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Collective Wisdom of Practice: Leading and Learning Together from Our Professional Successes

What can we do to improve our children’s schools? Let’s listen to these voices from policymakers, school-building leaders, teachers, parents and the media about today’s education systems:

  • Schools today are dangerous and violent places.
  • Students aren’t becoming equipped to succeed in 21st-century higher education or workplaces.
  • Despite top dollars invested nationwide to transform low-performing schools, many are persistently failing.
  • We are continuously losing our best, most creative teachers.
  • Many groups in our country don’t get the education they need and deserve.

Education policymakers frequently assume that education systems’ severe problems can be solved by holding each school accountable for its own students’ achievements, based on economic market principles. Yet, these high-stakes top-down educational policies from above, based on standardized test performance, have not yet sufficiently addressed many educational challenges. Thus, policymakers’ decades-long adherence to this market-based model echoes Einstein’s quote of defining insanity as a kind of amnesia – doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Everyone agrees that school systems need upgrading. But some educators are asking if a sole focus on what ails schools and on performance standards is the best way to approach this task:

  • A high school teacher: In schools, we often target failures, and we try to design curricula, programs, and activities to overcome our students’ shortcomings – rather than focusing on, and learning from, what successes have occurred in the classroom.
  • An elementary school principal: We usually emphasize students’ test outcomes and not what teachers are doing well. I think a focus on what has actually worked in classrooms would get us away from national standardization and would put the ownership and responsibility back onto the shoulders of local teachers.

Today’s teachers often feel that their professional conduct is a product of endlessly handling and fixing malfunctions, breakdowns, or crises. Rare is the occasion when schools stop to look at what went right. Instead, the common voices overheard in school hallways and teacher lounges are those reacting to or complaining about what went wrong.

Unfortunately, asking teachers to learn only from problems is a biased viewpoint that encourages despair rather than hope – among both educators and their students. When educational staff learns mainly from limitations, without learning from successes too, they may avoid even examining what went right in their classrooms as a source for their own and their colleagues’ future development. The top-down market-based push for a narrow focus on measuring scholastic achievements discourages school leaders, teachers, and especially our children from nurturing their individual capabilities and collective wisdoms.

The recent book The Collective Wisdom of Practice: Leading Our Professional Learning from Success (Corwin & Learning Forward, 2019) grapples with these dilemmas by proposing that learning bottom-up from schools’ own “professional wisdom” – teachers’ own experiences, knowledge, and good judgment reflecting what actually works in practice – may better serve 21st-century educators working in complex, dynamic classrooms. Learning from success encourages teachers and students to grow and succeed through learning communities committed to continuous bottom-up improvement, rooted in the successes experienced in local classrooms.

What is the Potential of Learning from Success?

Learning from success can render a genuine change in schools by transforming teachers’ discourse about their practice. Essentially, a school or school system’s formalization of learning-from-success forums can generate commitment to and investment in reflective learning among diverse members of that school community. Specifically, implementing such forums in schools offers multi-layered potential influences:

  1. Recognition and Reconnection: The search for school members’ successes frequently calls attention to various positive processes that previously went unnoticed. Acknowledging and learning from these activities reaffirms teachers’ connectedness with the school’s vision and mission, thereby awakening a sense of professional pride and competence.
  2. Revitalization and Action Learning: When successes are identified in important areas of activity that previously elicited teachers’ frustration and helplessness, they reinvest in these areas. Teachers become able to generate actionable knowledge, which further broadens the school’s scope of success-based work.
  3. Collaboration and Reciprocity: Learning from success focuses on cooperation among diverse stakeholders – both at the school level (teachers, school-building leaders, students, parents) and outside the school (e.g., professionals like welfare services, district leaders). Inevitably, learning grounded in cooperation and partnership creates an atmosphere of reciprocity, which removes hierarchical barriers that tend to hinder organizations’ joint learning ventures.
  4. Discovery and Autonomy: By promoting learning-from-success forums, the experience of success-based learning and discovery becomes an organic component of schools’ operating procedures, augments staff members’ ability to initiate independent learning, and creates a culture of openness to learning.
  5. Leadership: Learning from success becomes a catalyst for the development of new leadership within the school and in related outside systems. Because learners are partners in creating knowledge, they become its internal and external disseminators and can initiate new knowledge-based work methods.

In all, collective ongoing learning about successes in schools offers impressive potential for empowering grassroots strengths by tapping teachers as a precious bottom-up wisdom that already exists and thrives within schools. Educators who protest a negative problem-based climate in their schools will appreciate a shift toward learning from their own successes. Teachers as well as mid-level school leaders, principals, district leaders, and policymakers – who face contemporary pressures to transform school systems into more successful and equitable spaces for all students – may benefit from the collective inquiry into their wisdoms of practice, reflecting on the actionable knowledge that made professional successes possible in order to confront the challenging situations characterizing everyday school life.

Enacting Collective Wisdom of Practice

Considering education systems’ predominant worldwide focus on ways to correct what went wrong, schools’ practical enactment of the learning-from-success model requires a paradigm shift. This new paradigm necessitates retooling of activities, thinking, and actions within schools’ continuous improvement cycles and turnaround efforts. This book’s collective learning-from-success approach, with its comprehensive hands-on tools and clear guidelines, empowers educators to systematically activate a more holistic, positive, and continuous trajectory of collective school learning. It aims to nurture and disseminate the remarkable practical wisdom that underlies what educators are already doing as they craft magical learning moments with our children day by day. Let’s lead and learn together from teachers’ precious pearls of practical wisdom and share those best practices with their companions on the exciting journey to co-create a better future.

Written by

Chen Schechter is a Professor of Leadership, Organizational Development, and Policy in Education. He believes that educators need to be encouraged to embark on the exciting journey of nurturing the remarkable wisdom of practice that characterizes their magical learning moments with our children. Prof. Schechter aims to build bridges and integrate theory with empirical evidence and practice by supporting teachers, principals, superintendents, and policymakers in their professional growth. His research areas include reform implementation, educational change, professional learning communities, organizational learning, collaborative learning from success, educational leadership, leadership development, and systems thinking for school leaders. Prof. Schechter teaches, conducts research, and serves as a professional advisor in numerous international, national, district, and school development projects, with deep commitment to developing bottom-up school leadership and transformative learning and innovation. Prof. Schechter earned his Ph.D. in K-12 Educational Administration from The Ohio State University and currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Educational Administration (JEA), the oldest and most respected leading international journal in the field of educational leadership and management. Prof. Schechter has published his research extensively in a wide range of highly ranked journals and has authored five recent books: The Collective Wisdom of Practice: Leading Our Professional Learning from Success (2019); Leading Holistically: How Schools, Districts, and States Improve Systemically (2018); The NSSE Yearbook (National Society for the Study of Education) of Columbia University’s Teachers College on Developing Models for Teaching and Learning Self-Regulated Learning (2017); Systems-Thinking for School Leaders: Holistic Leadership for Excellence in Schools (2017); and also Let Us Lead! School Principals at the Forefront of Reforms (2015).

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