Reaction: Distributed Leadership & Systems of Practice

Aren’t these beautiful, mathematical systems?

Readings this week:

Halverson, R. (201?). Systems of Practice: How Leaders Use Artifacts to Create Professional Community in Schools.

Spillane, J., Halverson, R., Diamond, J. (2004). Towards a theory of leadership practice: a distributed perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies. 36 (1): 3-34.

I’ve read so much in the past four months (more than I have in the past 10 years) that sometimes I lose track of what I wanted to come to graduate school to study in the first place. The readings this week took me right back to questions I wrote in my personal statement: “How can a system-wide professional growth model be designed that inspires a professional culture? Is cultivating passionate and engaged teachers enough to shift an institution? What other structures or leadership opportunities do teachers need to feel connected?”

The distributed perspective for leadership presented by Spillane et al. proposes that leadership is never limited to one person alone. It is distributed across actors, tools, and context. The relevant level of analysis for the practice of leadership is the tasks that leaders do. Changing the practice of leadership thus begins with changing the tasks and routinizing these new tasks, eventually rooting the changes into the norms or culture of the organization. What resonates most with me is the fact that distributed leadership is both a way to see leadership and a way to change it. 

Halverson’s writing about systems of practice gives me a new way to see what is happening in schools and a new way to think about change. In technology and leadership class last semester, we talked about the common professional development formats of an “intervention,” where a certain program is implemented regardless of the people or context. In contrast, the proposition of professional community as a “social network of practice organized around sharing and developing instructional expertise and practice” (p.13) absolutely puts the people themselves as the focus. Two quotes that illustrate this well are, “it was when teachers started talking about their teaching” (p.34) and “the artifacts themselves are not the answer” (p.40). This latter quote in particular is haunting, because I think it’s natural to want to find what others had success with and then bring it back to your own school. Clearly there is space for received artifacts and sharing of best practices, but the test will be how the professional community adopts it, not the brilliance of the program itself.

Finally, two ideas that I’m holding onto from last week’s class and the readings are the leaders who take mandates or policies and use them to improve the system beyond compliance (like Williams using SIP) and the importance of making teaching and learning public (deprivatization of practice) for improvement.

(If you like the drawings above, you should check out Vi Hart, her mathematical doodling, and her Dragon Logarithms.)

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