Over the last ten years, a research group at Wilfrid Laurier University has been studying a large school board in Canada. The researchers were specifically looking at the actions of the senior leadership that affected how principals and teachers improved classroom practices.
This is significant because – as we have all experienced – top down directives on “better classroom practices” are not always effective once the classroom door is shut!
So what did these researchers find out?
These educational leaders made a sustainable difference because they changed the way knowledge flows through the district and through schools. They cultivated an environment where teachers are encouraged to innovate at the local level and collectively move towards a shared purpose. A shared purpose that was – and continues to be – explicitly tied to student learning and achievement.
This kind of leadership did not root in technical mechanical operational management approaches. It roots in vision, focus, professional modelling, and a real understanding for the role of social processes in adult learning. In other words, the new educational leadership drew from knowledge management practices.
For this level of positive sustainable change to take effect, the role of educational leadership had been restructured from operational management to knowledge leadership.
Knowledge mangers are successful when they strategically include themselves as models by taking part in the knowledge sharing process. For these educational leaders, that meant developing an open system where unexpected negotiations were at first, allowed, and then, encouraged. They allowed for these kinds of conversations and discussions so that they modeled inclusion in knowledge sharing across the district.
This inclusion of alternative ideas ensured principals and teachers were highly involved in developing educational strategies that were accepted, practiced, and effective in all schools and classrooms. These leaders had to let go of making executive decisions based on regulations and formal structures. They had to embrace collaborative thinking and work across a diversity of schools. The professional development supported schools by being less focused on information and more on knowledge sharing and how teachers could us, and were utilizing good practices in their classrooms?
Instead of using their authority to give a directive on classroom practices that would not be effective, their decisions were about normalizing professional development tied to the district focus. They adapted the organizational structures that existed to rethink routines and establish authentic learning spaces that fostered professional discussions about differentiated teaching approaches, formative assessment strategies, student engagement, and any other real-time issues that were being addressed by teachers. By respecting local realities, classroom practice eventually changed resulting in improved student learning.