Leading Learners, Leading Schools
reviewed by Kristina A. Hesbol - 2004
Robin Brooke-Smith writes a compelling book about school leadership grounded in the reality of experience in the field, having served as a principal of two unique schools. He knows first-hand of the escalating challenges faced by school leaders in today’s turbulent times. Continuous clashes of cultures typify the context which instructional leaders delicately attempt to navigate. On one hand, accountability from state and federal mandates demands external indicators of improvement, predominantly increased test scores. In contrast, in this book the author provides the reader with provocative/contemplative questions which frame a conversation about deep understanding, systems thinking, and organizational change – central tenets of a genuine learning organization (Senge, 1990).
Brooke-Smith asserts with conviction that school leaders need to consider a paradigmatic shift by exploring the non-linear development which characterizes dynamic organizations. Leading Learners, Leading Schools is a unique text – an innovative synthesis of instructional best practice within a compelling scaffold of complexity theory.
The book is developed in six chapters, each balanced with both theory and empirical examples from the author’s own experience. It concludes with eight pragmatic lessons for leading schools under non-linear conditions. In the first chapter, the author concisely builds a case for new approaches to school leadership. He discusses such complex issues as the management of both organizational and individual anxiety, previously unexamined in the leadership literature. While organizational change is ubiquitous, Brooke-Smith surfaces the mental models about anxiety as an outcome of change and identifies its overt management as integral to the institutionalization of deep change within a school culture. He is clear about the fact that schools are, in fact, increasingly complex, interdependent systems which are sensitive to both internal and external influence. He describes information-gathering, processing, and recycling as key elements of complex adaptive systems, a concept which has significant impact on decision-making processes for school leaders. He supports opportunities for ideas to clash as “the very breath of a dynamical system.” Anyone who has served as a school leader has experienced such conflicts but may never have welcomed them. Brooke-Smith provides manna for ground-breaking leadership by inviting the reader to consider such prospects which run counter to the traditional management wisdom.
In the second chapter, the author introduces the work of Margaret Wheatley (1999). Her work with organizations criticizes the Newtonian-Cartesian positivist world view, in favor of a paradigm supported by Chaos and Complexity Theory. She invites leaders to consider the reality of schools as non-linear and dynamic, so complex that they are unpredictable by definition. The hallmarks of complex systems include a balance between order and chaos, between stability and change. Understanding that schools are open systems provides insight about the lack of success met by leaders relying on the traditional scientific approach, so familiar for at least the past century.
Chapter 3 describes Dynamical Systems Theory. Central to this model is the insight that schools function most successfully when their internal feedback mechanisms interface with both the internal and external environments. The system and its environment must be free to co-evolve, explaining the counterproductivity of countless reform efforts forced on schools and districts without carefully assessing the unique components of the system itself. Argyris and Schon’s work (1978) with theory-in-use and Argyris’ work (1999) with double-loop learning are cornerstones of the learning organization. In this chapter, Brooke-Smith criticizes the technical-rational approach to school improvement, suggesting instead that schools would benefit significantly from the implementation of dynamical systems theory. This construct resonates with the work of Grogan (2000), whose theory of school leadership is grounded in feminist scholarship which casts the role of ambiguity in leadership in a positive light. While the author incorporated diverse literatures on chaos and complexity theory to help the reader understand his paradigm, additional work from feminist and postmodern contributions to the school leadership literature would have provided the reader with additional tools from which to construct meaning.
Micro-politics is often central to the demise of innovative school leaders. In Chapter 4, Brooke-Smith explores the “shadow system,” and delves into organizational psychodynamics and micro-politics, weaving specific scenarios from his own principalships to illuminate abstract concepts. Table 4.1, States of control parameters at the three states of the organization, is an example of the graphics included to support the reader’s understanding. The author proposes a new question at the end of this chapter:
How can we understand and make sense of our schools and their unpredictable nature?
Such questions form the locus of powerful collaborative inquiry among communities of learners, and instructional leaders should be trained to regularly facilitate such dialogue.
“Deep Learning and Professional Development in the Learning Organization” is the topic of Chapter 5, and Wheatley’s work (1992) reverberates again:
First, I no longer believe that organizations can be changed by imposing a model developed elsewhere. So little transfers to, or even inspires, those trying to work at change in their own organizations (p. 83).
Brooke-Smith establishes a cogent rationale for examining alternatives to the traditional “sit and get” sessions which have inadvertently been termed “professional development,” including a succinct argument against historical attempts at strategic planning. He builds a case for staff development to flow in a model congruent with Argyris’ (1999) double feedback loop, through which all staff exercises their leadership, as well as their responsibility for the success of the school community. In the final section, he details ten lessons for school leaders, synthetic products of his theoretical underpinnings and pragmatic field testing from his own experience. Each recommendation moves a school organization into a more creative state, accepting – and welcoming – the unpredictability which defines schools as a fulcrum for deep change and growth.
Each chapter of Leading Learners, Leading Schools opens with a provocative quote. Senge’s quote (1999) which opens the Introduction serves to summarize the essence of Brooke-Smith’s compelling examination of a new leadership world view:
Perhaps treating schools like machines keeps them from changing, or makes changing them more difficult. We keep bringing in mechanics, when what we need are gardeners. We keep trying to drive changes, when what we need to do is cultivate change.
This book is a valuable addition to the professional libraries of school administrators, both aspiring and seated, as well as for faculty engaged in rethinking the preparation of new leaders for new schools.
Argyris, C. and Schon, D. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective.
Argyris, C. (1999). (2nd edition). On organizational learning.
Grogan, M. (2000). Laying the groundwork for a preconception of the superintendency from feminist postmodern perspectives. Educational Administration Quarterly, 36 (1), 117-142.
Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization.
Senge, P.M. (1999, May). Learning for a change. Fast Company.
Wheatley, M.J. (1992). Leadership and the new science: Learning about organizations from an orderly universe.
Wheatley, M.J. (1999). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world.