Middle leaders as catalysts for change in schools: an active, collaborative process

Chris Brown and Louise Stoll

Over recent years, there’s been greater awareness in England of the important role middle leaders – people such as department heads, key stage leaders or pastoral leaders – can play in school improvement. Middle leaders are the key link between teachers and a school’s senior leaders. As such, they are well positioned to offer support and challenge to teachers and lead their learning both within their own school and across partner schools.

How successful they are at this, in an evidence-hungry policy environment, will depend at least partly on their capacity to engage with and share knowledge about high quality research and practice and track its impact on learning and teaching. In short, middle leaders have the potential to be catalysts for evidence-informed change.

We had the opportunity to explore this issue in a year-long R&D project, funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC’s) Knowledge Exchange Opportunities Scheme. It was carried out in partnership with Challenge Partners, a charity owned and led by a partnership of more than 250 schools across England.

Challenge Partners was concerned that many of its middle leaders didn’t know the most effective ways to share research or practice-based knowledge with peers and teachers in their own and other schools. They’re also frequently unsure as to how best to track the impact of their professional learning and interventions on their own and teachers’ practice. CP wants to help schools improve teaching and pupil outcomes by embedding a culture of sharing outstanding research-informed practice across its partnership. Our project design was intended to help Challenge Partners’ middle leaders’ network start on this journey. In an earlier blog we wrote about the project, its processes and participants. We’re now ready to start sharing some findings.

What we have learnt

Here are some of our key findings in the area of effective research use. Other findings will follow in later blogs:

1) Evidence-informed change can be powerful in partnership: In an early workshop, we asked the catalysts, working in groups, to describe in simple statements what genuine knowledge exchange between practitioners and researchers meant to them. Responses were illuminating: while some thought such exchange should be focused on having an impact on their pupils, others viewed genuine knowledge exchange between practitioners and researchers as:

most effective when approached as an active and collaborative process, which can be successfully translated into practical approaches within the classroom and wider learning community.

By the end of the project most of the catalysts had a more collaborative understanding of genuine knowledge exchange. Researchers should be partners and can also engage in genuine knowledge exchange. As one participant explained in a final interview:

I felt you weren’t ‘telling us’ what the research said but that we were exploring it and making meaning together and that was more valuable than being directed.

2) Effective research use stems from a process that’s both engaging and challenging: Catalysts’ comments about genuine knowledge exchange shine a light on ways they believe research findings can be brought to life. We see this social process, which we call knowledge animation.

Animating knowledge effectively requires protocols, tools and processes that present evidence in ways that stimulate exploration of topics and issues, deepen engagement, aid reflection, help people articulate tacit knowledge and beliefs, aid social processing and feed conversations, and stimulate collaborative learning and enquiry. Within the project our animation processes and tools were designed to help practitioners self-evaluate and audit their situation and contexts, identify problems and think about ways to resolve them, prioritise alternatives and compare approaches, plan and take action, and lead and manage change. With the catalysts, we also designed tools to track and evaluate progress and change.

One catalyst said he found this structured approach to understanding and measuring impact vital. He explained how it had helped him with other initiatives that were taking place in his school. Another catalyst’s group had been struck by the power of the message ‘start with the end in mind’ – that is, start by seriously listening to what pupils have to say about their learning and school experience. This can be seen in the spirals of enquiry model used by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser in their Networks of Inquiry and Innovation in British Columbia and associated (2013) publication. This group had built it into their impact tool. When the middle leader trialled the tool with colleagues she found that it ‘helped me avoid jumping in and kept my focus’.

Take out: In terms of evidence use, our key message is this: engagement with evidence means precisely that ­– practitioners are much less likely to gain benefit from the ‘dissemination’ of evidence from ‘experts’ than they will if the process to engage them encourages interactive collaboration that leads to reflection, challenge, improvement and change.

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council

[grant number: ES/L002043/1]

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Leadership and management, Teachers
2 comments on “Middle leaders as catalysts for change in schools: an active, collaborative process
  1. Professor Emeritus Rosemary Davis says:

    There were similar findings associated with The Junior School Project ( published for the then ILEA) by Sammons and others on the importance of Deputy Heads.

  2. Reblogged this on markquinn1968 and commented:
    Chris Brown and Louise Stoll refocus on the crucial role of middle leaders

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