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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#ELMA2014 Day One

The first day of the ELMA Theory Workshop – Administrative theory without the ‘L’ word –  was a substantial intellectually stimulating event. In total six thought provoking papers were presented – and that was just the first day.

Following the official welcome, Gabriele Lakomski and Colin Evers started the day with can best be described as a tour de force. In Gabriele’s words, she attempted to outline 30 years of work in the space of 40 minutes.

Next up was myself. I spent time outlining the relational research programme and my slides can be found here.

Richard Niesche then took the discussion in an interesting direction through his use of the notion of ‘zombie’ leadership. He raised some interesting questions around how to move beyond the default of ‘leadership’ and drew upon a range of post structuralist thinkers to do so.

Brad Gobby picked up on post structuralist thinking when he used Foucault, and in particular governmentality to engage with independent public schools. Bev Rogers continued the use of great thinkers as she mobilised Hannah Arendt to re-think educational leadership.

Howard Youngs wrapped up the day with an engaging presentation (and impressive ppt slides) challenging the audience to break through windows in the field to ask tough questions of the default use of language and its purpose.

The best part is that this was only day one.

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#ELMA2014

This week marks the flagship event for the ELMA research group with the annual ELMA Theory Workshop taking place at ACU North Sydney. Once again the workshop is over subscribed courtesy of the quality programme bringing together established and emerging scholars in educational leadership, management and administration from Australia and New Zealand.

Taking up the challenge set by Professor Gabriele Lakomski (University of Melbourne) at last year’s event, the theme for #ELMA2014 is Administrative Theory without the ‘L’ word. Taking Professor Lakomski’s challenge serious, the ELMA Theory Workshop is a forum for innovative and provocative dialogue around theoretical and methodological developments in educational leadership, management and administration. In doing so, this workshop is an extension of a rich history of Australasian scholarship (see here and here).

Rather than the usual once per week blog contribution, I will be live tweeting from #ELMA2014 over the next two days and to maximise engagement, will blog at the end of each day.

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Thinking of research traditions in ELMA

Following on from last week’s post about my work featuring on the SELMAS blog, this week I was interviewed by a graduate student from the University of Michigan regarding my work on educational leadership and policy, and my paper on offering an educational leadership unit to under-graduate students.

One of the question about work in educational leadership and policy was about the different ways people approach their scholarship. This is an important question, especially when there is such a well documented lack of dialogue across research traditions in educational leadership, management and administration. While I can think of a few places that do good work around this (e.g. Evers and Lakomski’s Knowing Educational Administration), a particularly useful piece is Helen Gunter‘s 2001 paper where she outlines four major schools of thought in educational leadership, management and administration:

  • Instrumental - provides leaders with effective leadership strategies to deliver organisational outcomes;
  • Humanist – gathers and theorises from the experiences and biographies of those who are leaders and managers;
  • Scientific – abstracts and measures the impact of leadership effectiveness on organisational success; and
  • Critical – concerned to reveal and emancipate leaders and followers from social injustice and the oppression of established power structures.

This way of thinking about scholarship in educational leadership, management and administration is important. Which such a organising framework, it is possible to consider an educational ‘problem’ and then consider how the different research traditions would engage with that.

If we are to take the logic of academic life serious – that of argument and refutation – then it is imperative to understand how different schools would think through your problem and what they would have to say about your approach.

I am not suggesting a meta-tradition for which we all conform, except if that meta-tradition was one of critical pluralism. What I am arguing is that locating your work as a scholar is as much about its relation to other traditions as it is within a history of a particular school.

As I have argued previously, awareness and understanding of different research traditions is imperative to advancing scholarship.

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Making new connections

Last week my paper Beyond the hype of leadership featured on the blog for the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society.

My piece follows a stimulus from Walter Humes, part of the #Brainstrust series, challenging the discourses of leadership.

In the bigger picture, while ‘leadership’ has been canonised in the scholarly and professional community, there still remains considerable question marks around what exactly is ‘leadership’, who decides, and what makes it different to previous labels ‘management’ and ‘administration’.

Some of these questions are going to be taken up at the 2nd ELMA Theory Workshop (3-4 July, 2014). In short, while it is easy to dismiss dialogue and discussion that questions the usefulness of ‘leadership’, there is some serious intellectual momentum building in this space. This is something that myself and colleagues are very much engaged with and will continue to be as we develop more and more sophisticated understandings of educational leadership, management and administration.

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