Skip to content
ascd logo

September 10, 2020

Make Your School a Learning Organization

Social-emotional learning
Every school community is placing bets on how to best serve their students, support their teachers, and engage with their community this year. Unfortunately, we have many more questions than we do answers. Some of our strategies will prove effective, while others will fall short.
The pandemic also presents a very real threat to education accessibility, deepening inequities and widening opportunity gaps within our systems. Educators will need to continuously adapt to ensure that they are creating meaningful learning opportunities and serving all students.
In short, our schools need to be learning organizations.
What exactly does this mean? Harvard Business School professors Amy C. Edmondson, Francesca Gino, and the late David A. Garvin have studied how organizations learn and proposed that there are three "building blocks" of a learning organization: 1) a supportive learning environment, 2) concrete learning processes and practices, and 3) leadership that reinforces learning (2008).
Educators should consider the current state of their schools, the extent to which they have these building blocks firmly in place, and where they may need to develop new approaches to be as responsive as possible to the changes underway.

A Supportive Learning Environment

A supportive learning environment has four characteristics, including psychological safety, appreciation for differences, openness to new ideas, and time for reflection (Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino, 2008). In organizations that have these characteristics, individuals believe that it is safe to admit mistakes, offer novel ideas, and challenge current conventions. Members of a school community typically get clear feedback on which of these behaviors are culturally acceptable. When we raise issues or offer new ideas, do colleagues and leaders respond with curiosity and encouragement? Or, do they respond with subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) dismissal or silence?
In a supportive learning environment, all members feel that they can contribute to the organization's approach to solving problems. In their recent report "Imagining September: Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools During COVID-19," Justin Reich and Jal Mehta argue that "building cultures where teachers, students, and parents feel included and listened to, where they are co-developers of the directions that are taken, is itself perhaps the most important factor that differentiates sustainably successful schools from those that are not"  (p. 2).
When people don't feel that it is safe to offer new ideas, raise concerns, or admit mistakes, the organization can fail to learn from individual experiences, insights, and innovations. In organizations where people don't feel comfortable talking about failures or asking for help, problems can persist and even spread.  Leaders may sometimes feel isolated in their roles and don't always have an accurate sense of how others are experiencing the culture.
Operating remotely can amplify this sense of isolation. Apart from formal climate surveys and focus groups, leaders can take small steps on a daily basis to assess and develop their culture: solicit feedback and ideas, elevate voices that express a less popular perspective, and celebrate moments when people are willing to offer alternative points of view. Leaders can also invite individuals to improve upon ideas rather than simply critiquing them and become co-conspirators in a problem-solving process.
To make this work, leaders may need to create new channels for communication that go beyond all-staff virtual meetings, like virtual open office hours, online chat platforms, or simply picking up the phone.

Concrete Learning Processes and Practices

Educators have long conceptualized the organization of many schools as an "egg crate," where people work in isolation. This provides few opportunities for teachers to learn from one another and can create extreme variation in students' learning experiences from classroom to classroom.
When a given teacher innovates their practice, it may have little or no effect on students outside that teacher's classroom. In their book Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective, the late Chris Argyris and Donald Schön explained how individual learning does not automatically translate to organizational learning. For organizational learning to happen, individuals' "discoveries, inventions, and evaluations must be embedded in organizational memory" (p. 19, 1978).
Every teacher is likely running a set of experiments on their own. Teachers are trying to figure out how to build relationships with students, ensure that learning activities are meaningful, and track student progress toward learning goals, all in a new context. As a result, many are experimenting with different ways to organize their "classrooms," or with new technologies, unfamiliar digital platforms, and alternative teaching methodologies. Some of these experiments are producing exciting results.
The problem is that most schools have no intentional process to learn as an organization from these individual experiments. For organizational learning to occur, schools must generate, collect, interpret, and disseminate information in systematic ways (Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino). Education leaders should consider what practices and channels currently exist to handle this information and what new practices and channels they must build.
For example, a school may decide to create a shared digital whiteboard, where teachers can post their most challenging problems of practice. Leaders can routinely ask teachers, "What are you doing that you think everyone should be doing?" as a way to identify promising innovations. Some teachers may struggle with similar problems, while others have discovered solutions. Teachers can share the approaches, strategies, and innovations they've tried and come together to discuss implications.
If teachers are struggling with how to maintain a sense of connection with students, some might suggest a weekly check-in routine or online platform they like. At some point, it may make sense for the organization as a whole to standardize these practices across classrooms, ensuring that every student benefits from the innovation created by one or two people.
Some organizations also debrief after an error or accident so that everyone can learn from the experience. One popular protocol is the After Action Review, which prompts the group to explore: 1) what were we trying to do, 2) what actually happened, 3) what caused the results, and 4) what to do moving forward. Imagine how quickly teacher teams could learn from each other if they regularly engaged in such routines.
Even short conversations can lead to valuable learning. Consider a team of teachers who spends 15 minutes at the end of the week debriefing a lesson they had planned together and individually implemented. A common challenge surfaces: Several students never showed up to the synchronous session. The teachers talk through what may have caused this result and brainstorm a list of new approaches. They decide to gather additional information about each student, improve communication channels to students and families, make the student schedule as simple as possible, and start synchronous sessions with a chance for students to check in with one another. The team reconvenes for at the end of the following week to evaluate their progress.
Though the uncertainty of the current context makes it impossible to pre-determine every solution to every problem, routinely sharing information can help everyone be more responsive when challenges inevitably arise.

Leadership That Reinforces Learning

Organizational leaders play a critical role in building a learning organization. Through their behaviors, actions, and decisions, leaders are constantly sending messages about what they value and expect. In the words of Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino, "When people in power demonstrate through their own behavior a willingness to entertain alternative points of view, employees feel emboldened to offer new ideas and options" (pp. 112–113, 2008).
However, many leaders may also feel subject to intense expectations from their communities regarding directives and solutions. Rather than ask questions, leaders are often expected to provide answers and likely feel pressure to take quick action. A leader may need to renegotiate these expectations, particularly because successfully navigating these challenges will require a collective effort on behalf of the entire organization and community.
Leadership researchers Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie argue that leaders can begin to do this, in part, by regulating distress. Leaders can help teachers prioritize the most pressing issues, act in ways that encourage collective ownership over problems, and facilitate creative problem-solving. Instead of trying to translate all aspects of in-person teaching and learning to a virtual context, leaders can challenge their community to rethink traditional features such as lectures, worksheets, and seat time, and build new approaches to engagement, such as utilizing projects, exploring community resources, and working toward authentic assessments.
Education leaders should ask themselves: How am I facilitating a productive, creative, problem-solving dialogue? How can I enlist my community as co-problem-solvers who feel ownership over the issue and solution?
Though so much is out of individuals' immediate control, educators can still set themselves up for the greatest chances of success. That starts with being a learning organization.

Argyris, C., and Schön, D. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C., & Gino, F. (2008, March). Is yours a learning organization? Brighton, MA.: Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Reich, J., & Mehta, J. (2020, July 3). "Imagining September: Principles and design elements for ambitious schools during COVID-19." EdArXiv. Retrieved from

Zachary Herrmann is a former math teacher who currently serves as a program director and a member of the associated faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
Social-emotional learning
Numbers of Note / The Rising Demand for "Soft" Skills
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

Related Articles