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The researchED Guide to Leadership book launch: best bits

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Date published 23 October 2020

On Wednesday night Ambition Institute, researchED and John Catt launched the researchED Guide to Leadership.

Hosted by the book’s editor, Stuart Lock, the event brought together contributing authors that are leading their schools successfully and at the forefront of leadership debate.

We talked about the persistent problems of school leaders, what effective leaders need to know and do, the role of middle leaders, how effective instructional coaching works, and much more.

Here are some of our favourite quotes from each of the panellists:

Stuart Lock

On the generic approach of leadership theory and development:

“The amount of reliable and valid research on leadership is, to my experience, not significant. As one who wants to consume that research, even research that appears to be good seems to me often to be really be badly used. The research that’s promoted appears often to be taken from other domains, and badly imposed upon education. I call this the generic approach.

“I’m not sure we can ever be absolutely sure in school leadership that we’re taking the right or optimum decision, we can’t know for sure that there wasn’t a better decision a better approach or a better implantation. To that end, I’m unsure that research can ever do more than inform the bet that we take. But if bad research means we make a bad bet, how does that research ever get found. It takes years if at all.”

Jennifer Barker

On the ‘hero paradigm’ (Grant, 2003), and the problems with trait-based leadership.

“Having a hero leader can work to undermine the level of buy-in and commitment from other members of staff in a school. And the idea that a single individual can know and be able to do absolutely everything to run a school effectively creates a real risk that competent leaders are put off from progressing to more senior positions because of the pressure they face for doing so.”

PersistentProblemsTypesOfKnowledge_Dev5.1_7s03T.original (1).jpg

On persistent problems that every leader faces in their roles.

“In our model of leader expertise, we argue that expertise develops as a result of organising and applying knowledge to the persistent problems leaders face, and in doing so, to develop mental models.

“And mental models can be thought of as the way that knowledge is organised to guide action. And the better developed the mental model, the more easily the leader will be able to navigate their work.”

Tom Rees

On the importance of domain-specific knowledge.

“Creating a strategy for reading across a primary school requires different specialist knowledge, to creating a growth strategy for a multi-academy trust, or increasing attendance in a secondary. What appears to be a generic actually requires more specific knowledge.

“We think that the specialist or the domain-specific knowledge, although its essential, can often be overlooked in leadership development, which too often focuses on the generic, and therefore can be disconnected from the specific field or task.”

Matthew Evans

On complexity, and its effect on how we should view expertise, and decision-making.

“I think schools are very complex places and they’re full of uncertainty, they’re full of big areas of ignorance. We don’t know enough about what good teaching looks like, or how schools improve. So when you get this level of ignorance and uncertainty it means that expertise looks slightly different. No longer are you saying ‘who is the person that knows the answers to everything?’ You’re then saying, ‘who is the person that can make a fairly wise decision, given how little they are in control and how little we actually know about schools?’”

Matthew also commented on the place of feelings in school leadership, and the role complexity plays.

“It's ok to find it hard, if you don't find it hard you're probably not doing it right. I think a lot of that is about complexity. I really like the stuff Neil Gilbride writes about dealing with complexity emotionally. I’m not a particularly emotional person, but I think you do have to recognise that running a school is hard, you’re not in control a lot of the time, particularly at the moment. You have to make decisions without all the information you need, and that can be anxiety-building.”


Danielle Dennis

On what leaders can do to ensure their schools are significantly better at developing writing.

“I’d really like school leaders to understand that writing development lags behind reading development as much as three to four years. And even more so for expository writers. We can’t just map what children have read and expect them to be able to read at the same complexity, we have to be thinking about how that develops.

“Much like we do with reading, we have to break down those essential skills necessary for children to develop as writers, so that they are able to eventually write in more complex manners.”

Summer Turner

On curriculum as not being done or finished, and why we can’t get curriculum designers to create a written curriculum.

“It’s really hard for teachers to implement something when they don’t understand the thinking or rationale behind it. Lawrence Stenhouse (1975) says that teacher development and curriculum development need to go hand in hand. For someone to be able to do something successfully in the classroom, they need to know why this is in this order, the reason for it and how you manage and handle that different knowledge with the students in front of you”.

Jon Hutchinson

On implementing instructional coaching and professional development.

“Getting coaching done really well is really hard. It requires a lot of investment and commitment from all parties. It’s hard emotionally because it can be tough to always be on the path to expertise and always be working on something. I receive an action step every week.

“So we’re really clear on what coaching is, using examples. And we’re also clear on what it isn’t, as coaching is a really slippery word.”

Jon bases his definition of instructional coaching on the work of Matthew Kraft, citing his ‘five pieces of criteria’ throughout the chapter:

“Instructional coaching is individualised, intensive, sustained, and context-specific”.

Sarah Barker

On letting middle leaders lead.

"We often see outstanding middle leaders displaying incredible traits. Resilience, tenacity, empathy. A mistake that is often made is that these traits are developed through leadership training or leadership as a generic skill.

“We see things that work well and think ‘that was good leadership’ without actually identifying what those qualities are. And really the qualities of a good middle leader are complex and led, and a very rich tapestry of many other skills, knowledge and expertise.”

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