Professional and Alumni

Making a Learning Community

Kappa Omicron Nu:
Making A Learning Community

Dorothy I. Mitstifer


(Author's Note: Although this paper proposes a theoretical model for Kappa Omicron Nu as a learning community, application can be made to any organization or institution.) 

This headline heralds a natural enhancement of the impressive history of Kappa Omicron Nu and its forebears: Kappa Omicron Phi and Omicron Nu. In this year of 1999 it is right and proper to chart a course for the new millennium. During this past year Kappa Omicron Nu sought input from its ownership and stakeholders. A survey of active and inactive members and a survey of higher education stakeholders provided insights regarding needs and goals. Kappa Omicron Nu as a learning community is gaining currency.

Each word of the sub-title of this paper was chosen carefully.

Making implies an ever-changing, fluid, and dynamic state that can undergo reconfiguration with new information, energy, or events.

Learning connotes ongoing action and perpetual curiosity—engagement and growing. The learning paradigm rather than the instruction paradigm gives primacy to the learner and learning outcomes over the teacher and instruction. This paradigm also “extends learning beyond the classroom and builds on students’ interests, critical thinking, and problem solving skills as the goal in undergraduate higher education. In addition it strengthens the university’s focus on community outreach and builds partnerships or bridges that assist in solving society’s problems” (Mitstifer & Miller, 1999, p. 16). The emphasis on learning also recognizes that knowledge is gaining in economic value (Davis & Botkin, 1994).

Community implies a group linked by common interests.

“Making a Learning Community” explores the development of people who have learned how to learn and that of organizational systems with the capacity for collective learning.

According to DuFour & Eaker (1998), a learning community requires “a willingness to learn from its external environment, and it is this willingness that most . . . [organizations] have not demonstrated” (p. xiv). Kappa Omicron Nu will need to use insights from other organizations to struggle with the following questions:

How can we clarify and communicate the mission and values of Kappa Omicron Nu?

How can we initiate, implement, and sustain a change process?

How can we provide strong leadership while we empower chapters and those closest to the action?

How can we shape the Kappa Omicron culture and provide structures that support the culture we seek?

How can we create collaborative processes that result in both individual and organizational learning?

How can we foster an environment that is results-oriented yet encourages experimentation and alternative paradigms? (adapted from DuFour & Eaker, 1998, p. xiv)

The task of changing honor societies is a daunting one. The “traditional culture” of honor societies on campus conveys little beyond recognition activities. This culture has the effect of making it incredibly difficult to change honor societies. Although there have long been higher expectations at the national leadership level of Kappa Omicron Nu, there has been little impact on the institution. It is therefore incumbent upon Kappa Omicron Nu to form collaborative partnerships with academic units if it is to increase learning outcomes.

In addition to the challenge and complexity of change efforts, lack of clarity of intended results undoubtedly played a role in the difference in expectations at the highest levels and reality at the grassroots chapter level. Instead of the Kappa Omicron Nu focus on content and processes, a new effort needs to generate consensus on and articulate intended results. Senge et al. (1994) refers to learning communities as “deep learning cycles.” By this he means that the essence of members and the community itself are changed in terms of awareness and sensibilities, skills and capabilities, and attitudes and beliefs. Results are achieved in the milieu of trust, relationships, acceptance, and synergy.

Senge described the means of activating the deep learning cycle in his earlier work: “Today, I believe, five new ‘component technologies’ are gradually converging to innovate learning organizations. Though developed separately, each will, I believe, prove critical to the others’ success, just as occurs with any ensemble. Each provides a vital dimension in building organizations that can truly ‘learn,’ that can continually enhance their capacity to realize their highest aspirations” (1990, p. 6). Senge called them five basic learning disciplines—developmental paths for acquiring certain skills or competencies:

Systems thinking - a conceptual framework for making full patterns clear and for helping to see the whole.

Personal mastery - the ability to clarify and deepen vision, focus energies, and gain proficiency—continual growth.

Mental models - the internal pictures that influence how the world is understood and how action is taken.

Building shared vision - shared goals, values, and missions “bind people together around a common identity and sense of destiny” (p. 9).

Team learning - “team learning starts with ‘dialogue,’ the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together’” (p. 10).

When these five disciplines develop as an ensemble, three key ideas, according to Senge et al. (1944), characterize learning communities. First, relationships are more fundamental than things. The community as a living system, a pattern of interactions, demonstrates the “primacy of the whole.” Second, individuals embody community in their nature. Human nature is not independent of culture; the community nature of self prevents isolation, loneliness, and loss of “sense of place.” The ubuntu culture holds that the sense of self is found in "being in relationship" to other people. This notion reinforces the idea that individuals become more fully human in community. Third, the power of language lies in its generative nature. Instead of language describing an independent reality, its power stems from its ability to help us interpret our experience in a myriad of ways so that out of multiple interpretations comes those that are most useful for the particular purpose.

Organizations in the new millennium will be characterized by unending transitions. Kappa Omicron Nu has the opportunity to build upon its past by using the wisdom of its members and stakeholders to move toward the vision of a learning community. Although it would be comfortable to have a map to the future, the insight of Stacey (1992) should be heeded. “Route and destination must be discovered through the journey itself if you wish to travel to new lands. The key to success lies in the creative activity of making new maps, not in the imitative following and refining of existing ones” (p. 1).

The new map must expect uncharted waters, the unknowable. An innovative organization must create, invent, and discover the destination as it goes. Instead of a chief, teams need to question everything and generate new perspectives. Rather than building on strengths, they must develop new strengths and create their own environments. (Mitstifer & Miller, 1999, p. 7)

In general, they must develop their navigational principles, draw their maps, as they go along. To do this, they must drop the stable equilibrium mind-set and develop a new one that recognizes the positive role of instability and the fact that long-term futures are unknowable. (Stacey, 1992, p. 4)

Some may question the legitimacy of exploring a learning community because it might seem to imply that learning has not been the objective. That’s not the case, but the challenge is to institutionalize learning—i.e., to define and build the community capabilities and structures such as culture, processes, systems, and skills (Hutchens, 1998). “. . . learning is a journey. It is not a skill or a technique; it is a discipline. It’s a way of looking at the world. It is about growth and discovery” (p. 61). Through the learning community system, each individual’s “vital force” and the “collective force” are enhanced. When learning is aligned and deliberate, Kappa Omicron Nu can surpass our fondest expectations. Thus, the development of a learning culture should become our highest priority.

A caution: MacKenzie (1996) warns about developing a model out of successful ventures.

It is common history of enterprises to begin in a state of naive groping, stumble onto success, milk the success with a vengeance and, in the process, generate systems that arrogantly turn away from the source of their original success: groping.

If an organization is to choose vigor over “an ultimate state of inert uniformity,” it must honor and support both the rational exploitation of success and nonrational art of groping. (p. 92)


Davis, D., & Botkin, J. (1994). The monster under the bed. New York: Touchstone.

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hutchens, D. (1998). Outlearning the wolves: Surviving and thriving in a learning organization. Waltham, MA: Pegasus.

MacKenzie, G. (1996). Orbiting the giant hairball: A corporate fool’s guide to surviving with grace. New York: Viking.

Mitstifer, D. I., & Miller, J. R. (1999). Strategic leadership of the professions: Agenda for change. East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu Leadership Academy.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Senge, P. M., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R. B., & Smith, B. J. (1994). The fifth discipline field book: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Stacey, R. D. (1992). Managing the unknowable: Strategic boundaries between order and chaos in organization. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



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