Principals’ decision making practices: Towards a praxis-oriented understanding

Year: 2018

Author: Wilkinson, Jane, Heikkinen, Hannu L. T., Bristol, Laurette

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper reports on the findings from a multi-site case study which explored the site-based conditions that enabled and constrained principals’ autonomous decision-making practices in Finland, Australia and Jamaica. The study aimed to: (1.) reclaim autonomy in education in neoliberal times; and (2.) promote a concept of autonomy in leadership that is based on the notion of professional praxis. Theoretically, the study is based on a notion of praxis informed by the Ancient Greeks as well as Post-Marxian philosophy. The theory of practice architectures (TPA) was applied as part of a philosophical-empirical enquiry. The TPA suggests that social practices are prefigured by varying practice conditions located in specific sites. Practices are prefigured by cultural-discursive (sayings), material-economic (doings) and social-political (relatings) arrangements.
Analysis of the data indicated that: (1) school principals’ autonomous decision making practices were prefigured by the peculiarities of the historical trajectories and ideological traditions enmeshed in the site; (2) these prefiguring arrangements in turn influenced understandings of autonomous decision making practices; and (3) even in the expression of high/low levels of autonomy when it came to principals’ decision-making there were contradictory and contested practices.
Through an analysis of the preconditions (‘practice architectures’) of educational autonomy, three different orientations to autonomy were realised. (1.) The market orientation was particularly strong in the Victoria, Australia, with individual principal and school’s interests being in contestation with more collective understandings. Nonetheless, in the principal’s desire to do the best for the diverse students in her care, glimpses of a praxis orientation could be seen. (2.) The professional orientation (or, in the European context, also understood as corporative orientation) was strongly foregrounded in the Finnish case, with the principal’s faith emerging in regard to the professional autonomy and capacity of teachers to implement the national curriculum. (3.) In Jamaica the praxis orientation was evident as an aspect of the principal’s aspiration for her practice.  There was some indication of a professional orientation and a market orientation. None of the cases could be ‘purely’ located in one orientation or another, but contradictory and contested practices were revealed across and within the sites.
The TPA framework provides scholars with a set of conceptual tools to expand understandings of autonomy in education beyond current hegemonic discourses of the market. It provides productive resources of hope that have the potential to rescue autonomy in education in ways that move the prevailing debates beyond critiques of neoliberalism.