Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Schools that Learn

After many false starts, I finally finished reading Schools That Learn (Peter Senge, et al., New York: Doubleday, 2000). I realized that although I hadn't read it all through in one long session, that the parts that I did read have stayed with me throughout the past couple of years. In fact, I think some parts of them have been quite haunting!

I still reflect on the idea of a shared vision for schools, and the implications for our work when we are in places that are not working to construct such a vision. At the end of the book, the transcript of a conversation between Howard Gardner and Senge is presented (End Notes, pp.555). Gardner and Senge agree that schools are not necessarily doing a worse job than in 1900, but that the demands on them are so much greater, and so different, that success seems as elusive as ever. Gardner said, "Schools are not in trouble because of bad or incompetent people but because of very poor design relative to the world we live in today." I would go further and suggest that it feels like we are all pulling on the arms of an octopus, in different directions, and only rarely notice that the octopus is not coming with us, and in fact is getting pulled into pieces.

Not only do we still often follow and revert to the factory model of schooling, but our "lock the door and do what you want" model is even less coherent and plausible than ever, since we are not giving teachers the time to construct a collective vision for what we are trying to achieve. Senge opens Chapter 9: School Vision, with a vignette about two different ways of constructing a vision for a school. The first story is about a single day's events, where a vision is presented to the school district by a diligent and hard-working committee, all are congratulated, and teachers return to school, never again to think of that day's work. The second telling of this activity talks about how the process continues for months, with ongoing contributions from all constiuencies, parents, teachers, students and others. The difference is that at the end of the second process, there has been the creation of an outcome that all can respect and be committed to. Without such a shared vision, no amount of hard work on the part of most or even all of the staff will do anything more than keep the merry-go-round spinning.

Early in Schools That Learn, Senge discussed how our schools are still deeply influenced by machine thinking that is hundreds of years old (Senge, p. 52). Worse, although he optimistically talks about the way that a worldview involving "living systems" will eventually permeate our understanding, he suggests it may take another fifty or a hundred years! In the meantime, what can we do, those of us who want to help move things along? Another part of my reflections over the past couple of years have also involved this, the idea that "a living system has the capacity to create itself." (Senge, p. 53) And I think that is where I will try to find focus and meaning in my own work, in the idea that it only takes an idea, a couple of people, and with some luck and hard work, a tipping point might be created. In that sense, all that is needed are a few like-minded souls, and the weaving of a few relationships among them that can impact our work and bring about more effective change more quickly.