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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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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