Toward Communal Negotiation of Meaning in Schools: Principalsí Perceptions of Collective Learning from Success

by Chen Schechter - 2011

Background: In light of the growing complexity of schoolwork, it is important that faculty members move away from isolated learning toward a more collective type of thinking regarding teaching and learning issues.

Purpose: Whereas collective learning has mostly been approached from a deficit-based orientation (finding/solving problems and overcoming failures), this study examines principalsí perceptions (mindscapes) about the notion and strategy of collective learning from faculty membersí successful practices.

Research Design: The study employed a qualitative topic-oriented methodology to explore principalsí mindscapes concerning collective learning from success in schools.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data were collected via face-to-face interviews with 65 elementary, middle, and high school principals. The analysis process involved identifying common themes, contrasting patterns, and elucidating the differences among principalsí voices.

Findings:Principals argued that in contrast to collective learning processes to evaluate failures and problems, collective learning from successful practices requires a deliberate and conscious shift in mindset with regard to collaborative learning in schools. Principals perceived the competitive culture and the comparison of professional abilities among faculty members as major determinants of a productive collective learning from success. Principals envisioned their role in this interactive process as promoting a learning culture of inquiry, openness, and trust.

Recommendations:As a leadership strategy to foster collective learning in schools, both practitioners and researchers need to evaluate whether a learning community can be developed when staff members are encouraged to collectively analyze their successful practices and receive affirmation for doing so. It is important to further inquire how different stakeholders perceive this collaborative learning from successful practices.

Since the early 19th century, Taylor's (1911) principles of scientific management (e.g., division of labor, hierarchy and control, impersonal orientation) have dominated the procedures and structures of public schools. This mechanistic view of schools has been strongly criticized (e.g., Hargreaves, 2004). The criticism, for the most part, has centered on the importance of providing practitioners with new ways, opportunities, and spaces to carry on dialogue and cooperate (Louis, 2006; Schechter, 2005; Silins & Mulford, 2002). Thus, in light of the growing dissatisfaction with the social, physical, and linguistic architecture of schoolwork, the isolated working teacher must take steps toward interactive professionalism, where teachers continuously deliberate on how to solve problems that relate to teaching and learning (Fullan, 2000; Stoll, McMahon, & Thomas, 2006).

Whereas collaborative learning processes in schools have generally been associated with problem finding and solving (e.g., Leithwood & Steinback, 1994; Perez & Uline, 2003), an alternative strategy for fostering professional interactions among school members is through collective learning from success. Collective learning from success focuses on the shift from selective inattention, where successful practices remain unexplored by professionals, to selective attention, where deliberate and conscious focus is directed toward successful practices to uncover the tacit wisdom that makes such successes possible. In this way, based on social learning arrangements, practitioners conscious reflections on their own successful practices can nurture the gradual emergence of professional knowledge (Schechter, Sykes, & Rosenfeld, 2004, 2008).

Up until now, only limited research on collective learning from successful practices has been conducted in school settings (Schechter, 2010; Schechter et al., 2008), and not a single empirical study has explicitly focused on this collective learning approach from principals perspective. Thus, the current study represents an initial attempt to explore principals perceptions in regard to collective learning from successful practices based on the following three questions:


 What are the principals views (first thoughts) about collective learning from success?


 What are the major factors or determinants considered by school principals to influence collective learning from success?


 How do principals see their own role in regard to collective learning from success?

The article begins by providing the theoretical framework that guides the study. After describing the research methodology, principals perceptions regarding collective learning from successful practices are presented. On the basis of the analysis, provisional recommendations for the principals role in collective learning from success will be made, coupled with a discussion about the value and utility for such practices in todays public school realities.


The conceptual framework for the present study is grounded in the literature on leadership capacities for school principals, collective learning, problem-based learning orientation, and collective learning from success.


According to scholars who study school leadership, several factors are important for leaders in todays schools to share, especially if they are looking toward the future (Darling-Hammond, LaPointe, Meyerson, Orr, & Cohen, 2007; Davis, Darling-Hammond, LaPointe, & Meyerson, 2005; Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004; Schechter, 2005; Waters & Grubb, 2004).  These include:


 Developing and understanding how to support teachers to do their work effectively by providing models of practice that promote student learning.


 Developing shared goals, identity, meaning, and purpose. Leaders promote effective communication within a culture of shared knowledge, leadership, and responsibility for what happens.


 Developing collaborative processes that foster better teaching and learning (e.g., designing and implementing the curriculum).


 Recognizing individual and school accomplishments, thus fostering individual and collective efficacy.


 Situating teachers learning in the unique educational context (contextualized leadership).


 Facilitating collective learning by establishing organizational structures, processes, and practices. Leaders can effectively take the role of facilitators and co-learners who guide stakeholders collective learning.


 Modeling of learning as a shift in mind, thereby promoting learning in which teachers can construct, refine, and negotiate meanings.

It appears that today's school leadership is grounded in developing teaching and learning capacities and in the implementation of effective organizational learning structures and processes (Davis et al., 2005). In other words, school leadership focuses on teaching and learning issues (Orr, 2006) through generating collective learning opportunities for all faculty and students (Browne-Ferrigno, 2007; Fullan, 2003; Murphy, 2006).

Generating effective organizational learning structures and processes requires a shift in the principals leadership role. The Galilean Shift in the new leaders role, as proposed by Kofman and Senge (1993), advocates a shift from the leader at the center around whom all organizational participants revolve, to a broader perspective of a leader as a designer, steward, and facilitator. [Leaders] are responsible for building organizations where people continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models - that is, they are responsible for learning (Senge, 1990, p. 340). Accordingly, leaders (e.g., principals, CEOs), regardless of their higher position in the group hierarchy, are subordinate to the principles of deliberation, learning, and inquiry (Schechter, 2002).

Willower (1994) posits that commitment to learning-reflecting can replace the defensive stance held by hierarchical institutions. Consequently, principals are responsible for sowing the seeds of authentic discussion so that it may eventually be practiced naturally and routinely (p. 16). Principals obligation, then, is to protect free inquiry and to reject advancing a particular end-in-view (Dewey, 1933) or specific ideology. Instead of holding exclusively to a-priori morals, principals will benefit by incorporating various sociological, political, and psychological aspects into the collective learning processes. Leaders do not impose values, but instead they gain consensus for collaborative learning that respects different assets and voices (Furman & Starratt, 2002, p. 14). In order to frame decisions representing different choices from competing values, it is important that principals serve as gatekeepers for any dispositional ideology, while empowering others to engage in an authentic communal deliberative process (Willower, 1994).

A leader engaging in a collective learning process serves as the group facilitator, who explains the process and moderates the discussion toward shared group action (Schechter, 2002). The leader guides with the understanding that it is the group that owns the problem, whatever it is; that it is this group that must identify its problem, propose various solutions, decide upon a solution, resolve to enact it, and& go ahead and live through it (Dillon, 1994, p. 13). Thus, the leader is responsible for conveying and integrating maximum ambitions, hopes, values, and plans for action into a shared group meaning. Instead of providing the right answers and imposing predetermined solutions, leaders are obligated to search for the right questions, which foster communal learning (DuFour, 1999).

Similarly, in order for leaders to strengthen the social processes in collective learning, Putnam and Borko (1997) suggest cultivating discourse communities, based on mutual respect and joint responsibility to freely share and explore ideas. In these discourse communities, members share their expertise based on free-flowing and safe dialogic means for fostering new and creative approaches to school needs (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Accordingly, principals can create a safe practice field where multiple perspectives are crystallized as a means of overcoming complex school problems. To this end, leaders are accountable for arranging the interactive social environments and ensuring the adequate resources available to support teacher learning (Halverson, Prichett, Grigg, & Thomas, 2005; Kochan, Bredeson, & Riehl, 2002; Stein & Nelson, 2003).


Louis (1994, 2006) argued that the capacity of schools to innovate and reform relies on their ability to collectively process, understand, and apply knowledge about teaching and learning. According to Barnes (2000), a focus on gathering and processing information within and between schools requires the establishment of opportunities for teachers to collectively think and share information on a sustained basis. Therefore, to revise their existing knowledge and keep pace with environmental changes, schools need to establish structures, processes, and practices that facilitate the continuous collective learning of all their members (Silins & Mulford, 2002). In this regard, Rosenholtz (1989) found that "developing" schools, wherein teachers learn from each other through a collective enterprise, are more effective than "stuck" schools that have difficulties implementing changes. This has been supported by Wohlstetter, Smyer, and Mohrman's (1994) findings that "the most significant common element across actively restructuring schools was the extent to which organizational mechanisms were in place that generated interactions for school-level actors around issues related to curriculum and instruction" (p. 278).

Growing evidence suggests that extensive use of collective learning mechanisms related to curriculum and instruction promotes greater teacher commitment and student engagement in school practices (Bryk, Camburn, & Louis, 1999; Kochan et al., 2002). In a recent study in elementary schools (Schechter, 2008a), collective learning mechanisms (e.g., teachers work together on ways to improve curriculum and instruction; staff meetings are held to discuss school goals) were positively related to both teachers sense of collective efficacy and teachers' commitment to their school. Moreover, collective learning enhanced teachers sense of pedagogical competence and encouraged inquiry-based instructional techniques (Printy & Marks, 2004). Similarly, collegial learning increased teachers' inquiry into instructional materials and practices within the school, which in turn, facilitated the use of innovative pedagogical methods that were consistent with school reforms (Bidwell & Yasumoto, 1999; Marks & Louis, 1997; Printy, 2002; Scribner, Hager, & Warne, 2002).

However, the growing efforts to pursue the merits of collective learning can perpetuate practitioners' skepticism toward any kind of communal learning. For example, the social arrangements wherein teachers share and create knowledge are always arenas for potential competition with regard to professional legitimacy and political power, often inhibiting authentic interactions. Suchman (1995, p. 574) defined legitimacy as a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions. Because legitimacy is conferred by its stakeholders, rather than given automatically to individuals or a group, learning in the communal arena can induce fear and vulnerability in light of possible change in members' perceived professional legitimacy (Beaulieu, Roy, & Pasquero, 2002). Collective learning, then, can serve as a political arena, especially in the current era of a global tendency toward standardization.


The predisposition to learn from past problems is rooted in diverse sources, especially in those that view learning as a process of problem solving. Researchers and theorists in the fields of social psychology and organizational behavior have claimed explicitly that problems are an essential prerequisite for learning (Ellis & Davidi, 2005). That is, problems stimulate a conscious search for meaning, clearly signifying that learning should take place in order to eliminate undesired conditions. According to psychological theories of learning, such "problems" may come in the form of discomfort and perplexity (Kolb, 1984), conflict (Dodgson, 1993), or noticing errors (Feldman, 1989), which all may serve as a stimulus for growth or as an essential condition for triggering a learning process. Similarly, Cyert and March (1963) observed that organizational learning is initiated in response to perceived problems, and Argyris and Schon (1996) defined organizational learning as a mechanism for detecting and correcting errors. Thus, social psychologists and organizational behaviorists have acknowledged that the predominant productive trigger for inquiry, reflection, and change should be the incorporation of learning from past problems into organizational practices.

Learning from experience in schoolwork has been associated with tackling and overcoming problems. Learning in schools takes place when individuals and groups confront problems and develop solutions (Marks & Louis, 1999). Accordingly, [i]f schools are going to truly fulfill their mandates, [they will need] to function effectively in problem-solving teams (Reed, Kinzie, & Ross, 2001, p. 71, emphasis added). Moreover, learning in the form of communal deliberations has been perceived as the method by which most everyday practical problems get solved (Schwab, 1978, p. 43). Likewise, Walker (1990) emphasized practical problems as the seed for initiating deliberative processes, and Dillon (1994) suggested that teachers deliberate in order to decide how best to solve the problematic circumstance. More recently, studies attempted to document how learning communities are designed to focus on the facilitation of collective learning to solve specific problems of practice (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001; King, 2002; Supovitz, 2002).

Similarly, learning from past experiences (retrospective learning) with reference to school administration has been associated with overcoming problems (Perez & Uline, 2003). To illustrate, Sergiovanni (2005) succinctly pointed out that in reality, leadership is more about helping people understand the problems they face, helping them manage these problems, and even helping them learn to live with them (p. 122). Despite the gradual shift in the educational management literature from problem solving to problem finding, [l]earning is [still] motivated by confronting a complex problem that requires an active engagement and resolution in the form of a product (Bridges & Hallinger, 1996. p. 54). This association of learning with problems (e.g., Hoy and Tarters 1995 book entitled Administrators solving the problems of practice) has been supported by relatively new leadership perspectives that advocate the conscious and skillful development of a supportive environment as a means of managing problems collectively (e.g., Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2002).


Learning from success focuses on a collective inquiry into practitioners successful practices in order to uncover the implicit wisdom (actionable knowledge, according to Argyris, 1993) that made success possible. The major assumptions of learning from success are (Schechter et al., 2008):


The expertise of educational practitioners in schools is a rich, barely tapped resource.


Due to systemic bias toward learning from difficulties or problems, successes in schools have rarely been the object of deliberate learning.


For the expertise that underlies success to be tapped, it must undergo a collective learning process, through which individuals' tacit knowledge is transformed into organizational knowledge, thus assisting faculty members in exploring their wisdom of practice.

In particular, in retrospective learning from successful practices, practitioners identify their professional successes and coordinate structured group inquiries into the actions that contributed to these successes. In other words, educators reflect upon their own past school successes, discovering and explicating the tacit knowledge that contributed to those successes, and formulating them in actionable terms (Argyris, 1993) as a basis for their dissemination. Learning from success aims to reveal the hidden knowledge that contributed to those earlier successful practices and to "capture" the specific actions that were taken along the path to success. Therefore, persistence in viewing the success from the action perspective is essential to enable teachers to reconnect with what they did that worked.

This focus on positive aspects of school practices as learning opportunities has similar philosophical grounding in the appreciative inquiry literature (Coperrider, Sorensen, & Whitney, 2000; Coperrider & Whitney, 1999) and in the positive organizational scholarship literature (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003). Rather than focusing on deficit-based practices, these approaches focus on discovering what works well, and how successes can generate a more positive course of human and organizational welfare. Whereas both appreciative inquiry and positive organizational scholarship search for "positive core practices" in an organization in order to develop generative capacities (e.g., resilience, justice), learning from success primarily focuses on the collective learning endeavor.

Organizations, including schools, have tended to learn from their past and current difficulties, while leaving their successes relatively unexamined. The professional literature has tended to reinforce this pattern. Where the professional literature has alluded to learning from success in organizations, it has tended to focus on the problematic dynamics that ensue from success. For example, researchers suggested that learning from success: (a) often leads to actions that preserve the status quo and avoid risk taking (Ellis, Mendel, & Nir, 2006); (b) tends to induce overconfidence in routines that were proven successful in the past; (c) strengthens organizations homogeneity, where maintenance of the same historical operating procedures and the same personnel impedes experimentation with organizational routines (Sitkin, 1996); (d) rarely stimulates a conscious search for meaning, and is processed if at all by automatic pilot (Ellis & Davidi, 2005); (e) produces only first-order learning, reducing the likelihood that organizations will respond to environmental change with transformational change (Virany, Tushman, & Romanelli, 1996); and (f) for long periods can cause strategic inertia, inattentiveness, and isolation, thus increasing the probability of future problems (Baumard & Starbuck, 2005).

Without denying the validity of the above claims, this bias against learning from success (see Levitt & March, 1996) too often prevents professionals and organizations from gaining from the wealth of learning opportunities embedded in their own practices. In this vein, it is important to discuss considerations on the benefits of collective learning from success. When practicing learning from success, individuals become aware of their own expertise and the expertise of others, and they begin to develop a refined awareness of the detailed ways in which such expertise finds expression in their practice. This provides more valid information concerning the connections between actions and consequences, greatly needed in loosely-coupled organizations such as schools (Weick, 1982). Clearer action-consequence connections facilitate more accurate feedback within an atmosphere of accountability (Schechter et al., 2008).

Collective learning about professional successes acknowledges that a web of professional expertise exists within the group, which, in turn, can develop a tradition of contributing to the shared knowledge base. Through analyzing professional successes, the individual's pedagogical expertise is transferred into a shared knowledge base for the benefit of all teachers. Analyzing successful practices serves as a database from which practitioners can draw professional knowledge relevant to their work. As a consequence, the deliberate analysis of successful practices in the collective arena can develop an interactive "memory" (e.g., teaching practices, resource room, documents, stories, artifacts), which is distinct and more developed than the individual memory because it combines the ongoing interrelated activities, processes, and methods of multiple organizational members (Kruse, 2003; Weick & Roberts, 1996). The process of learning from success, then, encodes individual pedagogical practices into a collective mind that is distinct from the individual mind and surpasses it.

Sitkin (1996) has argued that learning from success enhances confidence and persistence, stimulating a coordinated pursuit toward reaching common goals. After learning that a specific action has been successful, practitioners are more confident in their competence and achievements and are more motivated and satisfied (Schechter et al., 2008). In this way, initiating an early process of learning from successes tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, "which translates into a greater probability of subsequent success" (Lant & Mezias, 1996, p. 291). Moreover, explicating the detailed actions that led to past successful practices enhances learners collective efficacy with regard to the group's possible positive impact on future student achievement (see also Crowther, Hann, McMaster, & Ferguson, 2000). Put differently, the focus on learning from success can bring to light positive recognition of faculty's expertise that underlies their successes, fostering a shared belief in the capacity of the school and its staff to succeed in their tasks and to learn from their experiences. Thus, learning from success reinforces the learning competence of practitioners and instills in them appreciation, respect, and even wonder at the value of their own and their students' accomplishments.

An inquiry into successful events occurs not under external pressure (as is the case in problematic events), but under voluntary intrinsic interest in initiating and participating in a collective learning process. Hence, practitioners are more inclined to investigate successful events, as a source of comfort and motivation, rather than to immediately delve into emotional and cognitive stressors involved with problematic events. Whereas the pressure associated with reviewing failed and problematic events directs cognitive attention toward seeking and justifying immediate causes, the review of successful events allows for a more open, systematic, and reflective inquiry into mental models, during which participants can let down some of their defenses (Ellis & Davidi, 2005).

Recent studies focusing on learning from successful practices in middle and secondary schools (Schechter, 2010; Schechter et al., 2008) revealed that this collective learning process provided teachers with both new and diverse perspectives for interpreting and analyzing their unique contexts and potential solutions and avenues of action. However, these studies also suggested that inquiring into authentic successful practices in the collective arena induced fear and vulnerability in light of teachers' perceived professional-managerial legitimacy. Professional-managerial legitimacy is tightly linked to practitioners' expectations regarding their colleagues expertise and knowledge (Beaulieu, Roy, & Pasquero, 2002). Therefore, running the risk of reshaping their perceived professional legitimacy, teachers tended to quickly explain the end results of their successes, rather than to engage in a detailed process of disclosing the specific actions leading to their successes because it may have threatened the validity of those actions as "successful." That is, teachers were reluctant to delve into their own successes' concrete actions because they were afraid that perhaps their successes had evolved from luck and coincidence, rather than from their planned actions.

Likewise, in another recent study (Schechter, 2008b), prospective principals voiced concern about implementing collective learning from success as a leadership strategy, due to the process's possible effects on teachers sense of self-efficacy. The intentional focus on past successes, according to these students in a university-based principal preparatory program, could indeed have beneficial outcomes: It could bring to light positive recognition of teachers' expertise that underlies their successes, thereby fostering a belief in their capacity to succeed in their tasks and to learn from their experiences. However, prospective principals in this leadership program estimated that the same learning process could lead to a downward, negative pattern if teachers perceived themselves as less professionally capable compared to the competencies presented in their peers "successful" practices.


The Israeli educational system is highly centralized both in structure and procedure (Iram & Schmida, 1998). According to this tradition of centralized education, the Ministry of Education controls schools in areas such as enrollment policy, writing and distributing curriculum materials, standards, testing, and hiring and firing of school staff (Gibton, Sabar, & Goldring, 2000). In this way, the Ministry of Education is the provider of education for all, geared toward matriculation exams that are necessary to gain entrance into higher education institutions. The Education Ministry exerts heavy pressure on both teachers and principals to ensure students pass their matriculation exams with high grades. All schools follow a basic national curriculum, although they can choose to specialize from a predetermined list of subjects (Oplatka, 2006). Schools can also conduct experiments under the administrative direction from the Ministry. In recent years, more open and flexible registration opportunities for urban schools (with weaker links between residential location and school attendance zones) have increased competition among schools. These processes (open enrollment zones, school choice) have taken place much more in the urban schools as they operate in a turbulent environment whereas suburban and rural schools operate in a more of a placid environment. This has been coupled with attempts (since late1980s) to decentralize the school system through efforts such as school-based management, autonomous schools, and so forth.


The present study employed a qualitative research methodology. More specifically, it is a qualitative topic-oriented study (Guba & Lincoln, 1994) of principals mindscapes (Sergiovanni, 1995; see also Clandinin and Connellys 1996 notion of landscapes) concerning collective learning from success. Mindscapes are like road maps that provide rules, images and principles that define what the principalship is and how its practice should unfold (Sergiovanni, 1995, p. 30) at the micro and macro levels. Mindscapes function as personal theories that help principals navigate in an uncertain and complex educational context. That is, the current study attempted to explore principals interpretation and conceptualization of collective learning from successful practices. Understanding how principals conceptualize collective leaning from success can shed light as to whether and how this collective learning process can be implemented.


As it was not possible to select a random sample of in-service principals, the snowball or network techniques were used. For example, principals serving as mentors of prospective principals during their internship stage provided names of potential interviewees. Nevertheless, the selection process ensured that participants would be from diverse geographic areas, representing the entire school socioeconomic status range. Moreover, the selection process ensured that principals were from schools that provide a full range of study programs (science, humanities, arts), and comply with policy and regulations of national and local educational authorities. Signed informed consent by potential study participants preceded this study, granting participants full anonymity. In particular, participants were 65 Israeli principals (23 men and 42 women), mainly from urban school settings. Participants were from elementary (27), middle (10), and high school (28) systems and worked in various educational systems, such as the State Educational System, the Religious State Educational System, and the State Special Educational System. These 65 principals worked in three different school districts (Central, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem), which are the three largest districts in Israel (out of six school districts in the nation). The average age of principals was 49.5 (range = 29-62; SD = 5.5), and the average number of years in principalship was 8 (range = 1-26; SD = 5.2). These background characteristics indicate that participants closely represented the Israeli principal population (Vorgan, 2006).


Data were collected via semi-structured interviews to explore the principals' personal conceptualizations regarding collective learning from successful practices. Using a semi-structured interview guide (e.g., what are your first thoughts about collective learning from success in schools? what are the conditions and processes that foster collective learning from success in schools? what are the conditions and processes that inhibit collective learning from success in schools? what is your role as a principal in collective learning from success?) to collect data enabled exploration of participants' personal perspectives, while interviewing the different individuals more systematically (Marshall & Rossman, 1999; Patton, 2002). Face-to face interviews were conducted with participants by research assistants (M.A. level students who successfully completed a graduate course on qualitative research and were trained by the principal investigator with regard to this particular studys data collection and analytic processes). Participants were not exposed to the idea of collective learning from success in both their higher education and principal preparation programs. They also were not employing structural mechanisms of collaborative learning from success in their respective schools. Therefore, interviewers were asked to state the following at the beginning of the interview: Learning from success is a group inquiry, which identifies and analyzes staffs and students successes. Learning from success is a collective inquiry into the detailed actions that contributed to professional successes. The interviews generally lasted an hour. All interviews were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. All participants were fully informed of the aims of the study. Participants were promised complete confidentiality and received full retreat options.


The analysis process exposed, expanded, and verified the phenomenon under study through systematic data collection and analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). That is, data collection and analysis occurred simultaneously in an ongoing process throughout the inquiry (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). In particular, the data analysis included a data reduction process in which the already available data were reduced into briefer and succinct formulations (Huberman & Miles, 1994). Thus, a conceptual framework based on the studys purpose and questions served to reduce the data expressed by the interviewees into shorter formulations. The data reduction enabled both the principal researcher and research assistants to draw meaning from the data after a cognitive phase of interpretation.  This meaning categorization process was performed in two phases: 1. vertical analysis - participants' voices were analyzed separately; and 2. comparative horizontal analysis - finding common themes, contrasting patterns, and elucidating the differences among participants voices (Miles & Huberman, 1994). In this way, generating themes was an inductive process, grounded in the various perspectives articulated by participants. Thus, the analysis of interview data followed Marshall and Rossmans (1999) four stages, namely, organizing the data, generating tentative themes, testing the emergent themes, and searching for alternative explanations.

The above analytic processes were conducted by both the research assistants and the principal researcher. Thus, research assistants analyzed the data independently and then collaboratively reflected on the tentative themes. The principal researcher analyzed the entire data set independently, while reflecting on the tentative analytic themes generated by research assistants. Then, the principal researcher and research assistants met to reflect on the emerging themes, searching the data for disconfirming and confirming evidence to support the themes. In case where the coders did not reach a consensus, an external coder (university professor with expertise in educational administration) was summoned until reaching an agreement. Moreover, to evaluate the soundness of the study, a member check with all the participants was conducted. In doing so, the descriptive data and the tentative themes were refined in light of the participants reactions, thus crystallizing principals conceptualizations regarding collective learning from success.


This section reports the findings for the three questions of interest: What are the principals views or first thoughts about collective learning from success? What are the major determinants considered by school principals to influence collective learning from success? How do principals perceive their own role in regard to collective learning from success?


When asked for their views (first thoughts) regarding collective learning from success, most principals (44) spontaneously described failures and problematic events, rather than successful ones, as productive triggers for collective learning and change. One elementary school principal (with 14 years of experience) reflected:

I think that we need to look for things that are not succeeding, to see the failure as a challenge to think and act differently. The problematic aspect brings us to new thinking. When we succeed, great, wonderful; we can think how to improve and add. However, when we fail, we have a problem; we need to learn and change things.

In a similar way, one high school principal (with 12 years of experience) stated the following:

Learning from success is something that creates euphoria; there is a sense that "we did it" and therefore it will always happen like that. When we succeed, teachers do not force themselves to get into details and learn. Deep and significant learning comes from failures. As much as the failure is more traumatic, as much as it knocks you to the ground, deep down, we learn more.

Interestingly, the above initial conceptual interpretations for the notion of collective learning from success were coupled with a similar practical orientation. For example, one high school principal said:

Learning from failures is much more interesting. When I was in the U.S on a study visit, I wanted to see high schools that face difficulties. I wanted to examine why they did not succeed in order to learn how not to repeat others mistakes. Now, we are learning from these failed experiences.

Other principals commented on the lack of tension and motivation needed in order to analyze successes. It may be the case where principals perceived success as an endpoint rather than the culmination of steps taken to arrive there, as reflected in the words of one elementary school principal:

I believe much more in learning from failures. In my opinion, collective learning from success is boring. We had a success to replicate it and to analyze the factors that contributed to this success is quite boring. It is much more conducive to focus on learning from our failures and how to fix them. Who wants to sit together and analyze successes? If it was good, we will do it again.

In this regard, one special education school principal in her second year put it more bluntly:

It is hard for me to accept the notion of learning from success. In my opinion, we need to learn from failures because in successes we reached a peak, and there is no need or possibility for replication, no motivation. In contrast, failures bring energy because we need to bail out of the situation.

Learning from failures, in comparison to learning from successes, was perceived by principals as creating tension. This tension is created due to the perceived gap between an expected and an observed situation in schoolwork. This tension, then, motivates both administrators and teachers to inquire into their failed practices.

Although most principals perceived failures as productive catalysts for learning, other principals (21) generally supported the idea of learning from success. Several principals alluded to the need to integrate learning from failures with learning from successes. This is illustrated in the following assertion by a middle school principal in the religious educational system: Learning from successes must be accompanied by learning from failures. In every success there are failures, and we need to overcome and solve them in order to move on. There is no just learning from success. When you eat too much honey, you can choke. On a similar note, one high school principal said:

A focus on learning from failures rather than learning from successes loses balance. The right answer is finding the proportion and the balancing point between learning from successes and ignoring failures. School leadership needs to find the balancing point between learning from successes and a proper treatment of failures.

Whereas the above statements call for finding a balance between learning from success and learning from failure, as a means of advancing better schoolwork, one high school principal (with 6 years of experience) perceived a disconnection between these two processes:

It is nice to learn from success, but we need to be sure to learn after a failure to prevent its occurrence in the future. We can see that investigating committees are established after failures rather than successes. . . . Learning from success will not prevent the next failure but will help to generate future successes.

It appears that this principal perceived learning from failure and learning from success as two distinct organizational processes, each with its unique consequences. In this sense, failure and success were perceived as distinct ontological entities, each with its different impact on schoolwork.

Several principals focused on how this collective process from successful practices enables replications of successes in other places within the school. An elementary school principal (with 17 years of experience) explained:

Collective learning from success for me is when we go through a successful process in school and want to replicate it. For example, we worked on the ceremony for Israels 60th year of independence. It was a huge success and the entire faculty was involved. Now, teachers want to learn from this success in order to replicate it in the future for other topics.

Conceptualizing collective learning from success as a replication process was echoed in the words of a middle school principal (18 years of experience): For me, learning from success is identifying the structures of our work that led to success, and trying to replicate it in places that were not successful. Another elementary school principal (8 years of experience) provided an example of such a replication: We had a behavior problem in one class. We learned how to deal with this problem. It was a huge success. We copied this model to another class. Not exactly in the same way as classes have different characteristics, but it was definitely learning from success.

In a similar way, several principals pointed out that learning from success can serve as leverage for expanding and modifying current practices. To illustrate, a high school principal in his first year said:

Learning from success is like benchmarking. The wheel is already here, and we do not need to invent it again. It is important to present successes not as a recipe but as a starting point for learning from others. We do not have to invent the wheel but only to reveal the different applications that can be performed with it.

This adaptation and modification perspective was echoed by an elementary school principal (12 years of experience): If a successful experience occurs in one class, we can reflect on how to modify and adapt it in another class or in other subject matters. It is not a change; it is an expansion and modification. In the sense proposed by the latter principals, collective learning from success generates an exploitation (refinement, efficiency) of already-known strategies rather than an exploration (flexibility, discovery) of new pedagogical and administrative strategies (March, 1996).

Two principals perceived the notion of collective learning from success as praising and recognizing faculty members for their successes in the communal arena. For example, a first-year high school principal said: In our administrative meetings, I praised the 12th grade coordinator who had done wonderful things with both teachers and students. Isnt that collective learning from success? Two other principals responded to the notion of collective learning from success by providing examples of how they start each faculty meeting with praising and celebrating successful practices as a means of motivating teachers.

A different approach was presented by three principals who perceived the notion of learning from success as focusing on the schools future processes. For example, a first-year elementary school principal in the religious educational system said as follows:

When we say collective learning from success, I think about where we want to go and what we want to achieve. What kind of successes do we anticipate? What kind of a process do we want to go through in order to achieve our successful destination? This is learning toward the real struggle, the process.

Whereas the vast majority of principals focused on collective learning from success as a retrospective practice that centers on the successes end results, this response focused on learning from success as a prospective inquiry into the necessary processes to achieve schools' goals.


Major determinants considered by school principals to influence collective learning from success include: conscious analysis of success (switching cognitive gears); forces from above; looking in the mirror (comparing professional abilities); and a competitive culture.

Conscious Analysis of Success: Switching Cognitive Gears

Most principals (45) stressed the need for a deliberate and conscious process of analyzing successful practices. Principals raised the challenge in switching gears from the current inherent predisposition to direct attention toward problematic and failed events in schoolwork. A high school principal (8 years of experience) stated:

In our lives, we have many successes. We must not take them for granted. It is unfortunate that in our societies we pay much more attention to unsuccessful experiences. Most of the time we succeed as education is built on a positive hope. However, we pay attention to our failures. For example, a principal criticizes a teacher for not complying with the schools regulations and does not know how to engage her in evaluating her huge successes in working with the inclusive classes.

An elementary school principal in the religious educational system (10 years of experience) asserted:

At the superintendent level, and actually at all levels, it is hard to divert the focus from failure to success. Collective learning processes serve as a stage to blame others for failures. Learning from failures and problems is perceived as a channel to put the blame, which focuses on what was not done properly much more than on what was done successfully. This inclination causes lack of cooperation and hinders any possibility for learning and initiating improvement processes. Teachers are afraid that they are being checked, watched. They are still entrapped in focusing on failures.

Principals argued that the primary focus on retrospective learning from failed events and processes not only skews teachers' discourse in a negative direction, but also deprives teachers of learning opportunities embedded in past successes and satisfactory events. The principals also asserted that when succeeding, faculty members do not tend to reflect on the actions leading to their successes. One elementary school principal in her third year in office noted that [p]eople treat successes as an obvious thing without analyzing them. When succeeding, teachers are happy but do not take time to understand why they succeeded. We do not pay attention to the seeds of success. Not paying attention to the seeds of successful practices leads to a more fundamental perception of successes in school life (an elementary school principal): In learning from success, we praise ourselves all the time. We learn from failures, whereas learning from success causes faculty members to rest on their laurels. When learning from failures, we have to think, and when learning from successes we just write a "checkmark" and continue.

Based on the predisposition to focus on failed events as sources for learning, principals considered collective learning from success as demanding a shift in mindset concerning schools daily routines. A first-year high school principal in the religious educational system explained:

Learning from success calls for a change in perception. When we encounter failure, we learn from failure. Learning from success demands a change in style. You start identifying your sources of strength. Learning from success helps to identify the sources of power that a teacher was not aware of, was not conscious of.

Another elementary school principal from the religious educational system pointed out a more fundamental assumption with regard to success and its collective analysis:

When teachers succeed, its okay. You just did your job. So we need to change our perception. We need to stop thinking that the things that are done right are obvious. Nothing is obvious. It requires a change in cultural perception. In our religious system, we reject learning from success because it is not modest. Teachers do not engage in learning from their successes because it contradicts modesty. This causes a standstill in our organizations. No legitimacy to talk about successes, just failures as leverage for growth. We, as a faculty, need to change the way we encounter our successes.

According to most principals from the religious educational system, discussing successes in the collective arena is seen as unnecessarily boastful and lacking the requisite decorum. Several principals from the religious system did call for a shift in mind to place successes at the center of collective learning, but they did not specify concrete steps in this direction.

Based on the need for a change in mindset, several principals (5) did stress some cognitive efforts necessary in order to move toward collective learning from success. A first-year principal shared her perception:

Learning from success requires work. Reflecting on successes and deciding that we want to learn from them require a struggle and efforts. This is its major disadvantage it requires work. We tend to jump when encountering failures as if we were bitten by a snake. But if something is all right, we say it was nice. That is something that requires mental work. If we already succeeded and finished this assignment, why do we need to invest work into analyzing things that were successful?

This cognitive work as a determinant of collective learning from success was elaborated by an elementary school principal (12 years of experience):

When you ask "Where do you see success?" you deconstruct it so that it becomes a conscious process. In my opinion, when describing a success, we cannot be satisfied with only showing what occurred. A mere description of successful events doesn't do any good. It must be accompanied by metacognitive learning. Otherwise, it is just a statement. We need to reflect on what we learned, how it contributed to our knowledge; maybe it strengthened something we already do. We need to be aware not to put the successes into our mental safes. It is a wake-up call for us. Conceptualizing our successful experiences is very demanding, although this is a critical stage for the faculty in becoming a learning group.

This principal argued for collective reflection both on the guiding principles gleaned from the successful practices and on how and to what extent this collective learning may contribute to teachers' professional development.

Principals also indicated that conceptual change with regard to collective learning from success must be accompanied by deliberate learning about how to conduct such a process (a middle school principal): Learning from success is difficult to do because it is not learned, it is not deliberately practiced. These days, it is something unnatural; it is something that needs to be learned. More specifically, a high school principal noted that a specific skill or tool is necessary for such a collective learning approach: Not everyone can learn from successes as we learn from failures. When we want to learn from successes, we need a skill that has to be taught. We need to learn the tool; we need to know how to do this. These principals contended that learning from success is not naturally practiced by faculty members. Therefore, learning from success as a cognitive analysis of the schools practices needs to be taught and practiced.

As principals argued that the need to switch cognitive gears demands efforts by the entire faculty, three main stumbling blocks were raised. A cognitive impediment to collective learning from success was stressed by one high school principal:

In private conversations with my teachers, I inquire into their success stories. Each teacher finds a story that she defines as a success. However, it is difficult for teachers to analyze success and draw lessons from it. In our conversations, it is difficult for teachers to relate to the success as a consequence of a process that evolves from myriad of factors connected to each other. They encounter difficulty explaining what the causes are that contributed to the success; what the stages were that led to a success. It will surely be much more difficult to do that with a group.

Inasmuch as successes involve many aspects of the school system, this principal illuminated how the loosely-coupled structure of schools, especially high schools, might impede a collective, conscious, and accurate analysis of successful practices.

Another impediment was clearly mentioned by three participants. These principals alluded to the lack of collective energy needed for this shift in mindset. As one high school principal in her second year acknowledged: It may be hard to sit down and think about our successes. The faculty wants to continue in the same way as always. This analytic process requires energy, emotional energy, something we are short of in our hectic school life. A special education school principal in her second year elaborated on the energy needed to initiate this collective learning process: Teachers will probably say: Why did she come to us now with this new spirit? Weren't things successful until now? Why do we have to sit down and learn from our successes together? It requires positive energies and we have our hands full trying to solve problems.

Collective learning from success, as just stated, requires not only a conscious mental capacity, but also positive energies that teachers may lack. An elementary school principal added another rhetorical impediment:

Most of the time, we talk about the end results. We are trying to be sophisticated, rather than asking a teacher to just tell the story, just lets see what you did in order to promote this kid. You read him a story every day, gave him feedback, it doesnt matter what, but you just need to analyze the behaviors in this process that led to the success. We need to get into details in the learning process rather than using abstract words to characterize our successes.

As collective learning from success focuses on identifying successes in selected areas of the schools' work and documenting them in actionable terms, switching cognitive gears requires also shifting schools rhetorical patterns. Instead of communicating teachers' successes by using amorphous and abstract terminology, the latter principal looked for an action-oriented learning-rhetoric approach.

Forces from Above

Forty-two principals cited issues related to the superintendents, districts, and Ministry of Education as a determinant of their ability to implement learning from success in their schools. Principals claimed that superintendents primarily focus on helping schools overcome problems. A high school principal with nine years of experience relayed:

The superintendent is not involved in our team learning, but we can approach him when we encounter difficulties. The superintendent is involved more when problems arise. Superintendents tend to come to schools when there are problems, although after the principal demonstrates successes, the superintendent wants to join in and provide resources.

One special education school principal commented frankly on the attitudes conveyed by the superintendents:

The system is built in such a way as the district and the superintendent see themselves as problem finders, rather than as identifying successes and learning from them. It is obvious that superintendents are happy with successes but they have never defined any goal beyond industrial silence. In my opinion, the superintendent needs to initiate meetings, in which each faculty member presents and analyzes her success. They need to ask for the good things. They need to ask the faculty to reflect on both the failed and the successful events.

Principals argued that successes generated at the school level are still evaluated by superiors from a problem-based perspective. Hence, five principals even encouraged superintendents both to initiate formal learning-from-success processes and to take an active role in these learning processes at the school level.

The relatively few principals (4) who described superintendents as focusing their attention on schools successes suggested that the superintendents nevertheless primarily concentrate on the successes end results instead of delving into the detailed actions leading to the successes. One high school principal (4 years of experience) described it thus:

When he [the superintendent] comes to learn about our successes, it is presented as if there were no difficulties in achieving the success. The superintendent wants to disseminate our successes to other schools under his supervision. However, when you do not learn the process and you are presented only with end results, it is difficult to replicate the successes to other places.

Principals contended that superintendents are not integral players in the schools' learning processes. Therefore, they prefer to present successes' end results rather than their processes to superintendents in order to "look good" (Kofman & Senge, 1993). This emphasis on successes' final outcomes, according to these principals, also meets the superintendents' need to "look good" at the district level by disseminating schools' successes.

Seven principals argued that they are encouraged to share successful practices during the periodical meetings held with other principals under the direction of the superintendent. One high school principal shared his experience:

In our principals meetings, the superintendent does not talk about failures but encourages us to present successes. It is easier and more ethical. When principals hear about the successes of other principals, they become jealous and think maybe it is worthwhile trying these successful ideas in their schools.

In contrast, three more experienced principals argued that discussing successes with other colleagues-principals in the superintendents office is rarely translated into similar learning processes in their own schools, as reflected by an experienced elementary school principal in the religious educational system:

In the superintendents office, we [principals] are encouraged to share our knowledge with one another, and especially our successes. However, there is no structured, consistent, organized learning from our successes at the school level. Therefore, it may take place in the superintendents office but it has never translated into our schools. There is no link between learning from successes in the superintendent's office and what happens in our schools.

These experienced principals argued that without built-in mechanisms for linking external learning (e.g., principals' learning in the superintendent's office) to schoolwork, successful practices cannot serve as opportunities for teachers' learning and growth.

Only four principals, all in their early years in office, stressed another impediment to collective learning from success: the continuously increasing demands imposed by superiors to achieve short-term positive results. For example, a high school principal in her second year reported:

The work as a principal is very demanding. Superiors demand to see proven immediate successful results and therefore there is no time for a process. We are measured just by our end results. There is no time to learn from the successes, just to move forward to achieve another success. . . . The superintendent needs to encourage this process by helping us stop this race so that we can conduct meaningful learning. He needs to help us stop running from one project to another.

This was coupled with a similar but more ardent statement by another high school principal in her first year: Because I am 'drowning' in trying to handle multiple demands from our 'masters' the district, the superintendent it is really hard to initiate this process. It is crazy as I am expected to present data indicating an improvement in student outcomes in a couple of months.

At the Ministry level, principals perceived the tendency to impose quick fixes in the shape of national reforms as a barrier to initiating collective learning from success. This impediment was described by an elementary school principal in her 12th year:

Unfortunately, our work is dictated by the Ministry, from moment to moment, and many casualties fall by the wayside. Instead, the Ministry could bring in principals with successful experiences, and construct a learning process based on these experiences. There is no way to initiate a reform without a process, without a respect for our successful practices. . . . If policy-makers are not involved in exploring our successes, by definition it is a dictatorship.

Other principals stressed this over-reliance on failures and problems in initiating a national reform instead of inductively explicating schools' successes, as exemplified by an elementary school principal in her third year in office:

The Ministry of Education acts out its feelings of failure in international comparative tests, as well as in national exams. The Ministry does not learn from successful schools. There is no deep thinking about why we succeed at times of success. For example, why did students in one city succeed in the matriculation exams? How do they work? The Ministry needs to bring the principals and the superintendents of that school district in for learning purposes. If there were a national program for analyzing concrete successes in a variety of subject matters, systemic models for analyzing successes would be developed. This process would create a culture that nurtures success as a process and not only as a product.

Principals claimed that the Ministry's tendency to initiate large-scale reforms in reaction to students' poor results on both international and national exams contradicts a more profound process of learning from successful teachers and schools. They urged the Ministry to look inward, into successful practices that do exist in the system, rather than outward, constantly comparing the achievements of Israeli students with the achievements of students from other countries and contexts.

Looking in the Mirror: Comparing Professional Abilities

Nine principals compared the collective process of learning from success to placing a mirror in front of every teacher who participates in this learning forum. Principals even suspected that teachers would perceive the analysis of others successes as a criticism of their own work, or as a reflection on their own failure. This was exemplified in the following remark by a high school principal (6 years of experience), commenting on his learning with other principals under the guidance of the superintendent:

There may be a constant sense of fear throughout the entire process of learning from success. If it succeeded for others, and I do not succeed, what does that say about me as a principal and about the school I am running? There is a sense of fear of things that are not said. Not because there is an intent to disguise, but because there are many more parameters to the success that cannot be quantified or easy to talk about. There are parameters that one person can activate which will lead to success, whereas another person doing exactly the same thing will not succeed. There is a hidden assumption that if something succeeded in other schools, now it is your turn. That raises a fear: It might not happen to me. In learning from success, there is a hidden message you must succeed too.

Two principals attributed this sense of fear to the constant comparison of personal skills and abilities among teachers participating in this kind of collective learning from success. A middle school principal in her first year in office commented on the inherent inequity of some comparisons: Let's say that a teacher reflects on his success in lowering discipline problems. It might be that this success is due to his assertiveness or toughness. Another teacher who was not born with these capacities will not be able to learn from this success and copy it.

Most principals raised the possible threat to teachers perceived status when analyzing successful professional practices in the collective arena. A history teacher at a secondary school asserted: It is very difficult to share successes because of the complexity in teachers status within the staff. A sharing teacher is a threatened teacher by colleagues. If a teacher is afraid that her position in the group would be altered, she will think twice whether to share. When asked to envision how to foster collective learning from success in their schools, a literature teacher reflected in her journal:

I put myself in the shoes of a participant in the learning-from-success sessions. I am not sure I would agree to participate and expose myself. I will need a sense of confidence, a lack of negative criticism in the working team, and recognition of my important role in school. Thinking that this exposure will cause my teammates to see me not as I deserve to be perceived is a great risk. Maybe they will evaluate me less, think that I exaggerate, or not perceive my success as one.

Looking forward to initiating collective learning from success in their schools strengthened students perception with regard to the potential threat to teachers perceived professional legitimacy within the group of faculty members.

In a similar way, four students perceived their schools attempts to avoid altering the already established power structure as a possible impediment to collective learning from success. An English coordinator at the middle school level reflected:

I am not sure how my school would react to learning from success. Things are going smoothly, and both administrators and teachers try not to disrupt the status quo. Learning from success may change power relations, as one teacher tries to present success while another tries to protect herself from unpleasant criticism.

In this regard, a veteran teacher, who also served as a regional consultant to schools, explained her thoughts during a university-based lesson:

This process can enhance teachers attrition. It can concentrate on the successes, but at the same time it can reveal the failures of less successful teachers. It is a problematic issue, especially in a small staff, as in my school. There are teachers whose learning from success can raise their status within the group while others can just give up.

It appears that several students perceived the learning-from-success process as an inquiry into colleagues professional legitimacy, which can lead to changes in power relations among the group members.

Principals' comparisons focused not only on colleagues professional skills, abilities, and knowledge, but also on the content of the successful event and its relevance to each participant in the learning forum. Here are the words of a high school principal (9 years of experience):

In our last faculty meeting, the drama teacher presented her work with students. She explained that she focused on self-expression and more active work on the part of the students. The crowd said: Woo, wonderful. But then several teachers commented that they could not do the same. How can we be creative when teaching math? Teachers were not willing to learn as they perceived the content of success as irrelevant to their own subjects content knowledge.

High schools are more complex, with greater emphasis on specialization and division of labor than elementary and middle schools (Hoy, Tarter, & Kottkamp, 1991). Accordingly, high school teachers, as several of their principals argued, would be more likely to envision the unique pedagogical content knowledge of specific subject matters (e.g., drama) as "not relevant" to their own learning and growth.

Competitive Culture

15 principals, especially those who head urban schools, argued that the competitive atmosphere in the current era of imposed standards and accountability is a factor that inhibits a culture of inquiry-learning. A middle school principal explained:

Teachers are constantly checked according to the standards imposed by the Ministry. Being evaluated by these imposed standards prevents teachers from sharing successes with others. A teacher is probably saying: I need to work so hard to meet the standards, so why do I need to share my success?

An experienced high school principal (20 years) provided an example of such competitiveness as manifested in his school:

One of the teachers developed an excellent textbook. I asked her to guide all other teachers in how she developed this book. The teacher refused. She did not want to specify why she refused. I can speculate that she probably wanted to hold on to her professional expertise in this competitive environment.

These above excerpts suggest that in a competitive environment, teachers are reluctant to share professional successes with colleagues. In this way, teachers' professional expertise is often left behind once outside classroom walls.

This need to safeguard one's successes would result in a collective learning process where teachers refrain from delving into their detailed actions leading to the successful experiences. As one elementary school principal conjectured: In my opinion, teachers will be reluctant to go into detail and explain the factors contributing to the success because you want always to succeed and do not want to reveal your secrets. Using other words, an experienced high school principal, in her 18th year in office, commented: In our competitive environment, teachers might refrain from talking about the difficulties on the way to success, sharing end results only. This is not learning; it is just showing off. In a similar way, a special education school principal explained the difficulties posed by the competitive culture: I think that it is hard for teachers to get into details when analyzing their successes. It is always difficult, but especially difficult in our competitive context. Maybe teachers are afraid to receive criticism from the faculty. Therefore, they use just nice words in general terms. Thus, in a competitive environment, teachers would be reluctant to inquire into successful practices, trying to hide behind abstract rhetoric.

This self-protection and lack of deep analysis of successful experiences within schools was also presented with regard to schools' learning from one another. A middle school principal (11 years of experience) argued: Schools can learn from other schools successes. However, schools do not like to share their successes. We talk about success in general and amorphous terms, without exposing the process because of the competition between us. In this regard, a veteran high school principal with 26 years of principalship experience claimed: Principals do not tend to reveal their secrets of success to other principals. Principals want to protect their successes because they need to survive in a competitive environment. More specifically, principals argued that if their school succeeds in a specific topic, faculty members would be reluctant to share their road to success with other schools.


The last research question focused on how principals perceive their own role in regard to collective learning from success. Several principals (7) argued that they need to believe in this process and be receptive to different approaches to schoolwork, as would be presented in teachers successful stories. This was illustrated in the following assertion by a high school principal in her 18th year in office:

The person who is in charge needs to understand the deep meaning of learning from success. He has to be open to this alternative approach that cannot be superficial, but rather comes from a belief that this learning will lead to new revelations. The principal needs to be open to different pedagogical and organizational perspectives to school practices.

With this understanding, two principals asserted that in order to facilitate new understandings of practical situations among faculty members, they need, as leaders, to reflect on their own understanding of preconceived tacit assumptions about schoolwork.

Principals (15) also asserted that their first responsibility within the learning group is to help teachers pay attention to their own successes and their colleagues ones. A high school principal (with 6 years of experience) claimed: We must be conscious about success. We need to point out the successes to teachers. Teachers cannot always see their own successes, let alone their colleagues successes. It should be a conscious process. A special education school principal in her 14th year in office gave the following details on the process the leader needs to initiate: We need a culture of success finding even with magnifying glasses. We need to help teachers look at the small details. In this way, it will be clear to everybody what we do here and how we act. Thus, participants claimed that their role is both to point out teachers successes and to help teachers explicate and formulate the actionable knowledge embedded in their successful practices.

Other principals (12) focused on their role in inductively developing a learning community that productively inquires into successful experiences. A first-year high school principal referred to how leaders should initiate the process:

It is important that this process is not imposed but rather nurtured from the bottom, according to the unique needs of the school. It should be based on the assumption that each person wants to succeed and be recognized. A dictate from above without an ability to process the information will cause uncertainty.

With this said, principals raised another role for themselves, that of inviting teachers to take an active role in the learning forum. A high school principal (6 years of experience) said: The basic idea is that everyone has successes to analyze. As a principal, when I provide the time to analyze and present successful practices, I actually provide them with a challenge; come, share, and be in the front line.

Trying to facilitate more of an inductive approach to collective learning, one high school principal emphasized the principals role in focusing teachers attention on the process leading toward success rather than negotiating successes end results:

Teachers will be confused and will focus on the success rather than trying to understand what brought about that success. In such a case, teachers will argue whether it even is a success and why this success was chosen and not another one. Therefore, it is important how we approach the faculty, how to point out that the faculty meets not to glorify a specific success but to analyze the process leading up to success.

For collective learning from success to be productive, several principals (7) stressed their own role in defining success; thus negotiating the criteria for measuring successful practices at school. A middle school principal (8 years of experience) expressed this idea:

Learning in a team-group is difficult. Everyone looks at the success quite differently. For example, for one teacher, the successful process is important whereas for another the final product is important. The difficult process is defining some ground rules for the term "success." The principal needs to facilitate a discussion on what the principles of success are in the school.

An elementary school principal mused on the challenges facing leadership when undertaking such collective learning from successes:

At the school administration level, we need to ask ourselves what success means. We need precise criteria, which will take 1000 years to determine and therefore will be a waste of time. The administration needs to determine what first and what second. But how do I determine who is more successful? If someone works very hard and does not overwhelmingly succeed, is that called a success? How do I determine whose success to analyze in the learning forum?

It appears that some principals perceived their role as determining the ground rules of what successful practices mean in their schools, while others raised the need to deliberate with teachers on how to interpret success.

Determining the ground rules of what success means, should be accompanied by sensitive facilitation of the collective inquiry into successful practices. An elementary principal (12 years of experience) explained this sensitive role in the collective inquiry:

Even if someone is shy, my role is to ask: What did you take from this story? Managing the discussion should be smart, very smart. It should be very sensitive, in my opinion. We're talking about human beings. It's an issue of respect. It's like a family; no one should feel undeserved. We need to be aware that no single teacher should take center stage, which could result in another person feeling miserable. I need to come from a place of equality and respect.

The above statement emphasizes principals conceptualization of their role as developers of a forthcoming atmosphere (respect, trust) that promotes productive collective learning from success. Another major role for the principals that emerged here was the necessity to identify each teachers unique needs. A second-year school principal contemplated how different faculty members, at various developmental stages in their career, can be nurtured in this collective endeavor: Can I use the idea of leaning from success to build a strong team? The faculty is diverse, and different teachers are at different stages in their professional development. How can I build sessions based on learning from success that will nurture each teacher?

Knowing the needs of each teacher and how to tailor learning from success to address these needs may enable the principal to find teachers who can lead this collective process without creating resistance among faculty members. A high school principal discussed the principal's role vis-à-vis these individual differences: The principal needs to know the faculty and to identify which teacher can lead this kind of learning. Otherwise, the faculty will resist because these people are threatening. They are successful teachers who can easily intimidate the rest of the participants. Identifying a teacher who can engage the faculty in productive learning from successful practices was perceived by the principals to be a crucial task. They argued that this teacher-facilitator needs to be deeply involved in the lives of the school and its staff, and must play an active role in the main events of school life. They added that they would search for a faculty member who would be committed to hearing the voices of all participants; thus creating a learning ambiance that is at one and the same time accepting, challenging, and creative.

Finally, two principals commented that the principal should create school-wide fractals of learning from success, thus approaching this process from a systemic perspective, as described by one high school principal:

It is important that the principal be aware of the whole system and knows how to disseminate learning to different groups within the organization. If there is learning from success among the bible teachers, there must be also learning from success among the science teachers. If there is learning from success about pedagogy, there should be also learning from success about social and psychological aspects in school life. It should not be limited to a particular subject matter or grade level, but rather needs to be perceived by principals as a school-wide learning approach.

This assertion focuses on the principals role in creating a school network of learning from successful practices. Thus, principals are obligated to develop interactive learning processes based on the successful activities, processes, and methods of individual members at the school.


When initially asked about their views (first thoughts) regarding collective learning from success, principals argued that problems and failures are the most productive triggers for learning and change in schoolwork. Learning from problems and failures, in this regard, centers on eliminating undesired conditions (Kofman & Senge, 1993). Thus, unpleasant and undesirable events serve as a trigger for conscious post-action reviews (attention, awareness, reflection, hypothesis testing), stimulate a process of sense-making (Lau & Russell, 1980; Mahenswaran & Chaiken, 1991), and call for a resolution of the difficulty. Put differently, whereas problems and failures signify an undesirable gap between an expected and observed situation (Tucker, Edmondson, & Spear, 2002), stimulating a sense-making process, successes do not provide the necessary tension and motivation to learn.

Collective learning from success was considered by principals as a replication process. That is, learning from success serves as a source for replicating successful activities to unsuccessful classes and schools. Perceived by principals as a replication process, learning from success produces only single-loop learning (instrumental learning that leaves the existing values and norms unchanged). Not a single principal indicated learning from success as generating double-loop learning, which generates change in fundamental values and norms. This finding is consistent with literature indicating that transformational change is generated by learning from failure (Argyris & Schon, 1996; Ellis & Davidi, 2005). However, Virany et al. (1996) argued that high performing organizations are "distinct in that they initiate second-order learning not in response to performance decline, but either in anticipation of environmental change or as a response to elevated performance" (p. 325). In this regard, whereas moderately performing schools tend to learn in response to real performance crisis (failure), high performing schools are proactive; that is, they also learn from successful events as a means of anticipating environmental change.

The need for a change in perception with regard to successful practices was extensively reflected upon in the interviews. In contrast to the conscious process of evaluating failures and problems in order to prevent them from future occurrence, principals argued that learning from success requires a deliberate switch in cognitive gears with regard to schoolwork. Switching cognitive gears, then, is a shift from "selective inattention," whereby these successful instances are being processed by professionals on automatic pilot (Ellis & Davidi, 2005), to "selective attention" that deliberately and consciously focuses on what has been done in the past in order to achieve successes, uncovering the tacit wisdom that made them possible. In other words, for the expertise that underlies success to be tapped, it must undergo a deliberate, conscious learning process through which tacit knowledge is transformed into organizational knowledge (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995).

Principals argued that collective learning from success is like putting a mirror in front of each teacher. Analyzing successes in the collective arena stimulates reflection with regard to the individual teachers professional knowledge and skills. When teachers compare the competencies presented in their peers "successful" practices with their own professional work and skills, they can perceive themselves as less professionally capable. Thus, a teachers perceived self-efficacy can be greatly affected, whether in a positive or negative direction, by analyzing successes in the collective arena. By extension, as perceived self and collective efficacy influence one another in reciprocal ways (Goddard & Goddard, 2001), collective learning from success can revitalize or demoralize facultys shared belief in its conjoint capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action needed to attain their schools mission.

Only four novice principals elaborated on the external demands imposed by the school district as an impediment to collective learning from success. These demands center on short-term measurable results, which contradict a long-term process of exploring teachers detailed paths toward success. This is in line with an earlier study (Schechter, 2008b), in which the majority of students in a university-based principal preparatory program perceived the school districts demands for immediate positive results in student achievement as a major impediment to upholding a continuous process of collective learning from success. It may be the case where experienced in-service principals are more comfortable with the inherent tension between adhering to external demands and nurturing teachers growth through social learning endeavors.

The principals in the current study took into account the interrelationship between learning from problems and learning from successes. In this regard, Cook and Yanow (1996) maintained that contemplating only on what went wrong is not necessarily relevant and sufficient to organizational life. Ellis and Davidi (2005), in a study on two companies of soldiers taking a ground navigation course, found that the pace of improvement in navigation exercises was significantly greater in the balanced reviews (contemplating on both failed and successful events) than in the unbalanced event reviews (contemplating only on failed events). This inquiry revealed that the balanced reviews had a positive effect on learning from failure as well. This suggests that focusing on both learning from failure and learning from success fosters better results in a turbulent environment. Learning from success and learning from failure thus complement and nourish one another.

Finally, principals raised the need to develop a learning group in an atmosphere of generosity and acceptance. They stressed the need to overcome a lack of openness, empathy, and willingness to share, recognizing humans defensive routines during organizational social endeavors (Argyris, 1993). As defensive routines inhibit members from expressing and testing their assumptions (Argyris & Schon, 1996; Louis, 1994, 2006), principals stressed the importance of creating a forthcoming environment prior to and during the inquiry into teachers' own successes. The leadership challenge, according to principals, is to reduce the impact of defensive routines that guide peoples behavior (Argyris & Schon, 1996), by expressing patience and empathy and constructing a bridge between positions. This leadership bridge is important, especially with regard to defining what counts as a success in the collective learning arena. With this said, effective reflexive spaces in school are contingent on the principals role in promoting a culture of inquiry, openness, and trust.


Several implications for school principals are suggested. It is well known that teachers do not necessarily share the same beliefs and values about what is successful or not; thus one teacher's perceived success may be another's perceived failure. When participants classify their colleagues' experiences into either successful or unsuccessful categories, principals can uncover the potentially rich information residing within each experience. In order to cope with the unintended division between successful and unsuccessful teachers, leaders can serve as gatekeepers for any dispositional ideology, while empowering teachers to authentically share what they perceive as their successful practices (Schechter et al., 2008).

It is important that leaders remain open to lessons learned from the collective endeavor without being too bound by rigid hierarchical rules. In other words, school leaders can encourage teachers to collectively inquire into their successful practices, acknowledging faculty members as creative partners in a joint learning venture (Schechter et al., 2008). Beyond nurturing a learning culture, school leaders can create institutionalized arrangements for collective learning from success by allocating time, space, and resources. It is imperative to create spaces (Issacs, 1999) where practitioners can share their professional expertise by divulging actions that led to successes, as a means of improving pedagogical practices. This "microworld" (Kofman & Senge, 1993) provides a safe arena for deliberators to authentically reflect on their successes.


Educational systems around the world are replete with policy-driven (top-down) school reform efforts (Brooks, Placier, & Cockrell, 2003; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). These policy-made school reform efforts (e.g., The No Child Left Behind Act, U.S.A; Dovrat National Task Force, Israel) are generally a response to a perceived crisis and/or problem. These reform efforts have been characterized by Hess (1999) as policy churn. That is, a sequence emerges in which the perception of a crisis leads to program development, program implementation, program evaluation, and again to redefinition of the crisis. This vicious cycle often inhibits policy-driven reforms from rendering a significant impact on school life, thus increasing professional saturation, distraction, and cynicism among practitioners (Brooks et al., 2003). Nevertheless, reform efforts that evolve from analyzing practitioners' successes can tighten the link between the policy-makers' agenda and the practitioners' actual work, encouraging both stakeholders to collaboratively build upon emerging successes as leverage for enacting school change. In this sense, collective learning from success can better link emerging successful practices at the school level with abstract policy-driven reform models (Schechter, 2010).

Whereas program initiation, implementation, and continuation at the school district level have been traditionally associated with a higher degree of problem-solving orientation, contemporary district reform initiatives focus on professional development of best practices (Anderson, 2006). This professional development, or lateral capacity building (Fullan, Bertani, & Quinn, 2004), emphasizes knowledge sharing and transfer of effective practices in the district. With this said, how can successful professional practices at the school level be identified, analyzed, and disseminated throughout the district? As a district-wide approach, what are the implications of a systemic and deliberate analysis of school level successes? Can district officials mitigate between problem-based (national) policy-driven reforms and collective school-level efforts to learn from ongoing successful practices? On a similar note, contemporary school superintendency emphasizes aspects of improving learning, teaching, and student performance, rather than the traditional administrative emphasis on efficiency and management (Bjork, 2001; Camborn-McCabe, Cunningham, Harvey, & Koff, 2005). Accordingly, to improve teaching and learning, what is the superintendents role in initiating and sustaining processes of collective learning from practitioners successes? What is the superintendents role in integrating schools intellectual resources and practical wisdom?


It is important for both researchers and practitioners to scrutinize the following questions: Does effort to collectively learn from successful practices develop a discourse of triumphalism/competition, rather than a learning/inquiry discourse? Could collective learning from success become nothing more than a show-and-tell at school? To what extent is the actionable knowledge (Argyris, 1993) generated in the collective learning-from-success sessions relevant and useful in classroom practices? What is the principals role in facilitating a learning discourse based on faculty members successes? Can principals take the role of facilitator in school-wide collective learning from success, instead of serving as preachers of already analyzed and "digested" successes? Principals ability to act in pro-learning-from-success ways is important if we expect teachers to talk and act in learning-from-success ways. Therefore, what are the skills or dispositions principals need to enact these learning-from-success practices? Should collective learning from success be taught and practiced in higher education coursework or professional development activities?

Future research would do well to investigate vital questions such as: How do the school-level configurations play a role in the needs, applications, effects, and impediments of collective learning from success? Specifically, how does the school context (e.g., large, rural, comprehensive) affect the collective process of learning from success? Do content differences in the successes analyzed affect this collective process (e.g., teaching students with special needs in inclusive classes)? Does the type of successes (e.g., test scores, classroom management, motivation) make a difference in the level of tension and competitiveness within the learning group? Does it make a difference? Do all events or stimuli ─ whether classified as failures, problems, or successes ─ stimulate a conscious search for meaning? Do practitioners' mental models develop differently when collective learning is stimulated by a crisis versus a problem versus a success (see Ellis & Davidi, 2005)? How does the integration of both learning from failure and learning from success in collective learning arrangements affect practitioners' mental models? Longitudinal studies are needed to explore whether and how collective retrospective learning from successful professional practices can serve as leverage for productive collective learning from problems and failures, especially during highly threatening times. Can collective learning from success provide the resources and experiences to enhance future productive learning from failed events?


Principals can play a leading role in facilitating and sustaining collective negotiations of meaning that support teacher and student learning (Schechter, 2008a; Young, Fuller, Brewer, Carpenter, & Mansfield, 2007). Therefore, we need to evaluate whether a learning community can be developed when staff members are encouraged to collectively analyze their successful practices and receive affirmation for doing so. Can learning from success open further opportunities for collaboration, inquiry, and engagement with regard to learning and teaching in schools? Can learning from successful practices become the basis for a re-conceptualization and reorganization of work contexts and policies? In light of the growing complexity of schoolwork (e.g., increased parental and political influences, alarming increases in student violence, increased diversity of students), it is important to further inquire into successful professional practices as learning opportunities. To adapt to the ever-changing and uncertain environments in which schools operate, the contribution of collective learning from successful practices should be explored.


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