Buy this book online click here: Schools That Learn