Effective Educational Leadership: Wishful Thinking

Effective educational leadership can be defined by what it is, what it isn’t, what promotes it, or what creates obstacles. In other words, we’re going to be looking at this topic from four perspectives.

To begin, here is my definition of what effective educational leadership is able to achieve: improve learning outcomes for students. When learning is the focus of leadership, the leader’s priorities are focused where they ought to be, namely, on the students. Everything else is secondary.

Mind you, I’m not saying nothing else is important. I’m saying that the most important thing an education leader can do is prioritize student learning outcomes. Anytime student learning gets to be a secondary concern, then something, somewhere, has gone horribly wrong. Therefore, educational leadership prioritizes student learning outcomes.

What Educational Leadership Is Not

This is kind of tricky, because we are now defining leadership by what it isn’t. Of the infinite possibilities here, I choose only one: teaching. Education leadership isn’t about teachers teaching. I will give only one example to support my contention: Dr. Sugata Mitra. Dr. Mitra has demonstrated something that we all know, and have known for quite some time: kids can teach themselves.

Again, as I have said elsewhere, “we live in the most technologically advanced age and time that mankind has ever experienced.” Just give kids a computer and an internet connection, and get out of the way. Let the kids get on with it, as Sugata Mitra said in his recent TED2013 talk, in which he called for a help in creating a school in the cloud.

To be clear, I’m not saying that teaching doesn’t matter. It does matter, tremendously. Whether or not you have a trained, qualified, competent teacher in the classroom is important. An overwhelming amount of evidence exists that supports the notion that teachers have a significant impact on learning. There can be no doubt about that. Nonetheless, my contention is that effective educational leadership focuses on learning, and not teaching. I shall return to this notion, that learning is more important than teaching, at a later time.

What Helps

Teamwork, collaboration between educators promotes student learning outcomes. For support, I’d like to turn to the work of two highly respected researchers from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, who co-authored “The Power of Teacher Teams“. For over fifteen years, Troen and Boles have been researching what makes educator teams effective. They have identified five conditions for effective teams:

1. Task Focus
2. Leadership opportunity for all
3. Collaborative Climate
4. Personal Accountability
5. Structures and Processes to accomplish goals

In my own personal experience, you will find two recent examples to serve as case studies in which all five of these conditions can be examined. I’m referring to the role I played in co-organizing Edcamp Santiago 2012 and Edcamp Chile 2013. If we ask ourselves the following five questions, the answers can be found at the links I provided above. Here are the questions:

1. Was there a task focus?
2. Was leadership distributed?
3. Was there a collaborative climate?
4. Was there personal accountability?
5. Were structures and processes to accomplish goals in place?

The answer is affirmative to each of those five questions. Thus, we can conclude, that if we meet those five conditions, we can expect to be successful in promoting student learning. Again, we do not lose sight of the education leader’s priority, namely, improving student learning outcomes. This is what our leadership efforts are focused on. Conversely, not being able to respond affirmatively to any one of those five conditions becomes an obstacle to effective educational leadership.

In conclusion, it might seem that I’ve oversimplified a very complex topic. I would counter that by pointing out that student learning is the main concern of effective education leadership. If we are to focus on whether or not all students are learning, then we can begin to with a focus, not on how something is taught, but rather on if learning has occurred. Five conditions for effective teams will help us achieve this goal.

Further, we might even be ready, at some point, to help Dr. Sugata Mitra create a school in the cloud. “If we let the educational process be a self-organizing organism, learning emerges,” says Mitra. “It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting education happen.”

For some, this is wishful thinking. For others, it is time to simply get on with it, and stop talking about it. Let’s leave the final “wish” to Dr. Mitra:

My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together,” Mitra said.

(R to L) Sir Ken Robinson introduces 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra at TED2013. Long Beach, CA. February 25 - March 1, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

(R to L) Sir Ken Robinson introduces 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra at TED2013. Long Beach, CA. February 25 – March 1, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

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About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He is the Coordinator of the English Department at Colegio Internacional SEK in Santiago, Chile. He is the Co-Founder and Co-Organiser of EdCamp Santiago 2012 & Edcamp Chile 2013, free, participant-driven, democratic, conversation based professional development for teachers, by teachers. EdCamp Santiago 2012 was held at Universidad Mayor in Santiago. Edcamp Chile 2013 was held at Universidad UCINF. Thomas is also a member of the Advisory Board for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL), where he also serves as a reviewer and as the HETL Ambassador for Chile. Thomas enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. Thus far, he has written the following genres: romance, historical fiction, autobiographical, sports history/biography, and English Language Teaching. He has published a total of sixty one (61) books, all available on Amazon http://amzn.to/Qxmoec . The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family, his wife Gabriela, and his son, Thomas Jerome Baker, Jr.
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One Response to Effective Educational Leadership: Wishful Thinking

  1. bnleez says:

    “…here is my definition of what effective educational leadership is able to achieve: improve learning outcomes for students.”

    I agree that the purpose of educational leadership is improved student achievement, definitely. It’s the outcome of leadership practices, but is no more or less important than the process that leads to this outcome. I think others come close to a working definition of the notion of “leadership”:

    1. “Instructional leadership consists of direct and indirect behaviors that significantly affect teacher instruction and, as a result, student learning” (Daresh and Playko, 1995).
    2. “The leader is a person who is in a position to influence others to act and who has, as well, the moral, intellectual, and social skills required to take advantage of that position” (Schlechty, 1990).
    3. “Instructional leadership is leadership that is directly related to the processes of instruction where teachers, learners, and the curriculum interact” (Acheson & Smith, 1986).
    4. Quoting Jo Blase, “Leadership is shared with teachers, and it is cast in coaching, reflection, collegial investigation, study teams, explorations into the uncertain, and problem solving. It is position-free supervision wherein the underlying spirit is one of expansion, not traditional supervision. Alternatives, not directives or criticism, are the focus, and the community of learners perform professional-indeed, moral-service to students” (as cited in Gordon, 1995).
    5. “Leadership [of nonprofit organizations] is not about being soft or nice or purely inclusive or consensus-building. The whole point is to make sure the right decisions happen-no matter how difficult or painful-for the long-term greatness of the institution and the achievement of its mission” -Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors
    6. “…any useful conception of academic leadership must be based primarily on clarity about the goals of school, analysis of current results, and purposeful actions to close existing gaps between desired results and present reality” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007).

    Any other good definitions of leadership out there?

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