Lead Learner: Principal as Action Researcher


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“Why did you become a principal?” I think every administrator who has been asked this question will have a unique answer. My response: a book. (Surprised?)

I was already considering my master’s as a young teacher. But what to study? That is when I came across Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, parents, and schools can make the difference by Roland Barth (Jossey-Bass, 1990). It wasn’t only a book that guided my decision – I had ambition about effecting schoolwide change – but discovering this resource in our school’s professional library was a tipping point.

A former principal, Barth proposed a better approach to improving education for all kids: at the school level. A key to organizational change is the principal. Barth lists reasons why (64):

Principals, more than anyone else, can insulate teachers from distracting, outside pressures so that they may devote their finite energies to students. Principals can orchestrate the school’s constellation of unique needs and resources so that everyone gets some of what is needed. And principals have the capacity to stimulate both learning and community.

The verbs Barth uses to describe the duties of a quality principal – insulate, orchestrate, stimulate – calls to mind the best in what any leader can do: to empower others.

Barth believes we are most effective in our roles when we demonstrate the attitudes, behaviors, and commitments we desire in others. So, what actions should be taken to influence the profession? The author offers three recommendations (66).

1.     Strengthen the preservice professional training of principals.

2.     Improve the process of selecting principals.

3.     Increase professional development opportunities for practicing principals.

Unless you work in higher education or you are a superintendent, the first two are out of our reach. We as school leaders can focus on the third implication: professional development.

Leading Our Own Learning

I recommend action research as a vehicle for professional growth and renewal. Essentially, it is structured inquiry. (See my Stenhouse article here for background knowledge on this approach.) Anyone can do it, it costs little to no money, and it is embedded in the day-to-day work leaders experience. Regarding the third reason, Barth shares an accurate observation (68).

Every principal, novice and veteran alike, is in and out of “hot water” all the time. These situations provide all the ingredients for personal and professional growth: difficulties, a context for resolving them, and a person who really wants them resolved. These moments of conflict hold great potential for learning.

If you think back on your own past 24-48 hours, you’ll likely find a few sources of tension that would be ripe for inquiry. These problems can be reframed as challenges to be understood.

Barth’s recommendation has been revived in Leading with Passion and Knowledge: The Principal as Action Researcher by Nancy Fitchman Dana (Corwin, 2009). As the title suggests, school leaders guide their own professional inquiries by engaging in schoolwide research.

Beyond the insights we create for ourselves and our school, why embark on this type of journey? Fitchman points out that we are “insiders”, educators who can serve as a “practitioner as storyteller” (6). The new knowledge we create can be just as important as outside research studies to better understand schools as complex organizations. As Fitchman notes (5):

While both the process-product and qualitative research paradigms have generated valuable insights into the teaching and learning process, they have not included the voices of the people who work in the trenches of the school building on a daily basis and are therefore best positioned to understand and better the educational experiences for all members of the schoolhouse – administrators and teachers.

So, the benefits are many: for our students and staff, for ourselves and our school, and for the greater professional community. Next is how I am approaching action research this school year, with a focus on leading like a coach through feedback via instructional walks.

Framing the Leadership Inquiry

Using Fitchman’s guide, I found the passion that most interests me and will guide my journey: the role of feedback from the principal in improving teaching and learning. Here is my driving question, still in draft stage:

“How might leading like a coach better support teacher and student learning?”

My driving question is supported by four elements of an inquiry brief:

·      Purpose: What is the rationale for pursuing this inquiry?

·      Methods: How will you engage in this action research?

·      Data: What information will you collect to answer your question?

·      Calendar: What is the timeline for this inquiry?

You can read my current inquiry plan by clicking here.

The data piece is worth some additional attention. As leaders, it is hard to correlate student learning results with our actions. That is why having a diversity of data better supports our studies. Victoria Bernhardt (2015) suggests four types of data for leaders to consider when attempting to learn about and within their organizations: demographics, perceptions, student learning, and school processes.

To help organize the data, I am using two digital tools: Evernote and Google. My field notes (instructional walks) are stored in Evernote. Everything else will be housed in Google Drive, which has a new feature: Workspaces. Now you can organize files in visible categories instead of folders. This allows you to quickly see what’s in each group for easy retrieval.

As the year progresses, I can continue to come back to this data with our leadership team. They can help me glean insights about this inquiry, as this study involves many people.

What It Means to Be a Learner

Earlier this year I was researching learning management systems for my blog. One technology provided a guide for building courses. The authors offered a memorable statement:

“Remember why people take the courses in the first place – they want to change something about their life.”

I think about that in the context of our positions as building leaders. Are we truly a “lead learner”, as principals are now wanting to describe themselves? That is, are we visibly growing and renewing as professionals? Are our actions leading to insights that make our organizations smarter and ultimately lead to increased teacher performance and student achievement? Or, do we merely engage in some professional study but fail to transform?

We don’t want to give lip service to the “lead learner” title. We should want to live it.


Barth, R. (1990). Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, parents, and principals can make the difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bernhardt, V. L. (2015). Toward Systemwide Change. Educational Leadership73(3), 56-61.

Dana, N. F. (2009). Leading with Passion and Knowledge: The Principal as Action Researcher. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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