The Principles of Learning Organizations

In conversation with Peter Senge, who introduced “learning organizations” to business, on the purpose of education today

Peter Senge is senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning.He is the author of The Fifth Discipline, named by Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years, Schools That Learn, Presence, and The Necessary Revolution, among others. The Journal of Business Strategy has said that Senge is “one of the 24 people who had the greatest influence on the way we conduct business today.” Committed to teaching and learning, he recently shared with the Journal why the principles for effective learning are more important today than ever.

What are the most important principles of learning?

All learning is driven by the aspirations of the learner: you must be oriented towards what you really care or are passionate about. That’s number one. At some point in our early lives, our passion was to walk, and we followed that passion and learned to walk. At another point it might have been to ride a bicycle, and we followed that passion, and on it goes.

The second principle is that we only really learn through doing, and that means you’re going to make errors. We have to embrace mistake making. There’s really no other way of going forward. So the second principle has to do with tolerance and forgiveness. The third of course is paying attention and being patient. When you see you’ve made a mistake, have patience with yourself, and correct it.

If you look at all three together, the overarching principle is to see your life as an ongoing unfolding process of discovering what you’re capable of, and what you’re here for.

How has your focus on what’s important changed since the publication of Schools That Learn?

I don’t think it’s changed, but it has sharpened. It’s painfully obvious that the goals of the Industrial Age, which still dominate today, are reaching the end of the line. I can not conceive of any way to move through the cultural eye of the needle we are currently facing without a fundamental change in education. And the first fundamental goal, the real aim of all true systems of education, is to help each person realize their possibilities as a human being. Second is to help societies evolve to foster social and ecological well-being. Healthy economies are only healthy in the long term if they are in harmony with the larger social and ecological systems on which they depend. Economies do not exist in a vacuum, even though our current dominant indicators like GDP pretend that they do. This is not just a romantic ideal — in today’s world of worsening social and ecological imbalances, it is now a pragmatic imperative.

Our present way of living is destroying the biological, social, and spiritual underpinnings needed to live well. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the stresses we’re putting on the ecological health of planet. And the social imbalances characterized by the bizarre concentration of wealth we have now are also the tip of a very big iceberg. You could argue that the biggest economic and social issue the world is facing is the instability and stress on our youth caused by the fact that our economies are no longer generating real opportunities.

And behind all that is the spiritual imbalance. We really have lost touch with who we are, why we’re alive. We spend so much time working harder and harder to get to where no one wants to go. But where we do want to go is no longer clear to us. The extraordinary gift of just being alive has been replaced by being a consumer, and everyone knows it’s not working, but no one knows how to get out of it.

What should the priority be then?

The Blackfoot Indians have an old saying that our first relationship is with mother earth. If that relationship is not strong then all our relationships suffer. So in that sense the natural priority is to correct the ecological imbalance. Learning how to connect more deeply with the natural order, with the manifestation of the cosmos or the universe right here right now, whatever that takes, is most important. What does it mean to simply be present, to the larger nature around us, to our inner nature, and to the kind of transcendence that connects us? My favorite definition of learning comes from something the famous accounting theorist Tom Johnson said years ago: learning is a process of discovering and embodying nature’s patterns.

What most surprises you in your work with students and educators?

It’s not surprise, but I’ve loved encountering the openness and willingness of young people. Young children are natural system thinkers with an innate capacity to hold complexity and not be thrown by it. That has been a profound discovery by the systems thinking education community, but it’s perfectly logical if you think about it. Nature would not have produced a species fundamentally inimical with nature, and nature IS interconnectedness.

The real question is how does that get cultivated throughout one’s life. We know we have an innate capacity for music, but if you’re not given an instrument you are less likely to develop that capacity. If it’s not cultivated, any skill lies fallow. The problems we are now creating unconsciously, because we’re unaware of our interconnectedness — like poverty, like climate change — can never be understood without rehabilitating that capacity.

How important are mindfulness practices in learning? What are the benefits?

One is simply the ability to pay attention, to attend fully to what you are attending to, as opposed to being just sort of focused because of all the things continually going through your mind.

The second is to be able to hold the totality of your awareness with a stable mind, in particular the emotional part. We all know how easy it is to get “hijacked” by our emotions. We get angry and nothing else matters but our anger, or we get afraid and our whole state of mind is governed by our fear. There’s probably no emotion without a thought and no thought without an emotion. So the second thing to do is hold the emotions and associated thoughts, and the third is to be able to connect with what’s unfolding in our world.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn once said his goal was to be aware of every breath over the course of the day. He said “I have never quite made it, I always miss a few.” That was probably about ten years ago, so perhaps he’s made it by now!

When did you first start meditating?

I was introduced to Zen meditation in college. I started studying with a teacher in China in the early 1990s. It was a big step and important step to go from sitting or meditating when it felt like a good time to truly having a regular daily practice. I meditate now one to two hours a day.

How has it influenced your way of being in the world?

That’s impossible to answer — you’d need to talk to the people around me! But certainly a growing understanding of the illusory nature of everyday awareness. If you get used to watching your thoughts, feelings, and emotions just flow when you’re in a meditative state, you start to build the capacity to watch them flow in any state. We tend to be governed by our emotions as opposed to knowing “Oh yeah now I feel this way but later I’ll feel that way, now I’m thinking this, later it will be something else.” That kind of perspective is missing for most people most of the time. We can not distinguish the content of our awareness from our capacity for awareness, so we live in a state of illusion. Piercing through that illusion is the first fundamental aspect of all contemplative practices, and the first step in understanding our interconnectedness, and then acting from that place.

If a revolution in education were underway, how would you know it was occurring?

Well I do believe a revolution in education is underway. There are many examples of innovation occurring in all cultures and all societies around the world. Project based learning is now a huge global movement, engaging kids in learning through doing meaningful projects that aren’t just some artificial trumped up classroom exercise. Organizations like Teach For All are expanding rapidly, and the IB schools, whose aim is “to develop caring global citizens,” are doing wonderful work. And there’s the whole social-emotional-contemplative learning movement. Many states in the U.S. and even a few countries have mandated social emotional learning as a priority. The province of British Columbia has three overarching educational goals for the entire province: math and science, language arts, and what they call “educating the heart,” a phrase they got from the Dalai Lama.

The fact that those things are occurring and at significant scale around the world is really important. So, first, you look for changes in the way of doing things, and then you talk to teachers and kids involved to see if these are helping them feel a greater sense of not only meaningfulness, but efficacy in their lives and in their communities. The ultimate aim of a revolution in education is healthier communities.

Do you see that yet?

I don’t think we have a lot of evidence, but for example in the province of British Columbia they track the well-being of children — not their educational performance, but their well-being — through two instruments administered throughout the entire province: the first at the kindergarten level and the second around fifth grade. The important thing will be exploring how this huge database becomes useful to communities. In Vancouver, for example, they can go down to a four block citywide grid to help each community reflect on the wellbeing of children in its community. Do they feel safe? Do they feel cared for? Do they have multiple meaningful adult relationships? And so on.

That to me is the sign that we’re starting to connect the revolution in education to the world of communities because if communities as a whole focus on the wellbeing of children, they can not NOT focus on the health and well-being of their communities. If you can get a critical mass of change in the school systems, then the societal consequences could unfold faster than you would think. Not overnight, but in a generation or so.

You talked earlier about a lack of economic opportunity as a major problem. How should we think about education in the face of AI-related joblessness?

The simple slogan we use at MIT is “How do we educate people for jobs that machines can’t do?” That is not a trivial question.

Ironically this may be what spurs change in the education model. Education has generally been about training kids for jobs that fulfilled the needs of business. The lack of fit between the way the traditional industrial-age school works and today’s realities grows every day. Everybody sees it. And kids definitely see it. There’s a lot of apathy.

The capacity for reflection and pure awareness are important underpinnings of education in an AI-dominated world, and could lead to different ways of thinking, of working together, of connecting with what we care about, and translating those things into something tangible. Out of that capacity for reflection and awareness comes creativity. I’m not sure that’s well understood. Just having a lot of good ideas is not creativity; to create means to bring into reality. And the first question is always, what do we truly want to bring into reality? If you think of creativity as peeling back the layers of the onion, a whole field of awareness about what it means to be human starts to reveal itself.

What role does business have to play in education?

Education has always been an extraordinarily political system. And it’s basically driven by the agenda of business. Business has a big role to play, but they aren’t doing it yet. When more business people start to understand the importance of deep fundamental change in education then I suspect more will step up. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just they’re preoccupied by the short term pressures of their businesses, and we haven’t yet created a good path for engagement. But I think work like MIT’s Integrated Learning Initiative can have a catalytic effect for business.

Are there advantages that other countries might have in terms of changing education policies or practices?

There’s always a problem of being on top, whether it’s a company or a country — the ego, the arrogance, the kind of attitude that the world revolves around me. That happens when you’re “number one.” That’s why a lot of the advantage shifts to those countries and places where people feel like they could create something new.

In so many ways, the U.S. today is intent on protecting and conserving, not creating. Even though we have a lot of creative industries, our culture as a whole is a long way from the creative spark that characterized it 100 years ago. So countries that are more on the periphery have big advantages.

China is kind of a paradox because they see themselves as number one already so they’re getting caught in that arrogance. But parts of China are very energized by creating the new China that is not just a Westernized, consumer-oriented, materialistic culture. It is the one big industrial country that’s decarbonizing aggressively in a seriously organized way, as only the Chinese could do. My guess is that China will be getting close to being carbon neutral by 2030. That target is not even on the U.S. radar screen.

What makes you most disheartened about our current culture?

Beyond the politics of the day? I think much more problematic to me is the fatalism. Climate change illustrates this in the most iconic and tragic way. The problem isn’t climate change, the problem is the fatalism that we hold regarding climate change. People just don’t see that it’s possible to change. That lack of hope and possibility is what’s paralyzing us on all the big issues.

What gives you the most hope?

If you look carefully, there are many movements and initiatives around the world to re-instill hope, such as the renaissance in education. The old joke in the tech industry — the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed — is more true today than ever. We need to discern where what is most needed is already emerging, to start paying attention to where change is naturally occurring and nourish that, and not give our attention to what we’re afraid of.


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