Thing #2: The Conductorless Orchestra (The Optimistic Version)

Note: The opinion expressed below is meant to provoke discussion and is not necessarily (or at least not entirely) one I espouse.

Imagine, if you will, a school with leadership at its best. Teachers and students alike feel empowered to take risks. They continuously experiment to improve learning. There is creativity, communication, and collaboration across the school community. What might such a school look like?

Over the past decade there has been a plethora of books, articles, and studies published, aimed at spelling out what constitutes a good educational leader; providing a road map to successful school reform. Titles like School Reform from the Inside Out, Leading in a Culture of Change, Turnaround Leadership, Sustainable Leadership, The Learning Leader, etc., the list is practically endless. But what none of these books seem to do is question the underlying presuppositions of our current educational system: the structure of the school itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the genuine desire of these authors to improve the state of education. Many of their suggestions are indeed laudatory. Let’s look at a few of their prescriptions. As per Fullan, school leaders should have a strong moral purpose. They should intend to make a positive change. Indeed, it would be cynical to suggest that any Principal, Head Teacher, or Vice Principal did not believe this of themselves. And so, such a recommendation becomes, in itself, a truism. You mean there are educational leaders who want to have no positive impact, or worse a negative one?

Let’s try another: understanding the change process. Fullan in his highly influential 2001 work Leading in a Culture of Change posits six steps to the change process. He rightly recognizes that change is a cultural process that requires an acceptance of it’s requisite complexity. But the raison d’etre of the piece is the notion that change can and should be managed. Given that change is inherently cultural and complex, and school management is a fairly rigid hierarchy, when you add in Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, which states

The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.(Heylighe & Joslyn)

what you inevitably get is a hierarchical system with insufficient internal variety to govern the cultural complexity of the change its supposed to manage! This is clearly an insurmountable internal contradiction.

OK. One more… this time from Elmore’s 2003 work School Reform from the Inside Out. In it he argues for two concepts: “learning in context” and “capacity building”. The former addresses the idea that learning within the system should be focused on continuous improvement, not on the dictates of the institution. The latter argues that educational institutions, aka the leadership, need to support and enhance the set of skills and resources that teachers bring to the process of student learning. So far so good. Now, here’s the problem: both these recommendations rely on the “dictates of the institution” for their implementation. They are both predicated on a top-down model of education. Yah, but that’s just realistic you say. Well,  even when the institution recognizes that capacity building and learning in context require the empowerment of the teacher, such as with the implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLC), said implementation is done in a top down fashion dictated by the institution. As in, “Wow! It worked for Dufour, so it’ll work for us. Let’s send out a memorandum to all Principals instructing them to immediately form PLCs in their schools.” You can see how this ends up. Principals then require teachers to be a member of a PLC and so remove the empowerment and distributed decision making that are at the crux of how an action learning based model like the PLC works. In short, the institution itself cannot meaningfully manage or create change from the top down.

For change to be meaningful, capacity building, and empowering; for learning in context to truly realize continuous improvement in student learning, the centre cannot, must not, hold!

So, as Lenin once said: “What is to be done?”

The key unacknowledged element underpinning all of the examples critiqued above is the idea that for any form of meaningful implementation the crucial factor is the empowerment of all stakeholders within the educational community: teachers, educational assistants, parents, and students alike. Yes, even custodial staff.

Imagine then a school in which the Principal or Head Teacher plays less of a  managerial role (don’t get me wrong, I know the paper work needs to get done) and is more facilitator than “leader”. A school wherein the position of Principal is eliminated or moved to an itinerant function (visiting schools two or three times a week). He or she wouldn’t set the change agenda so much as facilitate the agenda determined by the stakeholders in the community.

I recognize the difficulties inherent in such a proposition. For instance, who will handle discipline? Who will create a the semester timetable? First, in my experience over the last twenty odd years in the profession, most teachers handle most disciplinary infractions themselves. Only grievous infractions are sent “down to the Office”. Even then, on any given day, “admin” may be out of the building, so it is a Teacher-in-Charge” who handles the student in question. As for timetabling, in many schools this is handled by the Guidance department or a committee of teachers, either with consultation with site admin or even in some cases without. What about Departmental/Divisional budgets? Honestly, I think its manageable by the staff but in any case doesn’t require the presence of a full time admin.

What are the positives? Principals can be the change agents they are told they should be. Freed from the confines of their offices they can spend more time in the classroom actually witnessing what goes on there. They would have the time necessary to facilitate change: acting as a mentor, teacher, and in some instances, a governor to ensure a boundary is placed on wild oscillations within a school. (At present this is most often restricted to staff meetings and the occasional one-off PD session.) Teachers and other educational workers would become empowered to enact change, to implement and practice themselves those tenets of 21st Century Learning Skills recent policy papers are so keen on. Indeed, Fullan’s proposals would not run afoul of basic system governance laws. Elmore’s two recommendations might even come to fruition. Dufour’s proposals for action learning and action research could be authentic, not top-down imitations of the real thing.

So imagine then the leaderless school. Much like how de Toqueville envisaged America in the 1800s: in a school without a “leader”, all are leaders.