Rethinking Educational Leadership: mapping the terrain of leadership in learning organisations in conditions of complexity, diversity and change

Rethinking Educational Leadership: an Open Space Symposium

The purpose of the Symposium was to provide experienced practitioners and researchers with an opportunity to bring fresh thinking to the current challenges facing school leaders and to generate new ideas about leadership development. The Open Space Technology provided a means of capturing the collective intelligence generated by the group in response to the core question. This post reports on the outcomes of this Open Space Symposium which was held in 2013. It was designed as the beginning of an ongoing conversation.

Open Space Technology: harnessing collective intelligence

Open Space Technology is an intentional leadership practice which can create an inspired community of practice, where people work together to create a synergy which is more than the sum of the individual parts. Participants created and managed their own agenda of parallel working sessions around a central theme of strategic importance. The theme for this Symposium was:

What are the Core Processes which Facilitate the Purpose of School Leadership?

Open Space works best wopen space grouphen the work to be done is complex, the people and ideas involved are diverse, the passion for resolution and change are high, and the issues are urgent. It’s intentional self-organization and while Open Space is structured in such a way it supports, rather than blocks, the co-generation of knowledge.

The Symposium catered for all of the issues that were MOST important to the participants, and each issue was addressed by those most qualified and capable of responding to it. In just under two days the most important ideas, discussion, data, recommendations, conclusions, questions for further study, and plans for immediate action were documented and collected for this report.

The group was inspired by the process and elected to call itself ‘The Bristol Leadership Forum’ since this Open Space Symposium created a conversation and a sense of community which we intend to continue over time and space.

Introductory Ideas

The Symposium began with some shared insights from current research at the Centre for Systems Learning and Leadership in the Graduate School of Education at Bristol.

  • The development of children, young people and adults as successful self-directed learners; the relationships between teacher learning, leadership learning, wider community learning and student learning/outcomes in supporting the development of outstanding teaching, student engagement and the deeper transformation of schools.
  • The application of systems thinking and processes to help resolve complex problems that may block the further improvement of standards in schools, including the development of schools as learning communities, improving student progress across key transitions and evaluating the wider outcomes of schools.
  • International research on similar issues, including Bryk’s work in networked improvement communities (Bryk 2009; Bryk, Sebring et al. 2010), the Teaching for Effective Learning Programme from South Australia (Foster 2001; Goldspink 2010) and related practitioner studies from the new Masters programme at the Graduate School of Education: the MSc in Systems Learning and Leadership.

The purpose of the Symposium was to begin to rethink current models of school leadership and approaches to leadership development and, possibly, to generate ideas which reflect and interrogate a more complex, participatory paradigm of learning and leadership. It posed the question: has current thinking and practice got us as far as we can go in our efforts to raise standards in schools? We wanted to create a rich picture of the purposes and processes of school leadership, to map a complex terrain.

Creating Open Space Sessionsopen space themes

Participants were invited to propose a session on any topic which they believed to be relevant to the Open Space Symposium. They then identified a slot on the timetable of sessions which they would lead. All participants then selected which ones they would participate in. Leaders of Open Space Sessions committed to taking notes and returning these electronically to the co-ordinators within two days of the Symposium.

Open Space Session Records

The sessions were ‘topped and tailed’ with plenary sessions and participants proposed changes during the process as they saw fit.

The following sections report on each of these sessions, organised thematically. A second phase of thematic analysis was undertaken following a review by all contributors. The overall themes are presented in the final section, organised according to principles of systems designing.

KEY THEMES which emerged were:

  • The Internal  World of the Leader
  • The Virtues Required for Leadership
  • Building Ethical Courage in Community
  • How do we develop Schools that Learn?
  • The Why of Education – when is the right time to develop a personal philosophy of education?
  • New Educational Landscapes – what sort of leaders do we need?
  • Harnessing Collective Intelligence
  • Leadership as Creative Learning Design
  • How do we Create Conditions for Deeper Learning for students, teachers, staff and leaders?
  • How does Leadership Development need to change?
  • Grand Curriculum Design: curriculum leadership and systems thinking
  • Overall Themes Emerging from the Open Space Sessions

The following themes were identified by a thematic analysis of the contents of the Open Space Sessions. Key ideas were highlighted and abstracted from their context, coded on post it notes and collected together. These were then organised into overall themes which cut across most or all Open Space Sessions and framed using the principles of Systems Designing from the University of Bristol Engineers – in which purpose defines the how and the what of any system (Blockley 2010).

The increase in the complexity of education – structural, political, economic, personal, technical and social – means that control is an illusion for educational leaders. This means a reduction in the positional/referent power of the leader and a focus on intra and inter-personal qualities and skills, which the leader draws upon in each unique context in order to achieve a shared purpose. A command and control model of leadership will not work – except in dire emergency. There is no single formula for success which can be applied ‘from the top down’ since all educational contexts are different, and since sustainability requires participation, self-organisation and the alignment of responsibility with purpose at all levels – leaders, teachers, community and students.

There are however, some disciplined design principles which leaders internalise, embody and model, and design into each system as part of the process of ongoing sustainable improvement in learning processes and outcomes for all. Design principles are essential characteristics of a learning system which are all crucial for the system to achieve its purpose, and which provide a disciplined framework for leaders to draw on, interpret and apply as they take responsibility for leading a community towards a shared purpose in a particular place and context.

At the heart of these design principles is (i) a focus on deep learning – adaptation and change through meaningful feedback – at all levels of the learning community. (ii) a recognition that a learning community operates at different levels: students, teachers, leaders and community – individuals, teams, organisations and community. (iii) an understanding of dynamic process – change, lifecycle, movement or journey – at the heart of the system.

These design principles are articulated here from the perspective of leaders – however they could equally apply to individual students, teachers or parents.

Developing and maintaining constancy of Purpose

Developing and maintaining a locally derived and shared educational purpose within a particular place is the primary task of leadership. An educational leader takes responsibility for maintaining constancy of purpose within the community, whilst recognising that they are publicly accountable. The responsibility of educational leadership extends beyond the individual school to a whole community, including children at risk of ‘falling between the cracks’ in provision, parents and the wider community. Understanding WHY we educate and aligning educational performance to shared purpose is a core educational task and needs to be integrated into teacher education from ITT through to Executive Principal development. The alignment of purpose to performance is key to individual and team engagement and thus to sustainability and quality.

Leadership which Learns

Maintaining constancy of purpose means that leadership (not just the individual leader) needs to be continually learning – with the shared purpose providing the evaluation criteria for success. For leadership which learns, leaders and schools need a significant degree of autonomy, albeit within a common framework, so that they can adapt authentically in the light of their learning and serve the particular needs of diverse communities. Continuous organisational learning for the improvement of student learning processes and outcomes is the responsibility of leaders. An organisation that learns needs to be populated by people who learn – thus deep learning needs to be taking place at all levels of the organisation. Such learning is deep learning because it generates real change, aligning shared purpose with performance. It is authentic because it is self-organising (rather than externally imposed) and it is meaningful in the lives of the learners involved.

Redesigning Curricula for Deep Learning: ‘Learning Architectures’

How schools go about the core business of curriculum, assessment and teaching and learning reflects what matters more powerfully than anything else. The processes of curriculum design, assessment and pedagogy should be aligned to the learning community’s core purpose, rather than seen as an ‘add on’ which is externally imposed. There is more freedom in the current (English) curriculum framework than is often recognised. The metaphor of ‘architecture’ for deep learning is useful because it incorporates design purpose, structures, processes, aesthetics, location and technical, human and emancipatory interests.

Deep learning has been described as ‘the stuff you don’t need to revise’. Deep learning requires an ‘architecture’ or a ‘systems design’ that recognises and is designed to enable the individual or team to identify their own purpose, to take responsibility for their own learning journey, including both their personal learning power and their knowledge co-construction, as well as identifying and achieving their negotiated learning outcome. Such learning can never be confined only to the classroom or lecture theatre – it is engaged, applied, integrated across traditional disciplines and generative in the life narrative of the learner. Traditional curricula, pedagogy and assessment technologies require some re-design if all students and teachers are to experience such learning : however this would enhance and complement, rather than replace, traditional, subject based learning. There is disciplined pedagogical knowledge and know-how which is required in order for teachers to facilitate such learning.

Deep learning is an entitlement not only for students, but also for teachers and leaders. Deep learning for teachers is the engine of school improvement.

Co-creating Sustainable Learning Systems

There is no single formula for success in leadership because each context is different and needs to be self-organising in order to be sustainable. Therefore leaders need to be able to allow local solutions to emerge from the interactions and relationships in their contexts. These cannot be defined or controlled in advance. The implications of this are that leadership needs to be capable of understanding and rapidly evaluating a range of types of evidence, within a disciplined evaluation framework against success criteria which are aligned with the organisations shared purpose. Leadership need to be multi-lingual in terms of data – using large quantitative data sets, alongside qualitative and narrative data and experiential knowledge – in order to make decisions about quality and direction, taking into account a wider range of student outcomes than those that are easily measured and standardised across populations. Leaders also need skills of integration and synthesis, integrating the differing discourses and demands of practice, research, policy and social enterprise. Such skills include the ability harness collective intelligence, to re-present and communicate complex data and to understand the importance of patterns and relationships in data as well as the more traditional approach of measuring the impact of one variable on another.

Deep Listening

Deep listening to the ‘other’ is at the heart of this approach to leadership. Creating a self-organising learning system begins with attention to the voice of individuals and groups within the community. Deep listening creates trust because it facilitates genuine participation and enables leadership to release the talents of other members of the learning system. Deep listening should be afforded to all stakeholders – the community, the teaching team and individual students – in order to invite and generate intrinsic motivation and responsibility for change. It can be structured into the ‘learning architecture’. This includes a process of deep listening to the needs, aspirations and stories of the wider community. A self-organising learning system is contextually sensitive to the place in which it is located. Coaching is a core vehicle for deep listening, attuned to the needs of the ‘other’ which facilitates self-organisation.

The Inner World of the Leader

All of these design principles require leaders who are aware of and take responsibility for nurturing and extending their ‘inner worlds’ – including their own personal development, learning and professional vision and values commitments. This is the source of their energy for leadership in self-organising systems – rather than the external worlds of micro or macro politics. It allows leadership to be self-organising and provides an important reference point in times of complexity, ambiguity and change. Leaders need to integrate their internal and external worlds, as authentic, reflective individuals and teams, leading from the ‘inside out’. Centred and calm leaders are open to learning – and model this principle for teachers and students. Stress and fear generate blame and close down deep learning, even though they also lead to compliance. A focus on the personal qualities of leaders – rather than positional power referents – is thus key within this model of leadership, and suggests the idea of ‘virtues for leadership’ – habitual ways of behaving which are necessary for achieving a particular ‘good’ purpose. Perhaps the most key virtue is ‘humility’ – the awareness that, quite often, we simply don’t know.

Creating Trust within Community

Trust is a core resource which is necessary for the successful deployment of all of these ‘design principles’. It is challenging to define. It is about high levels of benevolence and competence on the part of leadership and the deep knowledge in all, that their relationships can ‘withstand the challenges of risk, uncertainty, difference and inequality’ (Bond 2007)’. At its most basic level, it is the awareness of each member of a learning community ‘that I am OK it’s OK for me to be here’. High levels of trust is like oxygen for athletes – the more we have the better our performance.


The Open Space Symposium was designed to offer a space for experienced practitioners and researchers to bring fresh thinking to the current challenges of educational leaders and to generate new ways of articulating leadership in this context. There are of course, as many ways of defining leadership as there are gurus, and our intention was not to compete with or replace any existing models – rather to recognise the radically changing world in which we educate and seek to articulate a narrative for leadership which is inclusive and capable of bringing together the best of what we know – whilst challenging worldviews which no longer serve us.

Another key purpose was to re-write the worn out scripts of training and development for leadership, in a way which is more consonant with what we know and are seeking to achieve in terms of deep learning and engagement. There are many implications of this document for leadership development which have yet to be articulated and enacted.

To read the full rerport, click here

Rethinking School Leadership Bristol Leadership Forum Open Space Symposium Report January 2013



Learning Power: new research identifies Mindful Agency as central to resilience

For learning in the complex world of risk,  uncertainty and  challenge, what matters is being able to identify, select, collect, collate, curate and collaboratively re-construct information to suit a particular purpose. This is why there has been a sustained and growing interest in learning dispositions and the personal qualities people, teams and communties need to flourish. As Edgar Morin says:

edgar morinWe need a kind of thinking that reconnects that which is disjointed and compartmentalized, that respects diversity as it recognizes unity, and that tries to discern interdependencies. We need a radical thinking (which gets to the root of problems), a multidimensional thinking, and an organizational or systemic thinking

Ruth Deakin Crick 2015After fifteen years of experience in the research and practical application of learning power using a survey tool called the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI), Professor Crick, one of the originators, led the research team in a thorough review and reanalysis of the data.  Supported by the Learning Emergence Network of international researchers, the results are now published for the first time in the British Journal of Educational Studies:

Ruth Deakin Crick, Shaofu Huang, Adeela Ahmed Shafi & Chris Goldspink (2015): Developing Resilient Agency in Learning: The Internal Structure of Learning Power. British Journal of Educational Studies. DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2015.1006574. Open Access Eprint:

Interestingly, the support for this re-analysis came from the Systems Engineers in the Engeering Faculty at the University of Bristol  as part of the International Centre for Infrastructure Futures, rather than ELLI’s original home in the Graduate School of Education….where Crick, Broadfoot and Claxton began in 2000.  Perhaps Morin would have something to say about this — we think so!

The new self assessment tool, called the Crick Learning for Resilient Agency Profile (CLARA) identifies Mindful Agency as a key learning power dimension — which predicts the set of active dimensions: Creativity, Curiosity, Sense-Making and Hope & Optimism.   Two distinct Relationship dimensions measure Belonging and Collaboration.  Finally, an Orientation to Learning indicator measures a person’s degree of Openness to change — in contrast to either fragile dependency or rigid persistence.

Internal Structure of LP with simplied view 19 August

The new measurement model represented by CLARA resulted from a detailed  exploration of the patterns, relationships  and interdependencies within the key constructs through structural equation modelling (diagrammatic summary above).  It is a more robust, parsimonious measurement model, with strengthened research attributes and greater practical value. The research  demonstrates how the constructs included in the model link to the wider body of research, and how it serves to integrate a number of ideas that have hitherto been treated as separate. For more details from a user perspective see  Introducing CLARA.

The CLARA model suggests a view of learning that, after Siegel is:

an embodied and relational process through which we regulate the flow of energy and information over time in order to achieve a particular purpose.

Learning dispositions reflect the ways in which we develop resilient agency in learning by regulating this flow of energy and information. They enable us to engage mindfully with challenge, risk and uncertainty and to adapt and change in a way which is positively alinged with our purpose.

Resilient Agency is our capacity to move iteratively between purpose and performance, utilising our learning power and generating and re-structuring knowledge to serve our purpose.

Learning JourneyLearning, from this viewpoint, is a journey which moves between purpose and performance – to put it another way, without having purpose we’re not really going to learn in a context of complexity and information overload. To learn, when the outcome is not known in advance (which is most real world learning) requires that we are able to navigate learning as a journey, utilising our Mindful Agency, restructuring information to achieve the outcome we need.

BlueThe Learning Emergence Network has teamed up with eXplorance Blue, one of the world’s leading survey providers based in Montreal, to create the SOLA platform (Surveys for Open Learning Analytics) which can host CLARA and other assessment tools, and importantly, provide rapid feedback to users for improvement purposes.

Visual feedback to the learner from CLARA

The rapid analytic feedback to users who complete the questionnaire is returned in the form of a spider diagrame which forms a framework for a coaching conversation which can move between learning identity and purpose and the formulation of strategies for change.  The new assessment tool is a focus for research and development around the world. Crick and Buckingham Shum are now based in the pioneering Connected Intelligence Centre and the School of Education at the University of Technology Sydney, where CLARA forms part of a research programme into dispositional learning analytics — alongside other learning analytics approaches designed to make visible – to learners and educators – the dynamics of lifelong learning qualities.

by-nc-nd (1)CLARA, and the knowledge and know-how in the research paper, have been made available for research and development under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License. This permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.

We welcome all contributions to the ongoing research and development of this work which has applications in education, industry and community.  We have translated CLARA into Chinese, Russian and Spanish. For more details and opportunities for collaborative research and development please contact

Carnegie Summit on Improvement in Education

I’ve just returned from this conference at which I gave a paper reporting on our proof of concept study in applying hierarchical process modelling to school improvement: Evaluating Wider Outcomes of Schooling, the ECHO project. The paper reporting the project has just been accepted for publication in Educational Management, Administration and Leadership.

Improvement Science – Systems Architecting

The theme of the conference was Improvement Science. In the world of Engineering and infrastructure, this would be called ‘systems architecting’. It was about a holistic, rigorous approach to improving organisations as complex systems, engaging all stakeholders in defining purpose, analysing the system, defining a measurement model, rapidly prototyping improvement strategies, whilst harnessing collective intelligence and ‘learning our way forwards’.

There were thought provoking keynotes, on Improvement Science, Lessons from Improvement in Healthcare and Resilience. There were over 1000 people present mostly from education, and a mixture of researchers and leading practitioners. It was inspiring to see and feel a new community of enquiry grow as we shared our bright spots and learned from our failures. Learning Together was a key theme and we were convinced that together we can achieve more than any one of us can alone.

Summit Highlights

Throughout the Summit, attendees reported key messages and actionable takeaways via Twitter. The event’s energy  and key ideas have been captured through a Storify.  The closing highlight video can be viewed on the participant portal and additional phoos from the event are on  the Carnegie  Facebook page.

Session Materials

If you are looking for materials from any of the Summit breakout sessions, they are available online at the participant portal. Log in using the credentials below to view and download PDFs of session presentations and handouts. In addition, videos from the keynotes have been uploaded for your viewing .

Password: Summit2015

Learning to Improve

The Summit saw the launch of Learning to Improve  which is  a key  resource if you want to engage more deeply in improvement science. Additional copies can be purchased through Harvard Education Press or any major book distributor. If you would like to use the book as a text for a class, please contact Carnegie directly

Universities: core business (and analytics) in 2030?

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 6.31.38 pm Ruth and I have the privilege of working with Randy Bass [blog] and team at Georgetown University. Randy is a leading thinker  around the deep purpose of higher education, and how this entails rethinking student qualities, and analytics.

Jump to 40mins for his closing comments in this keynote envisaging higher ed in 2030. Here’s the gist:

Our calling as a university is the formation of men and women (but many institutions do this of course). However, we do so in the context of a community of enquiry and knowledge creation (fewer institutions do this). Moreover, we do so for the public, common good (fewer still have this explicit mission). These three are interlocked and inseparable.

The railroad companies who thought they were in the business of railroads went bust. The ones who thrived understood they were in the transportation business.

What’s our equivalent?

Let’s call it Formation.
Or Transformation.
Or Integration.

But if we think we’re in the business of Content, Skills or Information Transfer, then by 2030, we’re going to have a LOT of competition.

…or, as we might say, Dead In The Water.

His Formation by Design (FxD) initiative is defining the contours of this new landscape, and their progress report is an inspiring read (disclosure: it includes material from our contributions to a symposium last June). Or check out the video roundtable discussion series he hosted called Reinvent University for the Whole Person. He was also on the team of (what I think is) the largest national ePortfolio initiative in higher education, a reflection of the importance being placed on reflection for transformational learning.

Randy and team: all power to you as we figure out together how we redefine our calling, to help students find theirs. Along the way, lets reinvent the environments and metrics that will constitute the new evidence base in 2030 🙂