Are students learning in school or is education, like most products of the industrial age, simply a mechanical process consumed by priorities such as uniformity and efficiency? According to Peter Senge, Ph.D., author of Schools That Learn, one of the main reasons schools are in crisis is a machine-like mentality of the system that has deeply corrupted its priorities. His presentation, “Learning from the Future: A Fifth Discipline Experience,” was given before a capacity crowd of educators, administrators, superintendents and other school officials in the McNally Amphitheatre on March 7. Senge’s presentation kicked off a four-day conference meant to inform and inspire those in education. Participants worked with authors of learning organization guides and field books in order to expose the root of the problems and better understand what needs to be done before change can occur.

The event, part of the Graduate School of Education’s Critical Issues in Education Special Conference Series, was co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Education, the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook Project and the Fordham University/New York City Superintendents Network. “In the absence of aspiration, in the absence of something one is passionate about  little learning is likely to occur,” said Senge. “What learning is likely to occur will occur only if it’s forced.” Senge noted that the essence of learning comes from making a lot of mistakes, and that by the time children first arrive at school, they are deeply immersed in nature’s theory of learning.

However, when they arrive in school, they learn something new that mistakes are bad. Learning and living become separate entities, with learning being something reserved for the classroom only. In order for change to come about within the current system, Senge said, those in education must pay close attention to the “extraordinary gap” between these two very different systems of learning. “How could we have gotten this so wrong?” he asked. “Until we start to consider that question, we can talk until the cows come home about if test scores are good or bad, if they’re productive or unproductive. Forget it. We have no idea what productive means.”

Senge also noted that making mistakes is not the only aspect of learning that becomes undesirable in the classroom. “Somewhere in the transition [period, ages eight, nine and ten], we [learn]that the operational definition of stupid [is]slow,” he said. There is no correlation between speed of mental processes and level of education, and some of history’s greatest minds operate at a slow speed, he said. Senge is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and travels the world using abstract systems theory to help people better understand economic and organizational change. His Fifth Discipline book series has become extremely popular in business and education circles by introducing the theory of learning organizations. In 1999, The Journal of Business Strategy named Senge as one of the top 24 people who had the greatest influence on business strategy over the last 100 years.