1st Grade Teacher Shows How to Design an Instant Learning Organization

All human organizations need boundaries and consequences. People young and old need to know that there are social rules that will be followed and that those who treat the rules with contempt will be punished. At the same time a human organization needs to have a mission that inspires people to want to show up and do the work. A school in particular needs to organize around its central purpose (learning) and not around its discipline system. A school that focuses children’s attention on a discipline system is a waste of human resources, because all children start school loving to create, make friends and learn.

How first grade teacher Janet starts off the year points the way for all human organizations from classrooms and schools to businesses and homes.

On the first day of a new year, Janet gathers her class of 24 students into a circle on the floor of the classroom. First comes her Mission Statement:

“I am sitting here with you because I love learning. I love teaching, because the more I teach, the more I learn. The more I learn the smarter and happier I get. My hope for you all is that by the end of the year you feel the same way I do.”

Then comes her Strategy Statement:

“Humans tend to learn best in groups. We learn more, and we learn better, when we learn with and from each other. That’s why there’s school.

“How much we learn has a lot to do with how much we enjoy it, and how much we enjoy it has to do with how well organized we are as a learning team. So let’s get organized. Together, we are going to build an awesome learning organization.”

She then leads them in a collective Design of their learning organization

“I personally have one requirement: Be kind,” she says and writes it at the top of a giant Post-it pad on an easel.

Then she says: “How can other people help you learn?” She writes down their answers and the class comes up with a list like this (different every year):

Ask if they can help me

Asks me what the problem is

Listens to me

Doesn’t get mad at me

Shows me how

Asks good questions

Is friendly

Doesn’t talk too much

Asks me to help them, sometimes

Depending on the students, the initial list will be rudimentary. The purpose of the starter list is to get them thinking about what it takes to build a learning community. The initial quality doesn’t matter, because it will grow and improve in the course of the year.

Janet says: “Great start. We have made a starter-list of the disciplines of a learning organization; if we do these things we will all learn a lot. Now, here’s The Plan for building our organization.”

Going to her desk where a bowl of green marbles stands next to a pretty, empty jar labeled “Learning Bank,” she says: “Every time you see someone do something that helps someone else learn, take a marble out of the bowl and put it in the Bank.”

Janet demonstrates by picking up a colored marker, marking “Listens to me,” and saying: “You were listening to me and that helped a lot.”

“If the discipline you saw is not on the list, add it.

“We will review and update our lists at the end of every week as we evaluate our week together.

“Now, we just designed our learning organization. As the year goes on, we will build it together.”

Making learning skills explicit never eliminates the need for boundaries and consequences. “Being kind no matter what” is a requirement for membership in a learning organization, and therefore, of course, “Never be mean” is a rigid law, and appropriate consequences apply.

Usually, there will be some people in the organization who are so habituated to awards and punishments as motivational tools that it may take some time for them to get back in touch with their internal motivation to learn, regain their drive to create, and relearn how rewarding it is to do things for others. However, by focusing the students on educational objectives rather than rules, Janet has made herself the leader of a group of motivated learners. Now her job is helping them with their mission, rather than keeping them in line.  Furthermore, defining a social “situation” as a problem-solving opportunity, focuses energy where it ought to be—becoming smarter.

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