Growing importance of context

17 January, 2018

Context, Implementation, South-East Asia

This blog is about the growing importance of context in studying educational leadership.
Alma Harris and Michelle Jones in a recent paper show us some inconvenient truths about the differences in scaling up innovations in education in different contexts. 

Philip Hallinger and Allan Walker reviewed for South-East Asia the differences in context and educational leadership between 5 countries compared with the main trends in the Western hemisphere. The publication is part of a range of papers on the relevance of context by Hallinger (and others).

A central paper in that range is 'Bringing context out of the shadows of leadership'. The original article is from december 2016. A recent version is published in EMAL January 2018. 

Hallinger's work in 2017 shows how he (in cooperation with several other authors) in a systematic way makes inventories of research in our field of interest in different regions of the world. They lay the fundament for new articles like the one with Walker about South-East Asia. 

These three papers are very hopeful attempts to bring more nuance in research, while at the same time making research much more complex.

Leading educational change and improvement at scale
Alma Harris and Michelle Jones (2017) Leading Educational Change and Improvement at Scale, International Journal of Leadership in Education, Vol. 20(5), 632-641. See
source.

Alma Harris and Michelle Jones consider four inconvenient truths that directly affect, and in many cases prevent attempts to secure education reform and change at scale.

These relate to:
• Corporatized education (private sector involvement in public education)
• Context, language and culture (influences largely missing in the contemporary debate)
• Poverty and inequality
• Politics and corruption
Harris and Jones "do not claim or assume that these truths are new, as some but not all, appear in policy debates about educational improvement. Rather, they propose that these inconvenient truths are on the periphery not at the centre, of discussions concerning systemic improvement.” (p. 2)

"Despite what has been written and even advocated, there are no certainties or guarantees in leading educational change and reform. The process of educational transformation, particularly at scale, is messy, complex and unpredictable.” (p. 7).
"So what needs to happen, if leading sustainable and principled educational change is to be the priority? Here are some thoughts...
• Firstly, we need to push the pause button on PISA…
• Secondly, the cult of finding solutions and borrowing policies from other cultures and contexts needs to be challenged and curtailed…
• Finally, it is time to address the real issues that stand in the way of educational success and to face the fact that any strategies, however good they might be or wherever they originate, cannot alone radically shift  an ailing education system.” (p. 8)
I could not agree more.  

I expect this paper to have long-lasting effects on discussions on system performance. It is a fresh new and realistic look and a warning for all who intend to simply replicate ideas and studies from elsewhere.


Leading learning in Asia -- Emerging empirical insights from five societies
Philip Hallinger, Allan Walker (2017) Leading learning in Asia -- Emerging empirical insights from five societies,  Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 55(2) pp. - See source

"The field of educational leadership and management (EDLM) is in the midst of a paradigm shift that has only recently begun to be widely acknowledged. This paradigm shift centers on the transformation of the field from a largely Western, Anglo-American literature to a global field of study.” (p. 1)
The article reports on the second stage of the Instructional Leadership in East Asia project (ILEA) which comprised qualitative investigations of principal instructional leadership in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Hallinger and Walker identify some of the similarities and differences in instructional leadership practices of primary school principals across five East Asian societies.
The analysis results in two very instructive tables:
1. Common foci across the five societies (p. 34)
2. Distinctive features of instructional leadership practice across the five societies (p. 35)
More or less common differences from this countries with the USA and other Western countries are the top-down organisation of the educational systems, the relative low attention of principals for teaching and learning, the higher level of visibility of the principals by classroom observation, and the fundamental role of maintaining harmony (which is beyond trust).

I expect that future papers like this one will be based on reviews of literature available about other regions. Reviews that already were published are:
• Philip Hallinger (2017) Surfacing a hidden literature: A systematic review of research on educational leadership and management in Africa. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. See source.
• Philip Hallinger, Waheed Hammad (2017) Knowledge production on educational leadership and management in Arab societies: A systematic review of research. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. See source
• Felipe Aravena Castillo, Philip Hallinger (2017) Systematic review of research on educational leadership and management in Latin America, 1991–2017. See source

Bringing context out of the shadows of leadership
Philip Hallinger (2018) Bringing context out of the shadows of leadership. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. Vol. 46(1), 5-24. See source

In this paper Hallinger describes how scholarly interest in contexts for leadership evolved, how it (up till now) failed to identify relevant elements of the context and how context features shape school leadership. His paper seeks to redress these limitations by redefining, expanding and elaborating on next contexts for school leadership:
• Institutional context
• Community context
• National cultural context
• Economic context
• Political context
• School improvement context
Acknowledging these contexts complicates research on educational leadership and the application of research in leadership preparation and development. And it complicates consultancy or deliberations of the principal her-/himself what to do in a specific school at a specific moment in time.
"Therefore, even as we aspire to employ research to inform ‘evidence-based practice’, wise practitioners will recognise that leadership, like teaching, is equal parts art and science” (p. 19)

Philip to my pleasure cites Roland Barth (I worked with his colleagues in the International Network of Principals’ Centers in Boston):
"School people carry around extraordinary insights about their practice—about discipline, parental involvement, staff development, child development, leadership, and curriculum. I call these insights ‘craft knowledge’. Acquired over the years in the school of hard knocks, these insights offer every bit as much value to improving schools as do elegant research studies and national reports.”

I expect this paper will be as important for the field as Hallinger's study on instructional leadership. It might become the standard for considering context when talking about educational leadership. 

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