There are many people in positions of education leadership who aren’t leading and “may as well not bother clocking in for duty.” That’s according to Prof. John Hattie who says that their approaches are ineffective.
Some leaders are rare and impressive personalities who inspire, lead like champions and resemble go get ‘em corporate trailblazers “akin to the mother lode”.
But are they effective? Does high-impact and effective leadership shine, sparkle, bubble and fizz? Is it understated, loud and proud or business-like with a laser-sharp focus? See a video of John Hattie talking about instructional leadership here.
The right type of leadership
As Jo Owen says in his book, How To Lead, “we all want to find the elusive pixie dust that we can sprinkle on ourselves to turn us into glittering leaders.” If there is a formula for the alchemy of high-impact headship in relation to influencing student outcomes then we need to know.
Leadership matters and the different types of approaches a school leader employs make all the difference; as Hattie notes, “it has to be the right type of leadership.”
Hattie’s colleagues conducted a meta-analysis that compared two types of education leaders: instructional leaders and transformational leaders. They found that the impact of the former is three to four times that of the latter which Hattie says “is like the difference in punching power between Mr Bean and Chris Eubank Jr.”
The research showed that the closer educational leaders get to the nitty-gritty core business of teaching and learning, the more likely they are to have a positive impact on students’ outcomes.
Instructional leaders spend more time conducting classroom observations, constructing the shared professional confidence to empower teachers to conduct peer observations, safeguarding professional development opportunities that boost student learning and ensuring that all features of the college environment are beneficial to learning.
What the research tells us is that the leader who really cares about student learning and puts that in pole position of every discussion is the leader who has the most positive effect on outcomes.
This is the leader who works with staff and engages them in discussions about what works and what doesn’t.
This is the leader who makes evidence-based decisions and looks at which approaches are having above-average impacts. As Hattie notes, “Effective instructional leaders don't just focus on student learning. They relentlessly search out and interrogate evidence of that learning.”
The mind-set of an instructional leader is:
1. believing that student learning is about what teachers and leaders do or don’t do
2. concentrating on the impact of teaching on learning
3. setting challenging targets to maximise student outcomes
4. seeing assessment as feedback on adults’ actions
5. evaluating every staff member’s impact on student learning
6. understanding the importance of listening to students’ and teachers’ voices
Hattie notes that instructional leaders pursue the agreement of other stakeholders in the school about what comprises conclusive evidence that their school or college is truly involved and absorbed in high-impact practice.
He also notes that visible learning high-impact leaders:
1) accept errors from teachers and students and embrace them as learning opportunities. This involves shifting away from high-stakes accountability based lesson observation to low-key approaches as a springboard to promote teacher self-efficacy, trial and error and authentic teacher learning.
2) encourage teacher teamwork and partnership on assessment and lesson planning – particularly on generating learning intentions and success criteria. For Hattie, visible learners are those who are fully invested in their own learning, who can assess their own progress, who know what to do when they hit an obstacle and liaise and learn with others.
High-performing leaders see their biggest challenges are to improve teaching and learning, and they believe that their ability to develop and coach others is the most important skill of a good leader.
Base it on the evidence
Inspirational and visionary transformational leaders might have that star-dust quality to them and have a strong teacher following but according to Viviane Robinson, “positive impacts on staff do not flow through to students.” Leadership needs to be more closely connected to the accumulated evidence base on effective teaching and effective teacher learning.
The evidence is: don’t be a hero.
The bottom line: leadership focused on teaching, learning and people is critical. A highly effective school leader can have a dramatic influence on the overall academic achievement of students and instructional leadership trumps transformational leadership all day long.
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.