Leading change from within: actio...
Leading change from within: action research to strengthen curriculum leadership in a primary school Carol Cardno* UNITEC Institute of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand Practitioner research lends itself to situations in which a school wishes to examine and improve practice. This is an account of one middle-sized primary school���s attempt to understand the nature of and need for a variety of forms of curriculum leadership by engaging in a facilitated action research project. Both theory and current school practice in New Zealand related to school structure and distribution of curriculum leadership were investigated. The senior management team, acting as an action research group, set out to analyse an ill-defined problem and then designed and implemented change strategies that incrementally involved all staff. The outcomes of the project for the school were context specific and immediate and are made public with the intention of offering insights into the research process and results to a wider audience who can consider the transferability of ideas in this account to their own settings. Leading change from within by embarking on action research is a challenge and a commitment for practitioners. Whilst the demands of this project are acknowledged by the practitioners themselves, they also confirm the benefits of a systematic, considered process and the opportunities for team learning implicit in this critical, constructive and collaborative approach to improving management practice. Introduction The structure of an organisation and the distribution of leadership within that structure have implications for leadership. As Southworth (2004) asserts, structures are important because they are ���processes and pathways��� for leadership and, furthermore, ���create ways of working which facilitate organizational resilience, reliability, learning and growth��� (p. 134), thus contributing to the efficiency and effectiveness of schools. Southworth���s research with small-, middle- and large-sized primary schools in England provides evidence of the place that structure plays in relation to both the espousals and the practices of the leaders of these schools. In short, one of the most significant ways in which a principal can influence the quality of teaching and learning is to ensure that the structures and processes create opportunities for leadership that enable the essential work of the school to be accomplished. This is not to say that the principal is the sole leader in the school. In *Head of School of Education, UNITEC Institute of Technology, Private Bag 92025, Auckland, New Zealand. Email: email@example.com ISSN 1363-2434 (print)/ISSN 1364-2626 (online)/06/050453-19 # 2006 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/13632430601007907 School Leadership and Management, Vol. 26, No. 5, November 2006, pp. 453 471
fact, in middle-sized to large primary schools (where student numbers could range from 300 to 800 pupils and 10 to 30 teachers) the sharing of this leadership with others is a mode of structuring that is generally prevalent in New Zealand, although there is a dearth of research knowledge regarding this phenomenon. What is known, however, is that in the period since the introduction of a self- managed school system in New Zealand at the beginning of the last decade the term ���senior management team��� has entered common usage in primary schools to describe the management structure. These self-styled teams (Cardno, 1998a) usually comprise the principal and those with designated deputy and associate principal roles. Primary schools in New Zealand have traditionally been structured according to student year levels with senior staff assigned a coordinating role for a cluster of classes commonly called a syndicate. In a middle-sized primary school, for example, the principal and deputy principal would clearly be senior or executive managers and a blurring between senior and middle management structure might be found in relation to the rest of a senior management team (SMT). Given the title of associate principal, these next-level managers are usually responsible for junior (years one and two), middle (years three and four) or senior (years five and six) syndicates. In addition to responsibilities related to the management of staff and student learning within these syndicates, these leaders and other designated staff play a key role as curriculum leaders. In this role they assume pedagogical and professional development leadership associated with a particular aspect of the broad seven-stranded national curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1993) that all primary teachers are qualified to teach. For example, a nominated curriculum leader in the school might have responsibility for Mathematics or Technology across the school. Although there is no research evidence to confirm this, the structural arrangements to enable curriculum leadership to occur have historically followed the pattern described above. Based on anecdotal evidence this is the pattern adopted uncritically by most primary schools in New Zealand however, the principal of the school in this study invited a critique of the status quo. Her leadership of change was underpinned by a wish to examine the purpose, nature and demands of curriculum leadership in the school and to make improvements in a systematic way. The whole SMTwere to be included in the project at the heart of which was their vague concern regarding the effectiveness of curriculum leadership in the school. This was typical of the sort of ill-defined, fuzzy issue that principals often put on the ���back burner��� because confronting and clarifying the problem is too daunting a task. Alternatively principals will attempt ���quick fix��� solutions to one aspect of what is, in reality, a multi- dimensional problem / a practice that often exacerbates the original underlying issue. In the case of this school, the principal admitted to practices in the past that mirrored those described above. However, in this instance she chose not to act on an instinctive wish to move quickly and superficially towards a solution that appeared to need structural change. Instead, with the team, she embarked on a far more demanding journey of investigation and action intended to secure and sustain team learning about itself (Cardno, 2002). This learning journey included thinking about process knowledge for change (that is, thinking consciously about change over a 454 C. Cardno
period of time) that could subsequently alter practice to have a positive impact on the leadership of learning (Senge, 1990). Curriculum leadership and its distribution There is a plethora of terms used to describe leadership that impacts on the core educational task in schools: teaching and learning. Instructional leadership has its origins in a North American elementary school context as well as having a significant contemporary literature that deals with both its direct and indirect application. Direct instructional leadership implies that in addition to a broad spectrum of tasks, a principal should exert a direct and primary focus on instructional matters (Duke, 1987 Weber, 1987 Wildy & Dimmock, 1993). Indirect instructional leadership is more widely focused on ���big picture��� issues that in turn impact on instructional improvement (Blase & Blase, 2000 Hallinger & Heck, 1997 Southworth, 2002, 2004). We know that the leadership of learning is a concept that goes by many names. Southworth (2002) has contributed the term learning-centred leadership yet considers that the terms educational leadership or pedagogical leadership are more commonly used in England to denote a focus on leadership concerned with teaching and learning. In New Zealand, it is the term curriculum leadership that is commonly used in practice and research in secondary schools (Cardno & Collett, 2003). As yet, little has been published on the practice of curriculum leadership by primary principals in New Zealand, although Southworth���s contribution to the theory base / albeit based on research in England / provides rich contexts with considerable similarity to systems and practices in New Zealand. An expectation held of primary and secondary school principals in New Zealand is that they are ���recognised as a curriculum leader by staff��� (Ministry of Education, 1998a, p. 29). The role of the principal has several dimensions that are specified as professional standards but primacy is awarded to the dimension of professional leadership, which for the primary principal requires that he/she demonstrates a thorough understanding of current approaches to effective teaching and learning across the curriculum. Except in the smallest of primary schools it is general practice to share or distribute this role amongst a group of staff commonly referred to as curriculum leaders (Ministry of Education, 2004). If we accept Hallinger and Heck���s (1997) notion that instructional leadership (or curriculum leadership) is likely to be more effective when it is broadly conceived and indirect, then it allows for others to participate in its enactment and for leadership to be distributed to leaders at various levels in the school. The research carried out by Blase and Blase (2000) indicates that practitioners view this kind of leadership as a blend of supervision, professional development and curriculum development, hence it is these tasks in particular that need to be delegated to appropriate others who are better placed to lead learning in a ���hands-on��� way. Consequently, the principal is then allowed to focus, as Southworth (2004) suggests, on how she/he can work on her/his Leading change from within 455