Educational Leadership: Your change filters


Written by Matthew

So you are leading in an educational setting? What will you change in the hope that you will make things better? I say hope quite deliberately here of course, because the nature of change means that we can’t always know in advance that it will work as we intend it to? That is never a good reason not to change though, as we know that we haven’t got everything right in education and we must try to address this. It may be that this will be a change treadmill, as improvements that get us closer to our ideal find themselves subject to a changing society and they no longer fit our needs! But we do what we can, and we stay aware that improvement in education is as much a journey as a destination!

So what is this ideal educational solution that we are striving for? Clearly different people will have differing views about this, with choices of different school types reflecting this reality for different social, ethnic or even religious groups. I would like to strip this back a little bit and clearly identify what a leader should be striving towards in more generic terms.

  • All learners will be catered for as individuals and pathways co-created that bring them happiness and success
  • All staff running your school or team are motivated and fulfilled by what they do
  • Society gains socially and economically from what you do

These could be argued to be the “sunlit uplands” that we are climbing towards. This simple trinity of partners, if all content and able to say a clear yes to these tests, will define a very clear success. This will not be an easy place to get to. When Jacques Delors gave us his seminal report, “learning – the treasure within” back in 1996 on behalf of UNESCO, he set out the first and best international definition of the challenges that we face to create a truly modern education system in a time of frightening global change. This almost utopian vision has influenced many nations to redefine their national curricula in terms broadly defined by its 4 pillars:

  • Learning to know
  • Learning to do
  • Learning to live with others
  • Learning to be

Here in Scotland, our national Curriculum for Excellence is massively and clearly built upon the Delors report, although one of its architects, Keir Bloomer, has stated that he fears we may have lost some of the elegance and simplicity of the four pillars in translating them to the 4 “capacities”:

  • Successful learners
  • Confident individuals
  • Responsible citizens
  • Effective contributors

In 160 plus episodes of our podcast, “Inside learning” Steve Rogers and I along with our many friends and colleagues, continually asked the question, “The treasure within, are we there yet?”. Rather depressingly we never got a positive answer to this question. Indeed we brought together a live panel and audience to address this very question, and the answer was a resounding no! We might be on the foothills, but we are not on the plateau by any means. This is the challenge that educational leaders still face.

What of my three challenges? Are all learners treated as individuals in our present system? Not sufficiently I’m afraid. We still process children by age, regardless of their readiness, with huge damage done. Young people who don’t fit the academic model of schooling leave relatively unsuccessful and probably would benefit from an individual learning programme with more vocational elements. These are just two examples of where we are a long way from perfection on the first challenge. Are all staff motivated and fulfilled. At present I think it is fair to say that teachers are reporting high levels of frustration and dissatisfaction; they often report change fatigue. Is society gaining socially and economically? Obviously to some extent yes, but we are a long way from where we could be. The Wood commission report in Scotland has identified numerous major problems with how schooling and business help each other to prepare the “young workforce”. It seems clear that we still have too much unemployment and social division; so work still to be done!

So back to you, and your team, what will you do to make things better? There is a saying that always amuses me, “if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. There is a strong parallel here with leaders and challenges. The tool in question of course is not a physical one, it is the individual personality and motivation of the leader. Robert Sternberg has done some particularly useful work on the thinking styles of individuals that can shed some light on your typical response to this as a leader. Essentially, Sternberg’s book on thinking styles makes a powerful analogy with government and its functions that helps describe three main thinking styles. These three styles are the fundamental personality drives that predict the thinking approaches that an individual will be most comfortable with. These are:

Executive: People with this style will tend to be driven by practical, do-things-properly-and-well approaches. They will be most comfortable taking existing systems and paradigms and working effectively within them. They will solve problems that are set in the current structures and approaches, as well as improving on the effectiveness and efficiencies of what we currently do. This could be summarised crudely as “doing the current job as well as it can be done”.

Legislative: People with this style are broadly driven to create their own solutions. The current orthodoxies, are not as important to this style of thinker as the question, “how could this be done differently and better”? Legislative styles like to redesign processes or approaches and to set new rules or systems. This could be summarised crudely as “changing the current job to make it better”.

Judicial: People with this style are broadly driven to comment on, compare and weigh-up the way things are being done. This style is a natural commentator and critic while being neither a brilliant “doer” or a brilliant “creator”. The kind of things that people with this style like to do are almost journalistic; leading commentaries, writing papers and critiques on the strengths and weaknesses, as well as orally leading opinions and movements within teams. This could be crudely summarised as “criticising the current job and comparing it widely”.

Please note that Sternberg’s theory goes way deeper than these three styles, however these are the dominant and driving ones. They determine what you try to achieve in your thinking and so give a great starting point to honestly addressing how you will respond to leadership of teams. If you are mainly:

Executive: You will not be strongly drawn to radical change. You will be most comfortable trying to do the job even better than it is being done at present. You will tend to “drive the machine harder”, looking for better organisation, more efficiency, tighter use of successful systems to maximise their chance of success. You will try to get much more from the team by doing the accepted “right” things well.

Legislative: You will want to do things your own way, not the way that other people think the job should be done. You will want to think things through in terms of principles that are important to you and that stand up to some kind of independent thinking. You will want to design and build new structures and build buy-in and commitment to different, and in your considered view, better approaches. You will try to get more from the team by rethinking what it does to make it fundamentally better even if change is part of that.

Judicial: You will not primarily be drawn to being a doer, or a practical person. You are also unlikely to create and implement your own approaches. The likelihood is that you are not drawn strongly to leadership in practice, but instead in theory, comparing different approaches and even perhaps studying them. Either writing about or more often talking about what is strong or weak in current practice is your style. You will try to get more from the team by criticising practice, positively and negatively to encourage others to change their approaches.

So back to the “if you only have a hammer” saying. If you have an executive thinking style, every problem will look like a challenge to the current “best” practices. You will firmly believe that nothing can progress until we are better at executing well on what is accepted to be effective practice now! If you have a legislative style, you will equally firmly believe that our progress is being hampered by a lack of fundamental thinking to improve “how we work”. You will not be driven to make current practice better, you will believe that it needs to change, and you will try to develop some better approaches. If you have the Judicial style, you will have strong views on the best way forward, but you may really struggle to implement anything; in your case you should work with and through other more implementation focused people.

Of course what we have explored here is just the highest level of typical response given your style of thinking. In my next post on the subject I intend to explore this a little further.

Meantime, what do you want to achieve in your leadership, what change do you want to make for your team and when you consider this question, what filter are you looking through without necessarily even knowing it?

If you want to know a bit more the following basic questionnaire is a fun way to explore your executive, legislative or judicial tendencies as a leader. The test requires you to indicate that you are a student for some odd reason, but it will send you some interesting results:

If you want to read about Sternberg’s thinking styles model then here is the Amazon link.

Image by Jim Whitehurst under Creative Commons


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