Theory of action: Organisational learning in education (pt 8 in a series)

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Having examined our perceptions of how the professional integrity of teachers can have an effect on a  school’s organisational learning, we continue to reflect on Argyris and his colleagues’ description of organisational learning. 

Learning agents

Those schools that learn collaboratively rely upon staff to work with each other to improve the fit of their actions. Argyris used the term ‘learning agents’ to describe those who challenge and support staff learning in this way.  In our opinion, the use of this term can imply that the learning process is one way.  In practice in our schools we know this not the case. Collaborative learning is a two – or more – way process in which staff take up different roles.  All involved benefit from the process. In the early days of our work, we coined the phrase ‘learning partnership’ to emphasise the two/three-way learning aspect of the process. 

However, it soon emerged as we encouraged staff to learn together that some staff were more effective in assisting their peers to improve their practice than others. These staff had high moral capital, were role models and had the social skills required for knowledge transfer. They became invaluable to the improvement of our schools and so increasingly they became recognised formally with accreditations and in their salary.  This created what we have referred to as the school’s two meritocracies; the one that recognises those teachers whose actions fitted the school’s espoused theory and the other that recognises those who had successfully collaborated with staff to improve their fit. 

Organisational maps

It is uncommon in our schools to hear the term ‘organisational maps’ used to describe how staff work collaboratively to understand the theory of use and improve their actions to meet them.  However, all schools we have worked with would say that they have a staff development plan mapping which staff have a responsibility to learn what and will allocate time and resources accordingly.  Commonly, these opportunities for staff to learn take place in sessions outside of lesson time.  

How effectively this limited time is used is critical in improving the fit. Schools adopting collaborative learning will spend considerable time in determining how staff are grouped in these sessions to ensure their learning is maximised. At the end they will expect staff to demonstrate the impact of what they have learnt on their future actions, how this will affect their students’ learning and at a later date they will be required to evaluate the effectiveness of their choice of actions. The process is not too dissimilar to that used by a good teacher when organising their students’ learning.  Other schools, including those adopting the professional integrity approach, will leave it up to those involved, resulting in hit-or-miss outcomes.

The possible negative effect of single-loop learning

We have observed that in schools where staff are not encouraged to develop their practice collaboratively that performance improvement is difficult to achieve.  To the extent that after a while, instead of accepting the espoused theory defined by those in charge of the school, they justify their actions by creating their own espoused theory.  This allows them to retain their own interpretation of what their students should attain –  that which their theory-in-use produces.

Aspects of double loop learning 

There is no doubt that in our experience the introduction in England in the 1990s of a form of value added measure of student performance which could be set against prior attainment, gender, ethnicity and the degree of student social disadvantage, allowed teachers and school leaders to better evaluate the impact of their actions on their students’ learning.  Without this, it was difficult to distinguish between the learning that could be attributed to the school and that which related to other variables. 

Since then, with the work of the EEF in particular, the impact of specific actions on student learning has become easier for teachers to access. This source, along with more traditional approaches, provides English schools with a rich evidence base to ensure that the changes they make to their actions maximise their impact and reduce the risk of failure. With the spread of collaborative learning in the country occurring at the same time, double-loop learning has become common in most schools with a corresponding improvement in student learning. This is especially true in London, where our work in this area started and is now the most entrenched. 

There is a process and it needs a facilitator

Finally, in our work we have drawn heavily upon change management to bring about school improvement.  Thus we agree with Argyris and his colleagues that the transformation of a school from a single loop to a double-loop learning community requires a defined process and a person or persons dedicated to see it through. 

Our understanding of the picture we have just described is continually changing. Mats Rosenkvist, CEO of Successful Schools Sweden published in 2017 a report showing that in Sweden the espoused theory put forward by the government contained a requirement that school leaders should support developments in the improvement of the quality of the teaching and learning provided by their teachers.  However, in practice only a few actually did so. The reasons for this were complex, including cultural aspects and a weakness in providing appropriate evidence on student achievement on which to judge the degree of fit.  

We will report on this work in detail in the near future when Mats’s latest report for 2020 is published. You can download the report here.

This concludes this series of posts on the theory of action.  We hope you have found it insightful and that it has stimulated you to make explicit your own theory of action.  On the other hand, if like us you are already in the process of doing so, we hope this has helped you to reflect and refine yours.  We expect to post our latest iteration of our theory of action within the next two months. 

Take care and stay safe 

George