How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

Leaders’ learning experiences are both formal and informal. In this section, we review evidence about both.

Formal programs

Fundamental criticisms of university-based programs for the pre-service preparation of school leaders have led to extensive revisions and evaluations of those programs over the past 15 years (e.g., Milstein et al, 1993; Murphy, 1993). Partly as a consequence of this work, the features of effective formal programs for entry-level school administrators are much clearer (e.g., Leithwood, et al., in press; Basom et al., 1996; McCarthy, 2002). For example, the National Staff Development Council (Sparks and Hirsch, 2000) recommends that leadership development programs have the following features: they should be long-term rather than episodic; job-embedded rather than detached; carefully planned with a coherent curriculum; and focused on student achievement. Programs should also emphasize reflective practice, provide opportunities for peers to discuss and solve problems of practice and provide a context for coaching and mentoring. Based on data provided by the University Council on Educational Administration (UCEA), Peterson (2001) argues that programs must have: a clear mission and purpose linking leadership to school improvement; a coherent curriculum that provides linkage to state certification schemes; and an emphasis on the use of information technologies. Peterson also suggests that programs should be continuous or long-term rather than one-shot, and that a variety of instructional methods should be used rather than just one or a small set of delivery mechanisms. Recommendations such as these, however, are not based on evidence of improvements in leadership leading to greater student learning as the fundamental criterion for success. Much research is still required if we are to have confidence in our knowledge about effective leadership program characteristics.

Less-formal learning experiences

Little research to date has inquired about how practicing administrators – outside their participation in formal programs – continue their professional learning over the course of their careers. In particular, although professional common sense and some formal evidence reinforces on-the-job experience as a primary source of leaders’ learning (Hamilton et al., 1996; Leithwood et al., 1992), we know little about which experiences are helpful and why. This section of our review offers some theoretical tools for use in beginning to better understand how leaders acquire, on the job, the capacities they need to improve the learning of students.

The work of district and school leaders can be conceptualized as practical problem-solving, a type of thinking embedded in activity. A significant part of the learning required for such leaders to further develop their practical problem-solving expertise is usefully conceptualized as “situated.” Such learning is specific to the context in which it is learned and most likely to be learned in contexts exactly the same as or closely approximating the situations in which it is to be used, although this is a hotly debated claim.

Situated cognition requires leaders to be immersed in “authentic,” nonroutine professional activity embedded in a supportive organizational culture. For experienced, expert practitioners, such problem-solving draws on a large repertoire of previously acquired knowledge. This knowledge is applied automatically to routine problems and, through reflection, in unique patterns which appropriately acknowledge the demands of more complex, novel and/or unstructured problems (e.g., Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1990; Berliner, 1988).

“Everyday thinking” or “practical thinking” are terms used to portray the mental processes engaged in, and mental models possessed by, expert, experienced school leaders, as they apply their knowledge in the solving of problems. Such thinking “… is embedded in the larger, purposive activities and functions to achieve the goals of those activities” (Scribner, 1986). Those goals, which may be short or long term in nature, are achieved given the actual facts of the situation as the practitioner discovers them (Wagner and Sternberg, 1986). Leaders’ past knowledge (which also has motivational effects) is of considerable use to them when they are engaged in practical thinking in order to solve problems in their classrooms and schools.

Scribner (1984) has identified a number of characteristics of expert practical thinking within a model consisting of five components. Expert practical thinkers demonstrate a capacity to: formulate problems within a situation that can be handled using well-developed, reliable solutions; respond flexibly to similar problems using different patterns of their existing repertoire in order to fine-tune a solution to the occasion; and to exploit (positively) the social, symbolic and/or physical environment as a way of reducing the cognitive demands placed on the individual for solving the problem. Such experts also find the most economical solutions (those requiring the least effort) that are, nevertheless, effective; and make extensive use of their existing task and situation-specific knowledge for problem-solving.

These are characteristics similar to those associated with leaders’ problemsolving (Leithwood and Steinbach, 1995). Expert practical problem-solving by practitioners such as principals depends on ready access to an extensive repertoire of problem-relevant knowledge. Such knowledge is about what actions to take to solve the problem as well as the social and physical context in which the problem is embedded (e.g., the particular students in the teacher’s class). It is also about the larger set of activities (procedures and processes) enveloping efforts to address individual problems (Mehan, 1984). As Bransford (1993) notes, this knowledge required for practical problem-solving is “conditionalized.” It includes information about the conditions and constraints of its use, much of which is tacit (Sternberg and Caruso, 1985) rather than self-sufficient abstract concepts. Furthermore, such knowledge is accessed and used in ways that take advantage of the environment as solution tools (Leinhardt, 1988). So leaders’ situated knowledge connects leadership or administrative events with particular environmental features related to the district, community and individual people.

Knowledge required for expert, practical problem-solving is situated and acquired under a specific set of conditions which include participation with others in authentic, non-routine activities. The contribution of active participation in developing robust, useful knowledge is evident in Brown, Collins and Duguid’s (1989) analogy of concepts as tools. Like tools, concepts can only be fully understood through experience with their use and the refined appreciations (including tacit knowledge) that occur as a result of feedback from such use. Participation with others, especially members of the field of practice who are more expert in some areas (perhaps a more experienced district leader), substantially extends the potential for individual development.

For useful, robust, situated knowledge to develop most readily, participation with others must occur in activity which is “authentic”– circumstances which involve the ordinary activities of school leadership and management. Authentic activities are situated in the social and physical contexts of the school, community, and district, and therefore must be accounted for in problem-solving and must be represented in the knowledge structures stored by the principal. Knowledge for problem-solving will be readily accessible, as Sternberg and Caruso (1985) argue, to the extent that the cues needed at the time of access were encoded when the knowledge was originally being stored. This helps explain the contribution to principal learning of on-the-job, informal experiences as compared with more formal learning activities which may be situated outside the school, community or district.

Finally, the authentic activities in which leaders participate will usually have to be non-routine, as well, if they are to contribute to further development. Non-routine activities stimulate one to examine usual practices through “fresh eyes” thereby helping to develop a capacity, as Ruddock (1988) explains, for the kind of constructive discontent with one’s existing practices that will fuel the motivation for professional learning.

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