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Aurora Institute

Leadership in Student-Centered, Equitable Learning Environments

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Barbara Treacy, Liz Glowa

Issues: Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation


Across the world, educators are transforming their schools to create more student-centered, equitable learning environments. Effective leadership is critical to the success and sustainability of this transformation. To better understand how school leadership is changing and its role in enabling, supporting and sustaining these efforts, iNACOL asked us to conduct a preliminary discovery process and to share the results with the broader community through this blog, an upcoming webinar and at the iNACOL Symposium.  

The discovery process included three core activities:

  1. An initial convening of leaders in the field at the 2016 iNACOL Symposium;
  2. An extensive literature review focused on both existing research on change leadership, as well as new and emerging research on leadership for educational transformation and learner-centered approaches; and
  3. A series of interviews with leaders from across the educational spectrum, including school, district and state leaders in a range of educational settings, faculty in education leadership programs, and leaders of nonprofit and for-profit organizations that prepare or support schools in the transition to learner-centered environments.

While a set of five research questions guided our work, this blog focuses on one of the questions. In addition, we highlight areas for further investigation and research around leadership for learner-centered learning that emerged through the discovery process.

What is essential/different about leadership in schools/learning communities that have been successful in moving forward to student-centered learning environments and in sustaining that forward movement?

There were numerous areas of leadership emphasized by interviewees and identified in the literature. Of these, we highlight eight key areas and describe each briefly with more detail and supporting statements from the convening, interviewees and the literature included in the links embedded in each title sentence here (these are not in any priority order):

    1. Leadership engages in courageous conversations and actions. Leaders challenge current practices and foster innovation through conversations and actions aligned to a compelling vision. They  listen and act on feedback while being able to withstand politics when people resist that vision. They are not afraid to take risks to improve learning for all learners.
    2. There is a shift in the leadership power dynamics and in the importance of context. Leadership is more inclusive, distributed and collaborative, rather than being delegated, top-down leadership. It is shared purposefully and in a coordinated way based on the contexts within which leaders are operating. Students are increasingly taking on meaningful leadership roles in their own learning, their learning institutions and their communities.
    3. Leadership has an intensified focus on learners and the school as a learning community. There is a culture of “we are all learners”meaning learners are students and staff, parents and other community members (to a lesser degree). All have  roles, voice and agency. Leadership creates the conditions that encourage active learning, not only amongst students but also amongst teachers and the wider school community. The attention paid to adult learning mirrors the attention that is paid to personalized student learning.  
    4. There is meaningful and substantial student and community involvement in the leadership of learning and of the organization. Leadership is very intentional and deliberate in involving the whole community  (which includes students, staff, parents, community partners) and in developing the leadership capacity across the whole school community. Because leadership is widely distributed across the school organization, there is a broad community of parents and agencies to support learning and to support and sustain the transformation of the school. Students are included in leadership and see their families acting as leaders and contributing to the school community so they feel empowered. Leadership demonstrates a keen understanding of the community and the current and historical contexts of community members and their impact on communities, families, and students.
    5. There is an increased use of quality improvement approaches in designing and implementing change and innovation, with an understanding that continuous improvement is foundational in creating and sustaining the learning community. A clear, collectively developed and accepted vision is further broken down into actions and measures of key outcomes, with processes instituted to track if the change is resulting in improvements. Leadership builds a culture that coalesces the community around supporting the vision, determining barriers to reaching the vision, and testing solutions to determine what works for whom and under what set of conditions. They work on changing the school structures, policies and roles as well as classroom practices in alignment with the strategic plan for implementing the vision and focus of the staff on deploying data informed instructional and operational practices.
    6. The increased emphasis on instruction, collaboration and communication over management requires a greater depth and breadth of knowledge and practices related to these. Leaders are shifting emphasis from a management focus to concentrate their actions, their own personal learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning. This requires in-depth knowledge of pedagogy and instructional strategies essential to student-centered learning and the importance of effective school/-home connections and how to foster them, especially when the educational cultures of school and home are different. Leaders have changed from being primarily managers to having more intentional personalized interactions with the school community around teaching and learning. They understand what data the teachers are using and how to apply that to instructional practices. Leaders leverage technology when technology suits teaching and learning goals. They have a vision for the intersection of using technology and instruction.
    7. Leaders model practices and important organizational values aligned to the vision. Leaders mentor, coach and  support learners in doing the hard work associated with learner-centered environments. They support teacher agency and teachers enabling student agency. They model a variety of the aspects of SLC tenants and realized there will be mistakes and mistakes provide opportunities for learning. They embody a growth mindset approach.
    8. Leadership recognizes and acts upon the increased importance of and need for attention to equity. Leadership focuses on the individual well being and learning of each and every student, with a commitment to securing equity and excellence. Equity is understood as an overarching goal of the transformation process. Leaders create an inclusive learning environment where all members can experience success, and traditional barriers to equity are met head-on with innovative plans. Learner-centered leaders create learning communities that value diversity and promote equity and justice for all within the learning community.

Questions For Further Exploration

Our research confirmed that transformational leadership for learner-centered learning is both building on the richness of leadership literature and practices that came before, while also opening up new and uncharted territory and identifying new questions for critical investigation. We’ve captured five of the key questions that came up multiple times across varied contexts here:

  1. How do the leadership challenges shift with each phase of the work? Leaders identified the potential differences in the skills and dispositions needed in the early phases of the work and how these may shift in later years, when the focus may be less on start-up and more on sustaining or scaling.
  2. How are equity and learner-centered learning goals intertwined and what specific leadership skills are needed to ensure inequity and diversity are addressed head-on? We were constantly reminded of the critical importance of understanding how to implement learner-centered learning in ways that are inclusive, address historically disenfranchised populations and specifically target the persistent achievement gaps.
  3. How can we build effective collaborative and distributed leadership models that strengthen learner-centered approaches? The complex and ongoing nature of the work is generating new leadership at all levels of the system and expanding demands on existing leadership. There is a need to understand how to recognize, incorporate and build capacity for leadership across all stakeholder groups including teachers, parents, community members and perhaps most-importantly, students.
  4. How do schools and leaders prioritize and balance the need for buy-in and support at the district and/or state level, particularly through changing administrations and policy shifts? With the dramatic pace of change in many of the transforming, learner-centered environments, schools and leadership are particularly challenged to maintain and engage critically needed district and state support despite so many decision makers not having experience with the models being explored.
  5. How can we build the evidence base for the specific leadership activities and competencies that directly impact learning? While there is substantial research on how leadership activities impact teachers, there remains limited research about how leadership specifically impacts students.

We are excited to engage in discussions with the iNACOL membership and broader education community about about what we learned and the questions for further research that emerged about the role of leadership in supporting learner centered approaches. We’re looking forward to speaking with you at the upcoming webinar and the iNACOL Symposium.

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