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.
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.