If you’re not learning as a leader, if you’re not hip deep in the learning, you’re not the type of instructional leader your students need. – Larry Cuban
While attending the CoSN (Consortium for School Networking) Annual Conference this week, I have found it interesting to hear articulated – in various contexts – the key characteristics deemed essential in school leaders in order to make meaningful, innovative change happen. The drive for change in schools tends to be largely focused on new things teachers must do so that they can, in turn, help students do new or improved things. All too often in this process, school leaders seem to be largely exonerated from the conversation about changing professional practice. This makes no sense. As Scott McLeod has remarked, no matter what our best intentions may be, if the leaders don’t get it, it doesn’t happen. If leadership is to be about more than the failed strategy of simply issuing directives from on high, surely change must begin with school leaders? There would seem to be a growing agreement around the kinds of authentic leadership that facilitates the learning we want to see in schools today. I summarise these leadership imperatives, gathered from recent reading, online exchanges, conference sessions and conversations here, as follows. All effective, innovative school leaders need to:
- Have a compelling vision for learning for the world students will enter after they leave school
- Understand and appreciate that educational technology is a critical component in achieving this vision
- Create an organisational culture that values, understands, and is committed to innovation and change by creating opportunities for distributed leadership
- Create a supportive culture in which teachers are listened to, protected, professionally developed, and encouraged to take innovative risks without undue haste
- Foster and nurture technology leadership opportunities throughout their staff
- Commit to fearlessly improving their own skills and knowledge about learning technologies
- Commit to attending at least one major conference focused on technology use in education every year
- Use every opportunity to model their own enthusiasm and willingness to try new technologies
- Share their personal learning story with their teachers, students, parents, and peers
- Connect with forward-thinking educators using the digital tools that empower and inspire their students
At the heart of this list is a requirement of personal commitment to professional development and learning in specific contexts from school leaders, not just teachers. When we talk about innovative learning in schools, we are correct when we insist that it is not about the technology. As George Couros has remarked: “We have to look at what “innovation” really means to schools. Many equate this to technology, but I believe that it is about a new way of thinking about teaching and learning. The biggest “game-changer” in education is not a thing; it is an open mindset to all of the learning opportunities that come our way.” Couros gets it absolutely right, but the more we insist it is not about the technology, the more we unwittingly empower school leaders to feel they have an opt out clause when it comes to the inevitable correlation between innovation and technology and their own learning mindset.
There continues to be a significant amount of sustained, blind faith in the hoary old ghost of strategic planning as a panacea for effecting meaningful change in education, even today. I resolutely believe that, in the absence of a prior, planned cultural shift in our schools, strategic planning alone will change very little. The core component of this cultural change resides with school leaders and policy makers. Yet I wonder how many strategic plans are primarily focused on improving student learning and have as their starting point a strategy of leadership by actually leading? Of course, in a truly innovative school, of which I am fortunate to be a part, leadership is genuinely distributed and the traditional hierarchy of top-down leadership has been flattened, both symbolically and literally. We all know that the real leaders in schools are much more than the titular figurehead at the head of some organigram. But those leaders also need support, trust, and informed understanding if they are to succeed.
In his latest work, which he discussed here at CoSN, Michael Fullan advocates for the need for leadership from the middle. While both top-down leadership and simply letting people do their own thing have clearly failed, a new convergence is needed. Fullan believes that we need a new pedagogy to leverage the opportunities digital technologies present today. His thinking on what he terms “The Stratosphere Agenda” compellingly contends that we need to radically rethink pedagogy in the new digital context. Principals, if they truly are to lead this innovative agenda, must be out in front, as lead learners. The fact is that school leaders cannot be true to contemporary convictions – believing that every student can learn, that learning is social and collaborative, that the boundaries of the classroom are an anachronism, that we are preparing students for an unknown, dynamic future, that global citizenship and character really count – unless they also subscribe to these imperatives as part of their own, personal learning agenda. Only then can they truly lead; only then are they leaders.