Senge speaks volumes to the learning-organization’s “discipline” he calls Mental Models.

Before we speak to what it is and how it may operate, let’s be clear about the premise of learning organization. I sometimes think that we in educational leadership positions might mistakenly equate Senge’s use of the learning organization term in the context of schools since after all, we are organizations that we hope foster learning. And by the way, that may be a pretty good example of a mental model.

However that isn’t how I interpret Senge’s premise.

His, and others who espouse what Demings and others would equate learning organization to, speak to an organization committed to learning, sustaining, and perpetuating itself. There are plenty of examples of such who have successfully been learning organizations and of others that have failed at it.

Let’s take the negative first: Blacksmiths were not a learning organization. If they were  they converted their skills and practices and learned how to run gas stations and auto repair businesses. Video store owners on whole were not learning organizations because they likely missed  or were unable to react to the technological innovations that deliver video directly to consumers.

On the positive side: Think of Apple. Apple was losing what was left of its computer marketing share until Steve Jobs recognized Apple had to reinvent itself to be a platform for linked technologies where the computer stood as the hub of other connected services, like video, music, and mobile computing. Think of … you know what? I cannot think of other companies or institutions that are better examples of reinventing themselves! I am sure there are many others but maybe someone can offer some ideas to me. I will refer you to Jim Collins’ book Good to Great for potential examples. And actually on writing this I am thinking of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney corporation as potentially good examples.

At any rate, where would you put the organization known as public education? Has it reinvented itself to not only sustain its existence but also to improve its likelihood of success? Hmmm. For that matter, what about governing agencies in general? How good have those organizations been at reinventing themselves against uncertain futures?

Senge argues strongly for five disciplines or practices that characterize exemplary learning organizations. One is Mental Models. I like the term ” ‘tude” as in Attitude as a more concrete one. That is, what are the attitudes, paradigms, mental models, dominating beliefs, of an organization that characterize how it does or does not operate?

Apply the idea to schools. What are the mental models driving the conversations in a school’s faculty rooms? What are the mental models that the school leaders use in their  faculty meetings? Are they toxic? Are they hopeful? Are they positive? Are they grounded in the belief that they and their colleagues are united around finding ways to continue to meet the needs of 21st students who will be 21st century citizens?

Are they locked into “We can’t!” or restricted by “They won’t let us!” or by “You know, we can do that?” or “Let’s try it and apologize later if it doesn’t work?”

And that brings me back to two points, one from a previous post, another is new: Remember unlocking creativity? We spoke about that when I noted how I as coach / facilitator felt morally responsible to keep the ideas rolling and flowing lest the one or two good ideas amongst the torrent never get a chance to flow through the filter? The other point is about my experiences in wrapping up the school improvement reviews I have describing.

As I twine the two points together both are about Mental Models. As I began the process of giving the finalized reports to the school / district teams I was once again struck by the chains that bound them. The Money-Mental-Model was one as described in the previous post, but not money or lack thereof, rather the lack of imagination or of courage to Reallocate monies to fund new and worthy ideas.

Of course doing so would threaten the system that created the original and Ineffective programs that perpetuate current power structures and power blocs. I’m not naive though. I understand how contracts, unions, and mandates real or imagined, can restrict reapportioning  resources to support new and creative ideas.

Nonetheless, the mental model, the attitude, that drives the decision making and the implementation of these choices, has, must be, courageously identified, parsed, twisted, turned, and eliminated in order to recreate the organization so it can recreate itself.

One effective way to confront and at least clarify negative mental models is to first of all point out what a mental model is to the group. Doing so sensitizes a group to how mental models may drive or defeat creativity and decision making. That will help but it must also be complemented by the leaders’ task to model and to help the group work very hard at HEARING each other by giving each other opportunities to dialogue so that folks become comfortable enough to hear their own paradigms – tudes and comfortable enough to adjust them if they realize how doing so will actually open the way for making an organization a learning organization.