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Organizational learning at a university: a case study of inclusive teacher training project in Germany

Prof. Dr. Liudvika Leisyte


Today as never before universities in Europe are facing unprecedented changes due to marketisation of higher education, changing funding demands, increasing competition, pressure of rankings, and digitalisation. In such context it is crucial to reflect on the how universities as organizations transform themselves to adapt to the external demands on the one hand, and how they instigate change from within, on the other. Organizational literature notes that although change and innovation are crucial for organizational survival (Okumus and Hemmington, 1998), the complex change processes may end in maintaining status quo due to employee resistance (Todnem By, 2005). When talking about universities as organizations, this resistance is exceptionally high due to its specific professional nature (Leisyte 2016)

In this paper we draw on organizational learning and European higher education literature to understand the specific nature of change in universities towards inclusive teacher training. Specifically, drawing on organizational learning literature we aim to shed light on complexity of the processes of change through an example of the change management project in a university setting in Germany – the Dortmund profile for inclusion-oriented teacher training (DoProfil).

We turn to organizational learning theory to understand the process of change at the selected case study university.Theories of organisational learning address the processes which influence the knowledge shared in an organisation as well as the effect of this knowledge on (a change of) behaviour or organisations and their members. Organisational learning involves complex processes in which new experiences are combined with knowledge established in the past.

 Organisational learning refers to processes of institutionalisation of knowledge generated by individuals and groups. Through organisational learning, the structures, strategies, routines, and culture of entire organisations can be changes (Bess & Dee, 2008). In this paper we specifically draw on the 4-i model of organisational learning by Crossan et al. (1999) that emphasises the role of linkages and communication between individual, group, and organisational learning, it articulates bottom-up change through the process of 1) intuition of knowledge on the individual level, 2) interpretation and 3) integration of knowledge into practice by groups, and, finally, 4) institutionalisation of such practices on organisational level, local-level initiatives in organisations can have the power to spill-over to the institutional level.

Studies show that academics facing managerial mechanisms and structures tend to oppose reforms and top-down decisions (Leisyte, 2016). Thus, flexibility is needed to “accommodate the goals and values of different groups” within higher education institutions (Dee, 2016, p. 15). This includes a range of incentives and resources to support grassroots innovation; creating horizontal structures that link grassroots innovators from across the organization; involving institutional leaders in designing initiatives “that address the diverse goals and priorities of multiple academic units” at the same time.

In this regard, the mix of bottom-up and top-down initiatives, where dialogue and constant communication are involved between academics, committees and management across the whole organization as well as empowerment of ‘institutional entrepreneurs’ at universities (Schmid and Lauer 2016)-  seem to be one of the ways to ensure knowledge flows and learning across the organization and acceptance of reform initiatives by academics as well as managers over time and ensuring transformative change.


In this study we focus on the case of a project at the TU Dortmund University in Germany that aims to change teacher training curriculum towards more inclusive teacher training through development of new learning formats and research projects. The German higher education system is known for a moderate managerial reform (Hüther, 2010), where professors still enjoy a high degree of autonomy, thus in this system top-down change initiatives lead to high levels of academic resistance (Hüther, 2010; Würmseer, 2010).
The selected case of the TU Dortmund University is interesting as teacher training is at the heart of the institution with a long-established history. The university of 34 000 has around one fourth of its student body involved in teacher training programmes. Teacher training takes place in different faculties and teachers are prepared for all levels of education. In total five Bachelor and Master programmes are available that cross more than 7 faculties at this university. We particularly focus on a project being implemented in this university to foster inclusion-oriented teacher training funded by the German Federal Ministry of Science and Education during the period 2016-2019. The main aim of the project is to bring academics as well as administration from 7 faculties in the university to discuss and instigate change in teacher training curriculum.

Data collection includes 2 discussion rounds with the key actors involved in the project in the form of World-Cafes (ca 30 participants each) in 2016 and 2017 as well as participant observation during the period 2016-2018. The observation includes participation in the coordination group meetings, informal talks with various actors involved in the project as well as attendance of the main project conferences. The data from discussion rounds was recorded and transcribed and analysed using content analysis. In addition, pertinent institutional and national policy documents have been studied as well as literature review was carried out.

Expected Outcomes

From the organizational learning perspective, the first years of the DoProfil project have shown that the combination of top-down and bottom-up initiatives in the framework of the project indeed bring forward possibly transformative changes in terms of developing inclusive teacher training curriculum and building interdisciplinary networks across the university involved in teacher training at TU Dortmund. The first two i’s in the 4i model have been observed. Ideation and interpretation are taking place largely bottom-up through exchanges in workshops, word café discussions, specific thematic groups (AGs) as well as through the constant exchange between early career researchers discussion group. The third i – integration of knowledge - is also observed in reflections and changes implemented in teacher training curriculum, creation of new learning formats as well as awards in innovative teaching in the framework of the project. However, it is still too early to observe the possible widespread deep changes and their institutionalization even though the constant exchanges in the project coordination group between professors, administration and early career researchers as well as presence of university leadership give clear signals towards possible successful institutionalization of some of the initiatives that started in the auspices of this project.


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  • Schmid, C. J. & Lauer, S. (2016). Institutional (teaching) entrepreneurs wanted! – Considerations on the professoriate’s agentic potency to enhance academic teaching in Germany. In: L. Leisyte & U. Wilkesmann (Eds.), Organizing Academic Work in Higher Education: Teaching, learning and identities (pp. 109-131). New York: Routledge.
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Sub content

September 5, 2018

ECER 2018: Inclusion and Exclusion, Resources for Educational Research?
Network 22, Session 06 D: University Teachers and their Learning
Bolzano, Italy

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