01 SES 09 A, Principals as Professional Learners
The last ten years the international discourse of education has included a stronger focus on school performance and student learning outcomes (OECD, 2008, Harris & Jones, 2015). Principals have been identified as holders of key positions for school development and are held accountable for students´ results (e.g. Day & Leithwood, ed., 2007). This in turn, has resulted in an interest in principals´ leadership and what successful school principals do (Hallinger, 2003; Leithwood & Reihl, 2003). Added to this there has been an interest in principal´s preparation programs (Aarons, 2010; Ibara, 2014, Young & Crow, 2016) and how to develop effective leaders.
This paper has two starting points. One is that too little focus has been on principals´ learning prerequisites. The other one is the importance of leadership in context (Hallinger, 2018). The paper takes the intersection between training programs, school leaders and local contexts as a starting point. The aim is to explore the importance of context for principals´ professional learning.
The paper explores principals´ learning within the Swedish national context and a variety of local contexts. The background is that all principals in Sweden follow the same national regulations – one can speak of “the Swedish context”. The national Education Act further stipulates that newly appointed principals must attend a mandatory program, the National School Leadership Training Program (the NSLTP), which the principals attend while working (SFS 2010:800). At the same time local school leadership is embedded in myriads of different local contexts.
The background is a reform wave from the 1990´s and onwards which changed the local school landscape (Nyhlén, 2011). The local schools can be municipality run or run by privately owned but publicly funded independent schools (Bunar, 2010; Lundahl et al, 2013; Skott & Nihlfors, 2016). Hence, within the Swedish context, there are 290 local municipality contexts and thousands of independent school owner contexts. Added to this each school, independent of ownership, differs.
During three years, we have studied twelve principals attending the National Principal Training Program (NSLTP) in Sweden. We examined:
- What is the importance of local contexts for principals´ learning and professional development?
The starting point of the study was that learning can be seen as something that happens constantly, through daily activities. Formal education of a profession, for example the NSLTP, must take this into consideration. The paper presents a theoretical approach to study principals´ learning in context, and empirical examples of if and how different local contexts matter for principals´ learning and development, attending a course while working.
The approach was developed from a combination of curriculum theory for analysing the governing of schools and professional learning theory for exploring adults´ professional learning. Curriculum theory as a one dimensional theory does not exist. It is rather a way to think and understand education as a social phenomenon, where the focus can be put on the entire system or different parts (Lundgren, 1979; Bernstein; 1990; Skott, 2009; Forsberg et al, 2017). In the paper we have used the perspective to understand the specific role of principal training in the governing of the schools and the contextual aspect of principals´ work.
To be able to understand what happens at the intersection, where national demands on principal training meet the individual and learning principal in context, the governing perspective has been complemented with a learning perspective. We consider principals to be adult professional learners. This understanding of learning is in line with what Wenger calls a social theory of learning within communities of practice. (Wenger, 1998).
The project as a whole has a mixed method design, including document studies, observations, surveys and interviews. This specific paper builds mainly on repeated interviews with 12 selected principals individually. The principals were selected from two universities providing the NSLTP. Both universities had 60 principals in their group. The selection of 12, 6 from each university, was made to represent the contextual diversity of each group. The main focus in this paper is on owner forms. Seven of the selected principals work within municipality schools, three principals work within shareholding companies (aktiebolag) and two work within foundations (stiftelser). 12 principals are a small number and cannot be seen as representatives of the different categories. The individual examples do however illustrate some structural differences that are worth paying attention to. The selected principals work in primary and secondary education. The school form is important since it affects the everyday life of the principals. We do not however see that the school form is important for the meaning making processes as such, and therefore this aspect is paid only limited attention to here. Each principal was interviewed three times. The last interview round was also extended to include the persons the principals, over the years, had identified as their closest “primary communication partners” – the ones we here include in the concept close meaning making relations. All together the paper builds on 54 interviews. Each interview lasted between one and two hours. They were all recorded and transcribed. Methodologically the paper builds on a narrative approach, with life stories as an important element (Goodson & Sikes, 2001). When Connelly & Clandinin (1999) studied teachers knowledge through narrative life history they noticed that the narrative of experience is both personal and social, it is “reflecting the milieu, the context in which teachers live” (p 2). From that they draw the conclusion that knowledge is both formed and expressed in context. They furthermore used a landscape metaphor to capture that the professional knowledge involves relationships among people, places and things. This landscape is seen as narratively constructed – or storied. That is: “To enter a professional knowledge landscape is to enter a place of story” (ibid). Through the stories and changes in narratives it is possible to identify different contextual factors that are important for meaning making and learning possibilities.
A key result of the study is that the learning of a principal, depends on who the participating principal is and in which everyday context he/she works. Although Swedish principals share the same institutional and political context we found five contextual factors which mark a pattern around each principal. These are: Position (principal or assistant principal), local owner context, macro geographic factors, size and “local micro geographic factors”and the school population. These factors coexist around each participant and create unique combinations. We use the metaphor of a kaleidoscope. When we focus on each school leader different patterns emerge. The point is that the patterns are never identical, because individuals vary, as well as the contextual factors. Each part contributes to the whole situation of the school leader and frames their learning opportunities. In the paper we focus particularly on local owner forms. All principals are subject to the same mission, but when the role as a principal is to be enacted in practice, the local owner context is crucial for how the role can be portrayed. It also affects the possibility to meaning making relations and hence the possibilities for learning. We furthermore identified that the principals in the independent schools had stronger learning communities, in the sense that they had both colleagues and superintendents who supported them in their daily challenges. In municipalities the principals work more lonely and with added pressure from local political boards. The results raise questions not only regarding principals learning possibilities, but also challenge existing ideas of the governing of schools and the role of the training program. Our findings show that municipalities have something to learn from independent school owners in how to think about and organize for principals´ learning.
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