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Understanding and Responding to the Larger Societal Context

Dr. Garry McKinnon

It has been a very challenging and invigorating experience for me to prepare this series of blogs on the Alberta Education Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders. I have enjoyed the opportunity to share my thoughts on school leadership with the school administrators involved in the Alberta Association of Public Charter schools project on school leadership during this current school year which was funded by Alberta Education. The challenge was to explore school leadership using the Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders as a framework through a series of workshops, administrator exchanges, personal reflections, and the exchanging of ideas through blogs and informal dialogue.
The goal was to develop a deeper understanding of school leadership in the context of realities encountered on a day-to-day basis by school leaders and to identify insights which could be shared with other school leaders in regard to making the Alberta Education framework for school leadership a living document. From my perspective it has been a very good process and I have gained some valuable insights through the dialogue and feedback I have received on my blogs. I must emphasize that in writing the blogs my goal was to reflect on my experiences in school leadership over the past 44 years and to generate ongoing dialogue. My blogs on the seven competencies for school leadership have been posted on the Calgary Science School website Connect! Blog and the blogger website which was created for the participants in the Alberta Charter School leadership project. All of these blogs as well as some others I have written on school leadership are available at . In this blog I will make reference to the seventh of the school leadership competencies. I welcome your feedback as I continue my journey of developing a deeper understanding of school leadership. 

The seventh of the Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders makes reference to the principal’s role in understanding and responding appropriately to the political, social, economic, legal and cultural contexts impacting the school. Descriptors related to this leadership dimension highlight the principal’s role in being an advocate for the needs and interests of children and youth, demonstrating a knowledge of local national and global issues and trends related to education and assessing and responding to the unique and diverse community needs in the context of the school’s vision and mission. There was a time when the school principal was primarily responsible for her/his school and there was not much contact beyond the school; just as teachers operated in relative isolation in their own classrooms. We recognize now that student learning must go beyond the confines of the classroom if we are to be successful in authentically and meaningfully engaging them as learners. We know that students today bring much greater diversity in learning needs and capabilities than what has ever been experienced in the past. There is greater cultural and contextual diversity among our students and more diversity in learning needs and backgrounds. We need to recognize the impact of technology on our young people; they interact and socialize in different ways; they are multi-taskers who are comfortable with using a variety of technological applications and they present a changing context for teachers who are responsible for addressing curricular expectations in a manner which is authentic, meaningful and engaging for all students. The Alberta Education mandate to develop students as engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit and the associated competencies for 21st-century learning highlight this changing focus in learning and teaching in our schools. We recognize that students no longer learn in isolation and in order to prepare them for the interconnected, globally-influenced world in which we live, we need to provide opportunities for them to become effective in learning collaboratively and working with others as active participating co-learners.
Similarly, we recognize that we must change the predominant mode of teachers working in isolation which has prevailed through the years. We know that collaboratively we can accomplish so much more than any of us can achieve individually. We need to provide opportunities for teachers to learn together and learn from each other within the school and beyond. The challenge for school leaders is to work with teachers in creating a culture of collaboration within every classroom, throughout the school and with other professional colleagues wherever they may be. School leaders can no longer operate in isolation and they must assume responsibility for understanding the changing nature of schools and the broader educational and societal context impacting the school. We recognize that we will not be able to achieve the very exciting vision for transforming education in Alberta articulated through the Alberta Education Inspiring Education vision which was developed through an in-depth consultative process. I believe there is strong support in our schools for this vision and a growing recognition throughout our province that we need to respond to the changing global context in education and to establish Alberta as a leader in creating a knowledge society in which our students develop new competencies related to being engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit. Based on what I have observed in the Calgary Science School of the work of our students, teachers and school leaders this vision for the transformation of education is not only desirable, but is as well, most certainly achievable.

This is an exciting time in education in Alberta. I appreciate the consultative process involved in setting a new direction for education in Alberta through Inspiring Education and the commitment of our Minister of Education the Hon. Jeff Johnson and the Alberta Education staff to make it happen. There are number of worthwhile initiatives which have been undertaken by Alberta education including the:

  • Framework of competencies for 21st-century learners and the focus on inclusion and making it possible for each and every student to experience success-through diverse teaching strategies to meet the diverse needs of our students; 
  • Restructuring of curriculum work to enable changes in teaching practices and promote strategies to increase the level of engagement of all students as learners 
  • Research focus and the emphasis on developing research-informed practices 
  • Work being done on outlining teacher and school leader competencies consistent with the Inspiring Education focus on engaged thinkers, and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit. 

We are well-positioned to work together to set a new direction in education in Alberta. I am convinced that leadership at the school level will be the key to success in achieving these exciting goals. We can have all kinds of impressive frameworks, plans and strategies in place, but if we do not engage our teachers in sharing best practices and pursuing a shared vision of what we hope to achieve in meeting the diverse needs of our students and dealing with the changing context for learning, there will be no significant change. We need to open the doors of our classrooms, take the roofs off our schools, share best practices and learn with and from each other in a culture of collaboration at the classroom, school, jurisdiction and provincial level. The seventh leadership competency which emphasizes the role of the principal in understanding and responding appropriately to the bigger picture in education is extremely important as we propose to promote and facilitate a transformation in education in Alberta.

In keeping with the thrust of the seventh leadership competency, “Understanding and Responding to the Larger Societal Context and in this final blog on the school leadership competencies I will make reference to the other competencies and the entire Alberta Education framework for Professional Practice Competencies in presenting the following action strategies for a transformation in education:

Action Strategies for a Transformation in Education 

  1. Develop and Articulate a Shared Vision for Implementing the Inspiring Education Agenda - We need to engage everyone involved in and impacted by the work of our schools including Alberta Education, universities, school and school jurisdiction leaders, teachers, students, parents and community members in a process of making meaning of the Alberta Education Inspiring Education agenda. Traditionally, education has been left up to the educators; we now realize that the transformative agenda for creating a knowledge society impacts everyone and should be everyone's priority.
  2. Make Teaching Practices Open and Public-If we are going to move beyond the celebration of exemplars and best practices and to establish new practices, we need to move away from the idea of teaching as a solo/isolated activity, to a more public, collaborative model. We need to open the doors of our classrooms, take the roofs off our schools and seize every opportunity to explore best practices and to learn with and from each other. 
  3. Provide Well-informed, Supportive Leadership - Certainly it is critical that leaders in education at all levels develop a deep understanding of: societal changes; the impact of digital technologies; the increasing diversity of learning needs; the challenge of authentically engaging all students and providing opportunities for success and the need to provide leadership in learning globally. Leaders in education at all levels will need to be very good at telling the story and working collaboratively with others in developing a shared vision and commitment to action. 
  4. Actively Involve Students in Directing Their Own Learning- We need to develop new approaches for hearing the student voice and actively involving students in sharing feedback about their learning experiences to enable their teachers to develop and implement diverse pedagogical strategies designed to better meet their needs. As well, students should be encouraged to take ownership for their learning as active members in the process. 
  5. Create a Culture of Collaboration at all Levels in Education-We have seen the tremendous benefits for teachers of: having open classrooms with frequent visitors and opportunities for pedagogical dialogue; mentoring student teachers; collaborative planning and team teaching; sharing best practices and learning from others and having opportunities for participating in rich professional development activities with an emphasis on co-learning and co-creating through job-embedded learning experiences. In fact, creating a culture of collaboration at all levels in education is the key to successfully achieving the transformational goals articulated in Inspiring Education. 
  6. Partner with Universities in Enhancing Teacher Preparation and Professional Learning Experiences - If we are to bring about significant changes in education, schools and school jurisdictions we need to partner with university teacher preparation programs to provide learning experiences for our future teachers in classrooms similar to those we have highlighted as exemplars. Universities can serve a major role as change agents through providing teacher preparation experiences and supporting ongoing, job-embedded, professional learning opportunities and establishing new structures to build the capacity of teachers and school administrators. 
  7. Recognizing the Important Role for Technology as a Means to an End Rather Than an End in Itself - We need to recognize that technology in itself is not the change we are pursuing, but technology can certainly change how teachers teach and students learn. We have seen many rich examples of learning and teaching being enhanced through the appropriate use of technology for communication, research, collaboration and learning. 
  8. Celebrate Diversity as a Feature of our Classrooms - We need to think not only in terms of addressing the diverse needs of learners, but also promoting diversity in teaching practices designed to intellectually engage and meet the needs of all learners. 
  9. Work Together in Making Fundamental Changes in Curriculum and our Approach in Developing Learner Competencies-Educators should work together in making structural changes relating to curriculum and the competencies for 21st-century learners, which address the problems of fragmentation and enable teachers to explore the curriculum in a meaningful, engaging manner and to use a variety of teaching strategies to meet the diverse needs of their students. 
  10. Promote Research and the Development of Research-informed Pedagogical Practices- We have seen the efficacy of conducting various forms of research and fostering research-informed practices. There is tremendous potential for more actively engaging teachers as action researchers and working closely with universities through opportunities such as the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) to conduct research related to new approaches to learning and teaching in keeping with the spirit of Inspiring Education and to openly share the learning experiences and the findings with others. 

As always, I welcome your feedback, thoughts and ideas related to this and my other blogs on school leadership. Although this is my final blog in the series relating to the Alberta Education Professional Practice competencies for school leaders my journey of exploration and attempting to develop a deeper understanding of school leadership will continue and I will continue to embrace opportunities to learn with and learn from others.

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