School Community, Teaching

A Living System

A way to develop lasting learning communities

There are many big ideas in education right now that school communities are wrestling with. Student and adult inquiry, project-based learning, differentiating instruction, student engagement, assessment practices and self-regulation are just a few. How are teachers to make sense of all these disparate ideas and integrate this knowledge into their practice? A good approach is to use the framework provided by a “learning community” (LC), often called a “professional learning community” (PLC). Yet for all the great promise they hold for improving both student and adult learning,1 PLCs often flounder when introduced in schools.

My research for my EdD began with this question: Why do learning communities flourish and develop in some school settings, while not in others? I was hoping to discover ways in which we could better develop and sustain LCs.

 Traditionally, LCs have their structure “managed” top-down by a supervisor.2 A new “Living Systems” paradigm for implementing LCs was described by Mitchell and Sackney (based on the thoughts of Capra),3 where the stakeholders inside the LC heavily influence the interaction and structure. Thinking of an LC as a living organism that has both patterns of behaviour (interactions) and physical bodily properties (structure) might be a helpful metaphor, as both patterns and structure are necessary for life.4

In a Living Systems LC, the structure serves the needs of the people who are interacting. In a more traditional PLC, the people are often expected to serve the structure that has been put in place. When people must serve a structure they can feel stressed. When a structure serves the people, growth is more likely to occur.

 I was curious if this different structure might be more conducive to the formation and longevity of a school’s learning community. It was with this in mind that I began my research in the greater Vancouver area of British Columbia.

 How is a Living Systems learning community different?

 A Living Systems style of learning community does not set down prescribed ways of meeting and doing business. This does not mean that it’s a free-for-all! It means that the leader (usually the principal) provides a structure that will suit the needs of the community, and the initiative/meat of the meeting (which always links to improving learning for students) comes from the staff. In a nutshell, LC meeting time is staff-driven and principal-facilitated. Appropriate teacher leadership is encouraged, and there is acceptance of the messiness that must happen in order to work through the process.

 By contrast, in a managed system, the interactions (patterns) and structure (time for meeting) are highly prescribed and quite compliance-driven. This limits the PLCs opportunity to respond within the context of what is happening in the community in a way that makes sense.

 According to researchers Mitchell and Sackney:

 “We came to understand that a managed system is structured to handle simplified problems and simplistic solutions, but this approach fails to address the inherent complexity, interconnectedness, and generativity of living systems.”5

In a Living Systems learning community, both structure (e.g. times to meet) and pattern (e.g. the interactions between people) are important. People are invited to be more inquiry driven, to pay attention to what is working or not working, and therefore decide what action might be best.6 The principal plays the role of facilitating structures and conversations to help guide the continuous learning of students and of staff.

 In the course of my research I studied schools that were using facets of a Living Systems style of LC. District-based leaders chose the schools for me based on a set of criteria I gave them. These school communities also had teachers who had worked in school settings that were not conducive to developing LCs, so they were uniquely situated to comment on the differences between the schools.

 My research results suggested that a Living Systems approach to LCs does, indeed, show promise for increased sustainability:

 “…Schools that were able to foster a more Living Systems approach to create and maintain their LC were experiencing:

  • shared and supportive leadership
  • shared vision and values
  • collective learning and application
  • shared personal practice
  • supportive relational and structural conditions and
  • the ability to operate within the British Columbia (BC) educational context in a healthy way.

This led to enhanced learning and growth within these school communities for students and teachers alike.”7

One school’s Living Systems experience

 I was eager to introduce Living Systems theory to the school where I was starting a new principalship. Though every school community (and therefore every school’s process) is different, my four years illustrate one way that Living Systems learning communities grow and how they begin to affect the school as a whole.

This is how we grew towards this ideal in my school over four years.

 Year 1

  • A visioning process
  • Purposeful and fluid collaborative time

As most principals do, I spent most of my first year at the school observing and working with teacher leaders to put in place a foundation to build from. To this end, we began a visioning process in September to make sure we were “pulling together” or developing “systemness,”8 as well as further developing adult capacity. Students, staff and the parental community were involved in this process in a myriad of ways.

As developing a Living Systems learning community is a relatively new idea, and as I did not want to prescribe to the community what the process and structure should be, we moved one step at a time and then evaluated and tweaked along the way (comfort with discomfort was necessary on my part here). Although staff members were aware of my research topic, I did not get into the theory with them. Instead, I began with our students and staff. I met with students in each class in the school in order to find out what they liked about their school and what they thought a good school should have. Students then recorded their thoughts, and these were displayed at the front entrance of the school for all to see. Teachers were present to hear these conversations, so they had this knowledge as a backdrop to the conversations we then had as a staff about what was important to us as we moved forwards. Parents were also invited to share what they appreciated about the school and where they would like to see us grow. Teaching staff took the thoughts of all and worked during collaboration time to develop the words that would best describe our values, our purpose and mission, and our future direction. I dropped in on these meetings in order to answer questions, to ask questions and to discuss, but I did not direct the process or the end product. The work of these teachers was then brought back to the whole staff to ensure that the wording truly represented the group.

During this first year, teachers began to question why students were having difficulty with their self-regulation. In addition to our visioning process, much of our collaborative time was spent investigating this question. Different teachers met to decide how to best address this student need within the school. As a result, there were many initiatives that enhanced the learning experience for both students and adults alike, among them team teaching, demo lessons for teachers by colleagues, research into what was being done elsewhere, and planned “just in time” professional development. The adults in the building were taking charge as a group, not just as individuals, in the service of their students.

As with all groups of adults, the early adopters moved right in and got going, pulling the middle grounders along with them in short order with the evidence of student success. Even the late adopters were pulled along, as they were given the space they needed to see that our collaborative time was good for the adults as well as for students. By the end of year one, all adults in the building were using collaborative time, and people often had to wait their turn for more time – whereas my colleagues in other schools often told me that they could not give away collaboration time.

A colleague in another district had this to say after he and his school team met with me to talk about how to implement aspects of a Living Systems learning community:

“This would be time for teachers to meet and tinker with ideas. The simplicity of this model concerned me. Would this really have any impact on our students? Would staff use the time effectively? We are one month into our experience of being a Living Systems learning community and the impact thus far has been significant.”9

Years 2 – 4

  • Expansion of collaborative structures
  • Expansion of collaborative patterns

By harnessing the forward thinking, collaborative thoughts of the school community, we were able to expand both helpful patterns of thinking and interacting, and helpful school-wide structures.

Structural changes: We chose to have periods of time during the week that were common to all so that students could sometimes be grouped according to their interests or according to their “zone of proximal development.” (These groups were often multi-age or multi-grade.) This also ensured that students had more than one staff member to connect with and to help them with their growth.

A few of the other common times/structures we put in place include:

  • Intermediate (all Grade 4-7s) leadership groups/activities;
  • Grade 1-7 direct reading instruction groups (helpful for a school with a high proportion of English language learners);
  • Kindergarten (all classes) ‘Reggio’ inspired afternoons;
  • Grade 7 inquiry focus group (students who partnered with lead staff in the work of the school’s inquiry question).

Not all groups/structures existed in all four years. Some were maintained, and some changed in configuration over time. A Living Systems LC allows for critical and timely analysis of systems that are in place in order to make sure they are best serving students’ needs.

Changes in pattern: Over time, more staff were seeing all students (not just their own class) as their collective responsibility. Teacher leaders began to teach self-regulation strategies to students (and fellow teachers observed and participated in these lessons). Co-teaching and planning was embraced by a number of staff. Collaboration time was being used well by all staff to move learning forward in a positive way for students. Staff saw themselves as explorers of what might be, and were not as concerned about being expected to “know all the answers.” Staff continued to be highly respectful of each other, and of students and their needs. As one teacher stated:

“Teachers need growth and with the atmosphere we’ve developed, you’re pulled along because this is the way it works. And eventually staff like the connectedness so much they could not go back to the way it was.”10

Year 4

  • Involving students in the collaborative process
  • “Our Secret Garden” – growing our LC and presenting to others

Having adults working together to help move their schools forward is a great first step. Involving students in those initiatives however, is far more powerful. In year 4 we had a Grade 7 group that worked regularly throughout the year with our adult leaders. These students presented lessons to their peers, co-taught with teachers and worked alongside our staff in regard to the growth focus taken by the school.

One teacher observed:

“Our students are happy to go to work with many teachers, as they don’t see our roles as closed. All of the teachers belong to all of the kids. At many schools, students would not feel comfortable with someone who was not their classroom teacher. Non-living systems schools create boundaries between people. Living systems schools create multiple connections between adults and students.”11

In May 2014, we were thrilled to be asked to present at the provincial Network of Inquiry and Innovation symposium, in order to share what can happen when students are directly involved in shaping the direction that a school takes. There were adults in the audience who expressed amazement, both with how articulate our students were and by the personal stories our students shared.

The overarching picture here is one of multi layers and multi dimensions, or of lush growth within a life-enriching environment. This requires the autonomy of staff within a framework of positive interconnectedness. This does not exist at many schools and, as one teacher said, it is difficult for teachers enmeshed in a Living Systems LC to explain how it is different to their colleagues:

“When I go to broader district meetings I get a lot of questions from others about how things are done here. When I try to explain the interconnectedness, they don’t understand. We are different from the other schools.”

Janet welcomes inquiries and is interested in helping other educational leaders develop Living Systems learning communities. Email: laumanjanet@gmail.com. Blog: http://jmlauman.wordpress.com. Twitter: @jmlauman  

What does a Living Systems LC look like?

1. Staff collaborate with one another in varying teams for varying lengths of time. Collaboration time is not meant to be distributed evenly.

2. Autonomy is balanced against responsibility to students and to the learning community.

3. Team teaching occurs in many forms.

4. There is evidence of multi-class collaborative projects (long or short term).

5. Staff take active ownership of their own PD, using professional development days to further goals they have set within the LC.

6. Students and parents are included in LC activities/discussions. They have a direct voice in helping with the forward direction of the school

7. Leadership is shared where this is helpful.

8. All actions taken within the school have the learning needs and well being of students (and secondly adults) at the centre.

9. Playing with ideas that show promise is recognized as legitimate work – staff understand that not all initiatives will pan out.

10. Decisions are explicitly connected to the vision that the staff has set.

En bref – Pourquoi des communautés d’apprentissage s’épanouissent-elles dans certaines écoles et certains conseils scolaires, mais pas dans d’autres? Cet article indique comment une éducatrice a instauré une communauté d’apprentissage sur les systèmes vivants très prometteuse afin d’assurer une croissance positive tant chez les élèves que chez les adultes. Découlant des travaux d’études doctorales qu’elle a réalisés en 2011, le cadre adopté par Janet Lauman diffère de façons subtiles, mais efficaces, de la démarche plus conventionnelle des communautés d’apprentissage professionnel (CAP).

Illustration: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, March 2015

1 C. Mitchell and L. Sackney, Profound Improvement: Building capacity for a learning community (London: Taylor & Francis, 2000).

2 R. DuFour and R. Eaker, Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement (Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 1998); R. DuFour and R. Eaker, eds. On Common Ground: The power of professional learning communities (Bloomington, IN: National Education Service, 2005).

3 C. Mitchell and L. Sackney, Sustainable Improvement: Building learning communities that endure (Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense, 2009); C. Mitchell and L. Sackney, “Sustainable Learning Communities: From managed systems to living systems” (Paper presented at the annual conference of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, Vancouver, BC, 2009).

4 F. Capra, The Web of Life (New York, NY: Anchor, 1997).

5 Mitchell and Sackney, Sustainable Improvement, 11.

6 J. Halbert and L. Kaiser, Spirals of Inquiry: For equity and quality (Vancouver, BC: BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association, 2013); Capra, The Web of Life.

7 J. Lauman, “Why Do Learning Communities Develop in Some Elementary Schools and not in Others? A Study of selected elementary schools in greater Vancouver, British Columbia” (EdD diss., 2011). http://summit.sfu.ca/item/11268

8 M. Fullan, The Principal: Three keys to maximizing impact (San Francisco CA, Jossey-Bass, 2014).

9 C. Wejr. “Creating Time for Teachers to Tinker with Ideas” (blog post, 2013). http://chriswejr.com/2013/10/05/creating-time-for-teachers-to-tinker-with-ideas-rscon4/

10 From staff at Heath Elementary (Delta, BC, 2014).

11 From staff at Heath Elementary (Delta, BC, 2014).

Meet the Expert(s)

Janet Lauman

Janet Lauman, EdD, is an educator in British Columbia who has worked and researched in numerous school districts. She is currently interested in larger educational systems change with the purpose of helping to improve the learning and lived school experience for all students. 

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