There is a substantial body of literature arguing that school leadership is a relational activity. Rarely however does this literature go beyond telling educators how to go about their work and provide resources for reflection and ongoing professional learning. This guide has been developed to support educators, and particularly school leaders, in the application of the relational approach to organizing education developed by A/Prof Scott Eacott from UNSW Sydney.
The relational approach provides a methodology for thinking differently about the world. In this guide the focus is on how the theoretical insights of the relational methodology can be mobilized by educators to lead school reform. It translates the relational methodology and theoretical resources (organizing activity, spatio-temporal conditions, and auctor) into a language that can be readily understood and applied by educators without compromising the integrity of the work.
The strength of the relational approach is that it synthesizes a substantial body of research from multiple disciplines. By not prescribing a single way to do things, the approach is applicable across all types of schools (e.g., primary, secondary, central, special purpose) and all sectors (e.g., public, catholic, independent). In doing so, the approach articulated in this guide is of use to all educators in building a basis for ongoing professional learning.
A pdf with further articulation can be accessed here.
Using the guide
This guide has been developed to support educators, and in particular school leaders, in reflecting on their practice. It is not intended as an evaluative instrument, rather as a pedagogical tool for reflection on and refinement of practice that best meets the needs of the school, communities, staff, and most importantly students. To this end, the guide can be used in two main ways.
First, it is intended to guide educators’ reflection and analysis, where educators, individually or in groups, can use the guide to analyze current activities and decision making in order to understand how these might be improved.
Second, the guide can be used to guide the planning and redesign of reform initiatives. Again, working together or individually, educators can consider how different relations (cultural, social, political, and temporal) might influence their planning in order to maximize the work of educators.
It is important to reiterate that the purpose of this guide is to support educators’ professional learning and practice. It is not intended as an evaluative instrument, rather as a pedagogical tool for reflection on and refinement of practice that best meets the needs of their school, communities, staff, and most importantly, students. Any use for evaluative purposes has the potential to undermine its value in supporting professional learning and dialogue.
Structure of the guide
This online guide is organized around five key relations (cultural, social, political, historical, and future), with each relation elaborated with a description and key reflective question. The pdf version includes a continuum of practice, notes, and suggestions.
A relational approach to organizing education
Previously, the relational approach has been articulated theoretically, and in a broader applied sense. This guide is the most comprehensive, yet accessible, articulation of how the relational approach can be used to reflect and refine practice ins schools.
The foundational ideas of the relational approach as applied to practice are:
1. Effectiveness begins with clarity
Many debates about the effectiveness of schools and/or educators come down to differences in the purpose/s of schooling. In the absence of an explicitly identified purpose means that others will assume a purpose and make judgements based on that. To this end, the first step towards effectiveness is having clarity of purpose and being able to articulate that purpose. This means that you generate the conditions / criteria in which you are assessed. It also means that others may be pursuing different purposes to you.
2. You are judged in relation to coherence
Explicitly articulating the purpose of education provides the basis from which to judge performance. That is, with clarity comes judgement based on the coherence of your activity against that purpose. Importantly, this becomes not about right / wrong and instead whether the activities of the school are consistent with the articulated purpose/s.
3. You generate the narrative for your school
Having established the purpose/s for which you are working towards and demonstrating coherence (or at least naming the criteria by which you wish to be judged) you generate the narrative for your school. This narrative need not be the same as other schools. It is not about consensus but crafting unique stories about the work of educators. Mobilizing narrative can be as content (when the story of the school is presented in a narrative form) or as a process (where the actual work of the school is constructing a narrative of learning).
Significantly, the above approach allows for reflection and refinement without the need to prescribe any one-way to go about education. As such, it recognizes that the context of every school is unique and needs to be acknowledged.
To apply this principle to the work of educators in bringing about school reform there is a need to draw attention to the web of relations at play in education. To navigate these relations and lead school improvement and change, educators must have an understanding of the cultural (educational) assumptions of their work, the value placed on their work by a diverse range of social groups, political relations within and beyond the school, and a view of the future for the school taking into account its unique history.
Understanding cultural relations involves demonstrating an understanding of the educational assumptions that guide their work. This involves using and interpreting multiple sources of information, evaluating alternate points of view, and developing a reasoned and defensible argument for action.
A high level of understanding of cultural relations involves acknowledging the many social forces which act upon practice. It requires a critical reflection to distinguish the persuasive educational assumptions which inform educational activity. While not a complete rejection of alternative ways of being (e.g. business / economic), the demonstration of a high level of understanding the cultural space is consistent with ensuring that educational principles remain central in decision making.
A low level of understanding cultural relations involves new ideas being addressed without any direct or explicit exploration of prior knowledge of the topic from within the field of school education, and without any attempt to provide relevant or key knowledge from the field that might enhance a wider understanding.
Key reflective question
Are educational principles driving this activity?
Understanding social relations involves demonstrating an understanding of the value placed on their work by a diverse range of social groups. It involves using and interpreting multiple sources of information, evaluating alternate points of view, and developing a reasoned and defensible argument for action.
A high level of understanding of social relations involves acknowledging the many social forces which act upon practice. It requires an explicit attempt to make accessible the value placed on certain symbols, practices and artifacts by diverse groups. Through the recognition of alternate values and the valuing of alternate points of view it is possible to move beyond the reproductive practices of existing power relations and provide a greater commitment to the principles of social justice. This item operates at two levels, the first is the recognition of alternate points of views and the second is valuing all positions.
A low level of understanding social relations involves little or no understanding, valuing and acceptance of knowledge, skills and understandings of diverse social groups. Social space understanding is low when diverse social groups are compared on the basis of superficial characteristics or not recognized.
Key reflective question
Have a diverse range of social groups been recognized and valued in decision making?
Understanding political relations involves demonstrating an understanding of the power relations at play within and beyond the school. It involves using and interpreting multiple sources of information, evaluating alternate points of view, and developing a reasoned and defensible argument for action.
A high level of understanding of political relations involves acknowledging the power relations in which a school operates. That is, educating is a political activity. All reform initiatives whether they are top-down systemic mandates or ground-up innovations utilize power as a means to achieve their goals. As with the cultural and the social, a high level of understanding of the political space exists when seeking to make visible the power relations at work in any activity.
A low level of understanding political relations involves an uncritical engagement with power relations. School and staff performance and reforms are represented as fact or as a body of truth and not open to interpretation. Decisions impacting on the school are viewed as static and not open to question.
Key reflective question
Who has the most to gain and lose in this activity?
Historical relations are about recognizing that any given moment represents a point in time, the product of historical and contemporary decisions and actions. Any activity represents a decision integrating both the conscious and the unconscious, based on trajectory.
In education, this historical space requires an interpretation of the ‘state of play’, and the interplay of multiple relations. Schools must critically engage with the historical developments of any initiative and focus on doing the right things at the right time. It is also equally important to know when to abandon a course of action.
A high level of understanding historical relations involves recognizing and valuing the contributions of organizational members, past and present, in relation to current practice.
A low level of understanding historical relations involves a failure to take into account the work of others previously and the impact that historical decisions and actions have on current practice.
Key reflective question
How has the history of the school been recognized in this activity?
Future relations involve demonstrating a future focus and challenging incumbent modes of operation with the unrelenting goal of creating a field leading organization.
While educational institutions often operate within large bureaucratic structures and rigid regulatory frameworks, leaders are able to move beyond the blind conformity to rules and enact leadership strategies which actively promote and support innovation.
A high understanding of future relations is evident in the moving of debates from the day-to-day operations of the school towards a desired future state. As such, it requires a focus on the future of the school through challenging incumbent practices and promoting innovation in the aim of being a field leading institution. In this case, the focus is on fundamentally changing the nature of the game.
A low level of understanding future relations involves focusing on the here and now. Attention is given to the problems / issues of today and addressing those through attention to efficiency and effectiveness. In this case, the focus is on playing the same game better.
Key reflective question
Are we offering something new or just a better (more efficient / effective) way of doing what we are currently doing?
Eacott, S. (2019). Relational inquiry in educational leadership. Singapore: Springer.
Eacott, S. (2019). What if we flipped school leadership? In D.M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.), Flip the system Australia. London: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Flip-the-System-Australia-What-Matters-in-Education/Netolicky-Andrews-Paterson/p/book/9781138367869
Eacott, S. (2018). Beyond leadership: A relational approach to organizational theory in education. Singapore: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-6568-2
Eacott, S. (2015). Educational leadership relationally: A theory and methodology for educational leadership, management and administration. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6209-911-1
Further background readings and work can be found under the Publications tab