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21st century school leadership

Firstly to introduce myself to this forum… I am Juliette Hayes, Deputy Principal at Waikato Diocesan School for Girls. I have been researching the work of futures-focused secondary principals for a Masters thesis, and I think this is a great opportunity to share my findings and have the perspectives of leadership for the 21st century aired and shared.

In defining futures-focused leadership I explore the extent to which principals believe  that the future is a place they can influence – not necessarily predict – and that they have a responsibility to do so. On analysing interviews with principals I identified commonalities in the characteristics, challenges and strategies of futures-focused leaders.

The first characteristic, I have found, of futures-focused leaders is that they each have a clear futures-focus in their work. This means they work from a place of vision, and encourage dialogue about the future with all of their stakeholders. Examples of this include focus groups of students who learn to use futures literacy in exploring their preferred futures, reflections in assemblies and prizegivings about the trends for society in the future, inter-curricular professional learning communities of teachers where resources such as Secondary Futures trend cards are used, and constantly introducing readings and reflections on the future  into the school community.

I found that this drive to be futures-focused comes from a motivation to challenge the status quo and question assumptions about what schooling must look like. This often stems from their own disappointing experiences at school, and a determination to make learning better for the young people in their care. It also comes from a sense of moral purpose, as the principals in my study feel that their sphere of influence extends beyond the school gates, and beyond the immediate cohort of students in their school: they feel a responsibility to lead towards a better future for all children in their communities, regardless of the school they attend.

The most significant driving force for the futures-focused leaders in my study was the potential for the NZ Curriculum to change the face of education, and to provide a paradigm leap into an education for the future. Each of them is excited by its potential, and frustrated by the perceived reluctance of some educators, communities and even students to accept that it is a shift, and that change must occur.

In fact, leadership of change was identified as the biggest challenge faced by futures-focused principals. Some had endured quite vicious personal and professional attacks in the face of leading changes, yet remained remarkably resilient and determined to carry on. As reflective practitioners they all agreed that there were things they might have done differently, and it was interesting to explore with them the improved strategies that they could share, having learnt from ‘mistakes’!

As an outcome of my research I have been able to compile what I hope could be a valuable collection of strategies, tools and theories that futures-focused leaders find helpful in their work. They are determined to keep creativity and innovation at the forefront of their work, and have some exciting initiatives underway at their respective schools.

I welcome any feedback on this, the essence of my findings.

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  1. Pat Hargreaves
    | #1

    Apologies Juliette for the significant gap. I must really subscribe to the comments feed whenever I place a comment.

    Working backwards, I agree wholeheartedly that true student leadership is probably inhibited somewhat in our current systems – Toffler (Future Shock, 1970) said something about student involvement being just “rubber stamps for adult notions” or similar. I think we haven’t moved much past this. (And need to, if we are to actually transform)

    A caution though, it is an old business truism that ‘motivation does not bubble up from the bottom, it percolates down from above’.

    Transformational change, paradoxically, may require the ‘heroic’ type leader to fit our mental models (as although a principal may symbolically remove barriers such as walls – it is the long ingrained barriers inside the heads of teachers that needs to be broken down). The paradox is having that figure who holds leadership power, consistently demand that this power be taken to the point where the leader becomes redundant.

    I would suspect that your first principal example is currently working very hard indeed if trying to break down these barriers. I wonder if in any of her teams, her staff are able to see her as anything other than the ‘top dog’ as it were? It’s a difficult concept and one I struggle with – it just seems, well, foreign.

  2. Juliette
    | #2

    Hi Pat
    Your research sounds great. When Jane (Gilbert) was at our school she was discussing how curriculum innovation must be supported by equal strucutre & systems innovation – that to change / tweak / innovate in one area will not bring about transformational change without attention to the other. This did lead us to consider what educational structures we have in place that might need to shift at the same time as our curriculum.

    With regards your questions on hierarchy, it was interesting for me to find that two, in particular, of the principals in my study actively challenged standard models of leadership. One principal described much of her practice as one where she was part of a team, and worked hard to shift an engrained hierarchy in the ways tasks were delegated, decisions made, and power shared at her school. The second principal, I believe, went even further, and physically knocked down walls and moved desks to create a completely open administration floor, where he had a desk in the corner, alongside the rest of the administration. This was symbolic of the transparency of practice he sought within the entire school, and very soon there were no walls – only glass – and no separate offices that suggested a power relationship either between staff or staff and students.

    This openness and transparency of practice in building design was really obvious in the schools I visited in Melbourne last year. Lots of glass, and a real sense of a community of learners – teachers were visible and accessible to students during their non-contacts, for example.

    So I guess this leads to my wondering what role students themsleves must having in leading change towards a 21st century education, and the extent to which current systems and structures, and even the language we use in school management, inhibit true student leadership, and the potential for transformational change to come from the bottom up (assuming that students are at the bottom of the school hierarchy…)

  3. Pat Hargreaves
    | #3

    Hi Juliette,
    I’d be interested in reading the research you’re undertaking. I’m working on something similar although with more of a focus towards the concept of personalising learning and how this may effect future educational structures and provisions.
    In regard to specific school leadership, I’m curious as to how our mental models of this leadership role may tend to narrow the manner in which this may be best utilised for educational provisions.
    Schools seem to operate in a distinctly hierarchal fashion with a seemingly over reliance on the ‘top dog’.
    This suggests that unless a school gets one of the extraordinarily remarkable, chameleon of abilities, visionary, skin like leathery individuals – any shift is unlikely.

    Unless, of course, teachers were to do it for themselves.

    In which case, the leadership (in terms of leading change)would in all reality be held by teachers – as agents of change. To shift to 21c thinking, perhaps this may be a critical shift that is required in schools, to have teachers actually recognise the leadership that they should be undertaking in creating transformational shifts in education. I’d suggest that this may mean a move away from our hierarchal (and somewhat bureaucratic) systems of school management.

  4. Juliette
    | #4

    Hi Rachel
    To answer your questions about support for principals… the main source of motivation and support that the principals found outside of their schools was in self-selected networks. Each had found existing networks of like-minded people, and found these meetings and on-line discussions to be really encouraging and supportive. Also, where no network existed, they began their own. Some informal, self-established networks of professionals have continued for over 20 years. What an awesome avenue for some research into the social and professional stories of educators in long-term networks! Certainly an obstacle for some of the principals in my research was the lack of futures-thinking in some local, existing networks of principals which they were expected to join. In some cases, these networks were actually barriers to futures thinking. Each of the principals found the work of Secondary Futures – whether as a participant in discussion groups or through keeping up with the reading – to be affirming for their own practice, and several of the principals are members of international networks of educators, such as iNet (a branch of SSAT).

    The principals in my study do engage professionally outside of the education sector, often taking leadership roles in community organisations as well – perhaps as natural leaders they transfer their skills to other contexts.

    All of the principals in my study are widely read. Most had recently undertaken or completed post graduate study in educational leadership, and reported that this had really helped to shape their thinking. There were some commonalities in texts they were reading on educational leadership – Sergiovanni, Fullan, Hargreaves (A and D). Disciplining and Drafting (Gilbert & Bolstad) had been studied by all of them, and was widely used in staff discussions.

    Resilient… amazingly so. But definitely in need of support to reinforce their visions. Building support within their organisations was really difficult for some principals, especially those who were new to failing schools, where there was a sense of urgency – but for principals that’s just part of change leadership, and there are plenty of strategies for achieving that. It is support that is needed beyond school that is essential. A recommendation from my research is that greater understanding of factors affecting our future, and therefore driving the changes in schools, needs to be embraced by the community. By this I mean national government, local councils, businesses, social agencies, national principals’ networks, the media, and teacher unions – often these groups leave principals to be the only voices of futures-thinking in their communities, and react with negativity and obstacles. There is a need for greater shared responsibility for preparing young people for the world they will encounter on leaving school – a critical mass of thinking, talking and action.

  5. | #5

    Hi Juliette,
    Your research sounds really interesting and I hope to learn more about it! I was wondering whether you could see a way of developing a “thinking object” based on your work (perhaps drawing on the tools, strategies, and theories you mention?. Have a look on our “resource” page to see what I mean by “thinking object”. There is no set format for these, but they are designed to allow people to take some of the ideas from this site and “do” something with them (ie. try them out, discuss them with their peers, connect them to their own context, etc).

    I was wondering where the leaders you studied went when they needed support, energy, inspiration to sustain their motivation (particularly if they weren’t receiving support within their school or community). Did they tend to be well-networked with other future focussed leaders? Did they read widely? Did they maintain inspiring professional connections with people from outside the education sector? Or were they simply so internally resilient they didn’t need support to reinforce their visions?

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