Are You a Learning Organization?

Posted on Oct 19 , 2011 in Principal's Blog

“Will the students at your school be better off than the students who attend other schools in your community?” You should not start a school unless you can answer “yes” to this question. However, the truth is that new schools have little to go on when they make predictions about their future performance. Also, unless they make a deliberate plan to learn success, predictions will be crap shoot.
I find many similarities between the entrepreneurship of starting companies and starting schools. Recently I read an article from the May, 2005 Harvard Business Review “How to Create Break Through Businesses Within Established Organizations“ by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble where I found an analysis of how to create a learning culture in companies as they grow and hopefully prosper. New companies, like new charter schools, often have no baseline for performance and their initial and future success is unknown. Substituting academic achievement for profit can create a powerful parallel for success in the charter school “industry.” Below is a graphic the authors use to describe the process toward creating a more sophisticated organization that understands how it can propel its performance. In essence, they suggest that over time a deliberate examination of practices can inform decision making and move an organization from wild guesses to reliable forecasts about success.

At ACE Leadership High School, we start with the premise that establishing a school culture that functions like a family is vital to our student’s success because care and concern is the pathway to learning. Teachers take on the role of co-parenting and caring for developing a student’s character as if they were their own children—authoritative but not authoritarian. It also means active social working that happens in the public spaces of the school because we believe that building culture is inherently a public exercise that should not be kept behind the curtain.

How does one marry the practice of deliberate self-examination within an affective context? How do you tease apart the components of your school’s culture in a way that allows you to isolate elements of your relationships with adolescents to understand which specific actions can improve their emotional health? In a word . . . it’s complex. One critical element of ACE Leadership High School that bears much of this weight is our Advisory program where every student is mentored by a single teacher (Advisor). During a recent half day professional development session with our faculty our Student Support Team (SST) and teachers delved into the complexity of Advisory by starting with a basic question: “How can we account for the role of personality in our relationships with our students?” The SST framed the question in this way because relationships are a two way street, and if we truly believe that support is the pathway to academic performance, then the Advisory system must be hyper-effective. It also acknowledges that people are different and some teachers are more suited to building relationships with some students more than others and vice versa.

When we began the school year we randomly assigned our students to an advisor. Unknowingly, we held on to a vestige of the past that assumed all teachers and students are the same and one advisor is as good as the next for a student. In other words, our practice did not match our core belief in the power of personal relationships because we paid no attention to the way in which we matched our adults to our young people. In the professional development session, the SST worked with the faculty to delve into their success at working with students based on the following continuum: Distant and Weak, Strong and Close, or Conflicted. Then Advisors were asked to look for trends in their success at working with types of young people. Some powerful insights that Advisors found included:

“I think I’m struggling with some students, but I wonder if they are actually struggling with me” and
“I don’t get along with kids who overtly defy authority because I used to be that way when I was a kid.”
The prediction model identified by Govindarajan and Trimble is a framework for our growth. At the beginning of the school year we had little idea of whether our support model for young people would translate into high levels of academic success and any prediction we made was really a “Wild Guess.” As of this fall, we now better understand how to create a more effective Advisory program which is an integral part of our hypothesis that support drives achievement. Improving on the critical elements of system (matching personalities of students with advisors) should give us the power to make more “Informed Estimates” of our future success. The guessing game about performance is getting a little more predictable.

School development is an inherently risky business. There are no sure bets when creating a model that can serve the variety of young people in our communities. Customization is a fundamental attribute of any successful school and that is tricky business because it is inherently a human endeavor. However, we can be successful if we embrace two basic tenants of organizational development: 1) Learning is paramount to growth, and 2) Complex organizations can evolve deliberately if we take the time to isolate and develop the drivers of success.

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