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What conditions do leaders need to lead learning?

The title of this post came from a discussion I had recently with a group of colleagues. We were considering a Headteacher development day and how we might keep this focused on our main purpose, that of learning. We discussed that we wanted to focus on headteachers acting as the lead learners, and their leading of learning in their schools, and moved on to consider what were the conditions that needed to be in place to facilitate this. Unfortunately, we ran out of time before we could go much further but have arranged to meet again to discuss this again, after each of us had some time to give it a little more thought. Having been away from school, due to a local holiday, I have been able to consider this some more, and what follows are my initial thoughts ahead of further discussion.

The first thing that has to be in place is that headteachers need to recognise these roles they have, as lead learners in their school and the responsibility to lead learning. Not all do. Some delegate responsibility to other members of the Senior Leadership Team, or they still believe their role is to be instructional leaders rather than leaders of learning. If they still have that mindset, of the instructional leader, they will still see their main role is to perhaps model, or promote a model, of what successful pedagogy looks like to their teachers. Depending on where a school and individual staff are in their development, it could well be that this is a satisfactory way forward. My contention would be that this still diminishes the roles and responsibilities of professional teachers in that it still mainly sees them as deliverers of some identified successful teaching process, and not as self-adaptive and thinking professionals who are constantly looking to improve their understanding as well as their practice. We have de-professionalised teachers for many years by such an approach, and the results have not been great for all our learners. We need to move on from that model to one that promotes teacher agency, professionalism, individuality and self-adaptive expertise.

It seems obvious, but I will say it anyway, that it is crucial that headteachers and senior leaders in school, thoroughly understand learning. They need to have knowledge and understanding of various learning models and know how to deconstruct learning for learners and the teachers they lead. They need to be committed to improving their own understanding of learning and will be active career-long learners. They will read and engage with research in a critical and informed way, and understand how to lead change in a complex organisation, which all schools are. I believe that, because we have been concerned for many years on instructional leadership, we have focused very much on pedagogy, at the expense of developing our understanding of learning further, and what is known now about what is most effective. We need to adjust that focus more on to learning, before we are able to identify and talk about the pedagogies needed to improve this.

The school leader has to create and develop a culture and ethos that is built on mutual trust and collaboration within the school and across schools. I have argued many times that everything worth developing in our schools stands or falls on the culture and ethos that prevails. If this is supportive and with high levels of trust you are more likely to promote innovation, risk taking and collaboration. When we collaborate we combine the cognitive power and experience of all in the school instead of just restricting this to one or two individuals. A collaboration of two is better than no collaboration at all, but if we can develop staff collaborating across the school and beyond, we can develop everyone's understanding and practice, for the benefit of all learners. Collaboration can be naturally embedded into the culture of a school, or it might be facilitated by more formal structures like TLCs, PLGs and the like. Such a culture will encourage the critical professional dialogue that needs to take place to developing a true learning culture within all. To me, we are trying to develop a self-improving and adaptive system that sees development as organic and ongoing, and which thrives on collaboration and understanding by all.

Time is another important factor. We need to slow down to achieve more. Instead of the constant headlong rush to busyness, and from one thing to another, we need to take an approach that is focused on delivering embedded and sustainable change. In school, school leaders need to focus on fewer actions each session, but have these connected, and provide enough time for staff to engage with them as part of a visible and continuos process of development. We need to keep the main thing the main thing, and that is learning. We need to create time within school development activities for focused dialogue and discussion about learning. Those outside of our schools need to recognise the need for more time to be allowed for schools and teachers to be able to develop in a deep, sustainable  and meaningful way. Indeed, they need those same levels of understanding and to recognise what schools and their leaders are trying to do, then aim to support them to do this. We need outside understanding and support, not more distractions.

I also feel that all in schools, and within the system, need to develop a disposition towards enquiry. They need to be encouraged to enquire into their own practice and how this impacts on learning. They will need support to do this, but the benefits for teachers and the learning of our pupils have been demonstrated by research from across the world. Such an attitude needs to become part of the profession DNA of teachers and their leaders, so that continuous and relentless development of new understandings and effective practice is embraced and understood by all. Such an approach also leads to that culture of adaptive expertise that we should be looking to develop within individuals and the system. It also leads to practice being grounded in evidence and informed by research, which protects teachers and schools from the latest fads and trends, which education is traditionally rife with. What we really need is that commitment to continuous and meaningful improvement of learning by all, no matter what their role in our education systems.

Not a long list then, but crucial factors or conditions to give our leaders the best opportunity to be successful leaders of learning. I appreciate that there is quite a lot of work that may need to sit behind these conditions, entirely dependent on where schools and individuals are in their own journey of development. But, I do believe we have to create the right conditions if we feel that it is important that school leaders do lead learning, and act as the lead learner in their schools. 

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