ducation is a large piece of the puzzle policymakers consider when they try to envision future societies. Some experts imagine bringing AI into the classroom when they discuss the future of education; others are more convinced that rooting curricula in project-based learning is crucial to preparing learners for the job market of tomorrow. Regardless of the vision imagined by education experts and policymakers, the future of education is not possible if educational leadership within schools, communities, and governments is not considered.

Educational leadership is not just about principals or headteachers. Educational leadership is also not just about what happens in the school. Inside and outside of school, teachers, students, and administrators engage in relationships that inform their behavior in the classroom. For example, a student who struggles with basic arithmetic in the classroom might have learned how to count while helping his mother at the supermarket. A teacher might not just have developed her teaching methods from university or workshops at the school; she might have become a better teacher by getting advice from her coworkers. For these reasons, leadership in education needs to be understood from a multilevel, distributed perspective that informs teaching and learning from a variety of different angles.

The Importance of Distributed Leadership

According to Dr. James Spillane, professor of education at Northwestern University, one of the key components of distributed leadership in schools is what he refers to as “principal plus…the idea that the work of leadership in an organization extends beyond the person…in the principal’s office [and] involves other formal…and [informal leaders].” In short, a distributed understanding of leadership moves the emphasis away from administration and towards a larger set of actors. Spillane—along with Dr. Richard Paquin Morel and Dr. Asmaa Al-Fadala—recently coauthored a WISE report, “Educational Leadership: a Multilevel Distributed Perspective,” that argues that it’s this multilevel, distributed perspective of leadership that is needed to best understand what kinds of leaders influence schools that no longer exist as stand-alone entities.

An Aid to Multicultural Learning

In a similar vein, a distributed perspective of educational leadership is crucial in classrooms, which must accommodate learners from all over the world. When children participate in cultural practices such as dominoes, dice, bartering, rapping, dancing, or storytelling, they develop not only a sense of cultural belonging, but also a wide variety of resources that usually go untapped in school settings. Worse, some teachers might even shun students for bringing cultural practices into the classroom. A distributed view of educational leadership prompts teachers to look outside the classroom and consider the cultural resources that might have contributed to a student’s ways of knowing. For example, a student who struggles with writing in the classroom might have gleaned strong storytelling skills at home. If teachers were attuned to these cultural practices, they could better utilize student skills in the classroom.

Photo courtesy of WISE 2019.

Building Schoolhouse Relationships

Teachers participate in relationships with each other that can influence their teaching processes; leadership, after all, is “fundamentally a social process emerging from interaction.” However, this often means that teachers seek out peers of similar race, gender, and cultural origin. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as homophily, or the tendency of people to group with those who are like themselves. Homophily can dampen teachers’ ability to learn from their peers and understand different cultures and backgrounds in the classrooms. Fortunately, a distributed perspective of leadership can help inform administrators understanding of how to combat this problem. For example, by assigning a diverse group of teachers to teach a certain grade, or by giving a diverse group of staff the same work schedule, administrators can diversify the knowledge being shared between school employees.

Educating the Next Generation of Global Citizens

Distributed leadership is focused on influencing education from a wide variety of leadership positions. Its multi-faceted approach can be used to respond to a variety of challenges within the global classroom—work in global citizenship education might be next. Dr. Oakleigh Welply, a professor of education at Durham University, defines global citizenship education as utilizing an awareness of global interconnectedness to respond to challenges such as human migration and conflict. A recent WISE report, which Dr. Welply co-authored, “Evaluating the Impact of Global Citizenship Education on Young People’s Attitudes Towards Equality, Diversity, and Tolerance notes that though students seem to respond positively to global citizenship education, more research is needed. Perhaps future research in global citizenship education will utilize a distributed leadership perspective to best understand which school leaders have the strongest influence on global attitudes.

Educational leadership is just one element leading change in today’s schools. A distributed perspective of educational leadership can break cultural barriers in the classroom, build stronger teaching networks, and may even better inform an understanding of global citizenship education. And as schools continue to welcome students from across the globe, our current curricula call for a connected classroom approach. An understanding of distributed educational leadership is just one way schools can begin bridging the gap and building the future of education.

Allyson Berri
Allyson Berri is a Diplomatic Courier Correspondent whose writing focuses on global affairs and economics.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.