Future-oriented leadership: Meeting the needs we do not yet know about

At the beginning of 2019, the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) held its annual conference in Stavanger, Norway. ICSEI is a global community which aims to influence the quality of education by providing an international forum for researchers, policy makers, and practitioners. As a follow-up to this global event, we caught up with Tony Townsend, Professor of Educational Leadership, Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Brisbane Australia, to hear his thoughts on how we can prepare educational leaders to meet future needs in an ever-changing educational context. Below we share his thoughts and experiences at ICSEI as well as an overview of some of the topics of interest from this year’s congress.

I first went to ICSEI in 1989, the second one held, in Rotterdam. Since that time, I have only missed one, when I had a hip replacement; so the conference in Stavanger, Norway in January 2019 was my 30thICSEI conference. Much of my work in the past 30 years has been associated with school effectiveness, school improvement and school leadership, so this organisation was “home” for me. I have been President of the organisation and have organised conferences for ICSEI in Australia, the USA and Scotland, while I was working in those countries. ICSEI brings together policymakers, researchers and practitioners that are interested in developing knowledge and practice that will enable improved student learning, while recognising the importance of equity and diversity. Conferences have been held all around the world and the next one, in January 2020, will be held in Marrakech, Morocco (See the conference website for additional information).

The theme of the 2019 conference, in Stavanger, Norway, was “Bringing Together – creating innovative educational policies and practices for diversity, equity and sustainability” (Conference website and full program: https://2019.icsei.net/). President of ICSEI, Professor Andy Hargreaves, outlined a few key questions for the future of education, including facing increasing complexity, developing a culture of trust and, most important for those, like me, involved in leadership, what does good school leadership in the future mean?

While most of the keynote speakers focused on academic issues, two particular speakers stood out for their unique messages, and what they mean for school leaders. Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and adjunct professor at the University of Stavanger, opened the conference, with a presentation called Providing Education and Hope to Refugee Children,which looked at the particular needs that are required when we provide emergency education; he asked the audience to reflect specifically on the fact that not all refugees are the same and that their “vulnerability is context-specific,” prompting us to consider what it might mean to educate this diverse group. 

Another keynote that stood out was that of Maggie MacDonnell, winner of the Global Teacher prize, who presented Teachers Matter: Education for Resilience, Perseverance and Reconciliation. In this, she spoke about her experiences working with a small Inuit community in northern Quebec where students have high drop-out rates, high levels of youth suicide and face many social issues. She shared a bit about the different teaching styles she has adopted (feminist, post-colonial and community development) explaining how these are aimed at enabling students to become “masters of their own destiny” through building resilience. 

My colleague, Anne Bayetto, from Flinders University, and I presented a paper called “Leader-led Improvement: Case Studies of Schools that Made a Difference,” which built upon the theme that “teachers matter.” The research, based on data collected from five case study schools in Tasmania after those schools’ leaders had undertaken a professional learning program called Principals as Literacy Leaders, showed that literacy achievement occurs best when students are provided with the necessary prerequisites to achievement (Learn more about this program in a previous blog entry here). Students must be motivated, engaged, invest time for learning, and be supported to know about how they learn best, making decisions about their learning and taking next steps, before achievement can be guaranteed. What the research tested was how school leaders went about supporting their teachers to make the changes to their teaching practice and to their own professional learning approaches in order for these things to happen. We found that these things can best be supported by what we called a “Leadership for Learning” approach to leadership, where ultimately everyone in the school could be a learner, a teacher and a leader within particular contexts (for more details, see John Macbeath’s chapter in my forthcoming edited book Leading Learning in Schools: Instructional Leadership and Leadership for Learning, published by Palgrave later this year). Ultimately, if principals were seen as the “leaders of schools”, then classroom teachers could be seen as “leaders of classroom learning” with the ultimate aim of students being able to become “leaders of their own learning.” A corollary to this is that the chief learner in the school has to be the principal.

These presentations together showed that teachers must be more than just conveyers of knowledge and behaviour management experts. For many students, academic progress is the icing on the cake, not the whole cake. Our presentation suggested that school leadership in the future must focus on broad, rather than narrow, conceptions of what students might learn to be successful as adults, must consider the specific context of schools and the varied communities they serve, and must draw on all the resources of the school community, if schools are going to be successful at their underlying goal of educating every student to high levels.

We thank Tony Townsend for his insight on strong educational leadership and preparing for the future. However, we also raise this question to our blog readers, how can we prepare our leaders for the needs we do not yet know about? Is the Leadership for Learning approach the right way to go? We look forward to diving into this further in future posts as well as hearing your thoughts.

Meet Tony Townsend: https://globaledleadership.org/professor-tony-townsend/

And speaking of the future, as Tony mentioned, the next ICSEI Conference will be in Morocco in January 2020. We hope to see you there!

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