Ed Leadership Theory for a pandemic – emotions, organisations and development.

Over the last few weeks, I have been wondering what knowledge or research might be interesting to those working in schools to help them understand what is going on right now.

I do believe knowledge of threshold concepts can help us review and revisit what we see in our environments. However, only when they don’t provide the quick wins or the answers. If youre looking for the silver bullets of leadership, turn away now. None of these provide answers.

But what they will provide is strong knowledge – well written, considerable bodies of theory that will help you to look at these perspectives a new.

Why not quick wins? Because I’m not a headteacher. I’m an academic. I’m not serving schools right now. You are. No one has the answers right now outside of generalised statements akin to “be more this and be more that”. Plus, I believe the profession is sick of quick wins – they want the meat, not the gristle. They are slowly recognising that the reality of schools as having wicked problems means solutions cannot just be transplanted from one place to another. They require undergoing a process of comprehension.

It is here where I hope to help. What I feel I can do, rather than make concrete suggestions from my lofty ivory tower, is to point you to theoretical positions and ideas that might just give you some solid lenses from which to review re comprehend the problems a new.

Question 1: How can we advance our understanding of emotion in schools.
Schools have, and always will be, hotbeds of feelings, moods and emotion. Megan Crawfords work in this is particularly insightful. As is this paper from 2018 which does a great job of explaining the differences between these often confused concepts. Both these pieces of work are excellent places to start if you want to increase your understanding of emotion and it’s relevance in schools.

Critically we all have to protect ourselves. A common addage is, at this time, we must empathise deeply with those around us. Paul Bloom argues that a more appropriate construct might be rational compassion in his book “Against Empathy”. It will transform how we think of others and how we manage when we have so many stories, emotions and perspective to take into account.

Question 2: Why is this all happening and how can I plan in light of this?
Folks, if you haven’t discovered complexity theory, it’s time to jump on the bandwagon. As a heuristic (thinking device) it can help us to re conceptualise our environment. Matt Evans is rapidly becoming one of my favourite bloggers on this and provides a great starting road into the domain. When youre ready, Hawkins and James is the next point of call. It’s a wonderful paper, but you’ll need to read it a few times (not because it’s bad, but because complexity theory takes a few goes before you get it), as is this tomb by Ralph Stacey.

Jean Boulton also then offers a more theory to practice approach which embodies complexity theory guide. But don’t skip to this. Read the theory first. You’ll get more out of the praxis guides if you do.

Question 3: Turning COVID in a developmental opportunity.
There is a lot of talk of using COVID as an individual and collective opportunity to reimagine a new way of working. To look at things afresh and to start again.

Before I go into how we might do this, I wish to share a word a word of caution about why such statements makes me nervous. There is a common misconception that is perpetuated in self help or self improvement workshops: that is, that you need to go through trauma or bad experiences in order to have fundamental growth opportunities and fundamentally shift how you view the world. For more information on what I mean by world view, see my research paper on adult ego development here.

The truth is that, whilst trauma and negative experiences do force us to question how we make sense of the world, they are a risky and dangerous mechanism for growth. For example, this paper demonstrated how life events such as divorce can lead to adult growth. However, this was only individuals with certain baseline psychological characteristics. Indeed, we forget that trauma can go wrong – it is unpredictable and can leave a whole host of complicated psychological structures severely impacted. I have no doubt that there are some individuals that come out of the back of atraumatic experiences [including yours truly] who feel that they are perhaps better for having gone through them. However, many do not. And for those that do to get the “growth” part, they have to recover from the fall out first.

So, first of all – turbulence and negative experiences do not on their own breed moments for growth.

What can support growth, however, is structure boundaries and safety. Whether or not you are looking to turn turbulence into a moment of reflection or growth, or just looking to help staff to continue to learn and grow, we need to provide safety. Providing secure, safe environments will allow individuals to explore this turbulent time as an opportunity to learn.

This means thinking about our environments and what we need them to be. A good starting point is understanding adult learning. Eleanor Drago-Severson offers a great guide to adult learning frameworks for schools and educators. I have also recently reread this paper around the concept of psychological safety and it’s relevance for school leadership and this might be useful, as is Kahn’s (2001) paper. Kahn provides an interesting read on the role of holding environments in combating this. Finally, understanding how our self systems can be compromised so readily by stress and pressure (I talk about this in a recent podcast).

So, what have I provided here? I suppose its just an elaborate reading list. Again, I make no apology for the lack of silver bullets. I do this out of respect for you and your roles in schools. And if any of this knowledge is useful, let me know.

Keep reading!

Absolute Trust in the Teaching Profession – The Real Adult Developmental Barrier.

I wanted to write a brief comment about the concept of Trust in the teaching profession. This is  a personal reflection, but has some links to Adult Development and Critical Realism too 😊

The concept of trust makes the round on edutwitter once every other week – that there should be greater trust in  teachers to make decisions for their classroom, or that headteachers should be trusted to make decisions for their schools.

It’s a very popular thing to say and a lot of commentators, professionals and academics all call for it.

The problem with trust – or what I will call “absolute trust”, that is requires you divorce yourself from arguments of the “what” and focus on the “how”.

Adult Developmental Psychologist Robert Kegan talks about the difference between content over structure:

  • content being the content of thought i.e. what you think – what you do, the decision you make
  • Structure being the reasoning behind it….the cognitive work, logic, reasoning, intent or moral and philosophical position that underpins the decision you have made.

Separating structure from content is an extremely challenging adult skills: one that does not occur until later stages of development. It ultimately requires one to recognise that (for most aspects) the structure of thought and content of thought are not a one to one correspondence. This is fancy adult development way of saying – you can come from the same place (structure) but have totally different ideas on how to get there (content).

Absolute trust is not about content – its about trusting that the underlying  structures behind the content of thought is to mean well.  We can have completely different decisions, yet have the same ‘structure’ behind them i.e. we can all want the best for children (structure) yet have different ideas behind the decision. Whether this is rules based or humanistic behaviour management; LEA or Academy trust; Knowledge or Skills.

I see many demand trust/ argue for trust and teacher/school autonomy. However, we need to recognise that, to achieve this, we need to be willing to trust the structure behind those we disagree with. We need to be extend their trust to where they are coming from (i.e. structure) ….despite having totally different ideas on what the content should be. We need to avoid stating the need to  “trust teachers” but criticise the content of peoples/groups thoughts on the assumption they have some different structure behind their decision. It is incompatible, in my view, to  criticise groups for their methods and imply there are some alternative agenda…dodgy links….inconspicuous means i.e. there is an structure behind the content that is dubious or morally/ethically questionable., and also argue to “trust teachers”. In fact, it undermines any attempt to build trust in the profession in the first place – if we cannot trust ourselves within the profession and those that carry the label of education, or teaching, why should we ask others to do the same?

Am I saying which should not be prepared to critique and question the content of thought? Absolutely not.  Am I saying that we shouldn’t be prepared to have pretty firm views on content? Again, as long as they are grounded, then go ahead. We should be prepared to challenge and debate content. This is a critical realist view on the world – knowledge is a model for an attempt to capture an external reality, and thus we should always be prepared to question our preferred model in light of new evidence or alternative models. But we will have to work exceptionally hard to ensure that this doesn’t bleed into crticising the other persons’ structure of thought – their values, their intent, their modus operandi.

We will need to recognise that just because a different decision is made, it is does not reflect on any differences in the underlying structure behind the decision. What I’m trying to say is…..we need to start with the position that, as a fellow within this profession, that they too have the best interest of the child and family at heart.

What if we have very clear evidence to the contrary – not conspiracy theory, not implied suggestion, but genuine hard fact and proof that structure (intention, moral value etc) is different from the intended aim? Fill your boots. Good luck finding it though. Structure is difficult to pick out. I’d argue most of the time…its likely you are probably operating on some assumption, or some attempt to imply structure from the content of their thought.

Absolute trust is exceptionally hard to grant and hard to maintain. As I said, we are talking about a hard adult skill to recognise, let alone achieve.  So we need to think before we say “Trust Teachers” and “Trust Leaders”: it means trusting that, as a profession, regardless of method, we are trying to operate from the same hymn sheet. And this will require hard work. Hard reflection. Hard thinking. Honesty and Humility to admit when we slip up (PS Yes I have done this too! And to those I have done this to, I am really, exceptionally sorry). Yes, content will differ – methods will differ – if we award trust on content alone, that’s when debates about content will be lost and the field will not advance…when one bleeds into the other, we go down the rabbit hole and forget to have a rationale conversation about content.

It means being prepared to extend the hand of trust, even if you are not sure. It means some really hard looking in the mirror to ask yourself “why am I challenging that group, or that person?”.

In short, trust in teachers in an easy line to trot out. Its a far harder one to see through to completion and to live by consistently.


Powerful Knowledge in the Teaching of Educational Leadership

I’m an academic that  has the privilege of both teaching and researching educational leadership. This blog is a reflection on the last 3 years teaching and designing modules in Educational Leadership at MA Level. It  has been, in part, inspired by taking on my own message that I regularly drill into my PGCE students and through the discussions with the likes of Tom Rees, Matt Evans, Claire Stoneman , Kathryn Morgan and more. That is, we should regularly stop to think about the decisions we make  about what we choose to teach, how we choose to teach it and why.

The blogs and thinking mentioned above has prompted me to reflect on what I teach and why. The what we teach and how we teach it, for me, are as important as each other. In this blog, I will focus on what knowledge I think is particularly transformative for leaders in schools.

The reason for this is because I believe great theory and knowledge is powerful. I believe this for two reasons. First, that powerful knowledge can transform a leaders approach to leadership. Second, that knowledge can promote the criticality our educational leaders need to navigate the field of educational leadership and to make it relevant for their setting.

  1. Powerful knowledge can transform leaders approach to leadership: I believe that, when taught at the right level of criticality and embedded within a developmental andragogical framework, there are theories of understanding people and organisations which can disrupt how we construct a leaders’ understanding of the world around them. Any Science Teacher trained in CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education) knows the power of threshold concepts to transform how students see Science, and how it can induce conflict into current schema. The idea is no different – powerful knowledge, in the right framework, can transform how we act and therefore how we lead our institutions and the individuals within them.
  2. To develop critical leaders, we need knowledgeable leaders. This knowledge can facilitate individuals to become active in how they consume educational leadership theory. There are some helpful educational leadership theories out there – stretching from the mainstays of Transformational, Distributed and Instructional Leadership models, to newer models such as Woods and Roberts’ Collaborative Leadership. Yet, I believe that contrasting one educational leadership theory against another is  not enough. If we really want our educational leaders to think about what it is to lead a school, we need them to work across the disciplines and think hard about their contexts. Contrasting how in educational leadership theory implicitly discusses the state of organizations, or assumes how people make decisions, gives us a different angle on the underlying theory and its nuts and bolts. Therefore, I believe a rich understanding of individuals and organisations can facilitate individuals to ask deeper, more fundamental questions behind the inherent assumptions within educational leadership theory. This promotes the critical consumption of educational leadership – not as a prescription to be followed, but as a model that needs constant review and development.

So, What is This “Powerful Knowledge”?

In asking this question, we first need to consider what leadership and management is. Leadership is about influence and management about taking responsibility. I argue that, if a leader is to have influence, they need to consider 3 aspects :

  • Individuals: how they come to make decisions and how they interpret the world around them
  • Organisations: funny things happen to people and incidents when they are in an organisational context.
  • I also believe, as Tom Rees stressed,  that we need to think more about EDUCATIONAL leadership -what is it to lead in an educational setting and what knowledge will be powerful to those who lead in schools.

Here are three relevant theories or threshold concepts that, I propose, could form part of a school leader’s powerful knowledge base. In this section,

NB Please note, that by excluding things, I am not saying that other knowledge domains aren’t important. It is just what I choose to prioritise based on my understanding of leadership and school organisations.

  1. Sense-Making

One of the most powerful knowledge bases for educational leaders, l believe, is sense-making. Sensemaking is a whole body of literature that considers how individuals actively construct their understanding of the world when situations are complex. Recent research from myself, Chris James and Sam Carr suggests that headteachers can go about this in fundamentally different ways .  The likes of Karl Weick, and well as adult developmental psychologists such as Kegan, Drago-Severson and Loevinger, and my own research in this area have acted as influential sources in understanding this process.

Understanding Sensemaking is critical for school leaders to understand. Schools themselves are complex places, which are full of wicked problems (See my paper above for greater detail on this). It is in such situations/problems where individuals have to try to comprehend the situation i.e. to Sense-make. Therefore, if leaders are going to work in places such as schools, and they wish to have influence, having knowledge of the process could be an advantage to enhancing their comprehension of others, and thus potential to influence those around them. For example:

  • Understanding sense-making means to embrace the idea that *not everyone comes to understand the world in the same way*. We know from the adult development literature,  that is it is really hard for adults to hold onto this notion!
  • It can also help adults navigate more practical aspects of influence:
    • It can support leaders in consider how their communication to others might be read,
    • how to navigate miscommunication.
    • how it is likely that collectives will try to come to understand the situation.

For example, if you are in a meeting with colleagues trying to comprehend a situation that has just happened. Disagreements over the nature of the problem, the cause and the solution will no doubt appear. Sense-making literature can explain why this is the case, how individuals come to problems differently, and how to resolve it in a way that takes advantage of the different ways of working.

Therefore, theories of sense-making  (what it is, how people engage in it) can provide a useful bank of knowledge to support leaders in both remembering the simple fact that the world is not seen universally, but also provide practical reflections on how to influence such a broad portfolio of experience.

2.Emotions within Decision Making.

Emotion does not receive enough attention. Emotion is critical for how we make decisions. Megan Crawford, Izhar Oplatka and Chris James make an excellent case for focusing on emotion here. Please note, this is not me calling for Emotional Intelligence. Far from it. I am talking about …

  • Supporting leaders to distinguish the difference between Mood (Long term), Feeling (short term) and Emotion (how we process).
  • How emotion can drive cognition. We can easily fall into the trap that our thoughts generate feelings. Yet, anyone with any understanding of CBT knows that emotion and cognition exist in a loop. Understanding emotion puts a spanner in the works of that thought is a simple linear arrow to feeling. It forces leaders to stop, reflect and think about how those around them are likely to be wor king on a response.

Why do I stress emotion for educational leaders? Because, as Megan Crawford  makes the case ,  schools present particular challenges in emotion. For example, schools are guardians of the future and the act of teaching itself can require bountiful amounts of emotional labour. Emotion isn’t a side-affect of how we think – it can drive how we think. Emotion is thus rife in school organisations and will therefore provide a key driver in how/why people do what they want to do. Through this understanding, I believe, leaders could respond more appropriately to this around them – and its in schools where this is exceptionally relevant.

For a practical situation, imagine a leader fluent in the understanding of emotion. How might they interpret or handle a situation? A parent dispute say, or a disagreement with a Head of Department over how to improve the Key Stage 3 Curriculum? Could the knowledge of emotion help leaders to empathise and, thus, communicate in a way that helps them to engage with the other person on a deeper level. I believe this could be so, at least over time and in the right framework.

3.Complexity Theory

Another powerful group of knowledge is that of organisational theory. In particular, the power of Complexity Theory. In my experience, most educational leadership theorists start with how to change organizations. However , how can we do this if we don’t question how organisations work in the first place?

This is where complexity theory is so powerful – it captures cause and effect, the formation of practice, events and ideas and fundamental principles for organisational life. Understanding and appreciating complexity can disrupt the rational, logical and linear way of thinking that underpinned so many attempts of change and how most adults come to understand the world around them. Matt Evans blog does a great job at applying this to schools and is giving great insight into how this theory can be practically applied to understand schools and can transform how they can be viewed in a totally different way (I will leave practical examples to his blog as it really is a treat!). Hawkins and James’s paper, as well as Keith Morrison’s work, are theoretical attempts to demonstrate its relevance as well.


I hope I have started to make the case for, what I consider to be, powerful knowledge in educational leadership and the role of good theory. I don’t believe we think hard enough about what theoretical knowledge can be powerful in disrupting the practices of the leaders on our programmes. I hope this little contribution is the start of a conversation.

To summarise, I believe there are many nuggets in psychology and organisational theory which can provide a strong, robust platform for shaping the mind, and therefore actions, of school leaders. However, identifying these theories need to come from a genuine understanding of what schools are like as organisations

  • the tasks and challenges that school leaders are likely to face
  • the inherent nature of education itself
  • and the nature of the people that work within them.

Thank you for your attention.