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Key insights on strategic leadership from Linda Bendikson

 In a webinar with The Education Hub, Linda Bendikson shared the key principles of effective strategic leadership for improvement. Linda observed that, while leaders probably and rightly spend about 80% of their time managing, the other 20% of their time should be devoted to leading strategically: (narrowly) defining the opportunity to improve, acting on it, and checking the impact of the changes made to teaching and learning.  

Leadership and improvement 

Leadership is the heart of school improvement because leaders set the conditions for quality teaching to occur. A leader’s ultimate goal is high quality teaching in every classroom, and it is the systems that leaders put in place that enhance the quality of teaching. These systems might include teams of teachers working together with a leader in a cycle of working on improvement. It is important to think about improvement as a as a living thing rather than a project, and as a series of steps rather than a finite event. Be aware that factors outside the classroom (such as playground behaviour) can influence learning in the classroom. 

The inquiry learning in action model (Timperley et al.) is useful tool for improvement work, although people interpret it in different ways, and there is confusion about Teaching as Inquiry versus the improvement cycle: TAI is about the individual work of a teacher (checking what you’re doing and adjusting) while an improvement cycle is a whole team/department/school effort with a defined opportunity and a priority area that the whole team works on, learning by doing. The most effective way of working is to think about TAI being embedded within the improvement cycle.  

Getting started on improvement work 

The first step is to identify a priority. It is essential to make it student-centred by identifying the limiting factor at the student level. Then ask: 

  • What are the one or two things most preventing improvement?  
  • Will focusing on it make a significant difference for a large group of students?  
  • Have we got influence over it?  
  • Is there a level of commitment to it?  
  • Is it manageable? (don’t be afraid to take on a small problem) 

The next step after identifying an area for improvement is causal analysis, or identifying the cause of the problem. Look at all plausible explanations/ theories, choose the most likely and then look at how to address it. Also consider how to evaluate the impact of changes in the short term.  

Remember to balance shorter- and longer-term goals by looking for the first problem to attack within the broader problem. Identify patterns in the data to determine the first part of the problem, such as tackling vocabulary as the first step in addressing reading comprehension. Using short-term indicators helps to create traction and motivate people to continue working on the big problem. 

When working on improvement goals across the whole school, you can achieve join-up across the school and avoid a silo mentality by looking for individual department challenges within the wider improvement goal, and ensuring that every department has its own tools for measurement on a regular basis, such as termly student-focused milestones. Ensuring that the milestones are visible to the students motivates them to achieve them. 

The role of data and evidence in improvement 

It is important not to be overwhelmed by data, but rather to look for simple indicators of what you want to see improving. Start with a baseline and use standardised data to give you the big picture, but also find data that are easy to gather and analyse, and look for patterns. It is useful to ask: what is the shift we’re looking for, and how can we measure it in a reliable and valid way? Data meetings and conversations, where there is a collaborative working environment, the leader is part of the team, and you look at the data together, are an important part of the process. Well-structured and managed meetings support quality discussions.  

A key tool during scanning as well as the evaluation phase is student and teacher voice. Gathering student voice doesn’t need to be a big exercise like a survey: each teacher asking three students of varying levels of achievement a few well-crafted questions will provide enough data to allow you to start discerning patterns across the school. Collecting student voice should be a natural part of what all schools and teachers do, and it is important to be willing to believe the students. 

The role of external expertise in improvement 

Involving external experts in improvement work can be useful in a number of ways. They can add weight to the improvement effort by validating leaders’ arguments and can often provide more challenge than internal leaders. When identifying an external expert to work with, it is important to remember that you are looking for expertise on a problem you’ve identified, not a programme. Another way to identify external expertise is to look for good resources on the topic you’re interested in and use your network to find good experts and resources. Using easily digestible texts such as videos and short written texts is more manageable and effective than books or long texts. 

The factors associated with successful school improvement 

Recent large-scale research projects in New Zealand have identified a number of factors that contribute towards successful school improvement work. One study that looked at 30 secondary schools found that: 

  • It is vital to have a clear goal to pursue 
  • Effort and persistence over the year make all the difference, and short-term feedback makes a difference to maintaining this momentum 
  • It is important to have the right processes in place to support the goal focus 

Another smaller study found that: 

  • It is important that someone is in charge 
  • Data should be used as a starting point for problem-solving rather than as a hammer to drive home the message about the need for improvement 
  • Using identified priority learners as a focus for measuring the impact of improvement is effective: make sure you know what you’re monitoring, who’s doing it, and how you’re doing it  
  • It is the responsibility of leaders is to put the necessary processes in place to support improvement work 

To read more from Linda, see her step-by-step guide to strategic leadership in educational settings.