Perspectives on: When leadership aligns with learning and teaching

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A guest blog from Paul Gentle of the Leadership Foundation as part of our 'Perspectives on' series

On a visit this week to Glasgow School of Art, I was struck by the strength of alignment between the leadership of the institution and the learning experience of its students.

There was evidence, in the language and behaviour of those I met, of what I would describe as a strong orientation towards learning and development. The same values and practices that applied to a strong sense of belief in the potential for students to succeed also seemed to pertain to the views managers held about trusting and empowering their staff.

It was clear that the School of Art had moved from a former prevailing mindset which favoured micromanagement and control towards one which was redolent of collaboration, partnership and distributed leadership.

The first of three strategic aims is simply called ‘Learning’. It is defined as ‘achieving excellence and leadership in student-centred, studio-based learning’, and this clear proposition for both students and staff is measured through high retention rates, wider participation by students from deprived backgrounds, student satisfaction and graduate employment.

So what underlying principles are at work in this compelling statement of aligned ambition?

Graham Gibbs argues (in 2010’s Dimensions of Quality) that positive student outcomes are achieved through providing challenge and support within a motivational and collaborative setting. I propose that this also needs to apply if institutions are to bring about positive staff outcomes: including a productive, happy workforce. In neither case is it sufficient to use methods from tired and tested management toolkits; these conditions can only be realised through effective leadership.

It’s worth looking at the research evidence which demonstrates the pedagogical principles whose adherence leads to learning gains for students. These include:

  • Collaboration among students
  • Active learning
  • Prompt feedback
  • Emphasis on prioritising time on task
  • Communicating high expectations
  • Respecting diverse talents and ways of learning

Only substitute the word ‘students’ with ‘staff’, and which of these does not apply to positive staff outcomes?

Yet how many business schools and their departments actually manage to embody these behaviours in their lived-out practices?

We know all about the welter of bureaucratic processes, managerialist tactics and organisational politics which hold us back and make these ideal-sounding approaches seem like an unattainable luxury. But do we understand the extent to which practices can change through influential leadership, and that such leadership can come at least as much from those without formal positional power as it can from those whose job titles designate them as managers?

Deans and Heads of Department can set the tone by modelling behaviours which challenge a status quo of disbelief or cynicism. They have a remit which enables them to establish and nurture workplace climates which are genuinely supportive of learning and development for all members of the academic enterprise, staff and students alike.

Course leaders, programme directors and their teams can do the same. Individual lecturers can make a difference when they begin to design learning experiences which incorporate the pedagogical principles associated with learning gains, and when they align what they expect from students with what they expect from themselves and their colleagues: in Gandhi’s words, ‘be the change you want to see in others’.

Staff and students at Glasgow School of Art are lucky to have a head of institution and a senior team who understand the importance of alignment. But it’s not necessary to wait, or to hold up our hands in despair if the same doesn’t apply in our own institution.

It may be enough to start by expressing belief in the potential of our students and colleagues. Or by experimenting with new, engaging approaches to learning. Or having the courage to offer constructive feedback to someone we work with.

The single external quote in the Glasgow School of Art Strategic Plan is from Vincent Van Gogh, and it resonates with everything here:

‘Great things are not done by impulse but by a series of small things brought together.’


Dr Paul Gentle is the Programme Director for the Top Management Programme at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education