Evidence-Based Learning at School

Challenges on the path to a school as a learning organization

The office of the Ministerial Representative for modern secondary schools in Western Upper Bavaria as well as the School Development Authority Sundsvall aim at the development of their schools as learning organizations. A learning organization refers to an adaptable organization which is responsive to external and internal factors or changes. Events (repeaters, school dropouts, discipline problems etc.) are construed as a stimulus and used for development processes in order to adapt the knowledge base, the range of measures and the entire school community’s scope for action to the new requirements.

The following areas of action have been identified from intensive discussions within the management level of the Comenius Regio project (EBL).

  • Management
  • School organization
  • School structure
  • Communication
  • Staff attitude
  • Staff motivation

The prerequisite for a change in the above-mentioned areas of action is up-to-date management (instructions) and a willingness to invest a lot of time.

It is necessary that the autonomous school is a managed school, i.e. it has a responsible headmaster and a well-grasped hierarchical order. The ever budding debate on a democratically-run school should find no place in serious discussions. It is a purely theoretical model – a model that is incompatible with actual reality.

In particular in the autonomous school, organization is of paramount importance for educational success. Good organization never leads to a bureaucratization of the school. Over-regulation occurs only where weak leadership skills of the school management mislead into formalism, power thinking and retarding perfectionism.

A school that is on the path to becoming a learning organization necessarily needs a clear and carefully considered structure. This structure, among other things, must have a training plan. This training plan should be prepared jointly by the staff and the school management. It should not be rigid but should be understood as a living, changing organism.

After establishing during an internal evaluation where the strengths of the staff lie and where there is still a need for further staff training, a training plan accessible to all participants is created. Within the scope of internal school teachers training, an attempt should be made to make the respective capabilities of individual staff members more transparent for the entire staff.

This measure impacts several of the above-mentioned fields of action. Communication among the staff is improved (or begins in the first place). Further, motivation is of course increased, both among those who receive help from colleagues as well as those who share their knowledge with other teachers.

The process of team building among the staff is very important. A staff that sees itself as a team is open to new ideas from school members. A staff that consists of several discrete groups will always be sceptical or even hostile to the ideas and the innovative capacity of individual teachers from the other groups.  Therefore the school’s team concept should not be limited to the management but should include as many teachers as possible.

Limits imposed by the educational and civil service law

Educational and civil service laws are unfortunately still not adapted to the modern organization and intervention requirements. Therefore it is extremely difficult or even impossible to help individual teachers who refuse the latest educational or didactic findings and school development innovations achieve insight.

When addressing the subject of leadership, it is thus also important to promote open-mindedness and an open spirit in relation to these findings. This process requires a lot of time and effort.

Even if the school management invests a lot of time in bringing an atmosphere of open spirit and open-mindedness to the new learning research findings, some teachers will refuse these findings for various reasons. This situation is, in principle, not of great importance. It is, however, necessary that the school management’s position is presented via open and clear communication. A school is comparable to a freeway. A freeway has several lanes. A minimum speed is required. If you drive slower, you get in trouble. Colleagues who are traveling at the minimum speed in the right lane are standard and not harmful as long as their share of the staff remains manageable. But if these “minimum speed” teachers are blocking all the teachers in the left lane who wish to pursue their teaching with more passion, the school management must intervene.

Ideally, this intervention should take place in advance. It must be communicated clearly that although not every teacher has to actively participate in the school’s development, a disruption of the school’s development will not be accepted.

How can the findings of learning research be verified in school operation?

It should be considered how a reliable analysis of these practices can be carried out. Is a verification of school operation at all possible? What can/should be verified? We know that we can objectively verify/measure the number of students. What else can be verified/measured objectively? Grades? Are they really free of any subjectivity? It is bold and certainly incorrect to assume this. In many conversations and discussions, we have tried to identify which indicators are suitable for testing the “new teaching methods” in the daily school operation. We committed to the following aspects, partly due to a lack of alternatives from our critics:

  • Work behavior
  • Learning behavior
  • Social behavior
  • Grades

Oftentimes a fairly small part of the staff is willing to devote itself to these new findings and to involve them in their teaching. When a student is confronted with the “other” teaching methods only during a small proportion of the teaching time consisting of 30 lessons per week, it is impossible to check whether and how these methods work. It is therefore essential to ensure a concentration of teachers in a class. This class must then work over a very long period of time with the same teachers.

Classes that are schooled by conventional teaching methods serve as a comparison group.  We know that we work with students entrusted to us and not with “test subjects”, so this project has nothing to do with a scientific study, a broad-based school experiment, etc. We reject even the wrongly alleged claim to generality suggested by the critics. This project should give particularly motivated teachers the option to improve their own teaching for the well-being of and together with the participating students. Of course, this teaching and learning process must be intensively documented, and the results made available to the staff because, although we do not entertain a claim to generality, we would like to allow all members of the staff to benefit from our experience.

Wilfried Krauß, Zweiter Konrektor ZwRSK