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A constructivist pathway to teacher leadership.


Creating lasting top down educational reform to date can be summarized as, at best, problematic. In this article we report progress on an alternative path to sustainable reform. Specifically, we share results of a longitudinal study of a two-year long professional development program grounded in constructivist principles of teacher leadership. Transformations in teacher thinking and professional identity observed in the study suggest strong promise for structuring long-range constructivist professional development practices that facilitate development of identity and problem solving as a teacher leader.

The Case for a Constructivist Approach

Recent U.S. policies associated with the "No Child Left Behind Act," especially the propensity to view large-scale externally imposed reforms as the model for educational reform raise a critical question. What role should teachers play as leaders and researchers in translating reform policies into the reality of "best" practices within their own school cultures?

As stated earlier, this article reports one segment of an ongoing programmatic self-study within a two-year professional development program designed to prepare teacher leaders. The program uses a constructivist framework for teacher leadership outlined by Lambert, Walker, Zimmerman, Cooper, Lambert, and Slacker (1995) and Lambert (2003) as guiding premises supporting teacher development. A foundational constructivist premise in this approach to teacher leadership argues teachers need to develop their capacity to use reciprocity in problem solving as collaborative inquirers. Specifically, the program reported here is structured to facilitate the development of reciprocity in thinking along dimensions of collaborative problem solving, inquiry, and action. The program promotes development of teacher use of reciprocity in thinking as a means of flaming problems and engaging in action research as a problem-solving tool in their own schools.

The purpose of our ongoing programmatic self-study is to track teachers' thinking about collaboration and inquiry while they participate as members of an inquiry-based learning community. A primary question guiding this programmatic study was and continues to be as follows: How does participation in opportunities for sustained action research, collaborative learning, and dialogue within a sustained community of inquirers impact reciprocity in teacher thinking within problem spaces related to teacher leadership?

Current national policies guiding educational reform reflect the human tendency to oversimplify the change process, emphasizing large-scale uniform mandates over support for ongoing and locally responsive research supported through professional teacher development and teacher driven inquiry. Wheatley (1999) and Senge (2000) move us beyond the notion that change is a linear top down process, providing a more realistic understanding of change as a complex process. Their reframing of the nature of organizations as open systems suggests positive self-organizing change occurs by creating the conditions for persons to engage in dialogue and collaborative inquiry, developing the capacity to use ideas to create locally transformative solutions. In the educational reform process, Fullan (2001), Barth (2001), and Lambert (2003) call for educators to move beyond reliance on top down, quick fix, one size fits all models of reform. They contend that if the potential for meaningful reforms are to be realized, contextually sensitive inquiry by teacher leaders engaged in the complex process of developing effective teaching practices must also be a powerful component in the change process. Dufour and Eaker (1998) extend this idea, contending that teacher inquiry/action research within individual schools needs to be systematic and ongoing if we are to realize the goals of continuous improvement.

Lambert et al. (1995) make the case that if systematic and ongoing inquiry is indeed to become a part of school cultures, a theoretical approach embracing constructivist premises applied to teacher leadership offers a promising framework for developing school communities where dialogue and collaborative inquiry can thrive and transform thinking within individuals and the collective culture of a school. Lambert et al. (1995, 51) define constructivist leadership as "the reciprocal processes that enable participants in an educational community to construct meanings that lead toward a common purpose of schooling." This framework for constructivist leadership is built on a premise of using reciprocity in thinking under conditions of problem solving and collaboration while engaging in teacher inquiry/research. If such a culture of collaborative teacher inquiry is to develop, Lambert, Collay, Dietz, Kent, and Richert (1996) make the point that teachers need professional development opportunities to develop reciprocity in thinking along dimensions of collaboration, inquiry, and action. Thinking under these circumstances promotes the development of teacher leadership grounded in interdependence. The assumption is, engaging teachers in ongoing professional development processes involving shared visioning, dialogue, collaboration, context sensitive inquiry, and shared learning for a common goal develops capacity to and passion for sustainable change.

Context and Process

Research reported in this article was conducted as part of an ongoing case/self study process of a large professional development program (approximately 1,000 teachers) designed to facilitate development of reciprocity and interdependence in teacher thinking, problem solving, and inquiry. The program is structured as a two year experience where shared visioning, dialogue, collaboration, collegial coaching, inquiry/action research, and shared learning are facilitated in the context of teacher problem-solving the development of best practices in their schools and classrooms. Communities of 20-40 teachers, along with two to three facilitators, meet for an entire weekend once a month over a two-year period. Learning experiences involve teachers engaging in collaborative processes of 1) shared visioning of what constitutes "best teaching practices" 2) dialogue around action research projects conducted within their own school setting 3) coaching each others' thinking on changes they are making in teaching practices and 4) engaging each other in Socratic or round table conversations on readings-in-research.

In an effort to uncover and examine how teachers in our program are experiencing and developing as professionals, we gathered data from learner generated written documents. The primary data source we chose to use in this study is referred to programmatically as a Professional Growth Inventory. The Professional Growth Inventory (PGI) is designed to elicit participant thinking (perspective taking and problem-based reasoning) using questions pertaining to how they are thinking about various experiences and ways they are applying their thinking to the change process in their schools. Once each semester, each program participant completes this extensive and comprehensive reflection hereafter in the article referred to as a PGI. We chose a random sample of 24 teachers across four learning communities, analyzing information from each of their five PGIs across each of their five semesters of the program.

Each participant's thinking was tracked through his/her Professional Growth Inventory across five semesters of her/his involvement with the program. Two researchers engaged in qualitative data analysis using Glaser and Strauss's (1967) constant comparison method on data sets to code relevant participant reflections on each semester's PGI. The use of Glaser and Strauss's (1967) grounded theory approach to analyze data involved comparing emergent categories across coders and successive semester PGIs of participants. This approach to analyzing data was used to promote trustworthiness in the emergent categories and remain sensitive to changes in thinking across participant experience in the program. Data fell into the following six emergent dimensions of constructivist/inquiry-based dialogue: 1) awareness and sensitivity to context 2) empowering and give voice 3) finding commonalities and building on diversity of understandings present 4) dynamic feedback processes guiding change 5) learning serving development of coherent frameworks to guide decision-making and 6) constructing a caring and interdependent sense of community. Emergent common themes identified by the separate researchers analyzing the two data sets were pooled to form cross-referenced patterns of changes in participant thinking across the five semesters of the program. This process for data collection and analysis was chosen because of its merit in qualitative research analysis as a credible and trustworthy means of identifying thematic changes in teacher generated thinking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Emergent Dimensions in Teacher Leader Thinking

Our analysis revealed six emergent themes framing changes in learner use of reciprocity in teacher leader thinking. Thematic dimensions demarcating developmental changes in participant thinking related to problem solving acts of teacher leadership are discussed in the section that follows.

Teacher Awareness and Sensitivity to Their Context as a Place for Inquiry

Participant teachers in their reflections speak extensively about the context and dynamics in which they find themselves embedded. Along this dimension, teacher thinking across the two years shift from initial views of their context as a blur of rapid activity toward understanding teaching as a balancing of demands in order to consciously punctuate the flow of teaching with points for reflection and possibilities for inquiry. Two years of continuous intentional efforts to embed inquiry and dialogue into their routines of daily engagement appear to stimulate an ability to balance the need for flow of daily routine with the intentional punctuating acts of observation, collection, meaning making, and sharing.

Empowering and Giving Voice

Participant teacher reflections also contain a dimension embodied in a theme of empowerment and giving voice. Here, participant teacher thinking across the two years shifts from initial understandings of sharing one's "voice" as playing little or no role in facilitating change in self and others toward a confident understanding of the value and role of personal voice as a tool for bringing into being possibilities and collaborative change. Again, two years of being in a sustained community of teachers mutually giving value to each others' voices appears to provide a context for teacher ongoing use of reciprocity in thinking and the development of legitimacy of voice as a pathway from idea to action.

Finding Commonalities and Building on Diversity of Understandings

A third emergent dimension in teacher reflections was a developing ability to find commonalities in thinking and to build upon personal understandings through the diversity in thinking others bring to sustained groups engaged in dialogue on personally directed research. Here, participant reflections shift slowly from seeking first to have one's perspective accepted as a condition for mutuality toward being able to balance differences and commonalities in perspective as mutually useful tools enriching professional thinking. This appears to be a slow and unevenly developing process across the program. Two years of engaged and sustained community dialogue appears to again provide conditions for development. However, there is visible in participant reflections a real investment in personally developed views of teaching. A trusting relationship appears to be an important factor in helping participants risk openness to alternative points of view. Factors complicating this willingness to suspend judgment and risk openness emerge in teacher reflections indicating that they often come from a climate in schools largely hostile toward persons sharing differing points of view. Diversity of thought is often viewed as a personal threat. This dual life of being in a community committed to supportive difference while living daily lives in schools largely devoid of suspending judgment for the purpose of mutual exploration is a significant and ongoing challenge we as a program see in helping teachers develop.

Dynamic Feedback Processes Guiding Change

A fourth emergent thematic dimension uncovered in teacher reflections involved their changing understanding of feedback processes and assessment as tools for learning, planning, and decisionmaking. Here, teacher thinking across the two years moves from an initial understanding of data as largely an external evaluation source, something done to me or my students, toward an inclusive understanding of feedback as assessment and data gathering in forms essential to informing dialogue. Feedback framed in service of learning becomes understood as a tool for generating new knowledge. As participants develop abilities to use authentic assessments and data gathering in ways involving student awareness of their own thinking, teacher reflections reveal an expanding understanding of how feedback can be harnessed and owned in the knowledge construction process. Feedback tools come to be viewed as an empowering process and iterative tool to guide future learning. Here, the "ahas" of how closed processes of accountability can be opened up to empower learning appear to fuel participant passion about assessment for learning. Participants speak of it as a framework for learning that needs to be a norm in their own school wide professional development.

Learning Serving Development of Coherent Frameworks to Guide Decision-making

A fifth emergent thematic dimension framing changes in teacher thinking involved the grounding of teacher thinking in research. Here, across two years of sustained research reading and implementation of action research, there is a shift in teacher understanding of the meaning of standards, principles, and concepts related to educational reforms. That is, there is a developing capacity to balance and integrate personal beliefs and principles with expectations generated by policy makers. There is an emergent shift from externalizing and blaming "those in control" toward the use of educational research to analyze expectations of educational policies and to inform and strengthen personal beliefs. Understanding of the value of research literature also shifts from being primarily valued for tips, tricks, and techniques, toward participants valuing its ability to help them frame, bring coherence to, and serve as a touchstone for discerning personal beliefs and principles grounding their actions.

Constructing a Caring and Interdependent Sense of Community

A sixth thematic dimension reflecting changes in teacher thinking involved participants' emerging understanding of mutuality and the importance of initiating learning conversation as a path to personal growth and mentoring others' growth. Teacher thinking across the two years shifts gradually from an understanding of the learning community as a source for mutual affirmation and emotional support toward a view of community as a place for generative commitment to facilitating the "other's" development. There is an emergent expectation in teacher reflections of learning community conversation serving as a source of valued critique of fledgling ideas and opportunity for low risk development of strategies involved in new teaching practices. Participant understanding of care moves from a heavy reliance on community as a "safe haven" toward care as mutually "launching" one another toward the next level in thinking about their practice. Community becomes a "hothouse" for developing creative work. Descriptive reflections of participants reveal a movement from a focus on inward security toward an outward looking posture, an understanding of community as an interdependent network for generating, testing, and sharing strategies.

Conclusions and Implications

Our self-study of our work facilitating the development of constructivist teacher leadership, though in its infancy, suggests creating sustained collaborative, inquiry-based problem solving conditions activates teacher cognitive development. There appears to be increasing complexity in the use of reciprocal thinking working within problem spaces. In kind, constructing creative solutions to issues of teaching and learning through teacher leadership activity appears to help teachers construct an understanding of self as agent of change contributing to the wellness of the learning community to which they belong. Programmatic use of processes promoting focused conversation around mutual problem-solving, shared visioning, collaborative learning, collegial coaching, and shared work do appear to facilitate the development of teacher thinking across the dimensions of dialogue identified in the analysis. Over the course of the program, participant ability to employ reciprocal thinking does reflect an increasingly differentiated and balanced consideration of various dimensions of issues and problem demands teachers engage in the performance of teacher leadership activities.

Transformations in thinking identified in this study suggest strong promise for significant development of teacher thinking along dimensions requisite to meeting the inherent challenges facing teachers. Use of processes supporting varied dimensions of dialogue, interdependent problem solving, and sustained inquiry as done here suggest these conditions can produce evidence of development in teacher thinking on matters central to teacher leadership activity. Given the consistency of our findings with the constructivist premise that meaningful development in adult thinking requires sustained levels of thoughtful interaction around problems of significance, we believe teacher inquiry and collaborative problem solving merit an expanded and normative role in professional teacher development and shared school decision-making.

A great deal remains to be understood about how to help teachers contextualize inquiry embedded thinking processes such as scaffolding, dialogue, coaching, and development of shared purpose as tools for leadership. The length of time involved in bringing about transformational shifts in participants' thinking observed in this study, along with the individual variability in the changes in thinking observed among participants suggests a great deal also remains to be learned about how to most effectively facilitate development of thinking as a teacher leader. We are confident, however, that sustained teacher interactions with colleagues in solving real life problems using inquiry and research-based decision-making can play an important role in creating sustainable educational reform.


Barth, R. (2001). Learning by heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Dufour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities as work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: National Education Association.

Fullan, M. (2001). The new meaning of change. New York: Teachers College Press.

Glaser, G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago: Aldine.

Lambert, L. (2003). Leadership capacity for lasting school improvement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Lambert, L., Collay, M., Dietz, M., Kent, K., & Richert, A. (1996). Who will save our schools? Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lambert, L., Walker, D., Zimmerman, D., Cooper, J., Lambert, M., Gardner, M., & Slack, P.J. (1995). The constructivist leader. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lincoln Y., & Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press.

Senge, P. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education. New York: Doubleday.

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Roger B. Peckover, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, MN

Suzanne Peterson, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, MN

Pat Christiansen, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, MN

Louise Covert, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, MN

Peckover, Ph.D., is Professor and Endowed Chair for the School of Education; Peterson is Executive Director and Christiansen is Associate Director of the M.Ed. Program in Teaching and Learning; Covert is an adjunct faculty member in the M.Ed. Program
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Author:Covert, Louise
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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