By Lynley Hargreaves 24/11/2016

Distinguished Professor Viviane Roginson
Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson

Education leaders can shy away from difficult conversations with teachers, or, struggle to recognise when they’ve prejudged the situation. But they can be taught to do better, and The University of Auckland’s Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson is doing just that. Professor Robinson’s work on research-based guidance on student-centred leadership just won her the Mason Durie Medal for an outstanding contribution to the social sciences. But she wasn’t at the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Research Honours dinner last night to receive the award. From a rather noisy lounge in Copenhagen Airport, Professor Robinson tells us why.

Your research produced an evidence-based model about how educational leadership makes a difference to student outcomes. Your model includes five dimensions of leadership practice and three capabilities. How does the ability to handle tough conversations fit in with that?

The ability to handle such conversations requires capability in building relational trust which is one of the three capabilities of student-centred leadership. The five dimensions tell leaders what research says they should focus on, but it’s the three interrelated capabilities that really make it work in schools. These capabilities require using deep knowledge of teaching and learning to solve complex school-based problems, while building relational trust with staff, parents, and students.

I’m in the midst of a tour of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, giving talks and workshops based on this research, for policy makers, consultants and school leaders who are interested in the resources and development tools related to educational leadership. Many educational systems in the OECD are investing considerable money in their education systems and they want to be guided by up to date research on how leadership can contribute to better and more equitable student learning. The process is reciprocal – I also learn more about the complexities of practice and about the research questions I should be asking.

How has our view of educational leadership changed over time?

I think what has changed is we are now much more specific. There used to be a lot of emphasis on leadership styles. There were lots of different adjectives describing such styles, such as whether leaders were visionary, inspirational, autocratic, democratic etc. But these are vague concepts that don’t precisely capture what we need to do to get from style to practice. Today we’re much more focused on what are the practices that leaders need to engage with to make a difference to student learning? This is a pretty tough thing to research, because it’s quite a long causal chain – leaders are working through teachers, and it’s hard to track that influence. We are getting better at this because we are being more precise and also recognising that business models of leadership can’t capture the deep educational knowledge that today’s educational leaders require.

There is also a shift from doing what works for the adults, to recognising that the job is to make things work for the adults and for the students. Sometimes there can be tough choices to be made there.

What would an example of such a tough choice be?

A tough choice in some schools might be that it is expected that more experienced teachers get to teach the top classes with the highest achieving students. That’s seen as an accolade, being able to teach those classes. But if we’re serious about equity in education we’ve got to say: “Hey wait a minute, why have we got our least capable teachers allocated to the lowest achieving students?” This is not the case in all schools, but in some schools that has been a tradition. That’s a conflict between what the adults might want and what works best for students, and so becomes a tough choice for a leader to make.

Another example is when a teacher is struggling with a particular student and expects the school leaders to withdraw that student from their class. Often that withdrawal makes it easier for the teacher. But, although it depends what happens when these students are withdrawn, it may actually further disadvantage the student. What schools need to recognise in that example is that if you’re expecting teachers to cope with students with special learning needs in their classrooms, then they need effective support. With such support the leader can serve the interests of the students and the teachers.

Telling the most experienced teachers you’re giving them the most difficult classes must be a hard conversation to have.

One of the things that we’re focusing on a lot is the relationship side of leadership work, and researching how well leaders have those difficult conversations. We run courses for education leaders using their own on-the-job situations. Rather than just talking about building trust, we examine how well they actually do it by recording and analysing their practice conversations. Using this behavioral evidence, we teach them how to analyse their thought patterns and their speech in those recordings, to uncover what it is that is making the conversation difficult for them.

Often they experience a dilemma between being frank and open and maintaining good relationships with their staff members. And often that dilemma arises because they have made up their mind, perhaps they are being too judgmental, or perhaps they have prejudged the situation – instead of being open to learning about whether their perspective is shared by the other person. After the analysis of their thoughts and their speech, they experiment with an alternative approach,  which enables them to avoid prejudgments, and yet be clear and respectful.

For the rest of the two days they practise, get feedback and coaching, so that by the end of the workshop they are more confident and more skilled in having the conversations or leading the meetings they found difficult.

It must be exciting to see it working. But are they able to change their behaviour in the real world?

It is very exciting because hundreds of leaders have practised this now. We know that their skills change, and that others perceive that change. But the educational concern which is usually about an aspect of teaching and learning – does that shift?

We’re just now starting to answer that question with our follow-up research. When they get back into their schools, do they have the conversations they practised? Are they more skillful? In our work across one South Australian state, we showed clear improvement in the quality of these conversations and that improvement was independently reported by the other person.

We’re also asking what happens to the educational concern. It’s one thing to have the adults report better quality conversations, but what about the teaching and learning that was the basis of the leader’s concern? Jacqui Patuawa, one of my doctoral students, is currently working with a group of Bay of Plenty schools to test the impact of two different interventions on the skills of the leaders in helping their teachers to make the shifts required to lift the achievement of particular student groups. After all, that is the acid test – do our leadership interventions make a difference, in the end, to the students for whom they are responsible?

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.