Integrity and the theory of action (pt 7 in a series)

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We conclude our theory of action series with two posts which help to contextualise the concept of organisational learning in an educational setting. The first of these focuses upon the way different schools and school systems interpret the term and how professional integrity impacts on organisational learning.

Continually striving for the fit

In their account of organisational learning, Argyris and Schön state that the staff in an organisation are continually striving to understand what is required of them and adjusting their actions accordingly.  They refer to the gap between the two as the fit – a term we shall adopt for the remainder of this posting. In our experience in education this is only partially true. There are several reasons for this, some of which we have described below.

All school systems have a hierarchy for defining the espoused theory, from national to regional, district/LEA/MAT, the headteacher and governors, department head, and then teacher.  These management layers do not exist in every system or phase.

It is predominately top-down. The expectation from those at the top is that all the layers below will have the same espoused theory. However, a number of these layers will often put their own interpretation on the  nationally agreed expectations of a teacher. Contextual factors, beliefs and experience often contribute to these modifications.

Another factor is the  school’s interpretation of the teacher’s professional integrity.  Many teachers consider themselves to be part of a self-regulating profession and as such beyond reproach. This view is embraced by those who employ them. The entrance qualifications are high as is their training which, when complete, qualifies them as competent.

In practice this means that the actions they take reflect their professional integrity and as a result are not open to challenge.  Therefore, if a teacher’s actions cause disruption, they do not consider themselves to be at fault. They attribute it to other factors such as the students or the management team not doing their job properly and therefore no adjustments need to be made to their future actions. This lack of ownership of the failure of their actions hampers the school’s learning. 

This perception of teachers’ professional integrity can result in the leaders of the school leaving the staff to conduct their own learning. Whether they engage with others to do this or do anything about it at all is their decision.  In these schools, the organisational learning is often made up of a variety of singular learning experiences.  This contrasts with the leadership of a school who see it as their role to work with their teachers to maximise their performance.  These schools will adopt a systematic collaborative learning approach.

Public representation of the theory in use

In the cultures identified above where professional integrity of teachers goes unchallenged, public representation of the theory-in-use is problematic. It is considered that by identifying that the actions of one teacher or leader fits closer to the espoused theory than another undermines the professional integrity of others. Thus, no clear public representation exists of the theory-in-use for staff to learn from. This is a major impediment to the school’s organisational learning. 

Even when role models have been identified, access is often difficult. By definition they are few in number. As a result, many teachers and leaders will not have access to them.  To alleviate this, these role models often have to visit other schools.  Even then, when these staff have been identified, they might not be willing to share their secrets with their peers, give up their invaluable time to be observed, allow others to enter their sanctum or be seen as better than their peers.  In addition, the headteacher could well refuse to have their most valuable staff diverted from their task for the purpose of gaining additional knowledge.

Even when all the above are resolved, in our experience the major barrier to sharing best practice is context.  Teachers need to de-contextualise the practice they see and then re-contextualise it on their own.  This can be very difficult and we have learnt to grudgingly accept that those who need to improve their fit most will only accept practice from those working in a similar context. This context includes the type of students and physical conditions. 

Finally, there has been a growing tendency for countries to define both the espoused theory and the theory-in-use.  This is extremely helpful if by following the theory-in-use, a fit with the espoused theory is achieved.  However, if the fit can be also be achieved by: 

… and the theory-in-use is not evidence-based; this will have a disruptive effect on the whole system.  


We trust you found this explanation of how school cultures can effect the theory of action useful and that you are able to relate it to your own experiences. 

Take care and stay safe