Evidence-Based Learning at School

Learning organizations and problem-based school development

In a learning organization, the bottom-up perspective on school development is emphasized and co-workers’ empowerment is strengthened. A learning organization is characterized by being more conscious of and systematic in experiential learning at the individual, group and organization level than other organizations. ”Organizational learning is changed organization capacity for doing something new.” (Watkins and Marsick, 1993 p. 148). In their review of research literature on learning organizations Mitchell and Sackney (1998) found that they are characterized by reflective self-analysis about tacit assumptions and beliefs, understanding systemic influences and relationships, sharing information openly, honestly examining current practices critically, experimenting with new practices, and understanding the inevitability of disagreement and conflict.  By managing differences of opinion through inquiry and problem-solving, they develop common understanding and language patterns as well as.


Teachers claim that their own experiences are the most important factor for their way of teaching, followed by dialogues with colleagues and students about these experiences (Dalin, 1993; Hultman & Hörberg, 1994; Richardson, 1994; Scherp, 2003; Scherp & Scherp, 2007). Teachers and school leaders need to learn about and deepen their understanding of the nature of the problems if they want be able to improve their school. However, there is a problem with experiential learning in connection with development. Learning through one’s own experiences risks reinforcing existing conceptions regardless of how well or poorly they reflect reality (Argyris & Schön, 1974).

More time is needed for learning in and from daily activities. Sarv (1997) and Sandberg & Targama (1998) stress that we need to encourage critical thinking in the organization and also institutionalize questioning by establishing routines for this.

Professional learning communities are the core in learning organizations. Stoll and Louis (2007) define a professional learning community as an inclusive group of people, motivated by a shared learning vision, who support and work with each other, finding ways, inside and outside their immediate community, to enquire into their practice and together learn new and better approaches that will enhance all pupils’ learning. The learning organization perspective puts emphasis on how experiences from different learning communities can stimulate new solutions. Some recent studies show that work in learning communities is one successful way to enhance student outcomes in schools. Timperley et al (2007) have conducted a meta-study based on 97 empirical contributions about the impact of teachers’ professional development on the outcomes of the students. They conclude that participation in some form of professional learning community in which prevailing discourses were challenged led to improved results. Effective school leadership was characterized by organizing environments to promote teachers’ learning opportunities. Robinson (2007) confirms these results in another meta-analysis of 26 empirical studies which measured the relationship between type of school leadership and student outcomes. The results showed that the largest impact on student outcomes was reached when school leaders were involved in promoting and participating in teachers’ learning. The main task of the school leader was to organize sense-making learning environments for teachers that help them to a more profound understanding of complex and puzzling everyday problems.

Sarv (1997) points out that it is not enough to concentrate on traditional competence development to accomplish emancipatory learning in an organization. Two dimensions, challenging leadership, and listening and responsive leadership are features in a learning oriented leadership, which is emphasized in connection with school development based on a learning perspective (Scherp & Scherp, 2007).

In Sweden the concept problem-based school development has developed from an attempt to introduce and incorporate the ideas described above into school practice. Within the Swedish context, the acronym PBS refers to a national research and school developmental network that was active from 2003-2012 as well as a developmental model based on a practice developed in the network (www.kau.se/pbs).

As in action research (Rönnerman, 2011; Somekh & Zeichner, 2009 among others) and other practice based and learning oriented approaches, developmental work based on this model is seen as a problem solving process (Scherp, 2001; Hameyer, 2001). Learning from participants’ former experience and in particular the variation in their ways of seeing the problem and the situations where it emerges is at the core of this process. Identifying and describing different ways of seeing and acing is therefore considered an important part of the work, providing a basis for learning (For a deeper insight to the role of variation in learning, see, for instance, Marton & Pang, 2006). The emphasis on variation in the process makes the work carried out in the project closely related to practice developed within the learning study tradition (See for instance Holmqvist & Mattisson, 2009; Pang & Lo, 2011; Runesson, 2006). However, in problem based school development,  learning is not oriented towards a certain way of seeing claimed to be more effective or powerful than the current ones (Marton, Runesson & Tsui, 2004), but rather towards new or other ways of seeing that can be shared, tried out and evaluated as part of the process. The fact that there is no intended object of learning (Marton, Runesson & Tsui, 2004) turns learning into an open-ended sense-making (Weick, 2001), or knowledge-building, process.


From Katina Thelins presentation: Swedish teachers and school leaders as researchers within their own practice

(Katina Thelin & Hans-Åke Scherp, ECER, Porto, 3 september 2014)