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Putting an ethical frame on problem solving.


Developing morally competent school leaders requires more than the inclusion of ethics into a set of standards. What are needed are practical and useful models that are clearly applicable to the future work of educational leadership candidates. This research explores the use of Jurgen Habermas's discourse ethics as a framework for refraining ill-structured problems school leaders will likely face in the real world.


The view that an understanding of ethics is crucial to the proper stewardship of the nation's schools has emerged as a widely accepted part of the knowledge base necessary for effective school leadership (Sergiovanni, 2006; Hessel & Holloway, 2002; Fullan, 2003; Cranston, Ehrich & Kimber, 2003; Furman, 2003; Greenfield, 2004). As Normore (2004) points out however, developing morally competent leaders requires more than the inclusion of ethical behavior into educational leadership preparation or general admonitions to act in an ethical manner. What are needed are practical and useful ethical models that are sufficiently detailed and clearly applicable so that future school leaders can visualize how to use acquired knowledge in the context of their future jobs. Leithwood and Steinbach (1992) use the phase "useful strategic knowledge" to more comprehensively portray the idea of combining knowledge acquisition with general thinking skills in the preparation of educational leaders.

However, empirical research into the use of ethical concepts in an effort to promote useful strategic knowledge in educational leadership candidates is thin at best. Consequently, this research explores the use of an ethical model based on the discourse ethics of Jurgen Habermas (1990) to reframe and solve problems educational leadership candidates will typically encounter during the work day as future school leaders.

Making the connection

Common sense suggests that future school leaders will be required to understand, address and solve problems they will encounter on the job (Copland, 2000). The types of problems school leaders face can be viewed in a variety of ways. Most useful to this research is the classification of problems into routine, structured problems and non-routine, ill-structured problems (Leithwood & Stager, 1989, Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995). Structured problems are relatively simple and usually involve choosing a solution from known alternatives. In contrast, an ill-structured problem is "messy" in that the values and potential conflicts embedded in the problem are not readily apparent (Leithwood & Stager, 1989).

Most problems perceived as ill-structured by school leaders are defined as such because of their social context rather than because of any technical difficulties (Copland, 2000). A significant part of the social context of problem solving is the fact that the way problems are presented to school leaders frequently reflects a predefined solution from the frame of reference of the problem presenter (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1991; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995; Copland, 2000). For example, a parent may call a principal with a request for their child to drop a challenging class or a teacher may request moving a problem student to another teacher (Copland 2000). In both cases, the problem is presented with a predefined solution already built into the problem. As Copland (2000) points out, the problem framing of the parent and teacher in the preceding examples may be absolutely correct. The fatal mistake occurs in embracing the preconceived solution before the problem has been clearly defined.

Leithwood and Stager (1989) and Leithwood and Steinbach (1995) found that expert and non-expert principals respond similarly to structured problems. However, expert and non-expert school leaders differed significantly in how they interpreted ill-structured problems they encountered. Specifically, expert principals recognized the conflict inherent in many ill-structured problems and rather than embracing a preconceived solution reframed the problem in solution free terms. Rebore (2001) and Furman (2003) make the assumption that the addition of ethical considerations into problem solving skills can provide a systematic and rational approach to improving the useful strategic knowledge of school leaders as they confront and reframe complex problems they will likely encounter in the real world of educational leadership. It is this integration of ethical considerations into a process of reframing ill-structured problems that is addressed in this research.

Theoretical perspective

In his book Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1990), the contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas proposes several rules of discourse as a procedure for testing the soundness of actions or decisions that are being proposed and considered for adoption. These rules are not rules in the traditional sense. Rather, these rules are designed to provide a framework or set of guidelines for the adjudication of conflicts in a fair and non-defensive maimer (Rebore 2001; 2003). Discourse ethics is not designed to eliminate impartiality of judgment. It is improbable, if not impossible, for participants to completely lay aside the value judgments that creep into the process of reaching understanding and agreement (Habermas, 1990). Rather, discourse ethics is a model that promotes the type of conceptual framework for reframing ill-structured problems in solution-free terms rather than simply embracing or rejecting the preconceived solution of the problem presenter.

Discourse ethics stands or falls with two assumptions: 1) the communication of others is considered to be an honest representation of the views of the participant, and 2) a real dialogue or exchange of views must occur between the participants. Habermas's insistence on a real dialogue and honest communication among participants is a shift away from solitary decision-making to a model of participation and rational argumentation for or against some action (Rebore, 2001; 2003).

Rebore (2001; 2003) makes a distinction between mediation and arbitration that provides guidance in the development of a conceptual framework that promotes the types of communicative action necessary for the refraining required of ill-structured problems. Mediation is designed to seek understanding by engaging in active discourse, the unconditional acceptance of the perspectives of others involved, and engaging in rational argumentation in a non-defensive way. Arbitration is designed to give an answer, or, in other words, to reach a decision. Arbitration includes the clarification of common interests, the evaluation of options, and general agreement based on communicative action. This research uses Rebore's mediation/arbitration concept, the theoretical writings of Habermas, and research on expert problem solving skills to illustrate a reframing approach to ill-structured problems. The model, adapted from one proposed by Stader (2007, p. 40), is illustrated in Figure 1. See issue website sum2006.htm

Applying the model

Ill-structured problems require reframing in solution free terms, active communication, and the appreciation of the perspectives of others involved.

Step 1: Engage in active discourse. Discourse ethics rests on the assumption that justification of actions requires real discourse. Therefore the process must begin by actively seeking and engaging others in verbal communication.

Step 2: Unconditional acceptance and appreciation of the perspectives of others. It is only through the unconditional acceptance of the perspectives of others that true empathy and understanding may occur (Habermas, 1990). As Rebore (2001) explains, it is only after a school leader has at least a fundamental understanding of the perceptions of others can she/he begin to form and lead others to reasonable judgments.

Step 3: Rational and coherent argumentation. Rational argumentation for or against some action is at the heart of discourse ethics. Expert principals understand that multiple and viable solutions may exist and actively seek the input and views of other participants (Leithwood & Sager, 1989; Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995; Copland, 2000). Ill-structured problems often require decision-making or in this model, arbitration.

Step 4: Clarifying common interests. Expert principals are strongly concerned about the development of a solution that could be agreed on by both themselves and others.

Step 5: Evaluation of options. More skilled school leaders recognize and understand the significance of the social context of ill-structured problems at least momentarily consider more than one option (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1992; Copland, 2000).

Step 6: Strive for consensual agreement. As Habermas states, "Only those (actions) can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse" (p. 93). In other words, consensus results only from active communication, rational argumentation, and the clarification of a common interest among the participants in an ill structured problem.

Participants and Study Design

The participants in this study were 57 educational leadership licensure candidates representing seventeen school districts in the metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth area. Data were gathered over a three semester timeframe (fall, spring, and summer) starting in the spring of 2005 and ending in the fall of 2005. Only those candidates enrolled in a required instructional leadership course during this timeframe were included. This process precluded any opportunity for candidates to participate more than once. Demographic data indicate that 68% of the participants are female. The majority of the participants (90%) currently serve as teachers. No one reported principalship experience, although 10% serve in a supervisory capacity. Twenty-two percent are African American, 63% white, 12% Hispanic, and 4% Asian/PI. Fifty percent report elementary school as their primary work location, 39% are in secondary schools, and 10% serve in a central office capacity. Twenty-five percent of the participants work primarily in a Title I school.


Participants were presented with the problem solving model. Following a discussion of the types of problems school leaders encounter (structured and ill-structured), a description of the model, and a discussion of the importance of refraining ill-structured problems in solution free terms, participants were presented with several illustrative problem scenarios. The problems were presented in order of increasing complexity and were intentionally ill-structured in that all the information was not apparent. The first scenario considered a parent request for a student to drop an advanced class. The second scenario involved middle school faculty concerns about school management and the third scenario involved parent concerns over a multi-age initiative in a grade school. After working individually and in cooperative groups, the participants were led through a class discussion of the use of the model as a guide to addressing the problems presented in the scenarios. In an effort to demonstrate a connection between classroom theory and real life practice of school leadership, the participants were asked to interview a campus principal concerning a recent ill-structured problem and create a case study based on the interview to present to the class.


Participants were surveyed for their perceptions of the efficacy of the discourse ethics model in understanding the types of problems they will likely face, visualizing a process to address conflicts, model productive dialogue, improving their view of the facilitative role of the school leader, the decision-making process, the importance of the perspectives of others, and connections between the model and the Texas state principal licensure examination. A four point Likert scale was used with 4 = VH (very helpful), 3 = H (helpful), 2 = NH (not helpful), and 1= NC (no connection). Results are presented in Table 1. See issue website

Approximately 90% of the participants found the model to be helpful or very helpful in understanding the types of problems they will most likely encounter, the visualization of effective communication processes in schools, effective communication, modeling productive dialogue, the decision-making process, and the importance of respecting and seeking out the perspectives of others in developing a cooperative school culture, reframing problems in solution free terms, and developing a framework for approaching ill-structured problems. However, participants did not make as strong a connection between the model and the Texas state licensure exam with 20% finding the model not to be very helpful in improving their test scores.


This research tested the hypothesis that a problem framing model based on the theoretical writings of the contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas would be associated with greater knowledge in analyzing and responding to an ill-structured problem scenario among educational leadership licensure candidates. Results suggest that within this particular setting the use of the ethical framework is associated with a consistent and appreciable perception on the part of the participants that they gained valuable insight into 1) the types of problems school leaders typically encounter, 2) visualizing a process to address conflicts and improve effective communication process, 3) an understanding of how to solve complex problems, 4) the importance of the perspectives of others, and 5) the importance of reframing complex problems in solution free terms. However, participants did not make as strong a connection between the model and improving their scores on the state principal licensure examination. The fact that Texas uses a multiple choice exam may account for some of the uncertainty on the part of the participants. One area of research that seems particularly relevant is whether or not educational leadership candidates in states that require the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA) exam would benefit from efforts to incorporate this or a similar problem solving model into the preparation curriculum.

Leithwood and Steinbach (1992) and Copland (2000) found from their research on improving the problem solving skills of leadership candidates that the instructor needs to play an active coaching role as candidates struggle to reframe problems in solution free terms, identify alternative solutions, articulate basic arguments justifying these alternatives, and examining the problem scenario in light of these arguments. The experience of the researcher as part of this study confirms this observation. For example, it was not uncommon for participants to initially attempt to apply a related policy on their campus to find an immediate solution to the problem scenario, to embrace the preconceived problem-flaming imbedded in the scenarios, and to become easily distracted by irrelevant issues. Thus, extensive modeling by the researcher of the process of reframing problem scenarios in solution free terms, the importance of active dialogue, and rational arguments for or against a position was often required.

The process identified by Leithwood and Stager (1989), Leithwood and Steinbach (1992;1995) and Copland (2000) that expert school leaders use to solve ill-structured problems closely parallels the process of communicative action suggested by the discourse ethics of Jurgen Habermas presented here. In other words, expert school leaders model the types of communicative action that promotes communication, understanding, and rational argumentation characteristic of cooperative school cultures. Consequently, learning to develop and sustain cooperative relationships and to appreciate the perspectives of others is a difficult but necessary educational leadership task in a diverse society.

Limitations and Conclusions

Methodological limitations, including the unique character of the sample, a lack of random group assignment of the participants, and the extent to which findings can be attributed to factors other than exposure to the model are inherent in this type of research. So the findings must be tempered by the understanding that many other factors may have influenced the perceptions of the participants. Limitations not withstanding, evidence supports two claims: 1) educational leadership candidates can apply ethical models to problem solving in a classroom setting, and 2) there is tentative support for the model used in this research as a problem solving framework. The need for validation and further research is necessary before any definitive conclusions, either positive or negative, can be made.


Copland, M. (2000). Problem-based learning and prospective principals' problem-framing ability. Educational Administration Quarterly, 36(4), 585-607.

Cranston, N., Ehrich, L. & Kimber, M. (2003). The 'right' decision? Towards an understanding of ethical dilemmas for school leaders. Westminster Studies in Education, 26(2), 135-147.

Fullan, M. (2003). The moral imperative of school leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Furman, G. (2003). Moral leadership and the ethnic of community. Values and Ethics in Educational Administration, 2(1), 1-8.

Greenfield, W. D., Jr. (2004). Moral leadership in schools. Journal of Educational Administration, 42(2), 174-196.

Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action (C. Lenhardt and S. W. Nicholsen, Trans.) Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press (Original work published 1983).

Hessel, K. & Holloway, J. (2002). A framework for school leaders: Linking the ISLLC standards to practice. Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service.

Leithwood, K. & Stager, M. (1989). Expertise in principals' problem solving. Educational Administration Quarterly, 25(2), 126-161.

Leithwood, K & Steinbach, R. (1992). Improving the problem-solving expertise of school administrators: Theory and practice. Education and Urban Society, 24(3), 317-345.

Leithwood, K. & Steinbach, R. (1995). Expert problem solving: Evidence from school and district leaders. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Normore, A. (2004). Ethics and values in leadership preparation programs: Finding the north star in the dust storm. Values and Ethics in Educational Administration, 2(2), 1-8.

Rebore, R. W. (2001). The ethics of educational leadership. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Rebore, R. W. (2003). A human relations approach to the practice of educational leadership. Boston, MA: Pearson Education

Sergiovanni, T. (2006). The principalship: A reflective practice perspective (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Stader, D. (2007). Law and ethics in educational leadership. Upper Saddle River, N J: Merrill Prentice Hall.

David L. Stader, University of Texas at Arlington

Stader, Ed. D., is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at the Unversity of Texas at Arlington.
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Author:Stader, David L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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