Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about
“What do you do?”
“Oh, you are in the business of learning?”
“Yes, I am.”
I pounce with the next question: “When was the last time you learnt something new?”
I will admit that I have stopped doing this: I do not ask these questions anymore. These conversations felt rather unkind because only a small minority of teachers could respond to the last question with any comfort. Why only teachers, confused responses came from head teachers, school administrators, vendors to schools and even some who ran education design companies. A few, very few, had a response: And they quoted the last computer training course they had attended, some dismissively mentioned some other ‘trainings’. And then there were these beacons of hope, a handful of teachers who said, ‘We learn from our students every day’. Which was wonderful, but really only a partial answer to the question.
I ask this question often because I have been witness to the development and delivery of some wonderful teacher change-maker and leadership programmes where the participants rave about how their viewpoint has been transformed. The joy of learning is visible in their eyes and the impact visible in their schools. There are some school leaders who are able to embed a vibrant learning culture in their schools, but we know that these are exceptions. Most teachers attend scheduled training programmes that are often uninspiring. One teacher even told me that the only important part of these sessions is the signing in and signing out. While jaded teachers seek renewal, our systems under deliver: Where is the energy, the excitement, the zing that comes with helping young minds light up? It takes work to create lessons of such splendor, and that work must be backed up by good toolkits, learning and consultation. Just picking up a book and transmitting it to the next generation will not do any more. Teachers need to do more - and for that, they need support and training. Teachers too need to constantly learn to become better teachers - where and how can they access renewal and inspiration?
Teachers, and others in the education system, benefit from a learning culture and create a more vibrant work atmosphere for themselves too. One can find ample structured learning opportunities within the workspace too - one does not only have to depend upon external trainers or motivators.
The simplest learning system can be built into departmental or subject meetings so that they become a peer learning network. This does not happen without effort, planning and smart nudges. School administrators need to learn to grow too since their role expands from note-takers to operations managers and customer service providers. A teacher needs to learn how to manage people, not just students - and no, it is not the same thing. A manager needs to learn how to manage systems. A school head needs to learn how to become an ambassador for the school. The potential and need for learning the next thing is limitless. This is why it comes as a surprise to find that our learning organisations are so devoid of learning. Dry, learning-less places cannot inspire.
A learning organisation must go beyond creating merely learning events. Learning events are good if they are able to create experiences that shake up their world view, force reflection on current practices and drive to improved outcomes. A learning organisation must certainly have some of that but must do more - it must embed learning into everything it does to develop the learning muscle.
Learning then becomes an instinctive habit - some even call it an attitude. Just because the institution is in the business of delivering learning does not make it a learning organisation. It becomes a learning organisation if every one fosters and demonstrates learning attitudes. This can be done in various ways - and the first step I would recommend is to create a leadership role within schools akin to a chief learning officer for most corporates. This is different from the academic director of schools and is focussed on learning not merely scholastic achievement. Schools could create CPD structures with incentives such as promotions for demonstrating learning and personal growth. Indeed, there should be no other reason for promotion anyway. Multiple pathways of growth could be offered to staff - some could choose to grow as administrators, others as mentors, some as trainers and others as content creators or evangelists for themes such as digital pedagogies, empathy or safety. There is an opportunity for personal growth, satisfaction and deep internal motivation that is available to a learning organisation that a mere administrative set up can never achieve. Learning is a motivator in itself, to grow and be given a chance to share the learning and build for the future for others and one’s own career is the way forward.
It is time for our teaching organisations to move away from their fears, insecurities and set ways and step forward to become learning organisations. Learning organisations are about finding better, happier and more caring ways of improving outcomes for all beyond the merely efficient way that survives only because it was the way things were done yesterday and the year before and then before that. Learning organisations renew and rejuvenate legacy traditions too in ways that make them more vibrant in new contexts and times. To learn is to grow - it is time our institutions practice what they preach.