Over the last two years, I’ve been working towards an MA in Education. I’ve studied two modules, EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy and EE813 MA Ed dissertation: leadership and management. I’ve blogged about some of my experiences of studying EE812 and studying EE813 before.
This blog post presents a vigorously edited fragment (or summary) of some of the ideas that have found their way into my EE813 dissertation.
I’m blogging this for the following reasons: (1) it has been a useful exercise to clarify my own thinking about bits of my dissertation, (2) to highlight authors and researchers that I found interesting to fellow students (with the thought that perhaps some might find them interesting too), and (3) to highlight bits of research that might be potentially useful when thinking about middle leadership and institutional change (which are the key themes of my dissertation).
Leadership and Middle leadership
One of the things I asked myself was: what is the difference between leadership and management? I like the definition provided by Morrison (2013) who writes that leadership is about setting the direction of travel whilst management can be described as “ways of ensuring the vision happens in practice”.
One really interesting paper that I’ve found is by Alan Bryman. Bryman (2007) looks at research published about effective leadership in higher education and identifies thirteen behaviours. When considered as a whole, these behaviours could be seen as a simple framework. I’ve summarised them below:
- set a clear sense of direction/vision
- prepare to facilitate the direction that has been set
- being considerate of those who are led
- ensuring fairness and integrity
- trustworthy and personal integrity
- allowing open discussion
- communicating well
- acting as credible role models
- creating a collegial work environment
- advancing cause of department/school
- providing feedback on performance
- providing resources and facilitating scholarship
- making academic appointments that enhances reputation
Another paper that I’ve found (and one that I’ve drawn on for a lot) is by someone called John De Nobile.
De Nobile (2018) presents a model of middle leadership in his paper “towards a theoretical model of middle leadership in schools”. Schools, in his context, represents high schools, but there isn’t any reason why can’t use the same model to think about other contexts.
Reading this paper helped me in a couple of ways. It enabled me to see that ‘middle leadership’ or the study of ‘middle leaders’ was a subject in its own right. It has also enabled me to understand what a ‘theory’ looks like in the area of leadership or management studies.
De Nobile’s model presents a ‘management-leadership continuum’. It suggests a number of inputs and outputs, and provides some suggestions about how different middle leader (or management) roles may be 'enacted'. He suggests that his MILS model could be “operationalised to guide further research into the way middle leaders operate, the influences that support or constrain them” (p.410). One thing that I would like to do is to ask some fellow staff tutor colleagues whether they also recognise aspects of De Nobile’s model, and whether it might be a useful tool to think about their role (but all that is for another day).
Change in higher education
When writing my dissertation for EE813, I drew on some ideas that were introduced during my study of EE812 (which, I guess, was the idea). One topic that I kept returning to time and again was the different ways in which change could be understand or conceptualised.
In EE812, I was introduced to two theorists: Fullan and Kotter.
Drawing on the EE812 module resources, Kotter presents an 8 stage change model: (1) establish a sense of urgency, (2) develop a guiding coalition, (3) create a vision of the future situation, (4) communicate the vision in different ways, (5) empower others by removing obstacles, (6) plan for and celebrate short term wins, (7) consolidate improvement and encourage the generation of further ideas, and (8) institutionalise new approaches.
Again, referencing the EE812 module materials (and my dissertation) Fullan, by contrast, presents a 10 stage model. The stages are: (1) do no assume that your vision is the one that could or should be implemented, (2) change requires those involved with implementation to work out their own meaning; a process of clarification, (3) assume that conflict and disagreement are inevitable and fundamental, (4) assume that people need pressure to change, (5) change takes time (specific innovations may take 2-3 years; institutional reform may take 5-10 years), (6) do not assume lack of implementation is outright rejection; other reasons may include time, resources or other significant concerns, (7) take steps to increase the number of people affected, (8) evolutionary planning is essential, (9) it is not possible to know everything before decisions need to be taken, (10) assume changing institutional culture is the real agenda.
Simply put, Kotter's model can be thought of a top down (or rational) approach, whereas Fullan's broadly represent a bottom up approach. With Fullan's model, there’s an acknowledgement that change is complex. This is, of course, because people are involved, which makes change (and, specifically, education change) a socially complex process.
Bringing everything together
Another paper I discovered was by Balogun and Johnson (2004) who studied how middle managers responded to institutional restructuring. An important quote that I noted was “when senior managers redesign their organisations, they need to consider the social factors alongside the other aspects of the work settings” (p.544). Also, sense checking was also considered to be necessary “during organisational change it is essential to tap into, monitor and understand the multiple interpretations that are developing among recipients” (p.545) to track the process of change. The point being that different people or groups of people can understand things in different ways.
I discovered that some authors connected together the themes of change and middle leaders. A good example of this is where Edwards-Groves et al. (2019) wrote “middle leaders are able to reframe abstract initiatives and policies and articulate them in relation to locally realised practices in real terms” (p.331). There’s an implication here that middle leaders are important since they can act as important buffers and bridges between institutional change initiatives and the situations in which they are implemented. To become buffers and bridges middle leaders need to have the time and opportunity to understand and make sense of policy changes so they can begin to constructively interpret ways in which they may be realised.
Although they were writing about secondary schools, this is something that is explored by Bennett et al. (2007) who wrote: “there needs to be scope for discovery and creation of new ways of working from the bottom-up … simply to demand a new role for middle leaders is not going to bring it into existence” (p.467) The role of middle leaders, it is argued, need to be discovered and interpreted. This takes us back to the work of Fullan, who suggests that “change requires those involved with implementation to work out their own meaning”.
One thing that has struck me from all this study is that middle leadership is (using a term from EE812) relational. In other words, it’s all about relationships and interactions between people. The power of middle leaders (and thus the ability to enact change) comes from collaboration and discussion.
All of my reading for my EE813 dissertation has been directed by the EE813 module and its predecessor, EE812. I’ve even found the time to delve into a set text for EE811 Educational leadership: agency, professional learning and change even though I haven’t studied that particular module (I was able to use 60 points of study from another institution towards my MA).
Another area that is relevant is the subject of systems thinking, which used to be featured within OU Technology postgraduate modules. Although systems thinking (as a topic) is often allied and connected with computing and information technology, it isn’t really about computers; it’s about understanding socio-technical systems. This means that it’s about understanding of human activity systems, and how different people might use and share information that might be provided by an information system. Aspects of this are touched on in the Computing undergraduate module TM353 IT systems: planning for success.
The point I’m trying to make by mentioning all this is simple: if you wish to enact change, you also need to understand that systems need to change too. This, of course, means that systems need to be understood, and that everyone who is affected by any systems change need to be involved with that change. An important starting point to look to the subject of Soft Systems Methdology (do forgive my use of a Wikipedia article in this blog)
This blog was written a week after my dissertation was submitted. I have no idea what mark I’m going to get, since I’ve never formally studied educational leadership and management before. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll get a pass.
This said, whilst a good mark would be nice, it’s always the learning that really matters, and I really do feel I’ve learnt a few things from EE812 and EE813.
Balogun, J. and Johnson, G. (2004) ‘Organizational restructuring and middle manager sensemaking’. The Academy of Management Journal, vol. 47, no. 4, pp.523-549.
Bennett, N., Woods, P., Wise, C. and Newton, W (2007). ‘Understanding of middle leadership in secondary schools: a review of empirical research’. Leadership and Management, vol. 27, no. 5, pp.453-470.
Branston, C. M., Franken, M. and Penney, D. (2015) ‘Middle leadership in higher education: a relational analysis’. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, vol. 41, no. 1, pp.128-145.
Bryman, A. (2007) ‘Effective leadership in higher education: a literature review’. Studies in Higher Education, vol. 32, no. 6, pp.693-710.
De Nobile, J. (2018) ‘Towards a theoretical model of middle leadership in schools’. School Leadership & Management, vol. 38, no. 4, pp.395-416.
Fullan, M., Cuttress, C. and Kilcher, A. (2013) ‘Educational change: implementation and continuation’, in Wise, C., Bradshaw, P. and Cartwright, M. (eds) Leading Professional Practice in Education, Sage Publications Ltd, pp.111-123.
Kotter, J. P. (1996) Leading change, Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.
Morrison, A. R. (2013) ‘Educational leadership and change: structural challenges in the implementation of a shifting paradigm’, School Leadership & Management, vol. 33, no. 4, pp.412-424
Update, 30/10/21: I got a merit for my dissertation which I was over the moon about. Had I used mixed methods, which the dissertation module was hinting at, I might have even got a distinction, but I'm really happy with what I have learnt, and what I did.