Why good leadership is so important in Hong Kong schools
Principals need to understand how teachers teach and students study, and create an environment that fosters and rewards learning
School leadership is crucial for the realisation of educational vision. And it involves different aspects.
First, the curriculum leadership of school heads. It is good to have a lofty vision, but implementation must take place by design.
In recent years, school heads have been consulted by the authorities as well as teachers in their schools on what subjects to offer or cut, what to teach in certain subjects, such as liberal studies or Chinese history, and how they should be taught. They have also talked about how IT should be used to help teaching, how to organise other learning experiences, and life and career planning for the students.
There is often school-based curriculum to develop, too. They have to decide what is best educationally for their students.
All this calls for particular leadership from the school head, who needs fundamental knowledge about curriculum design, implementation, evaluation and change. They also need to seek subject and curriculum expertise, inside and outside school, and work with these experts to take the curriculum forward towards the desired goals.
While curriculum leadership mostly entails what to offer students in school, instructional leadership addresses how it should be done.
This second leadership perspective not only concerns teaching, but also learning. The success of educational reform hinges on unpacking the black box of classroom teaching and learning and finding ways to improve both.
In recent years, Hong Kong classrooms have been "forced" open to inspection or lesson observation for both formative and normative assessment. Principals have to grasp the skills of evaluating lessons professionally. Assessment should not be based on personal experiences or preferences, but on research and best practice. They also need to possess post-observation conferencing skills to help the teacher being observed improve their skills and motivation. This has become commonplace.
What needs further investigation is learning itself. School heads and teachers should know how students learn. They should tap into the knowledge base of learning, and observe learning taking place. Instructional leadership means much more than mere lesson observation. It also involves setting up mechanisms and systems for lesson observations and subsequent discussions as well as fostering a learning culture by modelling or rewarding learning behaviour, not to mention monitoring student assessment.
If the core business of the school is learning and teaching, the third leadership perspective addresses the question: "In what school environment, physical and cultural, and under what working conditions is learning and teaching taking place?"
Research shows that principals cannot directly affect students' learning outcomes, but can indirectly and positively have an impact on them by making the school environment physically more learning-orientated, user-friendly and culturally more conducive to learning and professional development.
They can also make teachers' working conditions more humane and school life more rewarding and challenging by helping them embrace risk-taking and experimentation in new pedagogies. That calls for cultural leadership to also help make the paradigm shifts from the traditional teacher-centered instruction to more student- and learning-centered teaching.
Vision realisation does not happen in a vacuum or as a result of sloganeering. It needs both structural and cultural change and a new emphasis on learning in school as a prime value. That requires transformational leadership, whereby more teacher leaders are nurtured and empowered to share in leading changes in curriculum and instruction.
Principals need to become lead learners in schools. They should not only understand more about effective learning and teaching, but also know how to turn the entire school into a professional learning community. School heads need to tae advanced courses in the concerned areas, as well as experiential learning, like trying out new things or learning from their peers through interactions in learning circles, networks and professional communities or visits to other schools.
Robin Cheung is a retired school principal