Believing in the power of education

Stephen Mitchell

Leader, Speaker, Trainer, Consultant, NED

By - Stephen Mitchell

Improving schools – a cultural approach

If there’s one thing that I hear time and again when talking to peers up and down the country it is (aside from funding issues!), that the silo mentality of the way that the sector operates infuriates them.

I’ve seen this borne out many times, and it got me thinking that there has to be a better way of doing things. And it can’t just be an education sector problem, can it?

Well, I was thinking about this so much that it actually became the subject of the dissertation for my MBA, which I’ve just completed, and I thought I’d share some insights from that research.

Aristotle is quoted as saying “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet”. (Arist. EN V.18). The challenge for those of us privileged to work in the education sector is therefore twofold – to make sure that the best structures are put in place, that all learners are supported to achieve their absolute best outcomes, irrespective of their backgrounds, but also that the process of education is engaging, rewarding and enriching, so that the next generation of society has the benefits so often associated with a good education.

At a simple level, education is about the process of imparting, and the receipt of knowledge, wisdom, values, skills, beliefs etc. However, the realities of that cognitive transfer are quite complex and challenging, and those of us working in supporting teachers often face the hidden challenges of making the organisation run.

Fortunately, we’re not alone. A world renowned academic, Peter Senge, has done a lot of research into effective organisations and he developed a model called Learning Organisations. Those firms that embrace the principles of Learning Organisations often have significantly better performance over the medium to longer term than those that don’t. He then went on and modified his theory, tailoring it for schools, and called that model, Learning Schools.

It appears, therefore, that a lot of the leg work and mental heavy lifting has been done already for us.

So, what is a Learning School? Well, again, fortunately, it’s rather simple and straightforward, and as with all good academic models, easily reduced to a simple diagram.

Each of the above areas is called a Discipline, and the first 4 are essential to achieving the 5th (Systems Thinking).

Personal Mastery

This is very simple, but requires everyone to be working to be the best that they can be, and for the organisation to be supporting them to do it. We should be encouraging all staff to develop and learn new skills, not just our students. If we do this, it is argued, then you have an engaged workforce, that is actively pulling in the strategic direction of the school

Shared Vision

Again, very simple, but how often do we see it in practice where everybody, student, child, parents, are all buying into the vision of the school, and working towards it, and eschewing anything that compromises that vision? It is a widely-accepted mantra for successful organisations where all staff understand, accept and display allegiance to the stated vision of the organisation. This complements the individual perspectives that all individuals have. A team with a shared vision can be managed by this vision to keep on track towards achieving its objectives.

Team Learning

Senge suggests that “teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit” in organisations. As humans tend to mimic behaviour of others, wider team learning can spread more rapidly through an organisation, and if structures are put in place for experiential review of activities within a team, then iterative improvements are likely to occur. Therefore, rather than supporting individual training through appraisals etc, we should be looking at collective learning, and ensuring that the organisation benefits systemically from each and every new piece of learning, formal training or otherwise.

Mental Models

I find this one particularly powerful. We all have heuristics, those inbuilt preconceptions about a whole host of things. If we don’t recognise them, then we make decisions based upon them that may mean we are accepting wrong information and therefore making a bad decision. This discipline is about recognising staff have these varied and different mental models of the world, but being prepared to challenge them to make sure that we’re assessing ALL of the data before we make a decision. Much easier said than done. I highly recommend reading the first half of the book called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman. I guarantee you will have your jaw on the floor as you realise things about the way you think.

Systems thinking

This is the cornerstone of the whole thing. Bringing the first four disciplines together, and making sure that the whole organisation works together. Systems thinking requires the organisation to take the skills, attributes, resources and characteristics of its whole and apply it to the whole, rather than constituent parts. It seeks to understand the root causes and structures, rather than presenting symptoms or outputs. Quite often when faced with a problem, the problem you’re being asked to solve is not actually the problem, it is a symptom of another problem. Getting this deep-thinking working is key to making lasting change.

I’ve been really taken by the Learning Organisation model, and really can’t do it justice in this blog, but I’m determined to enact it in our Trust. I can see how it can easily bring people together and get us all on the same page…..and out of those dreaded silos.

I’d be fascinated to hear your stories about how you deal with these issues in your Trusts.