Leading and Learning in the Digital Age: Framing and Understanding School Leader Challenges

Leading and Learning in the Digital Age: Framing and Understanding School Leader Challenges

Patricia Maslin-Ostrowski (Florida Atlantic University, USA) and Eleanor Drago-Severson (Teachers College, Columbia University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6046-5.ch048


This chapter investigates how Heifetz's (1994) model, applied to the work of school leaders, has led to key insights. The framework helps practitioners and education leadership faculty who teach aspiring and practicing school leaders better understand the nature of adaptive and technical challenges that leaders encounter day-to-day and their approach to making sense of them, managing them, and helping other adults to do the same. The authors employ the adaptive-technical analytic framework to examine a case that is representative of real world problems that leaders have been wrestling with, based on their prior research. Through Heifetz's lens, the authors deconstruct the case to illustrate how framing the problem as adaptive and/or technical directly informs the leader's work. Embedded reflective questions create opportunities for readers to pause and apply this model to Principal Georgina's case. The authors encourage leaders to apply a framework and questions like this in their unique milieus.
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With the explosion of technology in the digital age, access has eased work—in many ways—in that educational leaders everywhere can instantly connect to their stakeholders, tap resources from around the globe with the click of a key board and create learning communities without the constraints of brick and mortar. This is what we call the “light” side of technology. We want to acknowledge that advances in technology have enriched the work of leading and learning.

And yet, as much as life has changed in our post-modern society, there are enduring issues, imminent challenges, and struggles that school leaders around the world find difficult to manage even “on-line” and with the aid of technology. What we mean is that even with the astonishing help of technology, we’ve learned that leadership challenges are becoming increasingly complex. For example, school leaders must meet urgent challenges associated with changing demographics and high levels of poverty that are difficult to address despite the advances of technology today (Jacobson et al., 2005; Mulford et al., 2008). In addition, leaders are confronted with challenges like establishing strategic partnerships, implementing new performance reviews and new accountability standards, as well as recruiting and retaining good teachers (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2002; Drago-Severson, 2004, 2009, 2012; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Wagner, 2007). Thus, such challenges demand more of leaders and stakeholders— in spite of the aid of technology that bridges and enhances communication—and makes so much more possible.

The challenges leaders encounter today are often unpredictable—maybe even more than in the past. In addition, we’ve learned that these challenges are ones for which—as leaders in our longitudinal research (2008-present) have shared—there are no formal leadership preparation formulas, and few effective professional development opportunities for leaders-in-practice that would help them to a) understand their unique challenges, b) effectively manage them, and c) work through them in ways that would simultaneously help them to cope and use them as an opportunity to support growth and learning—their own and other adults as well (Barber, 2006; Byrne-Jiménez & Orr, 2007; Donaldson, 2008; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris, & Hopkins, 2013; Townsend & MacBeath, 2011). Compounding the challenges, leaders are often under pressure from external mandates and accountability policies, though likely different kinds of mandates and accountability issues depending upon their local contexts (Drago-Severson, Maslin-Ostrowski, & Hoffman, 2011; 2012; Leithwood & Beatty, 2007).

To face up to problems and meet challenges, leaders must support their own and others’ learning in different ways. Heifetz (1994) created a framework that distinguishes between what he calls technical (e.g., fixing the master schedule) and adaptive (e.g., meeting new accountability standards). This framework helps us—practitioners and education leadership faculty, who teach aspiring and practicing school leaders—better understand the nature of challenges that leaders encounter day-to-day and their approach to making sense of them, managing them, and helping other adults in their care to do the same. School leaders with whom we’ve had the gift of learning with and from have repeatedly shared that understanding the distinctions in Heifetz’s framework between the different types of challenges is “incredibly meaningful” and helps them and other adults in their communities to better understand and tackle issues. Our hope is that this is useful to you and those in your care as well.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Heifetz’s Model: A framework for understanding better the adaptive and technical components of a leader’s challenge. This framing (i.e., classification of technical or adaptive) can guide how a leader approaches the work.

Work Phases: Leaders’ work often progresses in distinct phases or stages as they address technical problems and adaptive challenges. Thus, over time, the focus of the work may change from technical to adaptive or vice versa.

Technical Problems: The pressing problems that school leaders encounter in their work that can be defined (i.e., they are clearly identifiable) and for which solutions do exist (i.e., they may be within the repertoire of the leader or they may be accessible through experts). Thus, in other words, even if the leader does not possess the expertise there are experts who have the needed skills and knowledge to solve the problem. This kind of problem usually means that roles and norms will remain stable.

Leader Challenges: The important problems and issues that school leaders identify as pressing in their work and that are difficult to resolve.

Mindset: Put simply, these are our own unique mental models about how things in the world and the world itself work. It shapes our beliefs and behaviors; in other words, it is our reality, which we often take for granted and do not question.

Adaptive Challenges: The pressing issues that school leaders encounter in their work that are difficult to define (i.e., murky) and for which there are no preexisting solutions (i.e., these require leaders and stakeholders to learn while they are in the process of managing the challenge). Thus, leaders must identify the nature of the challenge in order to determine how best to proceed. This kind of challenge usually means that roles and/or norms will change.

Internal Capacity: Social-emotional, cognitive, affective abilities that each individual has and that can increase if a person works, lives, leads, teaches within conditions (i.e., supports and challenges) that nurture this kind of growth.

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