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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Lead Learner or Instructional Leader? Does It Matter?

By Peter DeWitt — April 27, 2015 4 min read
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There seems to a be some debate happening in educational leadership circles and it centers around the title of “lead learner” and “instructional leader.” At times I feel like the debate is very silly, and other times I think it has some deep implications.

At one end is the silliness of it all. It’s a name! Lead learner or instructional leaders are the names we use to prove that we care more about instruction and learning than we do about being a manager. However, whether we like it or not, there are times when principals and superintendents have to be managers. It’s the balance we find in it all that matters.

On the other hand, I think the name has some deep implications, because it makes me wonder whether the teachers who work in the buildings of people who refer to themselves as lead learners or instructional leaders actually believe their principal is worthy of that title? Or do they scream, “Help! My Principal Thinks They Are An Instructional Leader!

In a recent blog suggesting 3 reasons why faculty meetings are a waste of time, 500 teachers answered a survey at the end. That survey showed that 82% of respondents believe that their faculty meetings were a waste of time, and 85% of respondents answered that their principals do not co-construct faculty meetings with staff.

I wonder if any of those principals refer to themselves as instructional leaders or lead learners?

I have had the privilege to get to know so many thoughtful, encouraging, and inspiring leaders through Twitter, and I have no doubt that the staff they work with believe that they are lead learners or instructional leaders. However, one of those friends inspired me to reflect on what all of this means.

Jenny Nauman, a friend and an excellent leader, recently posted a blog about instructional leadership and lead learning. In the blog, Jenny wrote,

Does it mean that the Principal of the school has to be the expert in content and pedagogy in every subject and every grade that is taught in his/her school? Does it mean that the Principal must stay abreast of every new educational trend and piece of legislation that may effect his/her school or students or teachers? OR Does it mean that the Principal must be the "Lead Learner" of his/her building and always focus on getting and being better?

Nauman goes on to write,

While the first two are interesting, they are certainly not completely attainable. As an Elementary Principal, I could never be an expert in music class (I am completely tone def and sing like a stuck pig) OR could never keep abreast of every new trend (our field changes daily with many conflicting views), but I certainly can and will try! However, I do feel it is my duty as a Principal to be a Lead Learner: to be open and willing to learn DAILY (if not hourly), seek out professional development for my self and those around me, take LOTS of risks and encourage others to do the same.

For full disclosure, I prefer instructional leader over lead learner, and I think Jenny embodies both. Perhaps it’s just semantics, but I never felt like I was the lead learner in the school where I was principal. There were teachers, and many teacher’s aides and assistants, who were just as inspired to take the lead on learning than I ever did. But, Jenny certainly has me reflecting on what instructional leadership means.

Know Thy Impact

Working with John Hattie over the last year or so has taught me that we don’t talk enough about learning and often get caught up in the “politics of distraction” which are the adult issues within the field of education (i.e. unions, prep time, etc.). This lead learning vs. instructional leadership debate is about both. For some, the idea of the title is real and it centers around learning. For others, it’s about trying to create some new title for themselves without much depth of learning to go with it.

Personally, I do not believe content knowledge is as important because Hattie has collected research to show that the effect size of subject-matter knowledge is low. The difference between expert teachers and experienced ones was not the subject-matter knowledge they had, but what they did with that knowledge, which is where expert teachers held a higher advantage.

The same goes with leaders. They cannot possibly have deep subject-matter knowledge in every subject, but what they do with the knowledge they have, as well as how they approach observations and faculty meetings (as professional development sessions) is what is important. Instructional leaders use faculty meetings, observations and other building level structures to collaborate with staff and move forward in the best possible way.

When studying leadership, Hattie’s research showed that leadership has an effect size of .39, which is directly under the “Hinge Point” of .40. However, when using moderators it showed that transformational leadership has an effect size of .11 and instructional leadership has an effect size of .42. Lead learning was not found or discussed in the research.

According to Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe (2008) the effects were strongest on:

  • Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development (.84)
  • Establishing goals and expectations (.42)
  • Planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum (.42)
  • Aligning resource selection and allocation to priority teaching goals (.31)
  • Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment (.27)

Whether it is called “Lead Learning” or “Instructional Leadership” doesn’t matter as much as the impact it all has on the learning that students and teachers do in school and outside of the school walls. Hattie asks to “Know Thy Impact” and I think that sometimes leaders think they have a larger impact than they really do. Over 80% of teachers in a random sample believe that their leaders do not want their involvement in one of the most important structures that we have in our schools, which is our faculty meetings. And they don’t believe their faculty meetings mirror professional development sessions.

There is a disconnect happening where learning and leadership are concerned. This involves more than just faculty meetings, but the way we think we communicate. Working with one large school district, I asked leaders what they learned from observing their teachers, and one thing their teachers learned from them. Through the use of a social media tool, the leaders began posting these great statements for all to see, and yet when I looked at the observation forms the teachers received, the note section was blank. The most important part of the observation, which is the part the teacher walks away with, was blank.

We can call ourselves lead learners or instructional leaders but do our actions speak louder than our words?

Argue with Peter about lead learning and instructional leadership on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.