The Leadership of the Improvement of Teaching and Learning: Lessons from Initiatives with Positive Outcomes for Students

By Robinson, Viviane M. J.; Timperley, Helen S. | Australian Journal of Education, November 2007 | Go to article overview

The Leadership of the Improvement of Teaching and Learning: Lessons from Initiatives with Positive Outcomes for Students


Robinson, Viviane M. J., Timperley, Helen S., Australian Journal of Education


The purpose of this study was to examine how leaders foster school renewal by facilitating and participating in the types of teacher professional learning and development that improve student academic and nonacademic outcomes. The methodology involved a backward mapping strategy that takes as its starting point, not theories of leadership, but professional development initiatives that have made a demonstrable impact on the students of the teachers involved. Seventeen studies with evidence of such impact were analysed for descriptions of the leadership practices involved in each initiative. Through an iterative process of review and critique, these descriptions were categorised into the leadership dimensions associated with teacher professional learning that resulted in improved student outcomes. The analysis revealed five leadership dimensions that were critical in fostering teacher and student learning: providing educational direction; ensuring strategic alignment; creating a community that learns how to improve student success; engaging in constructive problem talk; and selecting and developing smart tools. The analysis showed that leadership of the improvement of learning and teaching is highly distributed in terms of both who leads and how it is enacted. Such leadership is embedded in school routines that are aligned to improvement goals, and involves the use of smart tools that are designed to assist teachers' learning of more effective pedagogical practices.

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Fundamental to answering questions about of the role of leaders in school renewal is how both these concepts are interpreted. We have taken a particular stance towards both school renewal and leadership that we need to state at the outset because it has shaped our approach to this paper. By school renewal we are referring to a variety of processes through which the professionals within schools learn to promote the achievement of agreed and valued outcomes for their students. Its effectiveness is judged against these consequences.

This student outcome focus has implications for how we have framed leadership, because it is well established that it is teachers, rather than leaders, who have greater direct influence on students. Australian researchers (Cuttance, 1998; Hill & Rowe, 1996; Rowe & Hill, 1998) have led the use of multi-level models to estimate the magnitude of teacher influence, with these and other international estimates consistently identifying that classroom teachers have the greatest system influence (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Muijs & Reynolds, 2001; Nye, Konstantanopoulos, & Hedges, 2004).

Relative to teacher effects, the impacts of leaders are typically much smaller (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005; Witziers, Bosker, & Kruger, 2003). A closer examination of the data on the impact of leadership on student outcomes reveals, however, that leaders can have a substantial impact on student outcomes particularly through such activities as promoting and participating in teacher learning and development (Andrews & Soder, 1987; Bamburg & Andrews, 1991; Heck, Larsen, & Marcoulides, 1990; Heck, Marcoulides, & Lang, 1991). Understanding this chain of influence has led to a burgeoning literature on professional learning and development for teachers. Most of this literature, however, incorporates the assumption that if teachers learn, then so do their students. This assumption is rarely tested. A recent meta-analysis of the impact of professional development in mathematics and science in the United States (Scher & O'Reilly, 2007), for example, located 146 studies on professional development, but only 14 of these studies documented outcomes for students. Not all outcomes were positive. Similarly, a recent synthesis of the international literature on professional learning and development, which included personal, social and academic outcomes, identified that much of the effort to promote teacher learning was either neutral or counter-productive for the students involved (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007). …

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