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How to Build a Great Learning Organization

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Guest post by Zac Chase

To understand the importance of what is seen in Chapter 9 of A Year at Mission Hill, it is important to understand what isn't seen in so many of the country's public schools.

In describing the portfolio process and its place at Mission Hill, each teacher explains the portfolio as a tool for teacher learning as well as student learning. This is key.

In so much of the rhetoric around state and national assessments, the idea of accountability features front and center. Though this might have origins in an intended conversation about learning, it has largely devolved into a game of "gotcha."

A scan of the news stories of school and district officials cheating to avoid the negative consequences of poor assessment performance speaks to the transition of the accountability movement away from a focus on learning (if ever that were the intent).

Mission Hill's use of a portfolio- and project-driven assessment scheme fulfills the key principles of Peter Senge's definition of a learning organization in his classic book The Fifth Discipline.

Senge writes that learning organizations exist wherever "people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together."

Throughout Chapter 9, we see this definition fulfilled in the actions, questions, words, and learning of the community at Mission Hill.

From teachers discussing the best ways they've found of getting to a true understanding of specific students' learning, to 8th-grader Lorenz's explanation of his development of the cognitive capacity to identify dance as a mechanism for channeling the anger we're told interrupted his learning in earlier grades, Mission Hill's portfolio assessment speaks to the setting free of "collective aspiration" Senge describes.

The process does more than that, though; it situates students' learning as a complex endeavor, and something that is of value to the larger community as well. Through working with the committee to develop a project of both internal and external worth, the portfolio process moves away from what William Glasser described in his book The Quality School as "boss management."

"We need to accept the fact that, right now, the majority of boss-managed students see little chance to satisfy their needs by working hard in school," Glasser writes. "And we cannot boss them into doing more."

Here, again, Mission Hill offers an example of moving away from boss management, by allowing room for gradual, scaffolded student management of their own learning while appreciating the value and expertise of the adults who have traveled down those roads of learning before them.

Though they were writing largely about adult hierarchies within schools, this distribution of responsibility of learning also speaks to the idea of as explained by Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink in their book, Sustainable Leadership.

"The consequences of not distributing leadership are staleness and stagnation," Hargreaves and Fink warn. "The risks of distributing leadership are anarchy and confusion."

Indeed, we have seen throughout the year at Mission Hill how the structures within the school are not accidental. For the type of distributed leadership (from school leaders to students) embodied at Mission Hill, long-term planning and in-the-moment problem-solving work hand-in-hand so that students like Maurice can showcase their learning rather than rely on a standardized test.

To be certain, Mission Hill offers one model of learning and assessment. It is a model that works for the adults and children within their community. This model will not find credence with all teachers nor spark the curiosity of all students.

The goals of nurturing learning organizations, avoiding boss management and thoughtfully distributing leadership, though, can build schools and systems of assessment that serve the learning of all involved.

Zac Chase is an education consultant and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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