Leader of Content Knowledge: Public Journey

            Although it would appear that the personal journey of a leader of content knowledge is primarily a contemplative process that proceeds at a distance from the instructional problem under consideration, the ultimate success to solving an instructional problem and building a consensus for the solution demands that the leader of content knowledge spend considerable time thinking about how to implement a response to the instructional problem. Teachers will resist any change initiative that is high on ends and low on means. Teachers are, and will always be, pragmatists—they want to know what will work on Monday morning. Leaders of content knowledge must be able to provide teachers with a framework that not only explains why something will work, but the kinds of classroom particulars that make things work. In other words the personal journey informs the public journey and the public journey continually informs the personal journey.

            Administrators-as-managers approach implementation as a problem of capacity —the capacity to fund, to schedule, to purchase, to employ, to assign, and to assess. Leaders of content knowledge approach implementation as a problem of teaching and learning —knowing about the subject matter; knowing about how children learn the subject matter; knowing about how teachers can assist students in learning the subject matter; and knowing how to hold teachers accountable for changing their practices to accommodate new theories, ideas, and practices.

            When thinking about the implementation of an instructional change initiative, the leader of content knowledge first begins with a picture of what should be happening in the classroom. When this picture is clear to the educational leader, then, almost simultaneously, the leader executes the managerial steps that will align the leader’s vision with the appropriate resources and personnel. A staff, for example, may reach consensus on the establishment of a personalized learning environment that catered to the learning styles and interests for a group of disaffected students who are failing all of their subjects and not attending school. The role of the leader of content knowledge in the design process is to maintain a faithful commitment to the learning principles developed during the “personal journey” and then to provide the logistical and monetary support to accomplish the goals of the program. Throughout the implementation process, as with all other instructional improvement efforts, the leader of content knowledge must assume responsibility for both providing the proper mix of resources for furthering the change initiative and creating an environment where there is constant dialogue about the program’s response to the fundamental questions of learning.

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.

Becoming a Leader of Content Knowledge

            For the last decade policy makers and boards of education have been mandating and searching for leaders who are knowledgeable about curriculum and instruction. The name given to these school administrators is “instructional leaders.” The problem that has plagued the literature on instructional leadership is how policy makers and boards of education interpret this role. The public has largely viewed the role of instructional leader as a school administrator who effectively manages test driven curricular and instructional programs rather than assuming a leadership role in challenging the “assign/assess” (Tharp, 1993, p. 270) mode of instruction that pervades our schooling system in the United States. The essential difference between the two roles rests with their orientation towards the means and ends of an organization. Managers are rewarded for planning, directing and monitoring what is already in place and for guiding a process of continuous improvement.

            Leaders, on the other hand, assume responsibility for what the literature calls “purposing”— the ability to create the capacity, the vocabulary, and the organizational configuration for the aims of the organization to be realized in the daily functions of employees.

            While the private sector has wholeheartedly embraced the distinction between managers and leaders and are willing to offer lucrative rewards for leadership, school districts, in the words of Sergiovanni (2005), continue to be “overmanaged and underled.”

            Although governmental bodies are calling for instructional leaders to direct our schools, a cursory view of what administrators do on a daily basis reveals why the management function becomes a priority for school administrators. Parents, school boards, and students expect that their schools will operate effectively and efficiently —the buses will run on time, the bathrooms will be clean, all students will have correct schedules at the beginning of the school year, grades will be issued on time and yes, the football field will be properly lined for the Friday night game. Along with the public expectation for well-run schools, school administrators would freely admit that one could feel good about seeing and being a part of the very tangible outcomes of a well-run school.

            The same expectation for performance and satisfaction for a job well done cannot be said about the role of instructional leaders. School administrators who venture into the realm of curriculum and instruction are confronted with a formidable set of institutional, cultural, and political obstacles that will never be fully resolved, are messy to mediate, and will exert a heavy toll on those who challenge the prevailing norms of schooling in America.

            Not only must the educational leader confront public and institutional norms that are hostile to change, but also, he or she will confront these unfriendly forces with little or no training in the knowledge and skills necessary to become an instructional leader. A recent study of programs in educational leadership found that the design and implementation of the curriculum for most educational leadership programs continues to support the role of manager and provides little, if any, content regarding the kinds of knowledge and skills necessary to lead a school instructionally. The report implies that the process of becoming an instructional leader will require a highly personal journey with little assistance from institutional approaches to teaching educational administration (Levine, 2005).

            Having said that, the literature on organizational leadership is replete with examples of women and men who have orchestrated fundamental changes in the direction and the day-to-day operations of the organizations they lead. Although the portraits of these individuals exhibit a wide range of personality types, working styles, and experiences, the common attribute these leaders possess is a laser-like focus on what their organization ought to be doing and an ability to transform the ought of the organization into the everyday functions of their employees (Drucker, 2006).

            The other quality that sets these leaders apart from others in the field is their personal commitment to becoming students of their industry, whatever it might be. This quality is a dramatic departure from past organizational literature that portrayed the ideal CEO as one who had been trained in professional management theories and industrial psychology and could move easily between different kinds of businesses.

            Professional management approaches to leadership were founded on the belief that there is a set of generic knowledge and skills in “planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting” that could be applied to any organization (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 12). What industry learned a decade ago and unfortunately what recent national disasters have demonstrated is the critical importance of expert knowledge in establishing the direction of an organization and in the day-to-day decisions that must be made to implement that direction.

            In the field of education, the quality of expert knowledge has recently been termed in the literature as, “Leadership Content Knowledge” (Stein & Nelson, 2005). This “new construct” originated with Lee Schulman’s (1986) concept of “pedagogical content knowledge.” Both concepts recognize Dewey’s (1902/1990) observation that there is a significant difference between knowing a subject and teaching a subject. What is insightful about “Leadership Content Knowledge,” is the expectation that a school leader not only be able to manage the instructional change, but more importantly, take responsibility for “…some degree of understanding of the various subject matters under their purview,” (Stein & Nelson, 2005, p. 424) so they can have a “…grasp on where expertise resides in relation to particular tasks and then to arrange environments that make interactive learning possible” (Stein & Nelson, 2005, p. 426).

            The leader of content knowledge is expected to carry on simultaneously the management function of instructional improvement —the old instructional leadership role— and the teaching function of instructional improvement —which requires that the educational leader insert themselves into the trenches of an instructional improvement effort and confront the day-to-day problems of “how to teach the subject matter, and how students learn the subject matter” (Stein & Nelson, 2005, p. 426).

            What is missing from this new construct of “administrators-as-teachers” (Stein & Nelson, 2005, p. 426) are concrete examples of how an administrator transforms himself or herself from their traditional role as an instructional leader to a leader of content knowledge. There are no institutional approaches to becoming a leader of content knowledge and, even if there were, the highly contextual nature of any instructional improvement would defy efforts to create a curriculum for becoming a “leader of content knowledge.” While the research and institutional curricular are silent on the process for developing leaders of content knowledge, there are abundant writings on effective leaders in particular fields or industries who acknowledged the value of knowing their fields well and knowing how that knowledge of the “content” became the core competency for realizing the goals of the organization.

            The subject of next four Blogs will draw upon the experiences of these “leaders of content knowledge” to develop a hypothetical model that a school leader might emulate to become a leader of content knowledge. The model that I propose is framed as a series of journeys—each journey informs the other journey and like all journeys can lead to unexpected destinations.


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Newmann, F., Smith, B., Allensworth, E., Bryk, A. (2001). Instructional program coherence: What it is and why it should guide school improvement policy. Educational evaluation and policy anlaysis 23(4), 297 – 321.

Schulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15, 4-14

Schwab, J. J. (1978). Science, curriculum, and liberal education: selected essays. (I. Westbury and N. Wilkof [Eds]), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (2005). Strengthening the heartbeat: Leading and learning together in schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., & Diamond, J. B. (2001). Investigating school leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Educational Researcher 30(3), 23- 28.

Stein, M.K., & Nelson, B. K. (2003). Leadership content knowledge. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(4), pp. 423 – 448.

Tharp, R. (1993). Institutional and social context of educational practice and reform. In E. Forman, N. Minick, & C. A. Stone (Eds.), Contexts for learning: Sociocultural dynamics in children’s development. (pp. 269 – 282), New York: Oxford University Press.

The Education Schools Project. (2005, March). Educating school leaders. Washingtion, DC. Arthur Levine

RESPONSE TO: Alarmed by A.I. Chatbots, Universities Start Revamping How They Teach

Well finally…it took AI to force teachers at all levels to rethink and redesign how and what they teach. For decades, no centuries, teachers at all levels have used the traditional essay or term paper designed around gathering information using traditional research tools to address traditional academic questions and problems. Few if any of these traditional academic products aligned well with real world products or real world problems. I for decades both in high school and then at the university level, where teachers and professors complained about rabid plagiarism, implored staff to redesign their courses around real world problems and products that demanded original ideas and presentation formats. So, my hats off to AI that are forcing the teaching profession to rethink and redesign antiquated pedagogical formats.



The fundamentals of institutional schooling—curriculum, instruction, goals— have been, for over three decades, outdated. Students study a curriculum developed in 1894; they sit in classrooms for over six hours days ignoring basic developmental/biological needs of children and adolescence; they listen to a teacher transmitting large amounts of information that can easily be found on google; they take a Friday teacher made test that for the most part are neither valid or reliable; and they are told they are being prepared for a job market that, according to labor statistics, will demand a change in skills at least eleven times.

Surveys of student attitudes towards their schooling have for over a decade confirm what most parents find out over dinner tables—school is boring and irrelevant. The only extrinsic card left in the motivational deck is a transactional one—you need good grades to get into college. Schools long ago have given up on providing educational environments that are transformational–goals that are written into all school mission statements. These goals were taken seriously by a group of progressive educators at the turn of the century, but, their voices were silenced by a powerful group of “administrative progressives,” who prized efficiency and accountability over autonomy and responsibility.

You could fill libraries with books—some of which I have written (see URL below)—on how to design instructional environments that better serve the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of children and adolescence. Sadly, we have an educational establishment and political class that never question the fundamentals of institutional schooling, and instead, merely double down on thinking up various carrots and sticks to lure or force students into environments poorly designed to develop the diverse abilities and interests of children and adolescence.