How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

This variable in our framework acknowledges the substantial direct contribution to student learning of teachers, acting both individually in their classrooms and collectively not only as school staff members, but as members of professional associations and learning communities.

Individual teacher qualities and mental models

A good deal of recent research about the qualities of teachers that are linked to student learning has been driven by debates about whether teaching should be considered and promoted as a profession, or if it should be deregulated and opened up to people without formal teacher preparation (e.g., Darling- Hammond and Youngs, 2002). The bulk of this evidence suggests that signifi cant amounts of variation in student learning are accounted for by teachers’ capacities, including:

  • basic skills, especially literacy skills
  • subject matter content knowledge
  • pedagogical skill
  • pedagogical content knowledge
  • classroom experience

An understanding of how teachers interpret the needs of their own students and the nature and value of external reform efforts requires, however, attention to their mental models. The term mental models has emerged as a shorthand for capturing a central tenet of recent cognitive research, namely, that people interpret their environment through a set of “cognitive maps” that summarize ideas, concepts, processes or phenomena” in a coherent way. That people have mental models that serve as internal representations of the world is not new (Carley and Palmquist, 1992), but the incorporation of this concept into cultural studies of schools is more recent. The convergence of cognitive psychology and cultural sociology is based on the assumption that culture presents a “toolkit” (Swidler, 1986) of mediated images and validated actions that individuals and groups draw on, often with little explicit thought, to guide their daily behavior (DiMaggio, 1997). Mental models are important because decision makers, whether teachers or administrators, need them in order to simplify the chaotic environments and multiple logical options that they face (Porac and Thomas, 1990; Thomas, Clark and Gioia, 1993). Reliance on mental models may be particularly prevalent in the case of busy professionals like teachers, whose work requires them to make hundreds of rapid decisions each day as they search for the best way of encouraging their students to absorb and interpret the material that they are presenting.

Mental models are, in part, a consequence of the range of cultural (socially constructed and recognized) elements that any group develops, and partly a result of how any given individual organizes the cultural information for their own use (DiMaggio, 1997, 268). This means that each teacher carries their own set of images about what constitutes good pedagogy, and these images are drawn from a limited bank of options that are generated by common expectations, collective experience and shared professional practice, as well as “their biases, expectations and explanations about how people learn” (Spillane, Reiser and Reimer, 2002, 395). The common bank of images from which mental models are drawn is infl uenced by the “microculture” of a school or a local community, but also by the broadly shared professional environment or “macroculture” (Abrahamson and Fombrun, 1994). In particular, teachers are faced with alternative schemata for good teaching, ranging from practices that are often collected under the rubric of “direct instruction” to those that are based on constructivist or progressive education. Newmann and his colleagues also point to the importance of pedagogic mental models that emphasize connections between the classroom and the real world (Newmann, 1996).

Mental models serve as guides to making both big and little decisions, but they also present constraints because they are the first screen through which new information must pass. DiMaggio (1997) notes that people pay more attention to information that is relevant to their current schemata, and are less likely to have correctly remembered information that is inconsistent. The more widely shared the individual mental models are, the more likely it is that challenging information will be readily accepted – or rejected and reinterpreted (Giddens, 1984; Meyer and Rowan, 1977). Thus, when individuals’ use their mental models as a way of making sense of new information or ideas from their environment it can lead to creativity and innovation, or inhibition (Ford, 1996). Thus, research suggests that a teachers’ mental models may hold the key to determining whether they make significant changes in their practice or continue with business as usual (Toole, 2001).

Teachers’ professional community

A key sociological contribution to the study of school culture and change has emerged in the concept of professional community. Although it has been around for some time, Westheimer (1999) argues that theories of teacher communities are “under-conceptualized.” Furman (1999) calls them “confusing,” a “mismatch” with postmodern life and further states that they provide “little guidance for practice.” Adding to the confusion, researchers use a variety of terms to describe how to organize schools for teacher community and learning: collegiality (Barth, 2001; Little, 1990), collaboration (Nias, Southworth and Yeomans, 1999; Zellermeyer, 1997), professional community (Louis, Kruse and Associates, 1995; McLaughlin and Talbert, 1993), discourse communities (Putnam and Borko, 2000), professional learning community (Hall and Hord, 2001) and schools that learn (Leithwood, 2002).

By using the term professional learning community we signify our interest not only in discrete acts of teacher sharing, but in the establishment of a schoolwide culture that makes collaboration expected, inclusive, genuine, ongoing and focused on critically examining practice to improve student outcomes. The term integrates three robust concepts: a school culture that emphasizes professionalism is “client oriented and knowledge based” (Darling-Hammond, 1990); emphasizes learning and places a high value on teachers’ inquiry and reflection (Toole, 2001); and has a communitarian emphasis on personal connection (Louis et al., 1995). The hypothesis is that what teachers do together outside of the classroom can be as important as what they do inside in affecting school restructuring, teachers’ professional development and student learning (Louis and Kruse, 1995).

Kruse, Louis and Bryk (1995) designate five interconnected variables that describe what they call genuine professional communities in such a broad manner that they can be applied to diverse settings. The variables are: shared norms and values; a focus on student learning; deprivatized practice; reflective dialogue; and collaboration. Researchers vary on the exact list and number of key variables, and those variables can only act as general descriptors. Little (2000) points out that there is no simple checklist or template that will ever adequately guide the construction of professional learning communities. But the central idea of the model is the existence of a social architecture in school organizations that helps shape teachers’ attitudes toward new pedagogies (Toole, 2001). Recent research using professional learning community as a variable has shown powerful associations with teacher practice (Bryk, Camburn and Louis, 1999; Louis, Marks and Kruse, 1999; Pounder, 1999; Scribner, Cockrell, Cockrell and Valentine, 1999; Toole, 2001). School administrators, in particular, help develop professional community through their attention to individual teacher development, and by creating and sustaining networks of conversation in their schools around issues of teaching and learning.

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