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Connecting people, learning and school systems through learning schools

Written By: Jonathan Doherty
4 min read

This article was first published as part of a global conversation about the future of teaching.

COVID-19 has had wide-reaching effects on our society, economy and on our education system. The pandemic presents an opportunity to re-examine what we do in schools and how we do this. The time is right to reflect on what we have learned from this time, and to take forward what matters most in education. We can continue educating in the old ways, or embrace this as an opportunity for change and to re-engineer learning and build a bridge to future-proofing schools.

For sustainable change to happen, there has to be ‘a compelling reason to change, a clear vision of where you want to be, a coherent plan for getting there and a way of measuring and monitoring changes on an ongoing basis.’ (Collarbone, 2015, p. 2). We have that reason, and in such a vision for the future, education would become more authentic, connected, learning-focused and ultimately, more successful. Evidence from the school improvement literature has pointed to much needed reforms to take schools in a new direction (Ball, 2013; Gorard, 2019; West-Burnham and Groves, 2013). In this article, I present the case that we could achieve this through schools becoming ‘learning schools’. Tomorrow’s schools will be more concerned with learning how to apply subject knowledge in collaboration with others than with the teaching of subjects (West-Burnham and Groves, 2013). Research into powerful knowledge and curriculum building (Young, 2014; Young and Muller, 2016); the science of learning (CESE, 2017; Weinstein et al., 2018) and metacognition (EEF, 2018; Muijs, 2020) provide new insights into the learning process in developing students who can organise information for themselves, generate ideas and enquiry, plan their learning and monitor and review this successfully. In response to school closures during COVID-19, teachers have designed new creative ways of distance learning using new technologies, altering their teaching and learning approaches. From this has been recognition of so many of the key elements of the learning process, such as learner involvement, the power of relationships, self-agency, student engagement and collaboration. How can this be taken further by altering the ways in which schools organise learning using similar principles that turn them into learning organisations?

The idea of a learning organisation was popularised by Senge (1990) as one where people continually learn and adapt and where new thinking takes place. There is collective aspiration and the organisation is focussed on developing the conditions that motivate people to achieve for themselves and for the organisation. By changing embedded ways of thinking and habitual practises, organisations develop new growth capacities. Senge’s five disciplines (1990) incorporated: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, Team Learning and Systems Thinking. The basic premise was that organisations are communities where people learn together, cultivate team learning behaviours and become effective organisational change agents (Senge, 1990). Like other social organizations, schools are complex dynamic systems. They change constantly, moving from a stable state to a chaotic situation and back again. Just as coming in and out of the Covid-19 crisis has been. This cannot be controlled, but we can influence change through developing the learning capacity of schools going forward by investing in schools’ capacities to learn at all levels. Better outcomes for students can be achieved through collaborative, systematic, whole school efforts to learn how to improve. There is much interest in the concept as a lever for school improvement (Doherty, 2019; Harris and Jones, 2018; Kools and Stoll, 2016; OECD, 2018; Schleicher, 2015). Wales has invested heavily in the model as part of its commitment nationally to professional learning. It has set out to develop all schools as learning organisations to support curriculum reform as part of Wales’ ambitions for a self-improving school system (Welsh Government, 2017). It is developing a convincing evidence base which proves that schools as learning organisations work over a period of time. Findings are that the majority of Welsh schools are on their way towards developing as learning organisations but there is much ground still to travel. It emphasises the role of collaborative learning by all staff and the role played by school leadership.

International work led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2016) provides an integrated model with seven dimensions offering an excellent framework for schools:

  • Developing and sharing a vision centred on the learning of all students
  • Modelling and growing learning leadership
  • Promoting team learning and collaboration
  • Establishing a culture of inquiry, exploration and innovation
  • Embedding systems for collecting and exchanging knowledge and learning
  • Promoting and supporting continuous professional learning for all staff
  • Learning with and from the external environment and larger learning system


Schools as learning organisations have the capacity to change and adapt flexibly to new environments and circumstances, as its staff, both individually and together, learn their way to realising their vision (Kools and Stoll, 2016). They are places where the beliefs and values of all who work there are brought together in support of sustained learning excellence. They use meta-learning and reflect on what they are doing and how well they are doing it. They treat planning and evaluation as learning. They learn from themselves and are committed to lifelong learning. They look outwards and to the future by examining their present situation. This article proposes a shift in thinking about schools as organisations as a better way to connect learning. It is now more than ever, in these times of change and uncertainty, that turning schools into learning organisations has much to recommend it.

Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How might the concept of ‘learning schools’ work in your context?

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