Revisiting instructional leadership in action

Sask Bulletin
December 10, 2021
By Jane Macleod, Senior Manager, Research and Records

For school-based leaders, aspirations for instructional leadership seems a distant reality due to the demands of managing a school through a pandemic. Looking ahead, perhaps getting involved in a McDowell Foundation action research project may help restore the balance.

On October 5, the McDowell Foundation celebrated its 30th anniversary. Knowing Dr. Stirling McDowell’s belief in the power of classroom teaching, it’s probably not a coincidence that the anniversary serendipitously falls on World Teachers’ Day.

As an independent charitable organization, McDowell Foundation grants have enabled Saskatchewan teachers to explore their passion, innovation and creativity in support of student learning. Over three decades, McDowell has supported 321 action research projects in schools across Saskatchewan. School leaders, recognizing the contributions of action research projects to a school culture, are also celebrating this significant milestone.

The focus of McDowell research is teaching and learning in the classroom. Final reports submitted to the Foundation highlight observations from school leaders about the value of action research initiatives in their schools. According to Saskatchewan’s principals and vice-principals, McDowell projects:

  • Reignite teachers’ professional connection to what works in teaching and learning.
  • Contribute to the school-wide ethos for professional learning, teamwork and continuous improvement.
  • Facilitate teachers’ understanding of barriers and challenges evident in the learning process.
  • Demonstrate a willingness for risk-taking and engaging in collective problem solving.
  • Send a message about the relationship between data collection and planning for instruction.
  • Create opportunities for reflective conversations.
  • May invite an innovative approach for curriculum implementation.
  • Provide opportunities to re-engage and expand individual instructional leadership practices.
  • Distribute leadership within the school.
  • Address a perceived need and contribute to school improvement.
  • Send a valuable message about commitment to learning to the school community.

At a high level, action research projects fuse innovation, teamwork and energy for professional learning. At a practical level, action research projects involve a group of teachers, having identified an area of professional inquiry regarding their classroom practice, formulate a research question and work together to find an answer. Given the statistics above, Saskatchewan teachers have a lot of questions and have found as many answers.

From a leadership perspective, supporting an action research project is instructional leadership in action. The many contributions of principals and vice-principals to McDowell action research projects over three decades are worth noting. McDowell research reports attest to the many ways that principals and vice-principals champion the goals of action research in their schools.

In supporting McDowell projects, school-based leaders:

  • Model the role of lead learner and instructional leader.
  • Take time for regular conversations with the research team to understand the unique leadership role within the research plan.
  • Regularly highlight the value of the action research to ongoing professional learning.
  • Regularly highlight the contribution of action research queries to school improvement goals.
  • Spend time in classrooms interacting with teachers and students.
  • Highlight that research into teaching and learning is all about being a member of a professional learning community.
  • Share leadership as a way of shaping a culture of trust within the school community.
  • Publicly celebrate the efforts and the contributions of professional learning.

The evidence shows that McDowell action research projects give life to vision. Without question, the last two years have presented challenges to leaders’ administrative and instructional leadership roles. No one knows what the future holds; however, the importance of excellence in teaching remains steadfast.

Perhaps now is the time to reflect and consider possibilities for teaching and learning in schools beyond the pandemic. According to the McDowell Foundation website, November 30, 2021, is the deadline to indicate interest in submitting a proposal for 2022-23. McDowell research tells us one thing for sure: when teachers ask the question, the answer can indeed be close at hand.