Leader of Content Knowledge: Personal Journey

            The foundation of leadership content knowledge is the development of a framework for thinking about emerging instructional challenges. Frameworks are not a collection of programs or random pieces of information associated with an instructional program. Rather they are “…a set of interrelated programs for students and staff that are guided by a common framework for curriculum, instruction, assessment, and learning climate and are pursued over a sustained period” (Newmann, et al  2001, p. 299). A “common framework” that would encompass most change initiatives in schools and would address most of the instructional problems that confront teachers on a daily basis are the fundamental questions of schooling:

  • How do children learn?
  • What knowledge is of most worth?
  • How should we teach children?
  • How should we organize subject matter?
  • How should we assess what students understand?

            When encountering an instructional problem the educational leader’s private challenge, which eventually becomes a public challenge, is to develop a coherent framework for each of the fundamental questions of schooling in relation to the instructional problem to be solved. Coherence is key because teachers become very frustrated when they are asked to apply a little of this theory, some of those ideas, and a few of these practices. Teachers are much more open to an instructional improvement initiative if the leader helps them as they connect the dots in implementing a change, i.e., theories agree with ideas, ideas agree with actions, actions agree with practices. The most pervasive impediment to instructional improvement is the lack of a coherent framework for understanding the causes and possible solutions for an instructional problem.

            The construction of a coherent response to the fundamental questions of schooling is the most difficult part of the instructional improvement process. In the messy world of schooling there will always be a continuum of theories, ideas, and practices for each fundamental question —each theory, idea, or practice vying to influence the direction and content of the instructional change imitative. B. F. Skinner, for example, would respond to the question of what knowledge is of most worth and how to organize subject matter far differently than John Dewey. Secondly, each instructional problem which arises brings with it particular circumstances that do not play well to grand theories of learning, knowledge, teaching, organization, and assessment. The first journey, then, for the leader of content knowledge, is a private one in which the educational leader finds opportunities to mentally wander back and forth between the fundamental questions of schooling and the theories and practices governing the instructional problem. Throughout this personal journey, the wanderings between the world of theory and the world of practice would be continually informed by the research in the area, talks with experts, and ongoing discussions with those staff members most affected by the instructional problem. Joseph Schwab (1978) termed such a process the “Arts of the Eclectic.”What Schwab meant by the “Arts of the Eclectic” is the proposition that the possessor of only one theory or a series of like-minded theories will experience the “vice of tunnel vision” in a world of “radical pluralism” (Schwab, 1978, p. 333). Administrators who practice the “Arts of the Eclectic” become experts in the art of weaving together loosely-coupled systems of theories, ideas, and practices that will establish a recognizable mosaic of core values and organizational aims into a perfect synthesis of the “how” and the “what” of schooling.

            The “final resolution” to the instructional problem, then, is often inelegant, but strikes a delicate balance between theory, technique, and the social context of the problem. Some seasoned school administrators might view the personal journey as a huge waste of time. The management mentality of those school leaders who thrive on putting fires out is to jump into the decision-making stage as quickly as possible —“first shoot, then aim.”

            The profound insight of Stein and Nelson’s (2003) construct of “leadership content knowledge,” is the essential role that subject matter knowledge plays in the ongoing dialogue between an instructional leader and his or her staff over an instructional problem. Instructional leaders gain legitimacy in the eyes of teachers and are more likely to be invited into discussions about instructional problems when the administrator demonstrates an understanding of the frameworks, theories, and ideas that govern a content or skill domain. The invitation to discuss an instructional problem provides the leader of content knowledge with the opening to formulate, along with the teachers, a coherent approach to understanding and acting upon an instructional problem and the development of common responses to the multitude of big and little problems that evolve out of any instructional change effort. The challenge in each of these conversations is to subtly weave into each discussion a blend of theories, ideas, and practices that reflect a coherent instructional response to the fundamental questions of schooling and an instructional framework that builds a bridge between the remote world of theory and the immediate world of the classroom.

            A trait of all these discussions are those healthy disagreements over a proposed system of theories, ideas, and practices that can be expected when teachers and administrators come together to discuss the messy world of the classroom practice. Those educational leaders who have skipped the “personal journey” will view these interchanges with those in the trenches as disagreeable and situations to avoid rather than opportunities to influence the direction of the conversation and the thinking of the participants in the discussion. If the educational leader has taken the time to wrestle with the problem privately—the personal journey—the leader is equipped to nudge the staff closer to the theories, ideas, and practices they are proposing. To be sure the particulars of any instructional problem—the instructional preparation of the staff, the available resources, and the population to be served will always result in solutions that move the continuum of theories, ideas, and practices a bit farther from an ideal, but ultimately the staff will move towards a favored theory or practice if the discussion is navigated by an educational leader who has “prepared relentlessly” (Giuliani, 2002) for the change initiative.

            Leaders of content knowledge are not philosopher kings whose personal search for meaning will result in an idealized realization of what is true, good, and beautiful. Rather the personal journey of a leader of content knowledge provides a process for understanding what is not known about teaching and learning and a Socratic habit of questioning conventional assumptions about teaching and learning in the journey towards a common framework for solving an instructional problem.

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