ELMA Taste of Research Summer Scholarship 2014-2015

Once again Associate Professor Scott Eacott is offering a Taste of Research Summer Scholarship for a high achieving under-graduate student to work on two projects: i) an analysis of school leadership advertisements; and ii) an ongoing interdisciplinary relational research programme. Further details and the application form can be found here.

The Summer/Winter Taste of Research Scholarships created by Associate Professor Scott Eacott are an exceptional research opportunity for undergraduate students to work with an established researcher providing insights into what studying for an Honours or Research Higher Degree is all about.

The Taste of Research Scholarships aim to provide scholarship awardees with:

  • Experience in educational leadership, management and administration research;
  • An insight into future opportunities in the area of educational research; and
  • Encourage and attract high quality students interested in pursuing a career in research or academia.

For further details about the program contact Associate Professor Scott Eacott (Scott.Eacott@acu.edu.au).

The closing date for applications is 5:00pm 07 November 2014. Late applications will not be assessed.

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Free access to paper

In an era where professional standards are shifting the focus of teaching from one based on service to one of performance, the underlying temporality of teaching is changing.

The underlying generative temporality of teaching under revision  paper written by myself and Kimbalee Hodges (a former honours student) is the feature article in the latest Critical Studies in Education. As feature article, it is free to download.

In addition, a video abstract for the paper is available here.


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Matters of opinion

Yesterday Stephen Dinham‘s keynote at the Australian College of Educators conference got a lot of attention. It featured in articles in The Australian, The Guardian, and spread through the usual twitter networks of educators. To his credit, following some twitter interest about the newspaper articles, Dinham shared the actual paper (see here). In this post, I want to pick up on some of the issues raised by Dinham as a means of engaging in public intellectualism.

Dinham states that ‘Australian primary students are out-performed by their secondary peers in relative terms on international measures of student achievement’. He sets out to explore some explanations for this, naming explicitly: i) a general lack of evidence base for teaching and learning in primary education; ii) a propensity to adopt fads and fashions; and iii) increasing unrealistic and untenable expectations placed on primary teachers and schools.

The initial premise is based on trends in large scale international testing regimes, in particular TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) with fleeting reference to PISA. He does note:

Caution needs to be exercised when inferring from such rankings – differences between nations are sometimes small and the metrics are different – but the overall trend should be of concern.

So caution should be exercised yet it is OK to build your entire argument on the trends in the data? I mention this because the title of the paper is Primary Schooling in Australia: Pseudo-Science Plus Extras Time Growing Inequality Equals Decline. My argument being that the reader needs to pay careful attention to how Dinham builds his case. The concern over content knowledge being seen as problematic is evidenced through an example of an upper primary class where some students incorrectly linked Captain Cook with the First Fleet.

In a paper intent of critiquing pseudo-science informing education, Dinham commits a similar error through an under-developed argument that hangs on a short chronological history of curriculum and anecdotal evidence from a single classroom. From this he makes the considerable link to a binary between knowledge/content and activity/process. This is not to say that such binaries are not common in education rather that Dinham has not made the case.

This is important as the next explanation is The Lack of an Evidence Base for Teaching and Learning. Apart from reducing the argument to the comparison between medical and education research, there is a narrow view of ‘science’ (reduced to a strict form of logical empiricism). I too have a problem with the nature of much education research, but the solution is not the privileging of one form (arguably one of the most heavily critiqued) over all others.

As would be expected, and arguably the dominant position in mainstream  education circles in Australia currently, Dinham introduces the work of John Hattie (his now colleague at the University of Melbourne). Hattie’s work is very popular, but meta-analysis are only convincing if you believe in the original measures. My point being, the belief in meta-analysis is only convincing if you believe that the quantitative studies from which they are built were measuring the right thing and in an appropriate way in the first place. As I have noted elsewhere, all research is a political activity. Also, as mentioned on twitter by Greg Thompson (@EffectsofNAPLAN), drawing on a Dylan Wiliam (@dylawiliam) keynote, there is no evidence that effect sizes actually improve teaching (see here).

The critiquing of fads is much appreciated. It is not done enough in education. But isn’t the popularity of Hattie and his effect sizes a fad also? As Klaus Weber argues, as researchers we should study fads and fashions and not chase them.

Time pressure takes Dinham’s argument into a interesting, but somewhat predictable, space. The pressure on teacher time is a common discussion point in staffrooms, at conferences, and in just about any place where schooling is discussed.

Education continues to be built up as the place in society to solves all woes.  In doing so, more and more expectations are added to schools, and the teachers and leaders who constitute them. However, in making the division between ‘academic’ and ‘social welfare’ isn’t Dinham committing the same binary / false dichotomy – or ‘entity’ thinking – that he cites earlier as a problem? While I understand it serves his purpose to begin to make an argument for the innovative programmes they have at the University of Melbourne (a common move in recent work I might add), is this not a loose coupling, or at least a leap in the argument? While there are some references, where is the evidence for his claims?

In Self-esteem Boosting and a Lack of Constructive, Development Feedback, Dinham again draws on anecdotal evidence of classes where ‘no one receives a ‘bad’ or failing mark, red pens are not used to correct work because ‘red is an angry colour’ and ‘merit’ certificates are thrown around like confetti for meeting normal expectations’.

Is the argument wrong – maybe, but maybe not. What I am arguing is that we do not know. There is not enough evidence to make the claims. Hanging the argument for the most part on the work of Hattie and self-citation (which if honest, many of us do), is not enough. I agree with Dinham that:

There is a need to reject the pseudo-science and the shiny products people want to sell educators.

While it is problematic to read too much into the text of a keynote, my concern with the argument that Dinham builds is that it suffers from many of the same critical elements that he speaks against. The way to refute and/or defend claims is through rigorous and robust scholarship. There are many ways to do scholarship and it is important to remember that. Anything that is popular is not necessarily rigorous or robust – and this I believe to be Dinham’s point. Why is it popular in the here and now is an important question. I applaud the goal of critiquing fads and fashions, but we cannot limit the support for the critique to some selective references and anecdotal evidence. In doing so, rigor and robustness is sacrificed for mere opinion.

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Teaching grant success

The use of online technologies to enhance teaching has been a hot topic in recent years, especially in higher education. This week, a team led by Associate Professor Scott Eacott, and including Judith Norris, was successful in securing an ACU Teaching Development Grant to trial an innovative approach to teaching an educational leadership, management and administration course.

The Enhancing Learning in Educational Administration through Dialogue (eLEAD) project aims to:

  1. Trial, evaluate and modify a multi-mode delivery approach to support the teaching and learning of educational leadership;
  2. Expose students to an international learning experience through the use of appropriate technologies; and
  3. Devise a series of research-informed recommendations for the delivery of high quality student learning experiences to inform program renewal.

While traditional international student experiences have involved immersion projects in another country, advancing technologies provide the opportunity for web-based internationalisation. This grant will be used to develop course materials (video lectures, discussion forums, online readings) and facilitate ongoing dialogue with partners at State University of New York (SUNY) to jointly deliver a course. The goal is to foster cross-cultural understanding by linking university classes in different countries. Beyond co-habituating a shared virtual space, the eLEAD project is about generating shared syllabus through a rigorous and robust scholarly approach emphasising collaborative student learning. This will enable a broaden of the educative experience for a relatively homogenous student cohort through exposure to an internationalised curriculum built upon high impact activities such as collaborative assignments and global learning.

We will keep you updated with developments in the project as it progresses over the funded period (2014-2015).

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Testing ideas

Next April I will be one of three international keynotes at the Edu-Lead Research Group (North-West University, South Africa) conference. The other two are Petros Pashiardis (Open University, Cyprus) and Stephen Huber (University of Teacher Education, Central Switzerland).

The conference is entitled ‘Lead, manage and govern in a diverse and complex context towards quality education for all’. The challenge to be debated by keynotes and participants is:

Does leadership matter more in underperforming school context than in performing schools?

For those who know my work, particularly my more recent stuff, this question is not my usual location. Therefore, between now and then, I am going to test out some ideas through this blog.

My initial thoughts are that ‘leadership’ is so inter-connected in our understanding of organisation performance that they are almost one and the same. I have taken this up previously here and here. What this means is that we equate ‘leadership’ with high performing organisations. It is constructed as the difference between high and low performing organisations. Therefore, while high performing organisations are perceived to possess ‘leadership’, it is seen as absent in lower performing organisations.

The result, ‘leadership’ by its very construction is not as evident in ‘underperforming’ schools (yet another example where the criteria makes the decision prior to any analysis) as it is in high performing ones.

Is ‘leadership’ more important in ‘underperforming’ schools? Under current usage of the term, I say yes. Does this mean we need to accept this- absolutely not. There is a need to problematize ‘leadership’, ‘performance’, ‘organisations / schools’. In short, there is a lot of the focus topic that needs to be serious engaged with if we are to understand what it means to be ‘performing’, ‘underperforming’ and of course what is ‘leadership’ and its role in the debate.

Given the centrality of ‘leadership’ and school ‘performance’ in education policy debates globally, and the lived experience of individuals within schooling, this is an interesting and important debate to have.

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The reference list: does length matter?

In the month of July I read three theses. I could say examine, but I prefer read. That is, I like to see the candidate as a peer and I am engaging with their work. Sure I make a judgement on its quality / contribution, and my feedback is arguably more supportive than when reviewing an article (not completely sure on that though as a pride myself on quality reviews), but more importantly, I want to engage with the work.

Like many when examining / reviewing, I am not afraid to say I often look at the reference list first (maybe after the abstract). While to some extent I am looking to see if I am cited – especially if it is on a topic I have written about – but beyond vanity, I am looking to see where this research is located in the discipline. As I have noted before, research traditions matter in the social sciences.

During my recent flurry of thesis reading, I was challenged in thinking through the assumptions I make based on the length of the reference list. My particular challenge is whether I am bias based on length.

Earlier in my career I was prone to having lengthy reference lists – so much so that Ross Thomas, then editor of the Journal of Educational Administration commented as such in his editorial for an issue I appeared in ‘a valuable, extensive and eclectic reference list accompanies the article’.

As I have progressed, I have felt less need to justify my position through the number of references cited and the constant sandbagging that we see in graduate dissertations. This is what brings me back to the theses I have been reading. Across the three theses, they have reference lists of 17, 15 and 5 pages respectively. I had no (or at least less) problems with the 17 and the 15, but the 5 got my attention – and for all of the wrong reasons.

I am not of the opinion that you need a long list of references to make a contribution, but as I have argued elsewhere in relation to working with literatures, it is through your engagement with the literatures that enables you to demonstrate disciplinary embeddedness. Locating your research in the discipline and being able to justify your contribution can only come from engaging with the literatures. As Pat Thomson (Nottingham) argues, location is as important in research as it is in real estate. Therefore, while there is hard and fast rule as to how much one has to read or cite, and as a result the length is not as important, it is what you do with the literature that matters. The complicating matter is that to do work on the literatures and not just cite what you have read, requires reading widely.

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Leading scholarly debate

I once asked a very esteemed colleague how he and his primary writing partner went about establishing themselves as thought leaders in my disciplinary space. This colleague, for whom I have a lot of time and respect for, quite boldly claimed that they had gone out and attacked people. Now before this conjures violent images, let me explain. My colleague and his writing partner systematically developed and defended a particular approach to scholarship. In doing so, and as a means of creating distinctions with existing ways of doing scholarship they systematically identified key thought leaders and explained what they saw as limitations in their approaches and how their own approach was better.

Sure this approach did not exactly make them many friends. But arguably it led to respect.

In attacking individuals, those who were identified were almost forced to respond – in fact my colleagues were clever enough to factor this in and the plan led to a number of special issues and a book project.

Why am I engaging with this now? As I have noted previously, I long for dialogue and specifically interdisciplinary dialogue in educational leadership, management and administration. What I admire about the approach of my colleagues is that they have a ‘hands on hip’ moment (hat tip to Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s working on voice in writing). That is, they stick their necks out there. They defend their approach, retain what they can defend and evolve what they cannot. This takes courage. It might not make you many friends, it might make publishing difficult, but it does build a distinctive brand of scholarship. That is, rather than simply undertaking a variety of projects that are loosely coupled, you build a generative research programme.

While my colleagues were able to identify a number of thought leaders at the time, I wonder how easy this would be to do now?? I know it is possibly to still identify major research traditions but in an era where publication pressures are leading to increasing parallel monologues in journals – and conferences – do contemporary academics still value building distinctive brands of scholarship or is the pressure to publish and bring in (or at least chase) money too great? Have we reached a point where research is seen as separate from the researcher?

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The Leadership Identity Journey

Having previously written about the importance of research traditionsthe need for intra-disciplinary dialogue, and what is leadership,  it was with great pleasure that this week I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of The Leadership Identity Journey: An Artful Reflection (2014, Rowman & Littlefield) by Carol A. Mullen (Virginia Tech), Fenwick W. English (North Carolina) and William A. Kealy.

I knew I was on to a winner when reading the foreword by Karen Seashore Louis entitled: Confessions of a (reforming) structural-functionalist. It is very rare for educational leadership, management and administration scholars to acknowledge the impact that a particular piece of work has had on their own thinking. Credit goes to Seashore Louis for acknowledging this and more importantly, it speaks to the contribution of this book by Mullen, English and Kealy.

Based on Joseph Campbell‘s universal mythology work, the book takes an approach to studying leadership that draws upon interviews using photographs as stimuli. In doing so, this books offers methodological insights for scholars and conceptual insights for those who grapple with the day-to-day work of educational institutions.

Most importantly, in an era where logical empiricism is becoming almost universal, and foundational disciplines (e.g. sociology, philosophy, history, etc) are being squeezed out of university based preparation an development programs, not to mention doctoral programmes, it is refreshing to come across a book which privileges the artistic and brings that into conversations with notions of journey. The arts and humanities hold potential for thinking anew ‘leadership’ and I recommend this book to those interested in different ways of thinking.

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What is leadership?

The ELMA Theory Workshop last week was an outstanding success. The dialogue and debate around important issues for educational leadership was rigorous, but respectful of diversity. A question that arose following the discussion questioning ‘leadership’ was what exactly is it that we study when we claim to investigate leadership?

This sounds confusing – and challenging. It is both.

While the idea of a school has a material being. There are buildings and fences. But as I have argued elsewhere, can we still claim attachment to the local – such as the local primary school – in an era of education markets and competition for enrolments? If parents and students are consumer searching for the school of best fit (which I know is highly contested), is attachment to the local a nostalgic concept?? I argue that the attachment to geographic space is problematic, active and fragile.

Therefore, while the school has a material – empirical – quality, it is also very much an epistemic product. It is an entity which comes into being through our analysis. Our way of thinking about the world has lead to us to construct the idea of ‘the school’.

So what does this mean for leadership research? What is it we study? As a disciplinary space, attention has been focused on roles, traits, behaviours, organisational results, and increasingly, relationships. Herein lies a substantive challenge, if relationships and contexts are dynamic, as contemporary discourses argue, is this reflected in scholarship?

I contend that the theoretical problem of leadership – the legitimation of the social world – plays out in the empirical focus on situated (in time and space) action. This move gives scholarship both an individual and collective focus. The weaving together of the macro- and micro-level analysis of practice (where there is no final decision maker as all actors play a part in a web of relations) illuminates the theoretical problem. This legitimation plays out in the empirical in many ways, but is ever present, and by virtue inexhaustible, in the work of institutional actors. Attention to this situated dynamic explicitly brings the individual actors and the contexts – as a socio-political space embedded within a particular time – into conversation. Notably, the empirical focus of such scholarship shifts from a focus on individuals (dispositional), behaviours (practices), or structural arrangements (material and symbolic) to the rather fragile agreements, both active and passive, which constitute the work of institutions.

What makes leadership scholarship so interesting – even if only for me – is that the task of interpretation must be left open – there is no finality. The grey, the blind spots, the insights, are what makes it valuable and compelling.  This is what drives my intellectual work and keeps e asking questions of what it is we study and why.

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#ELMA2014 Day Two

The annual ELMA Theory Workshop wrapped up today with four papers and a commentary from Professors Colin Evers and Gabriele Lakomski. The theme for the event was Administrative theory without the ‘L’ word.

Chris Branson‘s ‘What might ‘leading-ship’ look like‘ was the first paper of day. Generating plenty of discussion and dialogue, Branson described some of the theoretical perspectives formed during a research study of middle leadership in a New Zealand university. Through a focus on leadership as, first and foremost, trans-relational provided a frame for reinventing the lived reality of these middle leaders. But to do so, Branson needed to go beyond the leadership literatures to develop a more coherent and practicable conceptualisation of the leader’s role, power and responsibility. This is what led him to explore ‘leading-ship’ rather than ‘leader-ship’.

Christine Edwards mixed up the traditional conference style presentation by moving to a more collaborative dialogue with participants. Including shifting the furniture and physical layout of the room. Enacting the title of her paper ‘Care full enabling: a discussion on the different ‘ways of being’ in leadership, in management and in administration in shaping social institutions’ Edwards discussed with the group care in organisational relationships, not as a quality of care fullness, rather as a different way of being in organisational roles in shaping social institutions.

Lauren Stephenson & Barbara Harold brought a collaborative auto-ethnographic approach to engage with the emotional impact of the working lives of academics in contemporary times. In particular, they interrogated the process of administrative change in the context of mandated regulations. Central to their argument was a recognition that emotion needs to be investigated as a key component of organisational life and that collaborative auto-ethnography is a useful methodological approach.

In the final paper of #ELMA2014, Lawrie Drysdale & David Gurr (in absentia) reflected on 14 years from the International Successful School Principalship Project (ISSPP). In particular, Drysdale did two things: i) outline the project; and more importantly, ii) articulate their contribution and findings to the collective enterprise. As arguably one of the largest and longest running projects in educational leadership, with many publications – individual articles, special issues, and edited books – this work is part of a substantive body of work, but one that is not engaged with as much as would be expected, including by those doing closely aligned work.  As with Branson’s paper earlier, this one generated plenty of conversation.

The day, and conference, concluded with commentary from Colin Evers and Gabriele Lakomski. This session enabled Evers and Lakomski to provide a meta-commentary on the content of the presentations while at the same time draw attention to the organic synergies between the papers and their points of distinction. They were also generous to provide space for presenters to response to their comments in the interests of the scholastic enterprise.

Based on the emails, tweets, and messages I have received so far, I think it is fair to say that #ELMA2014 was a resounding success and will return in 2015 bigger again. Thanks also go to Judith Norris who assisted with live tweeting from #ELMA2014 across the two days.

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