Powerful Knowledge in the Teaching of Educational Leadership

I’m an academic that  has the privilege of both teaching and researching educational leadership. This blog is a reflection on the last 3 years teaching and designing modules in Educational Leadership at MA Level. It  has been, in part, inspired by taking on my own message that I regularly drill into my PGCE students and through the discussions with the likes of Tom Rees, Matt Evans, Claire Stoneman , Kathryn Morgan and more. That is, we should regularly stop to think about the decisions we make  about what we choose to teach, how we choose to teach it and why.

The blogs and thinking mentioned above has prompted me to reflect on what I teach and why. The what we teach and how we teach it, for me, are as important as each other. In this blog, I will focus on what knowledge I think is particularly transformative for leaders in schools.

The reason for this is because I believe great theory and knowledge is powerful. I believe this for two reasons. First, that powerful knowledge can transform a leaders approach to leadership. Second, that knowledge can promote the criticality our educational leaders need to navigate the field of educational leadership and to make it relevant for their setting.

  1. Powerful knowledge can transform leaders approach to leadership: I believe that, when taught at the right level of criticality and embedded within a developmental andragogical framework, there are theories of understanding people and organisations which can disrupt how we construct a leaders’ understanding of the world around them. Any Science Teacher trained in CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education) knows the power of threshold concepts to transform how students see Science, and how it can induce conflict into current schema. The idea is no different – powerful knowledge, in the right framework, can transform how we act and therefore how we lead our institutions and the individuals within them.
  2. To develop critical leaders, we need knowledgeable leaders. This knowledge can facilitate individuals to become active in how they consume educational leadership theory. There are some helpful educational leadership theories out there – stretching from the mainstays of Transformational, Distributed and Instructional Leadership models, to newer models such as Woods and Roberts’ Collaborative Leadership. Yet, I believe that contrasting one educational leadership theory against another is  not enough. If we really want our educational leaders to think about what it is to lead a school, we need them to work across the disciplines and think hard about their contexts. Contrasting how in educational leadership theory implicitly discusses the state of organizations, or assumes how people make decisions, gives us a different angle on the underlying theory and its nuts and bolts. Therefore, I believe a rich understanding of individuals and organisations can facilitate individuals to ask deeper, more fundamental questions behind the inherent assumptions within educational leadership theory. This promotes the critical consumption of educational leadership – not as a prescription to be followed, but as a model that needs constant review and development.

So, What is This “Powerful Knowledge”?

In asking this question, we first need to consider what leadership and management is. Leadership is about influence and management about taking responsibility. I argue that, if a leader is to have influence, they need to consider 3 aspects :

  • Individuals: how they come to make decisions and how they interpret the world around them
  • Organisations: funny things happen to people and incidents when they are in an organisational context.
  • I also believe, as Tom Rees stressed,  that we need to think more about EDUCATIONAL leadership -what is it to lead in an educational setting and what knowledge will be powerful to those who lead in schools.

Here are three relevant theories or threshold concepts that, I propose, could form part of a school leader’s powerful knowledge base. In this section,

NB Please note, that by excluding things, I am not saying that other knowledge domains aren’t important. It is just what I choose to prioritise based on my understanding of leadership and school organisations.

  1. Sense-Making

One of the most powerful knowledge bases for educational leaders, l believe, is sense-making. Sensemaking is a whole body of literature that considers how individuals actively construct their understanding of the world when situations are complex. Recent research from myself, Chris James and Sam Carr suggests that headteachers can go about this in fundamentally different ways .  The likes of Karl Weick, and well as adult developmental psychologists such as Kegan, Drago-Severson and Loevinger, and my own research in this area have acted as influential sources in understanding this process.

Understanding Sensemaking is critical for school leaders to understand. Schools themselves are complex places, which are full of wicked problems (See my paper above for greater detail on this). It is in such situations/problems where individuals have to try to comprehend the situation i.e. to Sense-make. Therefore, if leaders are going to work in places such as schools, and they wish to have influence, having knowledge of the process could be an advantage to enhancing their comprehension of others, and thus potential to influence those around them. For example:

  • Understanding sense-making means to embrace the idea that *not everyone comes to understand the world in the same way*. We know from the adult development literature,  that is it is really hard for adults to hold onto this notion!
  • It can also help adults navigate more practical aspects of influence:
    • It can support leaders in consider how their communication to others might be read,
    • how to navigate miscommunication.
    • how it is likely that collectives will try to come to understand the situation.

For example, if you are in a meeting with colleagues trying to comprehend a situation that has just happened. Disagreements over the nature of the problem, the cause and the solution will no doubt appear. Sense-making literature can explain why this is the case, how individuals come to problems differently, and how to resolve it in a way that takes advantage of the different ways of working.

Therefore, theories of sense-making  (what it is, how people engage in it) can provide a useful bank of knowledge to support leaders in both remembering the simple fact that the world is not seen universally, but also provide practical reflections on how to influence such a broad portfolio of experience.

2.Emotions within Decision Making.

Emotion does not receive enough attention. Emotion is critical for how we make decisions. Megan Crawford, Izhar Oplatka and Chris James make an excellent case for focusing on emotion here. Please note, this is not me calling for Emotional Intelligence. Far from it. I am talking about …

  • Supporting leaders to distinguish the difference between Mood (Long term), Feeling (short term) and Emotion (how we process).
  • How emotion can drive cognition. We can easily fall into the trap that our thoughts generate feelings. Yet, anyone with any understanding of CBT knows that emotion and cognition exist in a loop. Understanding emotion puts a spanner in the works of that thought is a simple linear arrow to feeling. It forces leaders to stop, reflect and think about how those around them are likely to be wor king on a response.

Why do I stress emotion for educational leaders? Because, as Megan Crawford  makes the case ,  schools present particular challenges in emotion. For example, schools are guardians of the future and the act of teaching itself can require bountiful amounts of emotional labour. Emotion isn’t a side-affect of how we think – it can drive how we think. Emotion is thus rife in school organisations and will therefore provide a key driver in how/why people do what they want to do. Through this understanding, I believe, leaders could respond more appropriately to this around them – and its in schools where this is exceptionally relevant.

For a practical situation, imagine a leader fluent in the understanding of emotion. How might they interpret or handle a situation? A parent dispute say, or a disagreement with a Head of Department over how to improve the Key Stage 3 Curriculum? Could the knowledge of emotion help leaders to empathise and, thus, communicate in a way that helps them to engage with the other person on a deeper level. I believe this could be so, at least over time and in the right framework.

3.Complexity Theory

Another powerful group of knowledge is that of organisational theory. In particular, the power of Complexity Theory. In my experience, most educational leadership theorists start with how to change organizations. However , how can we do this if we don’t question how organisations work in the first place?

This is where complexity theory is so powerful – it captures cause and effect, the formation of practice, events and ideas and fundamental principles for organisational life. Understanding and appreciating complexity can disrupt the rational, logical and linear way of thinking that underpinned so many attempts of change and how most adults come to understand the world around them. Matt Evans blog does a great job at applying this to schools and is giving great insight into how this theory can be practically applied to understand schools and can transform how they can be viewed in a totally different way (I will leave practical examples to his blog as it really is a treat!). Hawkins and James’s paper, as well as Keith Morrison’s work, are theoretical attempts to demonstrate its relevance as well.


I hope I have started to make the case for, what I consider to be, powerful knowledge in educational leadership and the role of good theory. I don’t believe we think hard enough about what theoretical knowledge can be powerful in disrupting the practices of the leaders on our programmes. I hope this little contribution is the start of a conversation.

To summarise, I believe there are many nuggets in psychology and organisational theory which can provide a strong, robust platform for shaping the mind, and therefore actions, of school leaders. However, identifying these theories need to come from a genuine understanding of what schools are like as organisations

  • the tasks and challenges that school leaders are likely to face
  • the inherent nature of education itself
  • and the nature of the people that work within them.

Thank you for your attention.