Reponse to Thomson, Lingard and Thrupp

Today, Jane Wilkinson (Griffiths), Richard Niesche (UNSW) and I acted as respondents to papers from Pat Thomson (Nottingham), Bob Lingard (UQ) and Martin Thrupp (Waikato) during an Educational Leadership SIG symposium on the ‘Dismantling of public education‘ at the #AARENZARE2014 conference. As a means of sharing, I thought I would write up my response. In my short response, I sought to outline three things:

  1. Some general comments on the arguments of the papers;
  2. Key theoretical challenges I see coming from these arguments; and
  3. Bring this back to the ‘educational leadership’ as a productive contribution to the SIG.

Here goes:

What I see across the three papers is the notion that public education is under revision. This is a significant argument as schooling is a canonical institution of modernity. This is what makes education, and specifically schooling, a key lever for policy makers (a.k.a. administrators). Mindful that public education is one of the greatest achievements of governance. Why? Because of its ‘universality’.

This reminds me of Michael Oakeshott’s argument that ‘education is the introduction to the conversation of the world’ [Oakeshott actually uses ‘mankind’]. Most striking about this is that Oakeshott’s argument breaks down the rather unhelpful binary of ‘individualism v collectivism’, or to use the language of our time, ‘competition v collaboration’.

The revision of public education, over an extended period of time, is shifting the articulated uses of education from ‘public’ to ‘private’ purposes. Social mobility is the dominant argument in recent times. [Neil Cranston and colleagues have written about this here and here]

A challenge for educational leadership studies is how can we theorise anew? This means going beyond mapping the existing terrain with new or different ways of thinking (e.g. great thinkers) and actually thinking differently, arguably an ontological shift.

Two key challenges I see:

Temporality: While we often discuss many of these matters following a touchstone event (e.g. the Education Reform Act, 1988), references to Taylorism highlight a much longer history. Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency empirically supports such claims. The final chapter of that text, ‘An American tragedy‘ is timely as much today as ever.

Spatial relations: The choice / market agenda asks questions of ‘the local’. What does it mean to have affiliation, or a nostalgia for, for a geographic marker (e.g. a local public school) during a time of ‘consumer sovereignty’ and a ‘fluid society’. This also speaks to work on policy borrowing and traveling practices.

In bringing this into conversation (and debate) with educational leadership studies, I see a few matters:

As highlighted, there is a sense of urgency if educational leadership is to contribute to this dialogue and debate. There are of course, some reservoirs of hope.

A serious matter is the dipping in and out of scholars in the space. While I am more than happy to identify as an educational leadership scholar, many in the room are less so. There is a need to break down the boundaries of educational leadership and draw from a broader set of foundations in engaging with issues that go beyond any single classroom, school or community.

This breaking down of boundaries will enable scholarship to go beyond the partitioning of systems thinking, that which has led to a proliferation of de-contextualised models, frameworks.

The papers in this symposium have raised a number of issues, I thank Pat, Bob and Martin for sharing their papers, Jane and Richard for their responses, and most importantly, the dialogue today fills me with ample belief that educational leadership studies are engaging with big issues and there is much work to be done, but momentum is building.

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This week I am attending the combined Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) and New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) conference in Brisbane. To follow the conference see #AARENZARE2014

On Tuesday I am presenting a paper entitled ‘The principalship, autonomy, and after‘ (you can find a copy of the slides here). During the same session, which also includes papers from Richard Niesche (UNSW) and Howard Youngs (AUT), I am co-author on a paper with Gladys Asuga and Jill Scevak (UoN).

The central argument of my paper is that while policy rhetoric of autonomy has advanced in recent decades, the theoretical resources of educational leadership, management and administration have not. That is, we require alternate ontologies for understanding to bring educational administration theory face-to-face with contemporary challenges.

Despite work at the periphery of the discipline, for the most part, educational leadership studies have failed to move beyond the entity based thinking inherent with systems thinking. Although this enabled the partitioning of the social world and the ever expanding articulation of ‘variables’ that can be the focus of interventions, I contend that this position has reached its limits.

These ideas are further articulated in a forthcoming paper in Journal of Educational Administration and History, and in far greater detail in my latest book Educational Leadership Relationally.

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New frontiers in ELMA

Continuing a recent run of publications coming out, the papers from a forthcoming special issue of Educational Philosophy and Theory edited by myself and Colin Evers (UNSW) are now available as OnlineFirst.

This collection, which substantially builds upon a symposium at the 2012 Australian Association for Research in Education conference, includes papers from: Colin Evers and Gabriele Lakomski; Jane Wilkinson and Stephen Kemmis; Richard Niesche and Christina Gowlett; Paul Newton and Augusto Riveros; Jae Park; Stephanie Chitpin and Ken Jones; and myself.

The papers build upon the rich history of epistemological debate in educational leadership, management and administration. Despite this history of debate, including the Theory Movement, Greenfield’s intervention, Critical Theory through Bates and Forster, and natural coherentism from Evers and Lakomski, just to name a few, has in recent times such matters have been peripheral at best, and marginalised or ignored at worst.

In this special issue, we provide an elaborated and coherent discussion from fragmented discourses to deliver an innovative and provocative dialogue. Our coherence comes not from the adoption of a single theoretical lens (as is common in special issues), but rather in our engagement with epistemology, ontology and methodology. It is in the diversity of approaches taken by the contributors that as a collective we make a contribution to contemporary thought and analysis in educational leadership, management and administration theory.

Importantly, this special issue is not a critique of the field – something that is already frequent enough. Rather, our attention is devoted to sketching new possible alternatives for advancing scholarship. The choice of the plural ‘alternatives’ is deliberate and its use is to evoke the message that there is more than one way to advance knowledge. That being said, the approaches adopted across the papers we believe offer fruitful directions for the field and hopefully, will stimulate dialogue and debate in the interest of advancing knowledge.

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Educational leadership relationally

It has hit the shelves. Just in time for christmas too. Educational Leadership Relationally, the flagship book of the relational research program has been released this week.

This book gives epistemology and ontology centre stage in discussing matters of educational leadership, management and administration, something that been somewhat marginalised, if not missing, in mainstream discussion since the publication of Colin Evers and Gabriele Lakomski’s trilogy – Knowing, Exploring, and Doing Educational Administration.

Most importantly, this book provides the most extended articulation of the relational research program to date. As a reviewer of the text noted:

Eacott belongs to a group of scholars in educational administration who could be called meta-sociologist. This group blends sociology, historical revisionism, managerial theories and general philosophy to emphasise the relevance of sociological analysis in the field of educational administration. Proposing a relational turn, Eacott outlines a methodological agenda for constructing an alternative approach to educational leadership, management and administration scholarship that might be persuasive beyond the critical frontier.

The publication of Educational Leadership Relationally is not the final word on the relational program. In the coming weeks and months I will be out and about discussing the book and the scholarship behind it, and most importantly, working towards new ideas and arguments.

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Latest paper published

School leadership preparation and development is a major policy lever in developing countries. This does however pose some challenges around the importation of ideas and concepts from more developed nations. In a paper published in the latest Educational Management Administration and Leadership, Gladys Asuga and I ask questions around school leadership preparation and development in Africa.

We build our argument on two key points:

  1. the centrality of preparation programmes in our understanding of educational leadership, management and administration; and
  2. the apparent absence of interrogation of the socio-political work of constructing the research object.

What we propose is a greater need to focus on the conceptualisation of labels such as ‘leadership’ and what that means (if anything) in particular contexts. The counter, which we believe to be commonplace in research, is the confirmation or dis-confirmation of the researcher’s model of how things ought to be.

This paper is one of a number from an ongoing project asking questions of particularism and universalism in the spread of educational leadership.

The paper can be found here.

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Out and about

Early this week I was part of a symposium hosted by Richard Niesche (UNSW) entitled: The implications of school autonomy for school leadership and social justice. Other speakers included: Bob Lingard (UQ), Pat Thomson (Nottingham), Martin Thrupp (Waikato), Jane Wilkinson (Griffith), Greg Thompson (Murdoch), and Christina Gowlett (UQ). This will be followed up with a symposium at the forthcoming Australian Association for Research in Education / New Zealand Association for Research in Education conference in Brisbane later this month.

My presentation (you can find the slides here), was the latest articulation of the relational research programme (see here). In particular, my argument was that educational leadership, management and administration have long recognised the importance of context and relationships in understanding notions of leadership, autonomy, and social justice. Traditional orientations towards relational thinking have considered relationships from the standpoint of individual, independent and discrete entities. This has enabled policy rhetoric and mainstream studies to establish constructs as variables open to manipulation – the underlying generative principle of policy interventions.

In my paper I argued that adopting a relational rather than entity, ontology enables scholarship to move beyond an ontological complicity with entity thinking and challenge the spontaneous understanding of the social world advanced through everyday language. This is not about mapping the intellectual terrain with novel ideas as such an approach leaves the existing theorisations intact. Going beyond entity thinking, a relational approach makes it impossible to separate educational leadership labour from the time and space in which it occurs. Similarly, it blurs the boundaries between individualism / collectivism and structure / agency. In doing so, it provides a productive space to theorise educational leadership, autonomy and social justice.

The relational research programme is continuing the gain momentum and with the book publication date fast approaching, offers a viable alternative to mainstream research in educational leadership, management and administration.

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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 (

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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