26 SES 08 B, Complexity, Entrepreneurship And The Use Of Research For Educational Leaders
In this paper we examine and analyze the narratives of experienced principals and how they describe what they know and do when they promote teaching and learning. Moreover, we also develop an understanding of how context dependency and complexity matter to school leadership.
Since the beginning of the 21st century one question has dominated research on school leadership, that is: What do successful school leaders do when, and if, they want to promote teaching and learning (Leithwood & Riehl, 2003; Robinson et al, 2009). In answering that question, another trend can be identified within the field, that is, synthetic and meta-analytic research taking samples of earlier research with the aim of arriving at general knowledge of what school leaders do when they successfully promote teaching and learning (Robinsson et al, 2009, Leithwood & Seashore Lewis, 2011, Pashiardis & Johansson, 2016). In a global policy climate geared towards the competitive edge of nations, high quality education, increased academic achievement and leadership accountability, the growing focus on successful and effective schools and school leaders did not emerge in a vacuum. In this climate, instructional leadership has been highlighted as the model for school leadership, or, as Hallinger (2015) argues, it has moved on from being one model among others to a necessity. In fact, it can be argued that the model of instructional leadership has steadily grown into an institutional requirement for school leaders as it is reflected in leadership standards in many nations (Wei, 2017; CEPPE, 2013, Young, 2017).
This development has contributed to a growing recognition of school leadership among policy makers and researchers. However, the increased focus on success and general models of or standards for school leadership run the risk of placing other important aspects into the shadows. Hallinger (2018) recently called for the importance of taking context dependency seriously in leadership research and practice. Day et al (2016) stress the need for taking the complexities of school seriously since focus on general knowledge run the risk of neglecting actual conditions for school leadership. Moreover, Robinson (2006) have called for bringing education back into educational leadership since the tasks of and practices in schools are complex and distinctive - schools are often supposed to secure, inter alia, teaching, learning, outcomes, well-being, democratic influence, human rights, gender awareness, cultural responsiveness and inclusion for all.
These recent calls for bringing both context dependence and school complexity out of the shadows and into our knowledge-base of school leadership are important for a more full-fledged understanding of school leadership. Moreover, these calls are also relevant for the expected work and knowledge of school leaders since they depend on valid research based understandings in their practice. It is on these grounds we are bringing the voices and perspectives of school leaders back into our understanding of school leadership given their assumed context dependency and the increasing complexity of schools. We examine, more precisely:
(1) How do experienced principals describe what they know and do when they are expected to promote teaching and learning in schools?,
(2) How can we conceptualize the knowledge and capabilities of school leaders on the premise that the perspectives of active principals are taken into consideration?, and, finally,
3) How can we develop an understanding of the nature of context dependency and complexity relevant to school leadership?
In doing this, we draw from research on leadership standards and instructional leadership. We also draw on sociological communication theory (Habermas, 1998) and Wenger´s social learning theory regarding communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) in concert with the recently evolved social imaginary approach to human practices and interconnectivity (Taylor, 2004; Rönnström, 2019).
Sweden has a long standing tradition of organizing a compulsory school system for all and of learning oriented school leadership. Swedes are also influenced by global policy and international or Anglo-American research in education. Swedish principals can, therefore, be selected as relevant informants in this study that builds on narratives from 50 principals reporting on their own understandings, experiences and practices. The narratives were collected within the context of a continuing professional development course for experienced principals. In the course, narrative writing was used as a tool for learning. The narratives were written by the participating principals in close connection to assignments linked to school leadership for teaching and learning as it is expressed in current policy and research. This strategy was based on the assumption that experienced principals already possess knowledge formed by their everyday practices, and that their narrative writing could further develop their capacities to express implicit or unarticulated knowledge they seldom rarely share or reflect upon together with others. The narratives were taken from two cohorts of principals attending a one year long CPD-course 2016-2018. We collected 50 narrations (5000 – 12000 words long) from two heterogeneous groups of principals (geographic location, SES-factors, school size, private/public etc.). We identified patterns and categories in the narratives, and each narrative was analyzed and compared within and between the groups. The participants own descriptions of what they know and do when they promote teaching and learning was compared with descriptions drawn from the policy level and general knowledge and capabilities as they are expressed in research. This comparative analysis made it possible to identify, infer and conceptualize knowledge and capabilities of experienced school leaders from the perspective of school leaders. In this process we were inspired by earlier narrative research within the field (see Connely & Clandinin, 1999). Narrative approaches makes it possible to conceptualize or re-construct knowledge from reflective expressions of different actors, that is, narrative speech acts are assumed to be closely related to practices pervaded by linguistic meaning to the degree that the narratives themselves can be seen as part of the practices they are taken to disclose, interpret or assign meaning (Habermas, 1998). It is the narrative approach sketched here that makes it possible to re-construct a view of context dependency and complexity in school leadership since such a view depend on the interplay between subjective, intersubjective and objective forms of knowledge (Habermas, 1998).
The approach makes it possible to conceptualize categories and re-construct knowledge at an analytical level close to leadership practice, and to take seriously those under-researched aspects of context dependency and school complexity that researchers within the field have recently linked to school leadership. The preliminary main findings are in short. All principals were influenced by dominant instructional leadership narratives expressed in policy and in research, narratives that we label ‘performance imaginaries of school leadership’. However, the view of (successful) school leadership for teaching and learning we re-constructed from the narratives differed from dominant narratives circulating in educational policy and research in many respects. Experienced principals tended to: reject narrow goal oriented views of leadership for learning and embrace a broader leadership for education view; understand, productively use and not shy away from complexity, and in doing so be able to endure and deal with dissonance and inconsistencies between elements in the school organization; grasp, make decisions and form judgements that included multidimensional co-dependent contexts; develop an advanced communication awareness including awareness of the fundamental communication dependency of school institutions and practices; distance themselves to be able to come closer to practice; and, be able to differentiate between tame or simple problems and wicked or complex problems. The school leaders also expressed a healthy relation to educational research. They were not threatened by challenging research, and they did not neglect their own experience, their local conditions and the complexity of their schools. They were open and curious and they displayed a dialogical attitude and an ability to make qualified judgements of their own in the light of research findings and theory. We suggest that we have reasons to recognize (successful) school leaders as masters of complexity and connoisseurs of context.
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