So, schools, what is learning?

Kevin Bartlett, and other like-minded educational leaders like Bill Gerritz and Bambi Betts, have a mantra that guides their style of leadership:

“If leadership is not about improving learning, there is no leadership.”

They advise that educational leaders use this as a filter, a way of making sure learning is at the very core of everything they do. I think this is a very powerful notion as I have seen many educational leaders, often at the same time, devoting massive amounts of time and energy to issues that have either no impact or a negative impact on learning. Likewise, I have witnessed many decisions that have been made with little or no consideration for learning.

One thing I find very tricky though, is “learning”. What is learning? What do you think learning is? What do I think learning is? What does he or she think learning is? There is an infinite quantity of perspectives on what constitutes learning, and perhaps more crucially, what constitutes valuable learning?

It may surprise many of us to find that close to 100% of schools have no shared, common understanding of what learning is and what they, as a school, believe is valuable learning. It is almost as if we are afraid to broach the subject for fear of looking stupid, or because we believe the answers are obvious. Kevin argues that this is the reason that so many schools’ mission statements, while very nice, are actually not very helpful. We are often working with a kind of “mission statement template” that has no real meaning. As a result, it cannot really guide anyone in their decision-making: parents to decide if it is the right school for their child, teachers to decide if they want to work there, leadership to decide if they are doing a good job, students to decide if they are being successful.

Kevin shares the example of the mission statement from the Avenues Schools project that is just emerging in New York:

They have clearly tried to express what learning will actually “look like” in their school, what their students will hopefully become.

So, does your school have a shared, common understanding of what learning is? Do all the stakeholders have a clear understanding of what learning the school values? If not, why not? Consider the benefits for them all:

Kids would:

  • Know what they are learning and why
  • Know what “good” looks like
  • See the value in the school’s approach
  • Have clarity

Teachers would:

  • Be able to track everything back to this definition of learning
  • Have strength when dealing with parents
  • Be able to decide if it is really the right school for them to work in
  • Have a shared philosophy that guides their practice
  • Have a clear focus for their methods

Non-teaching staff would:

  • Have a clear understanding of what the school is trying to achieve
  • See how and where their role is also contributing to student learning
  • Get a sense of themselves as learners

Parents would:

  • Be able to decide if it is the right school for their children (and, indeed, for them!)
  • Be able to understand what the school is trying to do
  • Be able to see evidence of learning outside school
  • Have a better understanding of what success looks like for their children
  • Have confidence in teachers

Leaders would:

  • Be able to continuously ask “am I leading?”
  • Have strong filters to guide their decision-making
  • Have a clear vision of where they are taking the school
  • Be able to articulate, in simple terms, what the school is trying to do
  • Be able to recruit the “right people”
  • Be able to provide professional development that has a clear focus

The school would:

  • Have a strong identity
  • Have a tangible culture
  • Be able to develop a strong reputation
  • Be distinguishable from other schools
  • Have a clear moral purpose

Who would have thought that something so simple, so obvious, could be so profoundly powerful?



  1. Pingback: A school that has defined learning… « Time Space Education
  2. matwining

    Hi Sam,

    I have been thinking this question this week as well! Partly because we are trying to have students create more of a ‘learning’ portfolio as opposed to just ‘best work’ which they are in the habit of. In the midst of trying to get the students to transition their thinking, I realized that I wasn’t sure they understood what ‘learning’ was…so I asked. They ended up coming up with some amazing ideas which are now posted in our classroom as our own ‘shared definition’. Our classroom hasn’t been a great learning environment and culture of thinking these past few weeks so we also ended up thinking to the next step…IF learning is (this), then what do we need for a good learning environment? I felt like this was so valuable for us to talk about as a class (and me to think about as a teacher – took a good look at our learning principles this week as well)….definitely a great question to bring up and one we should probably revisit regularly!

    • Mr. Sam

      I love the fact that you did this with your students and I am sure you will all find that it gives you a real focus for the rest of the year. You will be able to use it as a filter for everything that you do together… “so, how will this impact on our learning?” You may sometimes find that some tasks will not really have much of an impact, now you have a clear definition of what learning is!!!

      I would love to see your shared definition of learning… could you send me a photo?

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