Is this the best bet for improving educational leadership?

When it comes to helping school leaders get better at their jobs, there are no silver bullets. But there may be best bets.

I’m constantly on the lookout for these best bets because, as a headteacher, one of my fundamental roles is to make those around me more effective. But in what direction do I point them? What advice might I give?

In 2021, an academic paper was published which I think points us towards what one of the best bets for raising standards of school leadership might be. The authors include two academics who are high in my estimation: Viviane Robinson and Claire Sinnema. The paper is titled ‘Educational leaders’ problem-solving for educational improvement: Belief validity testing in conversations‘. I keep coming back to it. In this post I will briefly summarise the claims made by the paper. This isn’t my usual approach to blogging, but this paper warrants scrutiny and wider reading.

Problem solving capability as a best bet

The authors of this paper assert that educational leaders’ effectiveness in solving problems is central to school and system-level improvement in educational outcomes. Underpinning leaders’ attempts to solve problems are three types of beliefs – ‘beliefs about the nature of the problem, about what causes it, and about how to solve it’. The validity of these beliefs, they argue, is fundamental to success in problem solving. Therefore, validity testing behaviours are central to leadership effectiveness.

These claims resonate with me and reflect my experience of school improvement. Leaders’ efforts to secure improvement are most effective when they have a realistic and accurate understanding of what needs to improve and of the complex interplay between causes, circumstances and possible action. Conversely, I have witnessed many improvement efforts stumble when leaders make assumptions about the nature of the problem, what causes it, and about how to solve it, which later turn out to be false or partial. Time taken to test the validity of these assumptions almost always pays off.

Advocating problem solving can be risky if there is the illusion of certainty. Where the problem is assumed to be simple and known when it is neither, leaders adopt ‘plans’ to be ‘implemented’. The leader is both the author of the problem definition and the prescriber of the solution. However, what is advocated in this paper is akin to a hypothesis testing approach to school improvement whereby theories are provisional and solutions are co-constructed. The appropriateness of this approach is justifiable only because of the nature of the problems school leaders are confronted with.

The nature of educational problems

Sinnema et al describe many educational problems as being ill-structured and the approach to solving them as a fundamentally social process. These two features mean that validity testing behaviours are all the more important.

Educational problems are often poorly defined, complex, adaptive, and rarely routine. These problems can be ‘construed in various ways’ and there is little agreement as to what ‘counts as a good solution’. In other words, it is often difficult to say exactly what the problem is, to know what expertise to bring to bear on it, or to obtain accurate and timely information.

The authors go on to point out the social nature of the way these problems are solved, with multiple people ‘involved in defining, explaining, and solving any given problem’. This requires that diverse perspectives must be reconciled to ensure the commitment of those involved in enacting solutions and to identify the most effective solutions. Such social activity requires high trust, a facet we shall return to later.

Empirical research into leaders’ problem solving capability illustrates the way ‘expert’ school leaders perceive unstructured problems as manageable and have come to terms with the ill-structured nature of educational problems, finding them less stressful than novice leaders. Expert leaders tend to consult extensively and hold more productive discussions about problems. They have become comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity and are biased towards social approaches to problem solving. A leader’s ability to engage with others to explore problems is central to the quality of problem solving efforts.

Where problem solving goes wrong

The research carried out by Sinnema and her colleagues suggests that school leaders often avoid:

  • discussing the causes of problems
  • taking an inquiry approach (tending instead towards advocacy)
  • disagreements
  • exploring the logic between solutions and problem causes.

These avoidant behaviours are problematic because they prevent school leaders from testing the validity of their beliefs about the nature of the problem, the causes of the problem, and possible solutions.

There are numerous reasons for this avoidant behaviour. Leaders may wish to avoid negative emotion and confrontation. Or they may have made judgements about an individual’s intentions, attitudes, or motivations, or the role they play in the problem, which they find difficult voicing in a constructive way. Alternatively, leaders may be overconfident in their assessment of the problem or their ability to identify a solution. Sinnema et al found that school leaders are least likely to explore their beliefs about problem causes, tending instead towards unjustified advocacy of solutions.

The consequence of the above is that solutions may be based only on ‘what is discussable’.

Constructive problem solving conversations

The contention of this paper is that improving the quality of problem solving conversations will improve the validity of school leaders’ beliefs and therefore the effectiveness of their problem solving efforts. The key habit advocated is to ‘test, not assume’. The primary purpose, therefore, of interactions is validity testing.

So, how do we promote more effective problem solving conversations? I will provide a brief answer to this questions here, but recommend a full reading of the paper.

The paper draws on the work of Argyris and Schon to describe the values that leaders must possess. First, leaders should be ‘truth-seekers rather than truth claimers’ by being open-minded and seeking out information that refutes, rather than confirms, their beliefs. Second, leaders must listen respectfully to views that differ from their own. Third, leaders must value fostering internal commitment of teachers towards a course of action, which can only be gained when their concerns have been listened to and directly addressed.

School leaders must be prepared to be candid and honest with those they interact with, whilst being willing to deal with the emotions that are surfaced by such encounters (and be prepared for such candidness in return). If the goal is to validity test beliefs, then these beliefs must be disclosed ‘in ways that makes the grounds for the belief testable and open to revision’.

Disclosure is the first of five validity testing behaviours which support such conversations, as follows:

  1. Disclosing beliefs: all information believed to be relevant to the problem is shared, ‘including that which might trigger an emotional reaction’.
  2. Providing grounds: setting out the reasoning which led to these beliefs such that they can be tested and ‘inviting others to do the same’.
  3. Exploring difference: inquiring into differences in beliefs and the grounds for them.
  4. Examining logic: a joint exploration of the logic that links the causes of the problem to its proposed solution.
  5. Seeking agreement: ‘warranted’ agreement about problem beliefs i.e. agreement that has been reached through a deep understanding of the problem and not through persuasion.

These behaviours are observable and open to deliberate practice. They provide a framework for improving leaders’ problem solving conversations and thus their effectiveness in generating solutions.

Trust as a biproduct of problem solving

If problem solving conversations are carried out skillfully and in line with the values described, the authors argue, not only will there be progress on the task at hand but also an improvement in relationship between those in the conversation. ‘Relational trust’ is enhanced rather than eroded through the process of school improvement, which more manageralialist approaches fail to achieve. This approach recognises the interdependence of school leaders and teachers in solving educational problems and avoids controlling behaviours by those ‘in charge’.

High trust approaches are more likely to succeed as school leaders are inevitably dependent on teachers to deliver educational solutions in an environment where leaders have little direct influence over everyday activities within classrooms.

Conversational moments and educational improvement

One of the things I admire about this paper is its scope. It makes bold claims about the nature of educational change whilst pinpointing quite specific human behaviours underpinning everyday interactions as being at the heart of this change. It paints a portrait of the education system as complex and untamable whilst providing simple and specific mechanisms by which to influence it.

Early on, the paper makes a case for how ‘conversational moments’ influence and are influenced by macro level educational problems, drawing on ecological systems theory. The authors employ a nested model of educational problem solving which recognises the complexities, uncertainties and interdependencies in the system. It asks that we value every interaction as a moment which contributes towards moving the system from its current state to its desired state. This gap is the very definition of the ‘problem’, and closing it, we are assured, is within our reach.

Perhaps this paper speaks to me because it describes an environment I recognise; one that is full of wicked problems and contestable propositions. Perhaps it speaks to me because it acknowledges the social nature of problem solving within schools.

The avoidant behaviours described are familiar to me – embarrassingly so. The values espoused are mine. The mechanisms proposed are intuitively appealing and within reach. For all these reasons I find myself advocating the validity testing behaviours described within its pages as one of the ‘best bets’ for improving school leadership. If there is a better bet, let me know.

Sinnema, C., Meyer, F., Le Fevre, D. et al. Educational leaders’ problem-solving for educational improvement: Belief validity testing in conversations. J Educ Change (2021).

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