Ambition Institute‘s Jennifer Barker and Tom Rees have put together a series of articles on What is School Leadership. I highly recommend it for any school leader or educator interested in school leadership. It is full of insight, research, practical steps and delivered in a respectful and deliberate manner.
These are my personal key takeaways from the series.
- The definition on what school leadership is needs to be clarified, the role has evolved a lot over the past 20 years. It’s gone from just being seen as administrators and managers to leaders and capacity builders.
- Schools are low validity & high complex domains, so leaders need to simplify, stabilise & provide structure
- Leaders need domain-specific knowledge to understand and solve problems (Willingham, 2008), but policy direction leads us to believe that traits & generic skills are more important
- Leaders ‘need to be increasingly knowledgeable about the core business of teaching, learning, assessment & curriculum’ & that ‘they need to be able to use that knowledge to make good decisions’ (Robinson, 2017)
- Those with ‘core business’ expertise & experience in the domain are more likely to understand the challenges of their teams, show more empathy & form stronger professional relationships (Goodall, 2016)
- Leadership development should include areas such as behaviour change & implementation, but need to link to education. e.g. holding a difficult conversation requires different & specific knowledge
- A successful head of sixth form’s ability to lead does not transfer equally to an early years setting. Important to know when considering staff changes.
- Organise leadership development around the core responsibilities of school leaders’ roles
- Effective leadership is born out of the interplay between the leader’s expertise & their environment (local knowledge: community, traditions, school culture)
5 persistent problems that teachers face from Mary Kennedy (2016)
- Containing student behaviour
- Exposing students’ thinking
- Portraying the curriculum
- Enlisting student participation
- Accommodating personal needs
‘We have misplaced our focus on the actions we see; when what is needed is a focus on the purposes those actions serve’Mary Kennedy, Parsing the Practice of Teaching, 2016
7 Persistent Problems that School Leaders Face
- By organising the work of leaders around these 7 problems, we can then explore problems at different levels, nested within these 7 broad categories
- Focus on the problems that underpin leaders’ work rather than their personal traits
- By identifying the core work of school leaders, and the knowledge needed to make this possible, we can avoid being swayed by fads, fashions, and policy shifts.
- Knowing the problems means we can effectively structure and sequence leadership development.
- Although these problems are universal & unavoidable, they will manifest themselves in different ways depending on the context within which the school leaders works.
- Expert school leaders are ‘made, not born’
- It is difficult to observe expertise – Observable behaviours are often arbitrary — they do not necessarily reflect what it means to be an expert and attending to only them misses the complex holistic nature of true expert performance.
- Mental models: the knowledge held by an individual and the way it is organised to guide action. Once acquired, they result in a number of benefits including:
- Intuition: being able to solve problems in less time or with less effort (Simon, 1992).
- Improved pattern recognition: being able to spot where a problem is similar to one that has been dealt with previously, or to recognise where a situation poses a novel challenge (Kahneman and Klein, 2009).
- Expertise is predicated on knowledge.
- Leaders should have opportunities to make sense of formal knowledge, put it into practice in their own contexts and receive expert feedback on what they have learnt.
- Any professional development should build upon and enhance existing policies and practices, make participation straightforward and convenient and ensure clear communication and simple to use resources at all times.
Designing more effective PD for leaders
- Consider that school leaders learn like anyone else: PD should be designed and sequenced to introduce concepts that they continually revisit alongside low-stakes quizzes. Opportunities to practice and receive feedback also need to be embedded.
- Incorporate evidence-based ‘mechanisms‘: Needs to include at least one mechanism from each of these categories:
- Insight: Manage Cognitive Load & Revisit Prior Learning
- Goals: Goal Setting, Credible Source & Praise/Reinforce
- Technique: Instruction, Practical social support, Modelling, Feedback & Rehearsal
- Practice: Prompts/Cues, Action planning, Self-monitoring & Context-specific repetition
3. Attend to the conditions in which professional development takes place: any CPD-related activity can be viewed as developmental or threatening depending on how they are experienced. Ensuring that professional development is designed in such a way that it fits around school timetables is key. e.g. online modules that can be accessed at any time.
4. Focus on the ‘priority problems’ that a leader is facing in their school: Professional development has also been found to be more effective when it is selected on the basis that it relates to and enhances individuals’ ability to address identified priorities of their work. Rooting developmental conversations around personal challenges ensures professional development closely connects to the priorities individuals’ need to respond to in school.
5 Areas that require more thinking:
- Understand more about what the ‘persistent problems’ look like in different leadership roles and contexts
- Establish a structured body of educational knowledge that underpins school leaders’ work
- Sequence and structure school leaders’ development carefully
- Respecting and utilising specialist knowledge and expertise
- Building and renewing professional knowledge within the education system
I really enjoyed the discussions around things like how the role of a “school leader” has evolved over time and the how important domain-specific knowledge is. I also think that the “persistent problems” can be a really useful place for school leaders to start when thinking about designing a Professional Learning curriculum.
Is it possible to put together an online platform that looks at educators at different stages of their career (e.g. Early career teacher, Middle leader, Principal) and then design professional learning around the “persistent problems” that they face.
Each module would include at least one mechanism from each of the categories from the EEF report on Effective Professional Development. It would include opportunities for participants to deliberately practice and receive feedback with options to be mentored from someone at their own school or from the “organisation”.
Is this in the process of happening anywhere?
* I have given my own summary, but there is a lot to gain from reading the original articles – What is School Leadership