Schools as learning organisations LO14710

Steve Barnett (
Mon, 18 Aug 1997 11:03:24 NZST-12

Replying to LO14416 --

This is to belatedly pick up on a discussion that included Don Ledingham,
in LO14314, observing that schools are not learning organisations, but
rather controlling bureaucracies that reflect a mechanistic approach to
teaching and learning. Graham Oliver entered the discussion, in LO14353,
to distinguish such learning from education. He subsequently reported, in
LO14416, the school-to-work training emphasis of education reform in New
Zealand, an apparent re- emphasising of the mechanistic training paradigm.
This is an attribute of managerial practice as distinct from professional

Over the last six years I have been particularly interested in the
willingness of New Zealand secondary school teachers to deploy this
managerial approach, so successful in commercial organisations, in the
modernisation of their education organisations. I have observed a
pervasive assumption amongst teachers and reformers that controlling,
hierarchical, bureaucratic organisational forms are the natural way to
organise complex processes.

I found a clue to where this assumption might have come from when I
interviewed an Organisational Theory class of final year Bachelor of
Business students, of various age and experience, on their recollections
of the organisational form of their old secondary schools. I was surprised
that, despite their having read and discussed organisational forms at some
considerable length and depth, they had no conception of the form of the
organisation that had timetabled their lives and controlled their
behaviour for 40 weeks per year over the five years of their secondary

In subsequent reflection, they explained their blindness by saying that
the organisation was 'just life'. If this small sample of organisational
perception is any indication of the depth of imprinting of the controlling
bureaucratic organsiational form on our society, then it is little wonder
that this same form is so generally prevalent despite espoused LO type

I concur with Terri Deems, LO14382, the "probably the most powerful
learning we do is tacit, incidental & informal through the interactions
and transactions involving our subjective selves and the objective world."
This observation is supported by others such as Gardner and Polanyi in
relation to apprenticeship learning: the apprentice unconsciously picks up
the learning context and this contextual learning is more likely to be
enacted in real life situations than scholastic learning.

It seems that New Zealand mass education's greatest success over the last
100 years may have been the creation of a generation, with a predominantly
reductionist/functionalist, individualist, moral relativist organisational
paradigm, that expects good organisation to be naturally evidenced by
controlling, bureaucratic type structures. It is therefore unsurprising
that schools, populated, staffed, managed, directed and subject to
governmental policy generated by such people, are not LOs and have great
difficulty becoming LOs.

Much organisational reform in New Zealand education over the last six
years has been to further refine the existing organisational style through
targeted application, to the practice of the professionals, of ever more
narrow versions of the same perspective. The question is: who will
replenish the social and moral capital that such organisational thinking
draws upon, unconsciously assuming it to be an inexhaustible, natural,
environmental resource?(see Frances Fukuyama, "Trust". Penguin)

If education, defined as broad, values based learning, is to be the
mechanism of reinvestment, then the problem is how to get education
organisations to learn new forms that model such learning. The underlying
problem is that 100 years of uniform state schooling has buried, in the
general organsiational cultural unconsciousness, the values, attitudes and
beliefs needed for the transformation.

If there there is enough genetic material remaining to permit cultural
regeneration, the solution is in widespread reawakening, amongst education
professionals, of holistic/interpretive understandings of knowledge,
education and organisations. This can be followed by interplay of the
regenerated culture with the currently predominant managerialist one to
create actual new learning.

Steve Barnett

Lecturer, School of Management, Manukau Institute of Technology,
Private Bag 94006, Manukau City, Auckland, New Zealand.
Telephone 00 64 9 274 8889 direct dial X 7486
Facsimile 00 64 9 273 0707


"Steve Barnett" <>

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