The challenge and promise of learning organisations

"The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly. (Ryan & Deci. 2000)

There is a great deal that I like about this description of humanity at its best from Ryan & Deci. It is both a goal to be achieved and an indicator of conditions which are required for us to fulfil our potential. While the focus of this statement is on the actions of the individual we can see how society might act to deny individuals the opportunities to lead such an inspired and agentic life. I like to imagine what a school might be like if every individual who plays a part in its functioning strove to extend themselves, master new skills and apply their talents responsibly.

Maybe schools would be like the ‘learning organisations’ described by Peter Senge.

Underlying Senge’s writing are essential assumptions about people in organisations which parallel the description of people offered by Ryan & Deci. The most important assumption is revealed in the line ‘Learning organisations are possible because not only is it in our nature to learn but we love to learn’. His evidence for this is the learning that occurs for an infant as they learn to walk, talk and demonstrate intrinsic inquisitiveness. This love of learning that Senge identifies must be present for his learning organisations model to work. While a love of learning is an innate quality of young children it might be questioned that this persists as we age. It can be seen that for many and perhaps as a consequence of their experience of school, learning becomes synonymous with work. When learning becomes something we are coerced to do, when what we learn is controlled externally (by other people or by systems and policies) when our learning is regulated for us and motivation comes through extrinsic forces we lose the capacity to be agentic learners.

The second condition required for Senge’s learning organisation to thrive is that learning is a highly valued ideal of the teams which comprise the organisation. Senge states that ‘Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organisations.’ Lastly Senge describes learning organisations as ‘a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they change it.’ Taken on mass this is high rhetoric but Senge sees this as possible and achievable as ‘Material affluence for the majority has gradually shifted people’s orientation toward work - from what Daniel Yankelovich called an ‘instrumental’ view of work, where work was a means to an end, to a more ‘sacred’ view where people seek the ‘intrinsic’ benefits of work’. Where the majority of individuals are yet to embrace this sacred view of work, there is likely to be a great tension between those with high levels of intrinsic motivation to realise the vision and mission of the organisation and those who subscribe to an instrumental view.

Unpacking this Senge pins his theory on the belief that people will want to learn as part of a team to create a learning organisation with a shared vision and purpose because their material affluence and fundamental human nature allows them to rise above their lower aspirations for personal fulfilment. I have a hard time imagining that applying to all but a few organisations. After leaving school and while at university I worked in a hotel laundry. I worked as part of a team, we washed, we dried, we folded on odd occasions we had to learn a new fold, a new wash cycle, but in honesty, there was little learning to do. There was no opportunity to create a reality. Maybe the scale is too small and thinking of the Hotel as the organisation we had some knowledge to contribute to the overall health of the organisation, even so I do not imagine any of my colleagues seeing their work as anything other than an ‘instrumental’ means to an end. Maybe such jobs will soon be replaced by machines and Artificial Intelligence will remove the need for menial, repetitive cognitive labour. Maybe we are close to a time where we are all freed from being the ‘instruments' of the economy and work will become a ‘sacred’ force in all of our lives. Maybe we will all soon be living the life of the aerospace engineer with time to study philosophy and meditate while we await our next royalty cheque.

Senge states that 'This, then, is the basic meaning of a 'learning organisation’ - an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future'. But each organisation is made of individuals and while I agree we do possess an intrinsic drive to learn we have that drive to allow us as individuals to survive. Looked at possibly to the level of 'reductio ad absurdum', from organisations, to individuals, to individual genes as described in Dawkin’s model of the ’selfish gene’. It might be that our genes are encoded to learn but they are thusly encoded to learn for their individual survival and not the survival of the organisation that is us, nor the collective that we call humanity.

Yet in schools I at least want Senge to be correct, I want to work in that model of a learning community where everyone from the night janitor to the principal is committed to learning together to enhance the organisations quality. I want our students to be immersed in learning and to see the intrinsic value of becoming self-navigating life-long learners.

Returning to Ryan & Deci we notice two conditions which are crucial if we hope for a future populated by self-motivated individuals striving to learn and extend themselves; agency and inspiration. Firstly, individuals need to be agentic, meaning that they can act strategically to achieve their goals. For individuals to be truly agentic they require the capacity for self-directed action towards a goal and the social/cultural/organisational conditions which allow for this and they must have a desire to act with agency. Secondly, individuals need to be inspired; a requirement served by societal and organisational conditions which connect with what is of significance to the individual.

This then is the challenge for schools, to create conditions which inspire individuals to act with agency such that they become the architects of their learning. In framing such a goal the complexity of this challenge becomes apparent as one plays with the words to capture a condition in which the school is able to inspire the individual and accommodate individual agency, such that the individual is inherently inspired. How do we envision the role that the school or organisation plays in shaping the conditions within which the individual is able to shape their context to align with their inspired actions? How we manage the apparent paradox that agency can be taken from the individual but cannot be given? That all of this occurs in a climate where micromanagement of schools, teachers and teaching is the norm, where external forces increasingly shape what is taught and how, only further complicates matters. And still the words of Ryan & Deci hang there longing to be made real.

By Nigel Coutts