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The centrality of leadership in 21st century schools July 24, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Educational Leadership, Engaging Learning Environments.
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from Professor Steve Wilson

This is the first of two posts from Steve Wilson on school leadership. The second post will develop in more practical detail some of the ideas contained here. That post is titled ‘The context of leadership in 21st century schools’.

More than ever, it is clear that the quality of leadership in a school is fundamental to the success of the school in meeting the needs of its students. We now clearly understand that the quality of teaching in a school, and the expectations that teachers bring to student learning, make a significant difference to student learning outcomes and to the lives of students. We now also understand that the quality of leadership in a school, and its capacity to provide vision, direction, and support for teachers, is imperative in a well-performing 21st century school.

School leadership is not easy, particularly in the 21st century school. School leaders must cope with changing policy and political expectations such as the national curriculum and partnerships agreements with the states, as well as ever-changing technological challenges and pedagogical opportunities and the impact of national and international testing regimes. In this environment, teachers rely on a leadership that can provide well-considered, common sense directions for teachers students and parents, optimism, support, and which promotes a sense of direction, achievement and professional fulfilment for teachers.

Outstanding leadership in schools is necessarily distributed (Blankstein, 2004; Woods et al, 2004) across the body of teachers, and in well-performing schools formal school leaders (the principal, for example) put a lot of energy into matching the strategic needs of the school with the capacities of staff at all levels so they can exercise significant informal leadership. The result is often the emergence of an effective school community of learners (Fullan, 1998; Fullan & St. Germain, 2006), in which the teaching staff has a strong understanding of where the school is going, and a strong sense of ownership of these directions.

Effective leadership of a school involves the formal school leader/s facilitating an enabling culture of learning and continuous improvement, which draws out and utilises the various strengths of the staff and community. This form of leadership encourages collaboration, initiative and leadership at all levels, and has as its fundamental purpose the maximising of learning engagement and learning outcomes for each one of the students in the school.

In bringing about an enabling culture of learning and continuous improvement, the formal leaders of a school will have acquired, and be able express through their leadership, a formidable repertoire of understandings and skills. Critically, they will exercise effective pedagogical leadership, having a good knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy and what works in engaging and challenging students, and being able to provide a constructive pedagogical narrative or story for the teachers in the school. The 21st century principal cannot simply be a highly effective manager who is disconnected from the classroom. They will have a commitment to student engagement and learning achievement which will ideally place students at the centre of learning. They will have a commitment to curriculum innovation and experimentation which emphasises the value of organisational learning, sharing, and the celebration of success.

Formal leaders of 21st century, well-performing schools will have high expectations of students, teachers and parents, and a capacity to communicate and demonstrate these expectations and through them to influence learning outcomes. Additionally, they will have the capacity to build and sustain autonomous and accountable teams which drive innovation and student and organisational learning within the school. Finally, they will have a commitment to data-led strategic planning and improvement, and will advocate to all that evidence of improved student learning engagement, and learning outcomes, is the fundamental measure of success. In the 21st century school, it is no longer enough to feel that things are working well – we need access to all sorts of data, and to be adept at drawing out evidence of our achievement from these data.

Celebration is important. Celebrating the leadership and achievements of all staff is important. As activist and businesswoman Anita Roddick once said, we should “make heroes of the employees who personify what [we] want to see out of the organisation”. In a well-performing school, the desire of our teachers to learn, to share and to lead student learning improvement is expected, celebrated and valued, and this desire by teachers to exercise leadership is explicitly developed by the principal and others with formal leadership responsibility.

In such schools teachers will, as informal school leaders themselves, develop the necessary attributes of leadership as a culture-building activity. Through this they will become ready themselves to move into positions of formal leadership, perhaps in other schools, and will in turn influence the quality of teaching and learning achievement in those schools. Well-performing 21st century schools, driven by these distributed, outcomes-oriented and optimistic learning communities and models of leadership, do and will continue to become lighthouse sites of educational practice. Other educators, who are keen to understand how ‘what works’ can be achieved, will come to these schools seeking answers and investigating effective models of practice. The quality of leadership in such well-performing lighthouse schools will continue to be a vital factor in their success.

References:    Blankstein, A.M. (2004). Failure is not an option: Six principles that guide achievement in high performing schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.   Fullan, M. (1998). Leadership for the 21st century: Breaking the bonds of dependency. Educational Leadership, 55(7). 6pp.  Fullan, M. & St Germain, C. (2006). Learning places. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA.   Woods, P., Bennett, N., Harvey, J., & Wise, C. (2004). Variabilities and dualities in distributed leadership: Findings from a systematic literature review. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 32 (2), 439-457.

Steve Wilson is Head of the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. This post was drawn from his presentation to a group of Sydney-based deputy-principals in 2010. His next post will examine the nature of the pedagogical narrative that school leaders can utilise to promote effective 21st century learning for students. Previous posts related to this content are: The evolution of the 21st century school, and The teacher as ‘leader networker’.

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