Leadership Dilemmas of Hong Kong Principals: Sources, Perceptions and Outcomes
Walker, Allan, Dimmock, Clive, Australian Journal of Education
With restructuring characterising many school systems throughout the world, and major change leaving few schools untouched, school leaders are facing major challenges. This study focuses on a group of Hong Kong principals who conceptualise some of their challenges as dilemmas. The paper draws on previous literature to highlight the importance of articulating principals' perceptions of dilemmas in their daily lives, and identifies typologies and categories of dilemmas. It notes that dilemma research to date is grounded in Western examples and cultural settings, and that dilemmas faced by principals in non-Western settings have been ignored. Analysing dilemma situations recounted by Hong Kong principals, we identify the sources, coping mechanisms and outcomes of their dilemmas and examine the relationships between these phenomena. Among our findings are that dilemmas are multifaceted and irresolvable situations, and that principals tend to rely on a narrow range of deeply embedded Chinese cultural values as coping strategies.
Schools throughout the world operate in an increasingly complex and confusing environment. School leaders in particular are exposed to the problems, paradoxes and dilemmas associated with shifting educational landscapes. Recent research into the dilemmas faced by school principals presents a picture of leaders torn between opposite, often contradictory directions, as their roles become less circumscribed and more subject to debate in times of societal change (Dimmock, 1996; Walker & Quong, 1998). It is therefore unsurprising that calls are being made for more insightful approaches for understanding how school leaders make sense of, and manage, their work lives (Dimmock & O'Donoghue, 1997). One way of accomplishing this is to invite principals to conceptualise their working lives in terms of the dilemmas they face. Although a small but growing body of research on how principals perceive their lives in terms of dilemmas has recently begun to appear, such work has to date been restricted to the study of principals in Western countries. Little if any research has been conducted on whether and how school leaders in other cultural contexts perceive their work lives in terms of dilemmas. Accordingly this study attempts to redress this situation through mapping the perceptions of a small number of school leaders for whom dilemmas figure significantly in their work lives in the Asian setting of Hong Kong.
The concept of leadership dilemmas is introduced in the context of emerging research literature on cognitive dimensions of educational administration. Existing literature is referenced in conceptions of dilemmas exclusively from Western cultural paradigms, thereby ignoring dilemmas faced by principals in non Western settings. We then report on a study which identifies the dilemmas experienced by a group of Hong Kong principals. By using a framework generated in part by inductive analysis, dilemma situations recounted by these school leaders are analysed, their sources, coping mechanisms and outcomes are identified, and the relationships between these phenomena are examined.
Contemporary interest in studying dilemmas pertaining to the principalship stems from at least three interrelated sources. The first is an accepted recognition that schools are not rational organisations. Traditional conceptions of schools and school life tend to underestimate the reality of individual differences in values, goals, interests, motivations and understandings of the organisations in which they work and of their roles. The second stimulus for studying principalship dilemmas is the multitude of reforms influencing schools over the last decade. Dimmock (1996) and Cuban (1994) hold that unless we can gain a practical understanding of values conflicts `deeply rooted' in the work of principals, as well as the ways in which they have learned to manage these, schools are unlikely to engage in sustainable reform. Both authors advocate further analysis of dilemmas as a way of probing principals' own cognition, or their `perception of the social and political frames within which they work' (Dimmock, 1996, p. 140; cf. Hallinger, Leithwood, & Murphy, 1993).
A third justification for advocating the study of principal dilemmas is the increased emphasis on values and values conflicts in educational administration (Begley, 1996; Campbell-Evans, 1993; Greenfield & Ribbins, 1993). Begley and Johansson (1997) explicate the values perspective in the following way:
School administrators increasingly encounter situations where consensus cannot be achieved. In some respects, this renders obsolete the traditional rational notions of problem solving because administrators must respond to values conflict situations that arise, but there may be no solution possible that will satisfy all (p.5).
In our schema, such values conflict situations are classified as dilemmas and are investigated by using an inductively developed framework.
Dilemma analysis seeks to gain insight into how principals make sense of, conceptualise and approach the difficulties, contradictions and problems they face in leading schools. Research into this area is relatively recent and has moved towards a better understanding of how principals construct knowledge within their particular contexts (Heck & Hallinger, 1997).
Dilemma analysis in context:Alternative approaches to understanding principalship problem solving and sense making
Dilemma analysis is one way of investigating how principals make sense of and approach difficult situations in their work lives. How principals approach problem solving has long been of interest to researchers and organisational theorists. Early attempts to investigate principal problem solving employed rational decision-making frameworks and relied heavily on positivist methodologies. As understanding and sophistication increased, researchers widened the net of perspectives, frameworks, and methods for studying the principalship; these included multiple variations of the classical rational model, and expanded to include political and micro-political perspectives. While recognising the existence of multiple perspectives on leadership problem solving, we do not attempt to discuss these here. Rather we move to discuss emerging cognitive perspectives on the study of educational administration which we regard as complementary to our dilemmas approach to understanding an important part of the work lives of Hong Kong principals.
Duke (1996) divides cognitive perspectives on educational leadership research into two distinct strands. The first is represented by Gardner's (1995) investigation into how the mind influences ideas and thinking. The other, which relates more directly to our approach, is best represented by Leithwood's (1995) interest in how leaders solve problems and arrive at decisions. Such studies attempt to account for contextual influences on cognition and stress that values pervade the process of problem solving (Heck & Hallinger, 1997). Within this emerging tradition, researchers (e.g. Begley, 1996; Begley &Johansson, 1997) have concentrated on the relationship between social cognition and values, and principals' problem solving and decision making (Hallinger & Heck, 1996). Leithwood's (1995) work, for example, conceptualises principals as problem finders and problem solvers. Cognitive perspectives emphasise the importance of values, and their origins, in making leadership choices. Work examining the place, role, influence, and effect of educational leaders' values on school operation has been widely investigated (for example, see: Begley & Leithwood, 1990; Walker, 1997). According to Leithwood (1995) cognitive research into the principalship is grounded in `how the mind works in terms of hypothetical structures and relationships explaining why people attend to some aspects of the information available to them in their environments' (p. 118). In short, it is rooted in how principals think about practice.
Cognate research has investigated the categorisation and resolution of values conflicts faced by school principals. One such approach (Leithwood, Begley, & Cousins, 1994) posits that school leaders encounter two general types of values conflicts. The first type involves contention between two or more values `for recognition in the formulation of a solution' (p. 108). Within this category, values conflicts take three different forms: conflicts between two or more people other than the principal; conflicts between the principal and other staff; and values conflict concerning the principal alone. The second general source of values conflict occurs between the principal's own strongly held values and actions. This is manifest in a principal's inability to act in a manner consistent with his or her own values. According to Leithwood, Begley, & Cousins (1994) principals resolve values conflicts, formally or informally, either through what they call `deep and strong' ways--for example, careful explanation and referral to formal organisational procedures (typically used by expert problem solvers), or through `surface and weak' strategies, such as seeking out …
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Publication information: Article title: Leadership Dilemmas of Hong Kong Principals: Sources, Perceptions and Outcomes. Contributors: Walker, Allan - Author, Dimmock, Clive - Author. Journal title: Australian Journal of Education. Volume: 44. Issue: 1 Publication date: April 2000. Page number: 5. © 1998 Australian Council for Educational Research. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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