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.


Danielle said...

I would like to Congratulate you on the success of finishing the book! It was a lot to take in and have enjoyed the areas which I've focused on and look forward to completing it in the near future.

Aside from all that, I also agree that demands on schools today are so great and different than when I was in school. Time is a big factor. But I sometimes wonder, are we as teachers constantly saying we don't have time so we can avoid changing the way we do things as we enter this uncertain future? People in my life are constantly nagging on teachers that we have so much time off, during the day and vacations, including 2 months in the summer. I am always so quick to shoot back a remark that makes them think twice! But why is it that teachers don't feel they have time, and non-teachers think we have too much time? I think someone's vision is too cloudy! Good work, your response got me thinking :)

Mr. C said...

I like your post Frank. Our schools are doing just as good of a job today and most certainly a better job then a hundred years ago. The reality is that our society demands so much more from the students we are turning out of our schools after spending K - 12 in the system. After a student spends thirteen years in our public schools they should be much more prepared to live and work in the world in which we live. I am not certain what the answer is but your analogy about the octopus was perfect for what is going on in many schools today.

Ms. Chiang said...

You brought up the importance of a shared vision and I think that is perhaps the most important factor of the equation before any productive work can be set into motion. I considered the two approach to creating a vision and find that our district is a little better than the first but not quite the second yet! On superintendent conference day, we were given the "vision", the "theme" of technology via inspirational speakers but the rest of the year is left to our own making - some teachers on board while others are resistant. Nevertheless, I am still driven by the vision is that there's much work ahead to be done and we cannot stop here!

Anne Brusca said...

Great job Frank! Your comments really got me thinking and comparing it to my reading of the book A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. I like your optimism that we must strive ahead, even if it is with only a few like-minded souls, it's a start! As you and I have both seen after working together this whole year not only in TEAM but at Center Street, that it takes only the meeting of a few minds sometimes to make change happen, even if it is only small changes, it is a beginning! I look forward to continuing our working relationship, even if it is from a distance of a few miles instead of a few feet! We have to stick together and continue moving forward our shared vision!