Revisiting the basics

November 26, 2019
By Jane Macleod, Senior Manager, Research and Records

Instructional leadership is a ubiquitous term. There are no end to the number of books, journal articles, websites and blogs dedicated to this topic, each underscoring the critical importance of the instructional leader’s role and offering tips and hints for today’s busy school principals. Easier said than done I suspect.

Given the reality of the principal’s harried work life, making and finding time for instructional leadership is a challenge and begs the question: are there basic and/or essential elements of instructional leadership that are known to have a profound influence on the teaching and learning in schools today?

The short answer is, yes.

A recent article by Mike Schmoker, entitled Focusing on the Essentials (Educational Leadership, September 2019), reminds us about the decisive and positive impact of curriculum knowledge, sound instruction and professional learning to student learning.

Schmoker submits that this trilogy of competencies should be an essential part of every teacher’s repertoire and that principals are well advised to hone their instructional leadership skills in each of these three areas.

1. Curriculum knowledge. There is an abundance of research attesting to the importance of a clear, coherent and relevant curriculum. However, without the teacher’s professional touch, the curriculum is merely a document. Guided by their training, experience and knowledge of the students, teachers work with their colleagues to adapt the curriculum so that it meets the diverse needs of their students.

Therefore, essential tasks for today’s instructional leader are to engage teachers in practical conversations about “what they are teaching and when,” and to ensure teachers have the necessary resources to support the curriculum outcomes.

2. Sound instruction. Fullan and Quinn (2016) call this “precision in pedagogy.” Teachers demonstrate pedagogical precision when they ensure that instructional decisions (i.e., strategies, procedures, assessments etc.) are purposeful and evidence-based. Teachers’ expertise in instruction and assessment, along with their capacity to adapt or adjust depending on the context, are both critical and well-accepted elements of sound instruction.

Given the intensive nature of classrooms today, it is essential that instructional leaders ensure that teachers, individually and collaboratively, have time to review and reflect on student data and carefully plan their instructional approaches to maximize student engagement with their learning.

3. Professional learning. Creating a culture that emphasizes and enriches curriculum understanding and instructional practice requires ongoing opportunities for professional learning. Dylan Wiliam (2016) tells us that effective professional learning allows teachers to learn something new (e.g., content, strategy, approach etc.) so that they can more effectively respond to students’ learning needs.

Given the diversity of talent and expertise in Saskatchewan schools today, embedding ongoing professional learning into a school’s culture requires that instructional leaders know how to help teachers identify areas for growth and development that will result in improved learning for their students.

In summary, the vital importance of curriculum knowledge, sound instruction and professional learning to student learning is certainly not a new or radical idea. A quick perusal of most educational leadership textbooks, websites or seminars will very likely include references and ideas on how principals can polish their instructional leadership skills.

Today’s school leaders, inundated with administrative tasks and professional responsibilities, can easily feel overwhelmed and attending to instructional leadership tasks can often fall to the bottom of the list. Finding and taking time to focus on these three basic elements can shine a light on what many call the most rewarding part of the principal’s role.