Scholarly article on topic 'Support for Organizational Learning in Czech basic Schools'

Support for Organizational Learning in Czech basic Schools Academic research paper on "Economics and business"

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{"Organizational learning" / "basic schools" / "teacher cooperation" / "learning processes."}

Abstract of research paper on Economics and business, author of scientific article — Bohumíra Lazarová, Milan Pol, Lenka Hloušková, Petr Novotný, Martin Sedláček

Abstract The authors present their own research on leadership in organizational learning. The aim of the research is to describe and grasp processes of leadership of organizational learning in Czech basic schools and to identify its contents and forms as well as impediments and supportive interventions. Both qualitative and quantitative methodologies (case studies and questionnaires for headteachers and teachers) have been used to accomplish these objectives. The paper contains results obtained from the analysis of qualitative data aimed at the identification and description of factors facilitating processes of organizational learning in selected schools.

Academic research paper on topic "Support for Organizational Learning in Czech basic Schools"

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Social and Behavioral Sciences

Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 93 (2013) 302 - 307

3rd World Conference on Learning, Teaching and Educational Leadership (WCLTA-2012)

Support for organizational learning in Czech basic schools

Bohumira Lazarovä*, Milan Pol, Lenka Hlouskovä, Petr Novotny, Martin Sedläcek

Department of Educational Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, A. Novaka 1, 60200 Brno, Czech Republic


The authors present their own research on leadership in organizational learning. The aim of the research is to describe and grasp processes of leadership of organizational learning in Czech basic schools and to identify its contents and forms as well as impediments and supportive interventions. Both qualitative and quantitative methodologies (case studies and questionnaires for headteachers and teachers) have been used to accomplish these objectives. The paper contains results obtained from the analysis of qualitative data aimed at the identification and description of factors facilitating processes of organizational learning in selected schools.

© 2013The Authors.PublishedbyElsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer review under responsibility of Prof. Dr. Ferhan Odaba§i Keywords: Organizational learning; basic schools; teacher cooperation; learning processes.

1. Introduction

In the past few decades great emphasis has been placed on learning processes in different types of organization and the terms 'knowledge management', 'learning organization', 'collective learning' and 'organizational learning' (Argyris, 1992, 1999; Crossan et al., 1995, 1999; Dodgson, 1993; Easterby-Smith, 1997; Fiol & Lyles, 1985; Huber, 1991; Levitt & March, 1988; Miller, 1996; Senge, 1997; Sun & Scott, 2003) have received special attention. The definition of organizational learning varies, depending on the spirit of the discipline or professional context in which it is used. There is some consensus, however, in the assertion that it concerns the learning of different subjects at different levels of organization and in different forms resulting in a change in the behavior of an organization and the people within it. This change in behavior is considered mainly in terms of innovative behavior that is to the benefit of the organization (Argyris, 1999). Interest in organizational learning is brought about by new insights into the behavior of an organization from which continued learning is expected; the aim is to develop the potential of organizations to exploit new opportunities and meet the changing demands.

In schools, which are considered specific organizations, there tends to be more support for individual learning and many barriers are created in respect of learning at group and organization level. A wide range of research has been conducted with the aim of identifying factors that influence cooperation in and the processes of organizational learning in schools (Leithwood et al., 1998; Schratz & Steiner-Loffler, 1998; Verbiest, 2002; Verbiest et al., 2005). The results of this research suggest that intervention on the part of school leaderships facilitating processes of organizational learning can be placed in three categories: (1) care of resources and materials, creation of a structure

Bohumira Lazarova

1877-0428 © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer review under responsibility of Prof. Dr. Ferhan Odaba§i


for channels of communication, organization of meeting time etc.; (2) care of school climate, induction of a culture of meeting, openness and trust, establishing of a standard for professional development etc.; (3) supportive, stimulating and shared leadership, teachers involved in the development of the school etc.

At a general level there is no significant divergence among ideas on how to create conditions for the development of organizational learning. To understand in detail ways in which school leaderships create conditions for organizational learning, it is necessary to look at the workings of individual schools from within and describe and interpret processes for the support of organizational learning on the basis of specific instances. Although qualitative data obtained in this way are difficult to transfer, they present us with a clear image of support for organizational learning that can become a source of inspiration and provide evidence of the uniqueness of individual schools.

Over the past twenty years Czech schools have undergone major change and school headteachers have had to focus on the development of organizational learning in their working teams. The processes and management of organizational learning is a relatively new theme; its research builds on research on school climate, school culture, teacher cooperation, democracy in schools, etc., which continues to be conducted at our institution and other institutes of research in the Czech Republic. In this paper we address specific instances of support for organizational learning and strategies on the part of school leaderships; we describe these on the basis of data obtained from selected Czech basic schools (ISCED 1, 2).

2. Research on support of processes of organizational learning in selected Czech schools

In 2010 we started a research program that focused on the recognition of processes of organizational learning and management of these processes in Czech basic schools (the project called Processes of organizational learning in school and their leadership; grant number P 407/10/1197, supported by Czech Science Foundation of the Czech Republic). In order to realize our aims, we opted for a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches (including case studies and questionnaires). We carried out qualitative research in three selected basic schools; two of these - a city school (School A) and a village school (School C) - were evaluated as successful, innovative and learning-oriented. A third school (School B) was chosen to represent the opposite extreme. School B was a city school that found itself in a situation of internal transformation; after a somewhat unsuccessful period the school's new leadership was trying to launch learning processes at all levels. In each of the schools, 7 - 8 interviews were carried out with selected teachers and the school leadership, while selected school documentation was analyzed. Categorized data were then related to individual schools (case studies). Data from all three schools were also processed en masse with the aim of recognizing and describing processes of organizational learning and identifying and describing strategies of management processes for organizational learning across all schools in the survey. Using examples from the schools we have mentioned, in this communication we will focus on selected strategies for management of organizational learning. As schools A and C are considered 'learning' and 'innovative' schools, it is evident that we can consider the management strategies described as supportive of organizational learning. Strategies - in our conception - are consciously and clearly targeted approaches but also more random ways of behavior and action on the part of school management that were related by school headteachers and interviewed teachers to learning processes at school. For the purposes of this paper we will select and describe selected strategies for the support of organizational learning that appeared to be typical of and most effective in the selected schools.

Learning associated with a vision

When we asked people at the schools about learning processes, interviews usually turned to the projects and innovations that had been carried out in the schools. One strategy for the support of innovation and thus processes of organizational learning is to stimulate in teachers the feeling that they themselves will become creators of a vision which they will then realize. The headteacher of School C has a clearly thought-out strategy for how to achieve this. At a training event for school leaders he learned about techniques of teamwork which he puts into practice at work with his own team. Vision plans and tasks are outcomes of teamwork. The headteacher explained: When I took up this position in 2002 my deputy and I took part in a training program, where we learned to draw up a strategic plan of development. We applied this as soon as we arrived. [... ] One advantage of this training was that we learned

methods for working with people. [...] Yes, these techniques helped us a lot, as I learned to work with the staff. [...] But it wouldn't have worked if I'd had to force the ideas on them. [...] It's very helpful that I can resist manipulation. [...] ... so that the teachers became involved, did it happily, did it for themselves.

Thanks to the attitudes of the school leadership, teachers became creators of a vision and plans; they plan activities for a period of three years on their own. A problem may arise when teachers reach agreement on something that the school leaders have not reckoned with and which is not in harmony with the leadership's intentions. The headteacher explained: Of course my deputy and I prepare the meeting. [...] We do not formulate precise goals, but where we want to get to. [...] Then we say to ourselves that perhaps whatever arises won't destroy us. [...] We formulated our aims and then there was another meeting, where we worked on them further. Then I left myself some time to keep an eye on things, to make sure that it didn't slide off in a different direction at a later stage. [...] I direct only when a situation arises that causes a conflict. For instance, someone might come up with an idea that is bad at first sight [...] It breaches security, or it is completely against the direction of the school. Then I simply say no. There aren't many such situations, but they do occur.

It seems that the leadership of School C avoids certain errors which are typical of many schools according to Leithwood et al. (1998), who claim that school headteachers often support different kinds of learning but prefer isolated activities over systematic activities that pursue clear objectives. The headteacher of School C tends to support systematic activities based on a medium-term (three-year) vision, thus fulfilling a key condition for the development of organizational learning - a coherent sense of direction. He supports organizational learning by not assigning simple tasks, promoting sharing, dividing responsibilities and applying transformational leadership (Verbiest et al., 2005), which leads to organizational change (feed forward learning type) (Sun & Scott, 2003). He adopts the role of an educator and builder of culture (Verbiest, undated) who shares a vision, stimulates trust, promotes attitudes of innovation, provides support, etc. Key points in this case are: (1) training for senior school staff for which the headteacher has learned techniques of teamwork; (2) the headteacher's ability to put these techniques into practice; (3) a mutually supportive leadership duo (together they have undertaken training and can thus work in a team of teachers).

2.1 May, must or want to? A system that draws one in

In School A we identified another strong strategy that promotes organizational learning. Unlike the first case, this strategy was at first not fully elaborated and the school leadership itself did not know what the outcome of its efforts would be. In cooperation with teachers of natural-science subjects, school leaders initiated a project supported by European funding that allowed the school to establish an e-learning system for subjects of the natural sciences. In its second phase the project included electronic student's record books. The first project [...] was the e-teaching of natural-science subjects, so it included natural scientists; then, of course the core started to spread into other subjects [...] The natural-science subjects got it all started and [...] gradually people came around to the idea that there were good reasons for it and they wanted to join in (headteacher).

The historians came along and said, "Hey, that's a great idea. Can we join in?" [...] So we said OK. There came a time when we were doing it in all subjects [...] Next year electronic registers, after that course books ...(a teacher).

Originally it was a slighter project on which a smaller group of people would work. Teachers not involved in the project heard of its benefits and wanted to learn how to work with the new system and make use of it in their subjects. So the e-learning system began its irresistible expansion into other subject areas. All the teachers involved were thus forced to improve their mastery of computer technology, which was achieved thanks to teachers of information technology in particular who were willing to help colleagues with an interest in e-learning. Before long a system was in place that covered the whole school. We have a teachers' disk where everyone is in the habit of putting things we agree on. So if we're preparing a project, we simply create a new folder where everyone goes to input their data (headteacher).

As a consequence of these activities, social pressure was applied to teachers who remained hesitant. At the beginning all were given the opportunity to get involved in the project, and over time and owing to the pressure of the situation they did not wish to remain 'beyond the mainstream'. Teachers who were initially hesitant learned to trust colleagues who could manage the system and were open to helping them; they recognized that there was nothing to fear. These people were afraid to say that they had a problem, they felt embarrassed. [...] So I and the

stronger personalities explained to them that we all had the same problem. [...] If we didn't all help each other, it simply would not succeed (headteacher). Passing on information to someone else isn't necessarily showing off... (a teacher).

School A then had a similar experience with other projects: a small working team gradually snowballed to include many teachers. This example confirms the view of authors who claim that key factors in learning often occur by chance and cannot always be foreseen. Nevertheless, the more organizational learning is put into practice in schools, the more people come to realize differences and the need for further change (Louis & Leithwood, 1998). In this instance the position of the headteacher - the role of 'architect', which signifies a very creative source of ideas - is clearly a strong one. Her deputies free her from the need to perform everyday tasks in the running of the school so that she can develop her ideas to the benefit of the school. Great emphasis is placed on an information system that all teachers are able to use, while clear rules are established for communication. The following can be considered key factors: (1) an innovative idea with financial support; (2) openness on the part of the project team and openness of the emergent system; (3) meaningfulness of innovation that facilitates teachers' work; (4) strong social pressure to achieve mastery of the system.

2.2 The school in the community and the community in the school

For another example of a strategy in support of organizational learning we return to School C. This strategy is well thought out and built on good relations that exist between the leaderships of the school and the municipality that is the school's establishing entity. School C is a so-called community school: open to the outside world and working closely with other entities in the community. The school also offers education for adults - citizens from the local community. We have formed a citizens' association that makes us a 'community school'. [...] The municipality obtained some money for a project. [...] The aim of these community activities is to open up the school to the public. Not just as a passive space, but as an active one offering people opportunities for education and development (headteacher).

Teachers at the school participate in educational activities for citizens, having had to accept the role of adult educator as well as the restructuring of their timetables. If there are the teachers to do them, we have courses in computing and English and a lot of handicraft and sport courses. [...] The guiding idea is that if the teacher is able and willing to do something, he can choose to do it... (headteacher). A variety of courses are run here within the concept of the community school. [...] People come from this village and neighbouring villages. In addition there are various meetings of local mayors [...] which concerns the development of the municipality [...]and it is all funded from EU sources. [...] Thanks to this a lot of money, a lot of interesting people and a lot of opportunities that allow us to keep developing, come into the school. And I think that we're quite well known (a teacher).

For this school the outside world has become an essential source of learning. Leithwood et al. (1988) have found that the influence on organizational learning of the outside world is often underestimated, especially as regards the contribution of the region (local conditions). This does not apply in our case. The outside world (i.e. the municipality) is also a source of finance and it raises the prestige of the school (school and municipality draw on EU funds together, meetings of mayors, etc). Other authors (e.g. Goh et al., 2006), too, consider a system of motivation and reward as a condition for the development of organizational learning. Of course we help the headteacher with it: we get classrooms ready, make decorations. When people come to take part in the meetings we take care of them [...] sometimes even on Saturdays, so I'm at school when usually I'd be at home (a teacher).

Naturally, involvement in local activities and the requirement to adopt new roles and learn new things are time-consuming matters. It is obvious that good school results and the availability of funding serve to support and encourage cooperation and organizational learning (cf. Senge, 1999). Here the school headteacher plays the powerful role of culture builder. The key points in this case are as follows: (1) good relations between school and municipality; (2) availability of financial resources; (3) openness of the school - new opportunities for teachers; (4) positive feedback for the school.

2.3 The will to make sense

It is evident from the previous strategy that teachers should be motivated if they are to learn. This motivation should be determined not only by social climate and relations; it should also be financial. The leaderships of School A and C realize that learning demands teachers' time and that they should be compensated for this. So one clear strategy concerns efforts to secure financial awards for teachers in the form of grants. Things are always done better if they're paid. [...] We no longer live in the time of the Pioneer leader who would do something for a bunch of flowers (a teacher).

The authors of other studies, too, have puzzled over the question of whether an insufficiency of (material and informational) resources enhances or diminishes organizational learning. According to Bapuji and Crossan (2004), organizations that lack resources might paradoxically learn more, although learning may be restricted to some extent. Czech schools consider themselves to have been underfunded for a long time, and it seems that 'learning' and developing schools are typically capable of getting extra financial resources for themselves. However, extra money for the realization of project work does not automatically mean that people are learning. Of course the younger ones took on a lot, and they brought the level down from the beginning by basically doing a sloppy job on three sets of materials and collecting their money for them (a teacher). A condition of the grant was to make materials and test them in the classroom. There was no mention of quality. It was enough to write in the class register that a material had been tested. So we said to ourselves it would be a pity not to take advantage of this for the creation of high-quality materials (headteacher).

Many options and projects tempt those involved in them to perform quick, low-quality work, thus hampering the learning process. Financial motivation alone cannot support learning processes. The headteacher of School A applies a further strategy. At first no one was very keen to be involved in the making of the school's education programs. This was a 'directive from above' (a duty imposed on schools since 2005) to which many schools paid little more than lip service so that nothing was brought to learning and school development. Things were different in School A. The headteacher had a clear idea of what a school education program should look like; her strategy was to 'make things make sense'. She succeeded in convincing teachers that they would soon benefit from the rewards of work done on teaching plans. If they succeeded in drawing up high-quality plans, this success would form a very strong foundation for the ongoing development of the curriculum. A bonus of this is the development of cooperation across the school, creating a 'bank of experience' at the school with a wide, long-term application. The teachers understand that they're doing it not just for themselves but also for the school, for their successors. [...]They have no fear of know-how, as this is the know-how of the whole school (headteacher). The methodology sheet is not there in order that we can check up on things. If a teacher creates a hundred teaching materials and then leaves, it's important that these materials have not been created for nothing. We can then say to the new teacher ,Here are your materials, here's your methodology sheet, see what you think'. The methodology sheet also contains things like which school year the material is intended for and what the subject matter is (headteacher).

Directives from 'above' usually carry the risk that they will be observed on a formal basis only, meaning that there is no development in learning processes. Pearn et al. (1995) state that too much bureaucracy is a serious impediment to organizational learning. An important strategy in support of organizational learning is 'the will to make sense'. Key points in this instance are: (1) a creative attitude to directives from above; (2) the ability to seek opportunities through projects; (3) emphasis on quality and sustainability; (4) a visible effect in terms of facilitating future work.

3. Conclusion

We have seen that the leaders of our schools apply a wide range of strategies in support of organizational learning, as is also borne out in other studies that focus on this topic. These strategies include working with space (the position of the headteacher's office and the abolishing of small staffrooms), work on time management (predetermined duration of meetings, culture of an open school into late evening hours and at weekends), personal example, help to grant applicants, etc. Headteachers assume new roles that are reflected in strategies for support of organizational learning, while favoured strategies put the headteacher in new roles - of architect, of culture builder, of educator (cf. Verbiest, undated). At the outset our headteachers also had to manage all kinds of resistance on the part of teachers, who learned together not only about professional matters (innovation, ICT, etc.) but also 'soft

skills' such as cooperation and openness. Based on a number of cases, in this study we have described in detail typical strategies that have obviously led to the support of organizational learning and may serve to inspire other schools.


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