Leading the use of research in schools

drummers

source: pixabay.com @skeeze

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dan Haesler on his podcast Habits of Leadership. You can listen to the 30 minute episode here.

We talked about using research in schools and about the importance of considering our own biases, limitations, assumptions and blind spots. We discussed how we might go about questioning these and being open to changing our minds.

We talked about teachers being extremely busy with their daily work. Teachers cannot be required to do the additional work of reading peer-reviewed scientific papers or sourcing expensive academic books. Some of us choose to do this, but it certainly should not be the expectation. Schools need to think of smart and accessible ways to engage teachers in research. I shared some of the initiatives at my school, such as my termly research report, our leadership forum, encouraging staff professional reading and our research-informed professional learning groups.

We talked about data, which is ubiquitous in schools. All data can tell us something, just like all research can tell us some things and not others. High stakes testing data is one data point worth reflecting on, but it is only one indicator. Teachers need time to collaborate meaningfully around a range of data if ‘data’ is to make a difference to teaching and learning. We talked about the importance of middle leaders and teacher leaders in this work of leading and improving teaching.

Even those types of evidence considered top tier ‘best evidence’ (randomised control trials systematic reviews and quasi-experimental studies) can only show schools what has worked (somewhere, for someone), not what works or what might work. Context remains queen. As I have written on the CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) blog, schools need to ask questions of evidence such as: Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? How were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with?

We talked about leadership, including ways of leading that privilege the development of the group, rather than the celebration of the individual. In my view, when leading strategy or change in schools, we need to start with what we value (purpose and values), who we are (mission and identity) and where we want to be (strategic direction). Then we can consider how the best available evidence can help us make the best decisions for our context and community.

The artefacts of a school—such as policies and procedures—should align with the school’s purpose and beliefs. The norms of behaviour—‘how we do things around here’—should follow. It’s no good if the Senior Leadership Team is banging one drum and walking in one direction, if no-one is with them!

Leadership isn’t about a privileged few positional roles at the apex of an organisation. It is about a nourishing ecosystem of leading and learning. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge writes that “the bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise” but that “the great leader is he who the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” For me this reflects that leadership is at its core about:

  • believing in and building the capacity of those in our schools;
  • building cultures of trust where staff are simultaneously supported and challenged;
  • resourcing and supporting meaningful, productive (sometimes uncomfortable) collaboration; and
  • developing consistent, systematic, ethical protocols for evidence use and decision making.

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