Leading the learning of others

By Allan Powell on November 10, 2021 in Leadership

How ‘open to learning’ are you?

In my travels around schools over the years I’ve worked as a facilitator, I can’t think of one school leader who didn’t want to make a difference. I have seen incredibly dedicated and hard-working principals, DPs, HODs, team leaders and tutor teachers who strive to improve teaching, learning and achievement. These leaders and I have occasionally had different ideas about how to make a difference, or about the skills needed to make a difference, or about what the priorities should be. However, their dedication was not in question.

Fortunately, over the last decade we have a better idea of what leaders-who-make-a-difference actually do. The leadership Best Evidence Synthesis has contributed significantly to this. There are two leadership activities from the BES which interest me particularly. Leaders who make a difference:

  • ensure quality teaching happens, and

  • lead teacher learning and development.

These seem pretty obvious, to me. If I, as a leader in a school, want great outcomes for students, I need to ensure that great teaching is happening, and to ensure that I am helping teachers learn even better ways of teaching! I need to help teachers monitor how their teaching is going and the impact it’s having, give them the opportunity to learn better ways of teaching, give them great and useful feedback when they seek it, and let them know the areas that I think need improvement that they may not see. Easy!

The problem is that it’s not particularly easy. Helping teachers to learn and improve (or helping any adult to learn, or any student for that matter) can be a complex business. Helping teachers learn inevitably involves talking to them about their practice and the fact is, according to a growing body of research, leaders aren’t very good at having these kinds of conversations – conversations about the quality of teaching. They are particularly not good at having these kinds of conversations when it is most important to have them – that is, when the leader believes the quality of teaching isn’t great. Some research suggests, for example, that many leaders have trouble even articulating their concerns about teaching quality, let alone addressing them!

And I think that in the current educational climate a leader’s capability to focus on and talk about quality teaching has even greater significance. For example, in innovative learning environments, where teachers must work collaboratively to meet the needs of students, leaders and teachers need to communicate even more effectively than before. Likewise, across- and in-school teachers in CoLs need to be able to have conversations about teaching quality not just with the people in their schools, whom they know, but with teachers they may not know, across early childhood, primary, intermediate and secondary contexts.

So why are these conversations so hard? Why, when leaders are so committed to making a difference, do they find it so difficult to address issues about the quality of teaching in their staff? I believe Open-to-Learning theory helps answer these questions. Here are three key concepts of OTL theory which give just a taster of why leading the learning of others can be hard. Hopefully they will give some insight into how to make them easier, too.

1. Everyone has values or beliefs (or theories) which drive their actions and behaviours. To enable real change, leaders need to engage with beliefs, not just actions.

The first mistake leaders can make when discussing teaching quality is bypassing people’s beliefs and just trying to convince them to do things differently. Let me illustrate: sometimes in schools I will find a teacher who seems resistant to change. For example – a new entrant teacher who won’t share learning goals or progressions of learning with her students, despite my suggestion that this is a great idea for developing student agency. I could rant about the importance of sharing learning goals ad nauseam. I could insist on it. I could ask the school leaders to mandate it. But at best I will manage to get this teacher to comply while I’m watching and then revert to old practices when I’m not. Why? Because I haven’t understood or challenged or engaged with WHY she won’t share learning goals with students. Maybe she thinks five-year-olds are too immature to understand their goals? Maybe she believes the students will lose motivation if they know others have a ‘more advanced’ goal? Once I access this – her beliefs about five-year-olds and how they learn – then there is the chance for real engagement and learning.

2. Everyone has a rationale for their view.

The first OTL concept suggested everyone has beliefs which drive their behaviour. But how do people come to those beliefs? This second concept changed the way I think about people. It’s really obvious, but really easy to forget when you’re trying to effect change. Whatever conclusions I come to or beliefs I hold (for example, that five-year olds can and should identify their goals, self-assess, and take ownership of their learning), they are based on MY reality. In coming to this conclusion about five-year-olds, I drew on a range of information at my disposal and selected certain bits of information, ran it through my filter of past experiences, and came to a conclusion that seems sensible to me. This is a fairly rudimentary description of what open-to-learning theorists call the ladder of inference. Just because people disagree with me and have a different reality doesn’t mean they are unreasonable or crazy – it just means they are drawing on and selecting different information to come to their conclusions or beliefs. They are standing on a different ladder to mine! I may not agree with the information they are selecting or how they are defining that information, but it makes sense to them.When leading the learning of others, open-to-learning theory suggests our tendency is to just talk about our top level assumptions or conclusions, without sharing how we came to those conclusions. What’s worse, when we suspect someone has a different conclusion, we seldom inquire into how they came to their conclusion. We don’t ask about how they climbed their ladder. Instead, we are more likely to try to convince them that we are right! We don’t deliberately check that we understand the other’s view – or whether they understand ours. We ignore difference instead of acknowledging and exploring it.

3. We all have ‘espoused theories’ (how we think we act) and ‘theories in use’ (how we actually act). And they’re usually quite different.

This third OTL concept is so important because it addresses anyone who, quite reasonably, may have read the above two concepts and thought, That’s not me. I don’t try to convince people. I’m a great listener. I believe in collaborative decision making, respect for others’ views, openness.

I hate being confronted with the reality of what I’m like. Watching a recording of myself is a painful experience. I often do not act in the way I think I’m acting. Often what I say I value isn’t the reality in my speech and actions. I know this because I occasionally record myself when leading a staff meeting or meeting with a teacher following a classroom observation.

In terms of how leaders communicate with teachers, leaders will often ‘espouse’ the importance of being clear, open and respectful, of collaborative decision making. Over the years, through different projects and post-grad study, I have coded dozens of transcripts of conversations between leaders and teachers where the leader espouses these values. Almost invariably, the reality is the reverse. The reality is that most leaders, especially when they sense the potential for conflict, are unclear and quite controlling in the strategies they use. They trivialise the issue through using equivocal language (“I just think that perhaps your planning might need a little bit more detail”). They pose leading questions that they already know the answer to, in the hope that the other person will identify the problem themselves (“How do you think your behaviour management systems are working?”). They try to address the issue through a ‘side door’ so as not to offend. They ignore any sign of disagreement. At the other extreme, although less common in my experience, some leaders will dominate and dictate, ignoring what the other person thinks and imposing his or her views.

That sounds quite negative and depressing – suggesting that our default position, when trying to do something as vital as ensuring quality teaching, is not effective! But I don’t think of it that way because it is in recognising these default settings that we can challenge and change them. If you are a leader of learning, I suggest you think about these three concepts next time you are engaged in ‘ensuring quality teaching’ or ‘leading professional learning’.

  • Remember, real change happens when we change our beliefs, not just our actions. Have you considered the beliefs which drive a teacher’s actions? How can you inquire into this? Likewise, have you shared your beliefs with the teacher to see whether they are similar or different? And are you open to the possibility that your beliefs may be flawed?

  • Remember that everyone has a rationale which has led to his or her beliefs and conclusions – including you. How can you find out what has led to others’ conclusions? Have you shared how you’ve come to your conclusions? It’s through doing this that you can find your common points of agreement or points of difference, from which to move forward.

  • How could you find out whether your ‘espoused’ way of leading the learning of others matches what you actually do? A video or voice-recording of yourself, perhaps? Leaders in a number of schools have worked with Evaluation Associates facilitators to help them see the difference between their espoused values and their ‘theory-in-use’, and to help them to be more authentically ‘open to learning’ in their conversations with others.

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