The job used to be bells, buildings, budget, buses; now the pendulum has swung to instructional leadership.

Across the world, the skills and knowledge that children require in the 21st century are becoming more complex and the range of issues that schools are expected to help address is growing. There is a parallel understanding in educational research circles across the word that school leadership is crucial to outcomes and that it has grown in importance over the past decade. Research on school leadership over the past 10 years has revealed it is not just a human resource issue—it is a strategic issue (McKinsey study on education—Capturing the Leadership Premium).

The Wipro-Educational Initiative’s Quality Education Survey (QES) looked at different styles of leadership such as instructional leadership and administrative leadership. The QES study substantiates the research across the world with a clear and positive correlation between principals with higher instructional leadership and high performance of their students. The study also found that school leaders who have higher instructional leadership also tend to delegate and distribute leadership and ensure the involvement of staff that has various viewpoints. This aspect of instructional leadership also helps build future leaders, a significant ingredient for the continuous improvement of school systems.

Examples of proactive instructional leadership can be seen to deeply affect the climate and attitude towards learning within a school. In other words, it is almost impossible to find a vibrant school humming with palpable energy and zest for learning led by a school leader who is bureaucratic and management-focused.

In practice, instructional leadership would play out in the form of a school head investing three months in an on-site course on educational leadership while the school runs without a hiccup in her absence or another who frequently takes time out to invest in building the knowledge of the community by regularly contributing to a blog, or another who regularly conducts reflective discussions with teachers on controversial issues, or another who exposes his top teachers to fundamentally powerful courses such as the “seven habits", or another who aims to spread the spark of learning across the globe with a simple, yet powerful idea of design think.

So why do we not see more examples of instructional leadership in India? The answer lies in the lack of professional development for school leaders. The avenues available in India are almost negligible compared with the systematic investment done by high-performing educational systems such as Singapore. The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, runs a much-needed course in partnership with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) for school leaders, but more effort and energy is required to sustain and nurture the implementation of ideas shared in such training programmes.

In Singapore, schools are responsible for identifying potential leaders, normally during their first five years of teaching. Once identified, these teachers are put on a leadership track that provides them opportunities to take on greater responsibilities, combined with a set of formal training programmes.

Moving deeper into the beliefs of teachers and principals about teaching and learning, the QES study clearly shows that while principals believe in discussion, dialogue, collaboration and espousing students to take an active role in their learning, teachers tend to swing between wanting their students to be passive recipients and active participants depending on the time of the year and the proximity to the board exam.

The basic issue is one of the changing goal posts. Curricula and examination boards across the high-performing educational systems have transitioned from checking memory and rote to checking understanding and application, whereas most examination boards in India are slower to make that shift. At the end of the day, it is the examination and assessment systems that drive teacher and parent priorities. Although at an intent level there are changing priorities (CBSE introducing HOTS question— higher-order thinking skills), at the ground level there is a certain lag in the system to respond.

As indicated in the QES study, instructional leaders of top schools are encouraging so-called constructivist teaching methods based on enquiry and discussion, but their own teachers are still holding on to their tried-and-tested methods of direct transmission that got their students marks and them a lot of social recognition. The classic response from teachers on asked why they continue to tell rather than ask is the lack of time. With barely 210 working days and a “one-mile long and one-inch deep" curriculum, the only way to cover the curriculum is to transmit.

The students’ freedom in the learning environment is throwing up some interesting correlations with performance. The more the principals and teachers believe that strict discipline is important, the lower their student performance. In classrooms, when the teachers believe in the strict discipline approach, they do not encourage students to ask questions, maybe, because they see the questions as an interruption to the flow of their transmission.

The key for all stakeholders is to realize that the emphasis has to shift from teaching via transmission to learning through enquiry, and all elements of the teaching-learning process—curriculum, teaching and assessment—have to be synchronized with this shift.

Sudhir Ghodke is a director with Educational Initiatives, an education research organization.

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