Peter Senge on Organizational Learning

In a Q&A, he applies his concepts to school systems and their leaders by Amelia Newcomb

If Peter Senge is eager to make one point, it's this: Kids learn in schools that learn. That seems simple enough. Yet Senge, director of the Society for Organizational Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and editor of Schools That Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents and Everyone Who Cares About Education, says the institution in which we place our greatest hopes for children's futures is often stuck in tradition and industrial-era thinking.

To make matters worse, its clientele—more specifically, its clientele’s parents—wants the most creative approaches, but fears anything that might threaten test performance.

Creating and sustaining thoughtful improvement is a high priority for school leaders. But it can be an elusive goal, especially as schools struggle to strike a balance between longstanding practices and experimentation to fix problems. And resorting to a familiar top-down form of leadership doesn’t always yield the desired results.

Senge is one of the world’s leading experts on how organizations can develop new ways to communicate and grow. He knows too well the damage that can be done when an organization gets caught up in the “fad cycle”—where a new idea holds leaders’ imaginations for just a year or two, instead of the five or even 10 years that might be necessary for true reform.

Senge argues that help in breaking this pattern that afflicts many schools may lie in a simple if little-appreciated idea: rejecting a focus on the “outer” world of institutional structures and procedures in favor of a closer look at “mental models.”

In other words, he says, to educate children well, school superintendents and cafeteria workers alike need to scrutinize how they think about their jobs. They must become aware of deeply ingrained assumptions they may not even know they have—but that can inhibit their performance or blind them to new possibilities.

“The central message of The Fifth Discipline,” Senge writes, “is more radical than ‘radical organization redesign’—namely that our organizations work the way they work, ultimately, because of how we think and how we interact. Only by changing how we think can we change deeply embedded policies and practices. Only by changing how we interact can shared visions, shared understandings and new capacities for coordinated action be established.”

It’s a distinct shift from the constant focus on discrete problems—low math scores, say— or to look at a school in isolation from its community. And it dramatically reorients our notions of leadership. Senge wants to toss out the idea that most of a child’s learning takes place within a certain structure and promote instead the idea that all parts of a community—its superintendent and teachers, to be sure, but also its businesses and families—are integral to and responsible for learning.

At first blush, it may sound a touch utopian. But if Senge is right, rethinking traditional patterns of leadership and interaction will result in long-term shifts that produce a true learning community, where improvement becomes a lifelong journey instead of an ultimate and often-imperfect destination.

What follows are excerpts from a recent interview Senge granted The School Administrator.

Q: Most people think that schools immediately qualify as learning organizations. Do they?

Senge: People think schools should be learning organizations, but there’s no reason in fact for that to be the case. School is about training and socialization, that’s its history. The history of school originally was to train workers for factories. So you wanted certain standards of numeracy and literacy, but it was every bit as important that people knew how to pay attention to the time clock and to learn to work under schedule pressure.

People had to learn to become obedient to authority, and the definition of learning was getting the answer the teacher knew in advance. It doesn’t really make a very good model for learning how to be a good parent or how to be a good spouse or how to do any of the things that really matter to us as learning. But it became the model, and after a while, it became what learning looked like in work, too: You learn to please the boss.

Q: Are we developing a new sense of the mission of schools? Can that result in a greater disconnect between what we think school can be and what it seems to be much of the time?

Senge: There’s growing dis-ease on virtually every front around schools and learning. I think [there is a] disconnect between the reality of the world today and the reality of the world kids are growing up in and the schoolroom model of learning: Sit down, be quiet, follow what the teacher tells you, and try to get the right answers on tests. By the time kids are 9, 10 or 11, they’ve become pretty well socialized, and they’re either with the program or in active rebellion. We see a lot of kids, not just poor kids but middle-class kids, who are really disengaged. But they have this dilemma: either they get with the program or they are not going to get into the right college.

But a simple question to ask is, “How has the world of a child changed in the last 150 years?” And the answer is, “It’s hard to imagine any way in which it hasn’t changed.” Children know more about what’s going on in the world today than their teachers, often because of the media environment they grow up in. They’re immersed in a media environment of all kinds of stuff that was unheard of 150 years ago, and yet if you look at school today versus 100 years ago, they are more similar than dissimilar.

Resistant Parents
Q: That is a big challenge for school leaders. What makes the system resistant to change?

Senge: The biggest force of conservatism in school is parents. If you go to schools where there is a tremendous amount of pressure on kids [and ask] why, teachers will say, well, the pressure is from their parents. You have kids from two-worker families, kids from single-parent families, so more and more, the parents bring the mindset of getting ahead.

We all have deeply embedded assumptions about what school should be like. It should be kind of like what it was when we were there.

Business people often say that schools should be able to change because schools are small. But they totally miss what makes a system resistant to change. No businessperson has investors coming around regularly and telling them how they should do things. All the investors care about is the return on their investment. They don’t care what you do.

But believe me, parents don’t just care about whether their kids are learning, they care about how they’re learning. And every educator will tell you that if you do something really radically different that the kids love, that really seems to work, the problem you’re going to have is the parents.

Q: In your book The Fifth Discipline, you dwell on mental models. What if you have a superintendent who has a pretty good mental model for what his or her organization should be all about, but it doesn’t jibe with what the public expects? Can that create a situation where it’s next to impossible to create sustained development or change?

Senge: I think that’s very much the problem. I heard a comment recently from Howard Gardner that really struck me. [There is what he calls] constructivism—the idea that children, all human beings, construct their understanding of things, that the most an educational process can do is provide tools and methods and settings in which children can become better at thinking things through and constructing their own understanding.

That’s opposed to the more traditional idea of instructionism—opening up the kid’s head and pouring in all the answers. And here was Gardner’s comment: A fairly broad consensus has been developed among educators about the validity of constructivism. However, he said, I don’t see any appreciation of that by and large among public officials or the public at large. That gap, he said, just confounds me.

I thought that comment of Gardner’s really hit the nail on the head. You have this huge and probably even growing gap between the public at large and parents and elected officials: Kids should be learning to read and write and do arithmetic, pretty much the same way you and I learned it versus the conviction among so many educators that that’s not necessarily the way to do it.

We know so much more than before about development, cognitive capacities, the role that emotions play, the role that social context and learning together plays. You look at almost any front and you can see that there’s been an immense advance of knowledge that should affect the process of education. But by and large it doesn’t on any large scale, and it frustrates teachers and educators that they can’t do as much as they would like to do.

The Learner’s Accountability
Q: How does a school leader combine standards and accountability with the constructivism that you talk about?

Senge: Let’s start off by saying accountability is a real issue, not a bogus issue. I don’t think standardized testing is the best answer. But then you get to really difficult questions, which I think are at the heart of the profession: How do we judge learning? Standardized tests, or any kind of standardized method, are probably a component. Probably most educators would say these aren’t evil; they can be very useful for a teacher to judge how the teacher is doing. It might be useful for a student or a learner. But they need to be used in an open context of what does this result mean and what does it tell us about how we’re doing things?

There’s no way you’re going to do standardized testing for critical-thinking skills or imagination or collaboration. A lot of business people would say that one of the most important things kids should be learning today is to work well in teams, because we know that’s really important in today’s business world, but you know you’re not going to get that from standardized testing.

I’ve been studying as best I can all the innovations that have been going on for many years of portfolio assessment. I like the basic idea because it always seemed to me that the first issue of accountability is really the learner’s accountability for the learner’s own learning.

Think about our goals of education: there are very few things that would be more important than creating lifelong learners. As knowledge continues to advance faster and faster, any degree of formal education, no matter how good, is going to serve you only to a point. Within 10 or 20 years, you’re going to be learning so many new things. So really, your ability to learn is one of the most important outputs of the educational system. So self-assessment to me is one of the most important habits of thought you’d want to develop in any educational system.

I like portfolio methods, where a kid sits down with the teacher and maybe parents and maybe even other peers and talks about here’s what I’ve done this year; here are the goals I set out for myself at the beginning for the year; and now it’s six months later and here’s how I think I’m doing. And the teacher says, here’s how I think you’re doing. Maybe there’s even a peer who says, “Yeah, I think you’re doing real well on this.”

To me, that’s such a positive step in the right direction. And it gives the teachers plenty of latitude to be influential and to bring their perspective to bear. There could be some standardized testing in that process, but it’s got to start with: What are our goals, and what are the kids’ goals? I’ve always thought the first missing question of all formal schooling, 90 percent of the time, is asking the child, “What are your goals?” How can you expect the child to be motivated to learn if no one has even asked them what their goals are?

Once you start that way, you’re already beginning to connect constructivism and accountability. I think your question is probably the most central question facing educators today. If Gardner’s right, and there’s this broad base of appreciation for constructivism, you’ve got to then connect it to accountability to the public. And that’s parents and elected officials, and it’s also kids. A number of years ago, when someone asked Dr. Deming, how would you tell if kids are learning, his first answer was, “Ask them.”

Q: If you are creating a learning organization, where does the principal or superintendent start? What needs to be rethought in terms of the structure of school leadership?

Senge: I think you always start not with structure but with people. Start with a group of people, never one, who have some kind of commitment to each other and to a set of ideas or ideals. And obviously the person who played the role of principal is a part of that, but you’re not going to get anywhere without a good group of teachers—sometimes, you might say, without a good group of parents or some members of the community who are going to be part of the larger system.

We always have to remind ourselves that school only works to the extent that it interfaces effectively with the whole world of the kid. I don’t care how great the school is, if the kid goes out of that school into a completely dysfunctional world, it’s going to be tough. You look at schools that succeed in economically deprived areas, often they work like gangbusters to create a community so those kids have an opportunity to have some safety, security and support as they leave the school. So it always starts with people.

And then obviously, the idea that there’s one right structure to do a school is the wrong idea. If kids really are very different, we should ask, how do we create the requisite variety within the different types of schools that is roughly commensurate with the variety of kids?

The idea that there is this kind of cookie-cutter approach has been a problem in mainstream schools because they tend to operate under standard curriculum and standard expectations, even before we had standardized tests.

And second, it’s been a problem with some reform movements who think they have the answer. I think there need to be some common principles. But there’s no one right answer because kids are so different. I would expect our ideal would be something where different kids would have enough choices. Nature produces this variety. The question is can we create a similar variety of opportunities?

This is how you connect to constructivism. In some sense, you might say what constructivism is ultimately all about is profound respect for the learner. Everything you do that compromises respect for the learner compromises constructivism. That doesn’t mean the learner gets to make all the decisions by themselves—they’re kids!

My experience is that when they’re respected, they’ll have some sense of the limits of their understanding and they’ll want the guidance of adults. The time you tend to get the most disobedience to adult authority is when kids feel they’re being forced to be obedient. All good teachers know this. They create a great deal of buy-in to their agenda.

The Need for Collaboration
Q: That puts a lot of responsibility on the teacher. But teaching is often a solitary act. How does a school leader help his or her staff think in terms of their roles within a system?

Senge: Teaching tends to be this extraordinarily individualistic profession. I’ll never forget once hearing a teacher say somewhat defensively, “Look, when I close that door, I’m God in my universe.” I was shocked by that; but it was her reaction to all the pressure and all the stuff she saw beating down on her.

Years ago, one of the first principals I ever got to learn a lot from was a middle school principal. She said that in about a five- or six-year period of bringing about remarkable innovations in a public middle school that was very middle class, nothing exceptional in any way, the hardest thing she ever had to do was help teachers learn how to team. She actually led a year-long series of programs and seminars, including in summertime. She did some of the toughest psychological and psychoanalytic work I’ve ever heard any leader do. She did it, she said, because you get through these identity images—that teachers became teachers because they want to stand up in front of kids and deliver. She was adamant about [the need for this] particularly at the middle school level, but I think you can make the argument at all levels. A [child’s] group of teachers had better be working together as a group or the fragmentation that results is disastrous for the child.

The idea of teachers working collaboratively is so vital. It’s not easy, but it should be one of the primary goals of a principal because they are clearly, in the language of business, the local line leader. They’re the local line manager who has some accountability for how that system works, how well the school works, for all the kids there, but who’s really got to bring together the professionals—not just the teachers, you might even say, but all the administrators.

The principals I know who’ve done this best are just brilliant. They’ll involve the kitchen workers, they’ll involve the janitor. Everybody starts to feel they’re responsible regarding the environment for kids’ learning. Because you know, a lot of the most important learning won’t occur in the classroom but somewhere else, like the playground, or in an argument in the lunch room. I do think it’s vital that principals need to see it as part of their job. Right now, with all the pressure on test scores, a lot of principals are basically seeing their jobs as getting their test scores up. And that won’t necessarily produce a lot of collaboration among the professionals.

Q: You talk about cause and effect at length in your book. In a school system, student learning could be viewed as the effect and the teacher as the cause. Is there a way for school leaders to understand this and to target reforms accordingly, in a way that takes into account the whole of the system, rather than just one piece of it?

Senge: The schools and systems that I’ve seen working most diligently on this typically go about it by saying that what we’re really all about is creating a learning community. And the learning community is everyone in our community who in one way or another will touch the lives of children. So of course it’s all the professionals in the schools. But it is the parents and it is the local businesses because the local businesspeople can create conditions that make it impossible for parents to be good parents.

You’re running a business and you’re expecting people to be there for breakfast meetings and hang around for dinner meetings, to travel three-quarters of the time. And oh, by the way, a lot of us do work on Saturdays. And then you’re busy complaining the kids don’t perform well in school, failing to see how you’re part of that system because the kids don’t have any parents around to provide the right support for them when they’re at home.

So a simple way to say this is to throw out the idea that the school is a building or a group of professionals in the building. Or even the idea that school is what goes on in the building.

The “school” is the life of the child. And part of that life is what goes on in the building, but as big a part is what goes on in the streets, after school, what goes on at home. Saying we’re committed to learning communities and committed to the well-being and the growth of our young people is the way I’ve seen many people go at this with some real impact. All of a sudden, you get a very different relationship, for example, with the local businesspeople, or the local school board members. They no longer feel isolated from the process.

It’s idealistic, but I think it’s the only thing I’ve seen to really work, to create more of a systemic awareness. Otherwise, people see a problem with math scores and they’ll go put pressure on the math teachers. In systems lingo, you focus on the symptom. And you try to fix the symptom, totally failing to recognize that that symptom is being produced by a dysfunctional system, which involves many other people. And the greatest leverage may have little connection directly with those symptoms.

Q: You say start with the people. But if you have a school that’s been chugging along in a community for 75 years, how do you do that?

Senge: You start with some critical mass of teachers and administrators. It depends on what level you want to work at. If your aim is to work in the way I’m talking about, you need to have a superintendent who really embraces that because she or he will be a big part of that outreach effort to engage businesspeople and local government.

But the top driving it won’t get anything done. I guarantee you, if teachers aren’t on board, forget it. Just as much so, in the school, you’ve got to get parents on board, at least enough of them, and enough of the teachers. And ultimately, I think the most important leadership often will come from kids. It’s not top down in the traditional sense; it says that all the critical roles of a system have important leadership responsibilities, including the kids.

A Naïve Mindset
Q: In The Fifth Discipline you say the world presents unprecedented challenges for which our institutions are ill prepared. Could you give an example of one, within the context of school systems?

Senge: There are so many. How about the one of learning to live together in the world, globally as different people around the world, with different histories, languages, cultures, and so on. How many American kids become fluent in a second language? It’s probably one of the lowest percentages of any industrial society in the world, and we don’t seem to think that’s a big problem. I think that is disastrous.

Schools can start off right away by saying: What’s the cultural diversity right in front of us? Do we have different language systems right here in our community? There’s all this controversy about kids coming from Spanish-speaking homes and whether they learn enough English when they go to schools. Fine, that’s a legitimate question, but why don’t we turn it around? If I live in a community where half the people or a third speak Spanish, why don’t we have Spanish in school sometimes so all the English speakers get good at Spanish?

The American mindset is so naïve on multiculturalism. We really think the world just wants to be like us. Just taking that as a global issue that affects our schools, there are all kinds of things you can do right here. You can extend that and say you’d like part of most kids’ schooling to include some significant experience living in a different culture. Well, guess what? You don’t necessarily have to go to Mexico to live in a Spanish home. You could have an exchange program where kids from Anglo homes for a year spend a good deal of their time living in a Hispanic home, and vice versa. Guaranteed: they’ll learn a lot about crossing cultural boundaries.

There’s so much we could do if we just recognized that one of the fundamental aims of education today ought to be to prepare people to live in a multicultural world.

Q: You’ve written about the gap between our power and our wisdom. There’s a heavy emphasis now on learning prescribed amounts of material. In the context of school systems, is there a gap, and if so, how do you begin to close it?

Senge: We all bring a variety of learning styles and intelligences to the party. I think there’s a lot of wisdom there that’s not being put to use at all, or if it is, it’s in a very limited way. But it’s not going to happen until you find a way to make that credible to parents and get them engaged. You have to find a way to get the other parents on board.

I find the one great strength we have to build on is that almost all parents care a lot about their kids, but you never really reach out and engage them and help them see that as an educator you’re really committed to their child’s learning.

If you simply try to get them to buy into your program or you ignore them, then you’re in big trouble. Most teachers tend to regard most parents as mostly troublemakers, and I understand why, because oftentimes when you see the parent is when the kid’s in trouble.

But flip it around: What were we doing to engage the parents when everything was going well? Then we get into the problem that we can’t engage parents—they’re not home, they’re working, they’re traveling, they don’t have the time. Well, guess what you come back to? The learning community. You’ve got to get all the people in the community working together so you can solve some of these problems.

Q: Are you sanguine about the ability to do that on a large scale?

Senge: I really am. I think we can’t forget two things. One is that parents really care about their kids, and two, all adults really care about children. For 98 percent of our history, we raised children in tribes. Everybody shared the responsibility for the kids. Everybody taught, and everybody was a mentor. That’s in our history. This industrial age, the last 150 years, is a thimble of experience in the ocean of our development. There are immense resources to draw on if we only take that seriously.

Amelia Newcomb is an editor with The Christian Science Monitor in Boston. E-mail: newcomba@csmonitor.com