Running a school today is a complex affair. And it’s not just the responsibility of school administrators and leaders. Even teachers are expected to take up the mantle of leadership. Professor Clive Dimmock gives us a summary of what we know and don’t know about leadership and how that relates to teaching and learning.
The last 20 years have seen a remarkable turnaround in the acceptance and authenticity of research results showing connections between leadership and improvement of student outcomes.
What We Know
We now have evidence confirming that leadership can make a considerable difference to the learning and achievement of students (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008). Leithwood (2006), for example, reports that of all the school factors contributing to student learning, leadership comes second only to the quality of teaching in its effect.
For leadership to contribute to learning outcomes, it needs to be of a certain type and conform to certain dimensions. Here are some of the things researchers have found:
- Leadership must focus on teaching and learning, rather than just on other administrative and management tasks. This form of leadership is traditionally called instructional leadership. Other names include learning-centred leadership (Dimmock, 2000), leadership for learning, or leadership of teaching and learning.
- Leadership appears to have greater effects on teaching and learning if it is not monopolized by the principal, but distributed across other senior- and middle-level leaders in school, even teachers (Leithwood, 2006). In other words, leadership makes a larger contribution to teaching and learning if it is seen as a process that can be grown, shared and distributed.
- For leadership to be effective in improving student learning, it matters what practices principals and other school leaders focus on, even within the instructional domain. For example, it was traditionally thought that time spent by the principal in classrooms, or the number of visits made by the principal to classrooms, is an effective instructional practice. Recent evidence suggests, however, that it is what the leader does qualitatively as a result of classroom visits – particularly in terms of evaluating and giving positive feedback to teachers – that really matters, not the time spent.
- The higher the hierarchical position of the leader, the greater the likelihood that effects on teaching and learning will be indirect. The converse is also true: the lower the hierarchical position of the leader, that is, the closer they are to the class, the more direct the effects of instructional leadership.
- Of all the leadership practices, the largest effect on student outcomes, according to Robinson et al. (2008), is “promoting and participating in teacher learning and development”. This is followed by two other practices: “establishing goals and expectations” and “planning, co-ordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum”.
- Research on principal leadership confirms mostly small, indirect effects on student outcomes (Hallinger & Heck, 1998). The leadership practices with greatest effect on student achievement were: “establishing shared academic goals”, “building social networks and structures that enable goal achievement”, “being directly involved in instructional supervision and support”, “building teacher capacity and providing high quality teacher learning”, “caring for staff as individuals”, and having “good problem-solving and conflict resolution skills”.
What We Don’t Know
If we aim to maximize the efficacy of leadership practices on student outcomes, then we need to clarify which leadership practices strongly connect to specific effective teaching and learning behaviours. Research designs that focus on, and measure, those particular leadership practices are thus needed.
These are some of the areas where we need to devote more research effort:
- Although we are confident that the more leadership is distributed in schools, the larger is its effect on student achievement, research is still in its infancy as to what form distributed leadership should take.
- Research evidence points to “promoting and participating in teacher learning and development” being the most important leadership influence on student outcomes. One way in which this might be done is through professional learning communities. But what form and composition should they take? How should they function? Are some forms more effective than others?
- Generally, it seems clear that leadership effects are mediated through teachers and teaching to improve student learning and outcomes. A key implication is how leaders motivate and inspire teachers to improve the quality of their teaching. Leader motivation of teachers is thus an important and promising area for further research.
- The relative absence of leadership research cross-culturally – and in Asia, specifically – means we have little idea whether the positive effects of processes such as distributed leadership apply equally to traditionally hierarchical cultures and organizational structures such as those found in Singapore. And if it does, how does the form of leadership need to change in order to accommodate Singaporean and Asian cultures?
Leadership research in Singapore schools to date has been largely non-existent. It is for this reason that NIE hopes to launch a major research programme this year.
Dimmock, C. (2000). Designing the learning-centred school: A cross-cultural perspective. London: Falmer Press.
Hallinger, P., & Heck, R. (1998). Exploring the principal’s contribution to school effectiveness: 1980-1995. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 9(2), 157-191.
Leithwood, K., (2006). Seven strong claims about successful leadership. Nottingham: National College for School Leadership.
Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership type. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(5), 635-674.