Leaders for learning

by Montserrat Gomendio
Deputy Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

The success of the Olympic games this year has been thrilling to watch, with the coaches of different teams playing a widely recognised role. As leaders with a vision, coaches choose the members of their teams, assign roles, train and support athletes. In the same way, leaders in all fields are recognised as having a huge responsibility in the success or failure of their teams.

The role that is expected of school principals varies enormously, and the consequences of different leadership styles remain unclear. Should school leaders focus on administration, on curriculum and teaching related tasks, on the support and professional development of teachers, or on a combination of all of the above? What kind of training is needed to become a school principal? What type of decision making is more effective: a leader with the vision to integrate all actors or a distributed system in which most decisions are shared?

This is the school leader profile that the recent OECD report, School Leadership for Learning: Insights from TALIS 2013, using the results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013, has sought to identify.  

Using data about principals, the report examined how school leaders share instructional leadership (principals’ practices related to the improvement of teaching and learning within school) and distributed leadership (the ability of schools to incorporate different stakeholders into decision-making processes). Most principals engage in one form of instructional leadership, but about one third do not actively support these actions, highlighting that further stimulation of leadership for learning is needed. For distributed leadership, most systems incorporate teachers into school decision-making processes, but the opportunities offered to parents/guardians and students to actively participate in school decisions differ. Given the complexity and dynamics of educational change, these subtle differences in engaging additional stakeholders in the decision-making process could represent important differences in the quality of educational processes that take place within schools.

Leadership practices are related to building capacity for quality instruction, and the OECD report explores the relationship between instructional and distributed leadership and the establishment of professional learning communities; a structure that allows teachers to collaborate and engage in dialogue with the aim of improving their practice. Professional learning communities are measured through five indicators including teacher engagement in reflective dialogue, a shared sense of purpose, engagement in collaborative activity, among others.*

Principals who show greater instructional leadership work in schools where teachers are more engaged in reflective dialogue and collaboration in primary and lower secondary education. This may indicate that principals’ efforts to develop co-operation and promote a sense of responsibility in teachers affect teacher collaboration. Distributed leadership is also positively related to a shared sense of purpose in the school. This finding, which is seen across all educational levels, suggests that involving students and their parents/guardians, along with staff, creates a culture of shared responsibility for school issues.

Instructional and distributed leadership are related to the development of different indicators of professional learning communities. Some school leaders mainly rely on instructional leadership while only partly involving other stakeholders in decision-making processes, and some rely heavily on the participation of other stakeholders. The results of the School Leadership for Learning report show that combining instructional and distributed leadership, and using student outcomes to develop the school’s goals, programme and professional development plan, appears to be the most favourable approach to establishing a professional learning community within a school. For developing these communities, a more integrated role for the school leader seems appropriate.

The role of the school leader is essential for pupil and staff success, and although good practice exists, there is still room for improvement. This could be achieved through professional development activities that encourage principals to follow developments in their field, and help them to understand their role as a school leader. 

For more details about these results, please see the new Teaching in Focus brief: “School Leadership for developing Professional Learning Communities”.

School Leadership for Learning: Insights from TALIS 2013
Teaching in Focus No. 15: School Leadership for developing Professional Learning Communities, by Pablo Fraser
La direction d’établissement : un atout pour le développement des communautés d’apprentissage professionnel, par Pablo Fraser
TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning
For more on the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS): http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/talis.htm
Photo credit: Teacher Helping Pupils Studying At Desks In Classroom @Fotolia
*To observe the additional indicators of professional learning communities please refer to the School Leadership for Learning” report

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