Impact Journal Logo

Developing schools into learning schools

Written by: Jonathan Doherty
6 min read

“This is not about ‘revolutionary’ change, but rather about ‘evolutionary’ change – starting from where you are, experimenting, adapting and learning by doing – with all changes based on evaluated evidence.”

(Collarbone, 2015, p. 13)

Schools today are required to prepare students for a changing world. In this climate of fast change, teachers are urged to become ‘knowledge workers’ (Schleicher, 2015) and to mediate vast amounts of information and knowledge in helping their students become better learners. There is some evidence from work in the international arena (OECD, 2013) that some traditional models of organising learning in schools may struggle to meet the needs of learners. However, in many English schools, both the curriculum and pedagogical approaches to classroom learning are innovative and very relevant to learner’s needs. In this article I show how the constituents of ‘learning organisations’ fit with the notion of ‘learning schools’ and propose that all schools become learning schools.

Organisations as learning organisations

Learning organisations, whether in business or education, are those with the capacity to adapt to meet the ever-changing demands of the workplace. They make use of networks inside and outside of their own organisation. They are people-focused. Creativity flourishes, as people are encouraged to take risks and innovate. Learning takes place on multiple levels, and these organisations facilitate the learning of all members and consciously modify themselves according to their context (Pedler et al., 1997).

Iles and Sutherland (2001) identify five features of a learning organisation, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: The features of a learning organisation
1. Structures


  • Has flat managerial hierarchies that enhance employee involvement
  • Empowers decision-making
  • Structures support teamwork
  • Networks across organisational boundaries
  • Shares information
2. Information systems


  • Requires information beyond that used in traditional organisations
  • Information systems facilitate rapid acquisition, processing and sharing of rich, complex information
  • Manages knowledge effectively
3. Human resources


  • People are recognised as creators and users of organisational learning
  • Focuses on the provision and support of individual learning
  • Appraisal and reward systems measure long-term performance
  • Promotes the acquisition and sharing of new skills and knowledge
4. Organisational culture


  • Has strong cultures that promote openness, creativity and experimentation
  • Encourages sharing of information
  • Nurtures innovation
  • Learns from mistakes
5. Leadership


  • Has a compelling vision of the organisation
  • Models openness, risk-taking and reflection
  • Provides empathy, support and personal advocacy

Knowledge and organisational learning

In information-rich societies, knowledge is a vitally important commodity but, as Celik (2004) argues, individual learning is not enough to sustain organisations. It is now common for organisations to implement ‘organisational learning strategies’ aimed at improving an organisation’s performance. Most successful organisations define themselves as learning organisations (Vemić, 2007), and organisations that deliberately promote structures and strategies concerning organisational learning are very much learning organisations.

All sustainable organisations, and this is exactly the same for schools, are those where learning is central to everything they do. Successful schools replace ‘schooling’ with learning. They fully embrace that learning is multi-layered and involves not only pupil learning but also that of all staff and other stakeholders. They create cultures and systems that support ‘learning to learn’ on a whole-school basis. O’Neil (1995) argues that since both education and business have to face rapid changes in the world, both require organisational learning in order to improve their capacity.

Change and turning schools into learning organisations

Harris and Jones (2018) acknowledge Kools and Stoll (2016) in stating that the idea of schools as learning organisations is not new. The origins go back to the early 1980s, as a way of describing the internal processes that contribute to an organisation’s success (Argyris, 1982). The concept of schools as learning organisations was explored in Peter Senge’s seminal work, The Fifth Discipline, as places where there is collective aspiration and where continual learning takes place (Senge, 1990). Later, Senge et al. (2000) labelled schools that resemble learning organisations as learning schools.

Learning is also about change and is futile without this if significant organisational improvement is the desired end product (Harris and Jones, 2018). Sustainable change is about the capacity of a school and everyone in it to learn and improve, and that involves consolidated and collaborative effort from staff at all levels (Fullan, 2018). The rate of change for schools and the constant demands to adapt in the last three decades have been phenomenal and continue to accelerate. Schools as learning organisations have been rejuvenated in policy debates on school improvement and system performance (Kools and Stoll, 2016; Seashore Louis and Lee, 2016), which acknowledge that schools are implementing changes to practice. As an example, in 2011, Wales embarked on a large-scale school improvement reform where learning schools were a key dimension for realising a curriculum for the 21st century. This work drew upon the OECD’s knowledge base (OECD, 2016) and collaboration with Welsh schools and was finalised in 2017 (Welsh Government, 2017). Distilling from these two sources predominantly, key components of schools as learning organisations are presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Components of schools as learning organisations
  • School leaders are change agents
  • Parents, students, staff and other external partners contribute to the school’s vision
  • Acknowledges leadership at all levels in the school
  • Distributes decision-making across teams
  • Formulates school growth plans
  • Grows leadership capacity


  • Focused on achieving maximum student outcomes
  • Focused on individual and school goals
  • Uses enquiry approaches to learning
  • Supports adult as well as student learning
  • Learns from the external environment
  • Adopts an action research approach
  • Views learning as a lifelong activity
  • Supports risk-taking at every level
  • Staff reflect on their professional learning
  • Teaching and learning are evidence based
Systems and structures


  • Has efficient systems that capture and analyse data
  • Embeds systems to capture and share knowledge so that the organisation may continue to progress and develop
  • Provides adequate time and resources to promote CPD for all staff
  • Operates regular reviews
School culture


  • A school vision that is shared by all staff
  • Openness to share resources with others
  • Values staff and student ideas
  • Individual development links with school development goals
  • Values and acts upon constructive feedback
  • School culture supports and promotes professional learning
Collective enterprise


  • Strategic goal-setting that involves parents, staff and students collectively
  • Creates new knowledge and shares that internally and externally
  • Engages with a range of stakeholders, including other schools, local businesses and HEIs
  • Proactive in establishing linked networks for knowledge-exchange activity
  • School is viewed as a community of learners


Turning schools into learning schools inevitably involves changes. To move from the largely theoretical into real, everyday practice will require commitment to action, time and effort. It will need a focus on organisational as well as individual learning. There will be risk-taking and resource implications. It will need a vision and a compelling reason to change. This is not intended to be a huge leap. Many schools are already doing this successfully – more of an ‘evolutionary’ than a ‘revolutionary’ step, which builds on progress made already. To thrive in a climate of reform and ever-more educational initiatives, a ‘learning schools’ approach that influences school culture and affects school-wide change offers much potential.


Argyris C (1982) How Learning and Reasoning Processes Affect Organizational Change: Change in Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Celik N (2014) The transition from classical organizations to learning organization in accommodation businesses: The case of in the service sector. The Macrotheme Review 3: 88–98.

Collarbone P (2015) Leading change, changing leadership (Part 2). System change moving to the next level of performance – incorporating two case studies. CSE Occasional Paper 142: 2–3.

Fullan M (2018) The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Harris A and Jones M (2018) Leading schools as learning organizations. School Leadership & Management 38(4): 351–354.

Iles V and Sutherland K (2001) Managing change in the NHS, London. Organisational change: A review for health care managers, professionals and researchers. Available at: (accessed 11 January 2019).

Kools M and Stoll L (2016) What Makes a School a Learning Organisation? Education Working Paper No. 137. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD (2013) Innovative Learning Environments. Educational Research and Innovation. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD (2016) What Makes a School a Learning Organisation? A Guide for Policy Makers, School Leaders and Teachers. Paris: OECD Publishing.

O’Neil J (1995) On schools as learning organisations: A conversation with Peter Senge. Educational Leadership 52(7): 20–33.

Pedler MJ, Burgoyne JG and Boydell TH (1997) The Learning Company: A Strategy for Sustainable Development (2nd edition). Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.

Schleicher A (2015) Schools for 21st-Century Learners: Strong Leaders, Confident Teachers, Innovative Approaches. International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Paris: OECD Publishing

Seashore Louis K and Lee M (2016) Teachers’ capacity for organizational learning: The effects of school culture and context. School Effectiveness and School Improvement 27(4): 534–556.

Senge PM (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. New York: Doubleday.

Senge PM, Cambron-McCabe N, Lucas T et al. (2000) Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents and Everyone who Cares About Education. New York: Doubleday.

Vemić J (2007) Employee training and development and the learning organization. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 4: 209–216.

Welsh Government (2017) Schools as learning organisations (SLO) overview. Available at: (accessed December 2018).

      0 0 votes
      Please Rate this content
      Notify of
      Inline Feedbacks
      View all comments

      From this issue

      Impact Articles on the same themes

      Author(s): Bill Lucas