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Schools are places of learning but are they learning organisations?

Written by: Martin Byrne
8 min read
Martin Byrne, Assistant Headteacher (T&L; CPD), Kings International College, Camberley, UK

In England, continuing professional development (CPD) is recognised as critical to improving teachers’ practice (DfE, 2013). The most recent Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) revealed England to be one of only 15 out of a total 35 OECD nations where CPD participation is compulsory for teachers to maintain employment (OECD, 2019) – a strategy supported since the introduction of dedicated in-service training days in 1988.

At the end of the 20th century, CPD ‘for the majority of English secondary school teachers consisted of little more than raising awareness of issues’ (Stoll et al., 2006, p. 221). Dylan Wiliam (2010) later observed a stasis in the prevalent model of CPD, and argued for a change in schools’ approaches to teacher development. His views echoed findings in the TALIS report, which identified a ‘growing interest in developing schools as learning organisations’ (OECD, 2009, p. 49).

What is a learning organisation?

Senge (2006) describes learning organisations as places that create a secure environment in which all members of the workforce engage in critical reflection. Such organisations are oriented to engage in ‘action learning’ – ‘a process that involves a small group working on real problems, taking action, and learning as individuals, as a team, and as an organization’ (World Institute for Action Learning, nd).

Learning organisations harness the collective capacity of their workforce (Harris, 2011) through dialogue and discussion (Senge, 2006). Senge (2006) states that learning organisations develop collective aspirations, empower employees at all levels to learn together, and encourage collective thinking and responsibility. He proposes that this is achieved through the development of five disciplines:

  1. systems thinking, i.e. viewing issues in the context of all interconnected parts
  2. personal mastery, i.e. knowing oneself (what makes work meaningful, strengths and growth areas)
  3. improving understanding of our mental models of the organisations in which we operate
  4. building a shared vision of what those in an organisation are working towards
  5. the ‘fifth discipline’, team learning.

Senge asserts that the ‘fifth discipline’ is at the heart of learning organisations, emphasising that ‘teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organisations’ and that ‘the IQ of the team can, potentially, be much greater than the IQ of the individuals’ (Senge, p. 30, p. 222).

What do learning organisations look like in the context of schools?

Schools that are characteristic of learning organisations will have a culture in which both individual and team learning are encouraged and valued. Teachers will recognise a clear focus for their CPD, which not only promotes personal mastery of their practice but is also aligned with the development of the school as a collective. They will be actively engaged in, as opposed to subject to, professional learning that benefits the wider organisation. Consequently, their voices will be valued in strategic decision-making.

Additionally, schools will ensure that professional learning builds on existing teacher knowledge, is adapted to personal development needs, and provides opportunities to apply new ideas in the classroom. A wide range of CPD opportunities will be available, and the teaching community will be outward facing, evidence-informed and engaged in collaborative learning.

Schleicher (2020) concludes that such schools encourage the development of teachers’ learning communities, a point recognised by Education Wales, who have produced useful guidance for educators on how to achieve this (Welsh Government, 2013). Teachers working in these schools will recognise the focus of their CPD as relevant to both their own practice and to the development of the wider school community. They will be empowered to take ownership of meaningful professional learning (De Paor and Murphy, 2018; Gutierez, 2019), and more likely to realise greater intrinsic motivation and discretionary effort in their work (Pink, 2010).

What does professional learning look like in schools in England?

The most comprehensive picture is arguably provided by Jerrim and Sims (2019) in their summary of TALIS 2018. Among teachers of all levels of experience and across all phases, the most commonly reported modes of CPD in 2018 were ‘courses/seminars in person’ and ‘observation and coaching’ (p. 133).

Initially, these findings appear to reflect positively on teacher participation in CPD. At least 20 per cent more of England’s teachers participate in observations and coaching than the international mean (OECD, 2019), and participation in courses and seminars is also greater than the international average.

However, at only four per annum, the range of CPD activities is marginally below the average for OECD countries (Schleicher, 2020). Additionally, lesson observations are ubiquitous in performance management, and courses and seminars can be disconnected from the classroom environment.

A more valuable indicator of whether schools are developing as learning organisations might be the extent to which teachers are actively engaged in networks specifically formed for professional learning. Perhaps due to smaller school sizes resulting in the need for an outward-facing approach, primary teachers in England appear to be leading the profession in this respect, with around 60 per cent of teachers engaged in this way, whereas less than half (45 per cent) of secondary colleagues do so (Jerrim and Sims, 2019). While it is heartening to note that these numbers have increased since 2009, it is something of a concern that, concurrently, increasing numbers of teachers (46 per cent in 2018) report that there is no incentive for participating in professional development (OECD, 2019) and that CPD conflicts with teachers’ work schedules (65 per cent in 2018).

Beyond the method of CPD delivery, it is also worth considering the content focus. Teacher CPD has tended to focus on professional behaviour rather than the traits and attitudes associated with high-performing professionals (Evans, 2013). This has been echoed by De Paor and Murphy (2018) who observe that CPD has trended towards a functionalist tendency with a top-down perspective, and reinforced by TALIS 2018 (OECD, 2019), which notes that teachers in England often report that CPD does not have a positive impact on their classroom practice.

To what extent, then, has the culture of professional learning in English schools evolved towards that of learning organisations?

On a systemic level, the development and growth of ResearchED (2013) and the Chartered College of Teaching (2016) are indisputable testament that teachers are actively engaging in their professional learning. However, while engagement in peer networks among teachers is increasing, still fewer than half are involved. Those who are will likely include proactive, intrinsically motivated individuals who may not even be working in schools that have the culture of learning organisations.

Since its conception in 2016, The Research School Network has embodied the ideals of learning organisations, as have many forward-thinking schools including hundreds of former teaching schools, 87 of which now lead the newly formed Teaching Hubs programme. There will, of course, be many others not classified as above but, on balance, such schools are likely to be a minority of the 24,000 in England.

Arguably, as has historically been the case, too many teachers are still working in schools with a CPD model that is insufficiently cohesive and too disconnected from daily practice to maximise impact. In such schools, CPD is likely delivered via a top-down approach. Teachers may have limited autonomy over their CPD choices, and content may be transmitted without active learning on the part of the teacher (Kennedy, 2005, cited in De Paor and Murphy, 2018). It is important to note, however, that this may be the result of pressures applied to school leaders who are working with limited time and resources.

What still needs to happen?

Where schools have not yet moved to do so, developing as effective learning organisations will require significant change – in some cases strategic change and in others, cultural.

Every school has a development plan and a significant pool of staff with the capacity to learn and a desire to improve outcomes. A fundamental shift in how schools approach the professional learning of teachers can harness the latter to accelerate the former, but it does require school leaders to adopt specific leadership practices (Hill et al., 2016; Kouzes and Posner, 2017).

Narrow performance measures often increase competition between local schools and inevitably means that there will be schools who are performing below average. In such cases, Ofsted (understandably) may demand improvements and expect that they should be rapid. Demands for rapid change to quantifiable assessment outcomes is short-sighted and unsustainable. It does not afford school leaders the time to develop the culture of a learning organisation. Like any sustainable, successful team, learning organisations must be nurtured, and habits of mind cultivated over time.


In the last decade, while the world’s most effective schools have evidenced the attributes of learning organisations, repeated data suggests that many schools in England have not done so. Rather, their ability to do so has been compromised; perhaps by outmoded leadership styles, perhaps by lack of insight among school leaders, or perhaps by the very measures designed to drive school improvement.

Whatever the reason, traditional modes of professional development employed by schools have not maximised the developmental potential or the collective capacity of their teachers. To develop a world-class, self-improving school system, there is a need for all schools to develop the culture of learning organisations.


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