Effective school leadership for expanding learning eco-systems: challenges and opportunities

Year: 2013

Author: Walsh, Lucas

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

As schools engage with an increasingly diverse range of stakeholders and supporting organisations, a redefinition of the role of school leadership is necessary beyond conventional frames such as the management / instruction leadership dichotomy. Leaders face demands to "do more with less" while seeking to enable rich learning environments that engage young people and improve student outcomes. Schools are increasingly relying on local and extended networks of providers, stakeholders and non-government actors in their everyday operations. Teachers, support staff, administrative staff, social workers, psychologists and other health carers and so forth play a role within these networks, as well as community actors, parents and carers, brokers, business and NGOs, as well as other enablers of improved learning outcomes. Seen by some to diminish professional autonomy and authority, these enablers, brokers and funders can provide new opportunities for professional development, new models of staffing, enhancing and extending learning, as well as physical and in-kind resources for teaching and learning. In contrast to the vertical engagement of school leaders and schools with jurisdictions and policy, they represent important features of horizontal engagement within the learning environments and education ecosystems of the 21st century. The extension of learning environments beyond the classroom, in which schools are not necessarily the default locations for learning within a given community, has important implications for school leadership. Within contemporary learning ecosystems, the conventional notion of the school working in isolation gives way to one in which it becomes a "base-camp" within a broader platform of learning from which teachers and leaders engage with other key actors (such as those from the community and third sector) and other stakeholders seek to improve student outcomes (Hannon, Patton and Temperley, 2011). Web 2.0 technologies also play an increasingly important role in these environments. Horizontal engagement is a feature of high performing systems. It requires a mixture of leadership approaches, perhaps infusing management with principal leadership in a distributed leadership framework. Distributed leadership, in particular, is an emergent feature of this landscape to develop coherence across communities working in interdependent partnership to ensure school improvement (Timperley, 2011). This paper looks at the changing landscapes in which horizontal engagement takes place and the implications of these for developing school leadership. It identifies opportunities in the preparation of principals exercising greater autonomy over allocating school resources; providing hands-on experience for professional development of teachers and students through local and virtual community links; and styles of leadership suitable for horizontal engagement. Finally, given the growing complexity of the challenges confronting school leaders, the question arises as to whether their tasks and expectations can be articulated within a single profession, or within the binary of specialist versus generalist approaches.