School leaders cannot thrive by e-learning alone

11th February 2011 at 00:00

As I write this, I am working in Lahore with a group of senior staff from a private Pakistan school system known as the City School. Our theme is leadership development. We are designing, not for the first time, continuing professional development for groups of senior teachers. The programme is based on a mixture of contact days, self-study materials, reading and mentored work-based action projects.

Some of my input is based on materials from the Journey to Excellence initiative developed by HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland; and it is not the first time I have used these in Pakistan. There are a range of materials on the LTS and HMIE websites: readings, self-reflective exercises and videos of good practice.

Together, they form a formidable resource, and my previous experience is that senior Pakistan teachers have found them useful, even inspirational. So they certainly have had an influence on the City School (a body the size of a moderately large Scottish education authority with about 300 schools and 3,000 teachers).

Whether they have had an effect on any of Scotland's 32 education authorities is less clear. Most local authority staff to whom I have spoken think not; and most school staff to whom I have spoken have not heard of the materials. Why is this?

First, the sheer volume of material is overwhelming; navigating one's way around them, and deciding what to use and what to discard is a major task. I can do that because I am paid to do it. For, say, an aspiring head to do that and fit it around the day job would be a real challenge, and probably a frustrating and dispiriting one.

Second, we know that online material intended for individual self-study is largely ineffective (except possibly for some tightly-defined skills enhancement) when that is the only mode in which learning can be accessed. Embed it within other CPD experiences (face-to-face interaction with other students, some mentoring support) and the picture is rather different. That is precisely what the training designers in the City School decided to do.

To use the jargon, "blended learning" can work well. Which is why, from its very start, the Open University "blended" its distance-learning study packs and radio and TV broadcasts with Saturday schools, summer schools, tutorials and tutor-counselling support. Within UHI, even the courses that are "online" have face-to-face induction days, online tutor contact and discussion groups (none of which feature in the Journey to Excellence approach).

The concept that individual study of e-learning materials can, on its own, produce a new generation of school leaders for Scottish schools is a delusion. We do not learn interpersonal or team-building or meeting- management skills by sitting in front of a computer screen.

I suggested to the Donaldson inquiry on teacher education that leadership development materials will have very little effect if they are deployed only in their current mode. My evidence was in vain. Instead, Teaching Scotland's Future, quite accurately but entirely misleadingly, talks only about the high quality of the materials.

My Pakistani colleagues sometimes lack confidence in their abilities, which is why Westerners such as I end up working with them in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. I must tell them that, at least when it comes to developing school leaders, they are well ahead of the Scottish game.

Iain Smith was formerly dean of education at Strathclyde University.

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