Harvard Educational Review
  1. Understanding Schools as Intelligent Systems

    Edited by Kenneth Leithwood

    Stamford, CT: JAI Press, 2000. 303 pp. $82.50

    Understanding Schools as Intelligent Systems, a collection of articles whose authors employ an organizational learning framework to analyze schools, presents several perspectives on the capacity of schools to improve themselves. Broadly speaking, “organizational learning” refers to a group of people learning new processes, practices, and structures in order to reorganize their work. Editor Kenneth Leithwood distinguishes between organizations that are “smart” (i.e., highly skilled) and those that are intelligent — that is, those with the capacity to learn new skills and knowledge. Bringing clarity to what this capacity means and looks like in practice is the primary contribution of this compilation of articles.

    Leithwood introduces this volume by arguing that individuals, groups, and organizations must experience some form of disequilibrium in order to devote the time and other resources necessary for learning new practices. Specifically, he identifies three potential sources of disequilibrium — environmental shifts, a gap between desired and actual outcomes, and/or an ethic of continuous improvement — and outlines three levels of analysis that serve to organize the book’s contents. The first level of analysis centers on the learning capacity of individuals and teams; the second examines this capacity in schools and districts. The third level of analysis investigates the effects or outcomes of learning for individuals, teams, and schools.

    The first section of the book, “Developing the Intellectual Capacity of Individuals and Teams,” includes three articles on precisely what the section title indicates: one chapter focuses on the various factors that influence principal learning, while the other two focus on team development and learning (one in the context of a school leadership team and one in the context of a secondary school administrative team). While these three chapters do not use precisely the same framework for understanding learning, collectively they offer a range of ways to understand and assess learning processes by organizations, and the groups and individuals within them. For example, the author of the chapter about principals conceives learning as being nonroutine and “situated” (p. 20) and evidenced by an increased capacity to solve problems, to “exploit positively the social, symbolic and/or physical environment” (p. 21), and to make use of existing expert knowledge. In contrast, the authors of the chapter that focuses on school leadership teams conceive learning as an increased ability to develop a shared vision of improvement efforts, set standards, think systemically, and create effective learning environments for students.

    How to develop the learning capabilities of schools is the focus of the second section, “Building the Intellectual Capacity of Schools and Districts.” These six chapters are devoted to understanding both organizational and systemic learning. This section focuses on the impact school, district, state, and federal programs and policies have on the learning capacity of teachers, administrators, and the schools in which they work. While chapters five and six attend to understanding the conditions under which schools are likely to build their own capacity (i.e., to learn), chapters seven and eight outline intervention strategies directly targeted at improving the learning capacity of schools. Chapter nine examines the role state and federal policy play in school learning; specifically, it analyzes the assumptions regarding practitioner learning often made by policymakers — that teaching is primarily a technical profession and that, therefore, one best solution exists — and outlines a different set of premises that are more conducive to truly building capacity — that professionals’ learning must be taken seriously (e.g., supported by additional resources) and that policymakers need more information from practitioners. Finally, chapter ten provides a literature review focused on describing a plausible series of stages that schools might pass through on their way to becoming learning organizations. Taken together, the chapters in this section provide an array of strategies for developing the learning capacity of schools, as well as several methodological approaches for understanding the impact of such efforts.

    Instead of examining the conditions under which schools do or do not learn, the last section of this volume concerns the question, learning about what? Each of the three main chapters in “Organizational Learning Effects” presents empirical data in the service of understanding the direct and indirect effects of organizational learning in schools. Chapter eleven, the first chapter in this section, tackles the question, “Does the capacity for organizational learning increase the ability of schools to deliver high quality instruction and strong student performance?” (p. 239). Relying on survey and classroom observation data, as well as measures of student achievement (such as National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores), the authors conclude that the capacity for organizational learning is related to desirable outcomes (high-quality pedagogy and demonstrated student learning). The authors conceive organizational learning as being comprised of six dimensions — the presence of democratic structures, shared commitments and collaborative activity, appropriate knowledge and skills, supportive leadership, and feedback and accountability. According to the authors, realizing the promise of organizational learning is dependent upon the simultaneous presence of all six dimensions.

    The authors of chapter twelve, using questionnaire data collected from Australian secondary schools, identify some links between organizational learning, leadership, and student outcomes (specifically, student engagement in school). These authors operationalize organizational learning as a function of the capacity to establish shared goals, to collaborate, to encourage risk and innovation, to carefully monitor and evaluate school progress, to know and understand specific resources and challenges, and, finally, to provide ongoing opportunities for professional development. These authors argue that the primary benefit of organizational learning for schools is to “make sense of paradox” (p. 288). According to these scholars, organizational learning can help schools find stability in change, to “move ahead without losing . . . roots” (p. 288).

    Chapter thirteen features two case studies of Canadian high schools, focusing on how each one adapts to outside pressure for change over the course of a decade. The authors argue that creating “shared knowledge structures” (p. 312), additional financial resources, and competent leadership are necessary for building the learning capacity of schools. When these are in place, schools can learn to maintain focus on a few key improvement areas over time, even when administrative leadership changes. The capacity to maintain such a focus is, according to these authors, a key outcome of school learning.

    Understanding Schools as Intelligent Systems illustrates some important ideas for practitioners and policymakers interested in helping schools build the capacity to develop skills and knowledge on their own. Because a common criticism of organizational learning research is that it is too theoretical, it is important that nine of the twelve main chapters are based on original empirical data. Nonetheless, the utility of this volume is compromised because, despite Leithwood’s attempt to create a common framework, the authors operationalize organizational learning in several different ways. This variation makes comparison across chapters difficult, as it is unclear whether the same terms are being used in similar ways (in the words of the field, the authors appear to have different “mental models” of what organizational learning entails). This volume does not answer some of the epistemological questions that have slowed the maturation of the organizational learning field: What is an organization that it may learn? What kind of learning do organizations actually engage in? Such questions must be theoretically and empirically resolved if a more coherent literature, where scholars can meaningfully build on the work of others, is to emerge. In order for this to happen, however, scholars will need to employ some common definitions of organizational learning. Conceptual clarity cannot be achieved without attempts to operationalize and empirically measure organizational learning, such as those found in this fascinating if at times disconnected collection of articles.

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    Book Notes

    Understanding Schools as Intelligent Systems
    Edited by Kenneth Leithwood

    Escaping Education
    By Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva

    Schools that Learn
    By Peter Senge

    Storylines: Craftartists’ Narratives of Identity
    By Elliot G. Mishler

    Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education
    By Peter Mayo