Educational leadership with Dr Simon Breakspear

Dr Simon Breakspear’s research and policy work focuses on international benchmarking of school system performance, leadership development and systemic approaches to effective implementation.

Dr Breakspear is currently both a Visiting Fellow at the UNSW Gonski Institute and a Research Fellow of the Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change at the Education University of Hong Kong.

In partnership with the World Innovation Summit in Education (WISE) he has released a global research report on school leadership policy, and now leads the WISE global community of practice on leadership development.

In these 6 videos, Dr Breakspear speaks about educational leadership, effective feedback, strategic thinking and leading inquiry.

Educational leadership
Dr Simon Breakspear defines educational leadership and why sophisticated knowledge structures are important.

Simon Breakspear

In the leadership literature at the moment there's a really interesting debate. And the debate is, is educational leadership, a set of general capabilities, the ability to communicate, set a vision, get people moving in a common direction, change management, feedback, a set of what might be described as general leadership characteristics and capabilities and skills.

Then others are saying, "well, wait a second. This is educational leadership. And so there's got to be a certain knowledge base that sits behind the enactment of any of those things". And increasingly, what we're starting to realise is that in order to be an effective educational leader, you need to actually have quite sophisticated knowledge structures in the areas that you're trying to lead. When we think about expertise and we think about expertise in any area, from surgery, to chess, to soccer, to anything, people who are able to make better decisions, those who are experts, are able to make those decisions, not just because they have more years on the field or years in the surgical theatre, but they actually have built up mental models or more sophisticated schemas in their longterm memory.

The knowledge they need that allows them to make those better decisions in the real world. So what's the knowledge that educational leaders need in order to effectively lead teaching and learning? I think there's a couple of areas. If you think about what's happening in classrooms that we need to know a lot about, you need to know what is being taught, how is it being taught and how is it being assessed?

Now I know that might be simplifying the whole thing down, but you're really talking about curriculum and curriculum decisions. You're talking about pedagogy and choosing the right pedagogical approach to move students forward. And you're talking about assessment. How do I know what our students are up to and their developmental pathway, which of course then has feedback loops to pedagogy and the curriculum planning.

I don't think that you could effectively lead detailed improvement work in teaching and learning without sufficient knowledge in the area that you're leading. And one of the hard things for all of us to realise is that we weren't given some of the knowledge that we should have been given by certain people in our educational lives whether that was we weren't given the numeracy knowledge when we were going through primary school, we weren't taught how to write well when we were going through high school, perhaps we weren't taught how to teach kids how to read, even though we were doing a teaching degree.

That's me. I had my PhD from Cambridge before I knew what a phoneme was because I never got taught anything about early years' literacy. And I grew up under old language. So one of the things we need to realise is that you can be in the positional hierarchical position of leadership, that you can have real incredible expertise in those general set of leadership skills that actually have small and specific knowledge gaps in the areas that you might need in order to lead improvement work. The great thing is, you're a great learner and you're a lead learner. And the only thing stopping you is just acknowledging that you may not yet have the knowledge you need to lead this improvement work and you might have to speed up your own knowledge, acquisition, your understanding of something, not so that you can be the resident expert.

You don't have to be the resident expert. But you do need to have sufficient knowledge, to know what good is and to ask high quality questions. So there's a range of areas you might need to look at. A lot of people right now, like me are saying, "I'm really annoyed I didn't get given a really good grounding in the science of reading. I would like to have that developed for me". And so I can go and I can read and I can understand how young children actually acquire the capacity to be literate.

Maybe as an adult, you still don't feel that confident in your mathematics. And you're glad that you've got other numeracy and mathematics experts. So you say, "I want to get my head around the big ideas of numbers. I want to develop my own conceptual understanding here, not because I'm necessarily going to be the pedagogical master and teacher, but I need to know enough".

What about formative assessment? It's not enough just to say, "Dylan William or Hattie and Timperley, feedback and assessments". Actually, I might want to read a little bit from Dylan William, I might want to understand his big 5 elements, I might want to see how those things come together. Again, not so I can do it all. But so that that I have sufficient knowledge to ask those core questions.

Another area would be the science of learning, the cognitive science underlying what is memory, why is retrieval practice based review interweaving, why are they powerful pedagogical strategies? Professional learning. What's the evidence base behind the effective professional learning and all of these things for me, should be approached with a sense of real curiosity of, "Oh, this is great". I get to try to build up my own understanding of these areas. And I don't have to be the full expert, but I have to have sufficient knowledge. I have to climb the learning curve sufficiently so I know what good is and then I can ask the right questions.

And that allows me, I think, to be a leader. That doesn't just have the general skill set but also the deep pedagogical content knowledge. If I've got that, then not only will I be able to guide my other leaders more effectively, not only will I be able to make better decisions about which external consultants and others I might bring in, but lastly, I'm actually going to have more perceived credibility with the people that I'm leading because it'll be clear that I'm knowledgeable about the areas that I'm trying to push our organisation into.

Collaborative culture in schools
Dr Simon Breakspear discusses what collaborative culture looks like in a school setting.

Simon Breakspear

When I think about culture, I'm really thinking about the aggregate of the typical behaviours within an organisation. I guess I'm thinking about the ways we do things around here, the norms and they get added up to what we more broadly describe, holistically describe, as the culture but really, the culture is sort of the additive nature of the way that people behave day-to-day in a normative and standardised kind of way. The first thing I want to ask is what do you mean by collaborative culture?

One of the tools that I use where I call taking language that's 100,000 feet, like collaborative cultures and getting it all the way down to 1000 feet, which is descriptions, where I would ask you to describe, "if our culture was more collaborative, what would I see? What would I hear? How would people feel?" And it's worth doing that in the specifics. What would a collaborative culture look like in curriculum planning and assessment moderation? What would a collaborative culture look like when we're running out a musical or a big event? What would a collaborative culture look like in my executive team? And really tried to describe real instances of who would be doing what, where, and how and even for what motive.

It's worth kind of getting this sense of the instances of what it would look like in the future. Otherwise, we'd say, "Oh, I wish were more collaborative. Oh, well, I wish people had a higher sense of collective efficacy as like, oh, you're just going from one buzzword to another now". So really defining what is it that you'd want to see, number one. Then number 2, I'd say, "model it with your executive team before you ask anyone else to do something different".

So one of the most powerful things to do in leadership, particularly when you're talking about cultural change, is to create a subculture within the broader organisation that is a proof point of kind of that future state that you want to be in. And you say, "Oh, well, if I was going to start, I was going to start with my team. There's some tough eggs to crack".

Well, you need to start there. And so it needs to be thought through, what would it look like to have a collaborative culture within my team initially? One of the ways of thinking about a collaborative culture within a school organisation is actually schools are a team of teams. Okay, they're a team of teams. Rather than trying to solve the culture as in the whole organisational culture, it's much more powerful, I think, to think about what we're trying to do is to move the culture in each of the sub teams and as we move the culture within those teams, we'll have an aggregate impact on our overall culture.

So start with your team. What are the collaborative norms and ways of working that you're setting up within the senior team? Number 2, invest in middle leadership's capacity to team their teams, to be thinking about developing systematic processes and routines. It's like, "no, I'm talking about culture". It's like culture is often about aggregate behaviour, behaviour that's normed over time. And the best way to change behaviour is to think about the norms and routines in professional learning, the norms and routines of how we meet together, the norms and routines of one on one feedback sessions.

So investing in middle leadership to have their understanding of some norms and routines they can use, how they can actively develop psychological safety, and how over time, there can be, I think, a real modelling from their leadership but the type of collaborative behaviours you want to see.

You say, "Oh, no, no, I don't want to change them. I've got to change the rest of the people". Well, this is the cadence I think that you need to move through. First your team, then develop team leader's capacity to develop their teams. And then as you start to think about winning team by team, then I think there is a sense of thinking about collectively where we're heading. And for that, I'd want to say number one, do you have a shared simple narrative about you as a learning organisation? I don't mean about the kind of short term achievement targets you might be working to hit.

That's great. But people don't get out of bed in the morning to tap into that narrative. That's a part of the tactical pedagogical strategies they might be using. But I often say, "what's the 10-year vision for you as a learning community? Who do you want to be within your local community? How do you want to be trusted?" You need that kind of shared narrative that I'm catching my life, my professional life up with this broader narrative and then I think you need to see visible progress.

So you're starting to help people see, as we're teaming in this way, we're starting to see things progress, that then gives them what we call a master experience. And then they believe, "hey, I can do more of this". And that's where the notion of collective efficacy comes in. Collective efficacy is the belief of a group that they can have their intended impact. Why would you believe you can have your intended impact? Because number one, you are a group and number 2, you've seen yourself have impact before. I think that's how it starts to come together.

So model it with your team, build middle leaders' capacity to build their team so you're becoming a team of teams. Start to craft that broader narrative, more like a 5 to 10-year horizon that I could be caught up in, and then try to show visible progress about those things. And then you get this kind of collective uplift, "Oh, we did want to move that. We did move that. Now, we're heading to the next piece and the next piece".

Leading inquiry
Dr Simon Breakspear speaks about leading inquiry as trying to solve complex human problems in local contexts.

Simon Breakspear

So leading inquiry sounds nice, doesn't it? Who would take a stand about leading inquiry in an educational context? The problem here is it can kind of just feel as a nice way to talk about kind of doing things together and asking beautiful questions. I think in some ways, it loses its hard edge. From my perspective, the reason why leaders need to lead inquiry is that they're trying to solve complex human problems in local contexts.

And you have to lead inquiry because you cannot know the answer to these problems at the beginning of that improvement journey. It's really important to kind of separate out when might I need to lead inquiry and when can I just know the solution and implement with fidelity? There's some things that are just simple questions, simple problems. There, we should use technical know-how to work out the answer and to deliver it into our school.

But there's other things that are complex problems, they're human problems, they're adaptive problems. And acknowledging those, we say we're trying to solve those problems and by the way, improving literacy and numeracy are complex adaptive problems, improving attendance are complex adaptive problems, building staff capacity and culture, complex adaptive problems, engaging with community and shifting what parents and caregivers do at home, complex adaptive problems. So we're going to say the majority of the things you're actually working on fit into the complex category. And by nature, complex problems, you cannot know everything you need to solve them at the beginning of the work.

So you've got to lead inquiry. And so inquiry for me is about leading collective learning. You're trying to pull together your team to first inquire about the nature of the problems to be solved. And this is crucial. Otherwise, you can have what I call inquiry theatre, where basically, everyone's just doing linear planning and implementation.

No one's actually stepping into the ambiguity and the uncertainty. And they're kind of just kind of using the language of inquiry to sit on top. But real inquiry says, "we're not really sure yet about the root causes of the problems we're trying to understand here. We're not yet sure about what's driving these things". And so first, we have to inquire into the nature of the problem we're trying to solve. This is about getting insights from the field. This is about not asking teachers at this stage and students what should the solution be, but what's the problem? What's the underlying problem to be solved?

I think Viviane Robinson stands a great service here when she says, "don't design the future until you've understood the present". And her work on collaborative causal inquiry, what's really going on within this complex system? So if you want to lead inquiry, firstly, you've got to actually want to lead on complex problems. And I think the first part is inquiring about the nature of the problem to be solved, then the second part is to try to inquire into a solution that will work in your context.

The first part of inquiring to a solution is to ask what are the best bets that we already know from research and effective practice elsewhere in New South Wales that could be useful for solving this problem? Inquiry doesn't mean starting with a blank page. Inquiry is about disciplined inquiry that's based on the best bets from the evidence, but acknowledges that the evidence suggests what's worked in the past and other places, but not what will work in your context for solving this problem. You inquire by taking the best available evidence that has got a higher likelihood of solving the problem you've identified and then working through cycles of disciplined inquiry, which is about experimenting, gathering early formative impact evidence about how it's going and then making adjustments as you go.

So the art of leading inquiry is to be okay leading a process that you don't yet have the answer to. It's about having a high ambiguity tolerance, whereby you can lead the team and say, "yeah, we're 3 months into this and we've realised we're actually attacking the wrong problem. We need to go back and rework that". And you need to be okay with making mistakes. Not what I would call blameworthy errors or failures where just a bit of sharper thinking and analysis, that research could have helped you that praiseworthy failures where you went in, you tested something, you trialled it, you've got some early evidence and it really isn't having an impact yet in your context and being able to look your team in the face and say, "we have made progress, not on solving the end problem. Not on actually getting the impact. But we've made progress in our understanding of what we're trying to do and we've made progress in understanding what probably won't work in our unique context".

That for me, is leading inquiry. It's got to be disciplined, it's got to be based on the best available evidence and it needs to be forming evidence within your context, collecting and generating evidence within your context about whether or not the change you're making is actually leading to your intended improvement and that's what leading inquiry is all about.

Strategic thinking for leaders
Dr Simon Breakspear discusses how strategic thinking goes beyond simple planning.

Simon Breakspear

So I think the first thing to say is strategic thinking isn't just planning. It's not just the school excellence in action. It's not just your situational analysis and SIP. Too often people think, "strategic thinking means getting my improvement plan written". It really is about stepping back and asking the more specific question about what is it that we as a learning community are trying to achieve? What are our guiding and winning aspirations here? Then what are the problems that are getting in our way? We've got these aspirations whether it be for student achievement, student belonging, staff capacity building, community engagement. We need to be clear about what we're specifically trying to achieve, work out what's getting in our way and then design approaches that have hopefully a high likelihood of being successful in our context.

So the reason we need to be strategic is that we have lots we want to get done in schools. In fact, almost everything is important in schools and yet we have limited resources. We have limited budget shore and limited time. But the thing we're most limited on is the human resources. How often do we say that our teachers are overwhelmed, overloaded, and can't fit much more in? And so therefore, it's the role of the school leader to decide, not what's important, but what's important next for us to focus on in improvement.

In some ways, thinking about strategic thinking, it's about first slowing things down. That great book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow. There's a sense where a lot of school leadership is about thinking fast, intuitive judgments on the fly, corridor conversations engagements with students where you're trying to make the right call at the right time in the flow of it all.

But strategic thinking is about stepping into that slower type of thinking, the deliberate thinking. Getting out of just intuitive, what's the best call and being very explicit about your assumptions and why you're doing this and why you think this is the next move. I think this is going to be crucial for people to kind of think about almost 2 modes of thinking, the intuitive day to day operation or tactical and then the strategic.

To do this, I think it's worth school leaders actually changing their space. Thinking about, we actually need to step away as a executive team. Maybe it's closing the door. Sometimes people actually escape for an afternoon or even in other pockets of time and they say, "look, we're going to put aside in 90 minutes, 2 hours to slow down the thinking and think not tactical, but strategic. What's important? How are we going to do it? And how are we going to know whether it's having an impact?"

One of the hard things about strategic thinking is there's both strategic thinking about specific change initiatives. And then strategic thinking about how all the specific change initiatives come together for coherent school improvement. It really is about being able to come in and be very precise, what I call zooming in and getting a forensic precision about the strategy behind your reading improvement work or your attendance improvement work or your work around Aboriginal student HSE attendance, or your work around teacher wellbeing.

So a forensic precision around what we're trying to do, how we're trying to do it, and how we're going to know. But then there's a strategy about zooming out and saying, okay. Well, we're not just an organisation with one initiative. We have multiple and we've got to look at the coherence and alignment around how do these things work together? And to what extent should we be doing these things in parallel? Really driving multiple improvement agenda at once. Maybe it might make sense sometimes to do them in sequence, where there's some that we need to get done in the next term or the next 6 months or this year and then that'll open up new potential to lay on the next layer of improvement and others.

I'm supposed to bring those things together, strategic thinking is first about slowing things down, being deliberate and intentional. It's a different order of thinking. Secondly, we've got to be really clear about what's worth actually going after now. And this is about making decisions, making trade offs about what we will do and what's much harder, what we will not deliberately try to go after. And then it's getting those connections between the precision of the individual improvement initiatives and the coherence about how they come together to get uplift over time.

Feedback on teaching practices
Dr Simon Breakspear examines the difficulties school leaders can face providing feedback on teaching practices.

Simon Breakspear

So we've been talking a lot about how to provide feedback I think around people's role in the team, their leadership, their interpersonal interactions, the things that to be honest, take up the majority of people's challenges with other humans that they work with. There is a part of our work as well which is about improving the quality of teaching practice. And I just want to suggest that the literature here says it's actually quite hard to make judgments about high quality teaching practice, through observations and particularly when you're only sampling a little bit of a lesson here or there.

So first, I just want to make people sort of reflective about their own subjective biases. Their tendency to sometimes look at other people's teaching through a lens of is it more or less like you're teaching? I think early on when you are looking at what's going on in classroom practice, it's actually a lot more effective to be focusing on the students and focusing on the impact of student engagement behaviour and what they're producing in the classroom.

This gives you early on a really safe way to be in a classroom, but funny enough, not actually talk about necessarily what they were doing, but much more about the impact on student engagement, student cognition, student work. That then creates a platform for saying, "this is what I noticed". It's actually a synthesis of your observations about students. That gives a conversation that about what were you intending in the lesson? How did it go compared to what you're intending? What are the practices that you felt like or the techniques you used today that resulted in your intended impact?

But I think early on, actually coming in to observe the students and provide a synthesis of the observations there is a much safer way of for a period of time, rather than coming in and thinking, "somehow in the next 30 minutes, I have to be honest, look at such a small sample of that person's teaching and come up with their next best move for practice development". That's a pretty tough ask. I want to suggest having some humility around that is really useful. It's unlikely that in that small sample, that you're going to see what is the next best move for that person.

Effective feedback for leaders
Dr Simon Breakspear explores what effective feedback options for school leaders could look like.

Simon Breakspear

The goal of feedback is to help someone work out where they're up to in their developmental pathway and take the next best steps forward towards greater impact.

It's never about just providing any criticism, it's about helping them identify the next best steps they need to take in their own pathway.

A couple of things. Number one, I would be asking feedback for for feedback from others for at least a term or so before I started to initiate some of those conversations across my team and organisation. I always say if we want a different culture, we've got to model those behaviours first. The good thing about that, well, maybe not the good thing to experience, but the helpful thing is that as we start to receive some feedback within the culture that we're leading, I'm not sure what you'll be like but different people either run that around in their head afterwards or they feel it in their gut or some people feel it in both. That even if they've received a feedback sandwich, that old approach, what I wouldn't recommend by the way, of something positive, something they should change and something positive, most people grab hold of that one thing and they'll play it over and over again.

So I think it's helpful to experience it yourself and try to open up that sort of two-way approach. Secondly, I think it's important to move towards a feedback approach that's about specific descriptions of the situation, the behaviour and the impact. This is trying to move away from something that's a more generalised statement of someone's personality characteristic or a sort of general, pulling together of all your experiences with that person. And basically trying to say, "in this situation, this behaviour happened and this is the impact that I observed".

I think trying to move it into that quite specific non-judgmental descriptors is a really helpful way of thinking about preparing for the feedback you might give. And then lastly, always think, well, the point of feedback is to encourage more reflection and learning. That's got to be the goal, right? And so sometimes coming in, yes, with some descriptions of the situation behaviour impact, which just helps people land a specific example we can talk about, but then of course, thinking about the questions we might want to ask.

Like any good educator, you're trying to encourage reflection, awareness and next best steps. And so thinking about some questions in the conversation that might help people enter into a stance of reflection and learning rather than that defence of, "well, you need to understand why I did that in this circumstance".

As far as performance feedback, I'd really recommend that situation behaviour impact. The performance feedback needs to be specific, not generalised.

For leaders, this is often hard, because you're managing teams of 5, 10, 50+. And to be honest, things blur. And then you have that meeting and you're kind of thinking, "over the last 6 months, it's been really annoying that..." but in getting that specificity of, "when we're in that executive meeting, and you said this, the result was this". Or, "when you didn't follow through on X after committing to Y, the ramifications for other parts of our improvement work were this".

I think this is a really difficult dynamic for all leaders. In the early part of the work, I'd say don't go all the way through to the vision of yourself sitting in a one-on-one situation on a Wednesday afternoon, you're all tense in your gut, you've been running this script over and over, this person is wondering why you're playing this hierarchical kind of power game with them. I think start off by saying, "what I want to do is to develop a learning and developmental culture in my team".

And so the first thing I need to do is not so much to deliver one-on-one feedback to individuals, but to set up for at least a term or 2, two-way conversations around feedback. And so you start off by modelling it, you start off by asking for certain feedback about specific things, but also being open to feedback about areas that you haven't asked for. But my inbox is always open, I'm always keen for a conversation. But you could do it modelling over specific things. Let's appreciate some feedback about our curriculum planning half day that I ran.

You can do this through an anonymous survey initially, although there's only 3 of you. So it's pretty easy to work out. But you can just ask people ratings over all this and then I just ask people things like, "what would you prefer we didn't do? What would you prefer I did more of?" Or something like that. Really direct. And maybe the first time you open that up, and you model it and you think about it, you model it and you think about it.

I think it's really, really important to first set that benchmark where we're saying that feedback here is not hierarchical. Feedback is a two-way conversation. It's a two-way learning conversation. And I'll never deliver anything to someone else that I haven't already ... for myself.

I think the second thing is to pick your battles wisely. Anytime you're in a longterm relationship, you're always hedging, "is it worth raising this?" A really practical example, "I'm going to be with this person for at least another 20 years, should I raise how they stack the dishwasher?" And so what often happens is people don't and they leave it and they leave it and they leave it and they leave it and then sometime, they crack it.

And a little bit the same happens I think in school teams, where people are thinking, "we're probably going to work together for a long time. Is it really worth it? We're kind of in the land of nice here. Yes, I have to debrief with my partner at home, I'll call someone in the car on the way home because that's just really annoying me, but is it really worth ruffling the social cohesion?" And then what often happens, it builds up, it builds up, it builds up and then it comes out.

And so my sense is you choose your battles wisely, you think about it, you think about performance issues that are most important now for the dynamic of the team. And then you just use that situation behaviour impact lens. And then you even just think about how and when you might offer that. This type of conversation, what we call a two-way conversation is very powerful, but it's also very challenging.

Early on, you might want to try a third point conversation, where you're actually both looking at either some sort of joint work together, you might be going for a walk together, you might be making tea or coffee and of course, it needs to be set up and structured. But it's just starting to normalise this idea of being able to reflect that, "if it's all right with you, I just wanted to reflect on a pattern that popped up over the last few weeks. In this situation, I noticed this behaviour and it resulted in this impact. And I just wanted to get your sense of how that went from your side".

I think always coming back to that kind of situation behaviour impact is really, really helpful. And then offering on the other side, "is there anything that I need to hear from you about the way that I'm currently leading X that might be having an impact that you want to talk about?"

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