Learning, Leading and Learning-Informed Leadership: Dilemmas and Struggles of a Community college Administrator

Learning, Leading and Learning-Informed Leadership: Dilemmas and Struggles of a Community College Administrator

This week I began thinking about my work as an academic leader and administrator in a community college, and how this work is shaped by my knowledge of how people learn and form understanding. As I shared in my first blog posting, in the early 1980s, having completed an undergraduate degree and some graduate coursework in zoology, I was hired to teach secondary science in a large public high school. Without any other knowledge to draw from, I instructed my own science students in much the same way that I had been taught.  Most evenings I worked past midnight to create lectures and laboratory experiences which would effectively deliver to students the ideas I wanted them to know. I struggled with determining the most logical sequence to deliver course material. When teaching the solar system, for example, I questioned whether to start with the inner or outer solar system, and which object to present first, the moon, sun or planets!

Becoming increasingly sensitive to the limitations of this approach (I noticed that many of my students held the same ideas following my instruction as they did at the course outset) I began to experiment with a number of approaches to teaching science (hands-on, predict-observe-verify, etc).  I soon became involved with some NSF funded science curriculum projects. These curriculum projects did add something to my teaching and had varying degrees of success in changing student’s initial ideas about scientific phenomena.  In 1991, intrigued by the complexity of how people learn, I accepted an opportunity to pursue graduate work at Harvard Graduate School of Education in the field of Teaching, Curriculum and Learning Environments.  My research with Eleanor Duckworth, who supervised my doctoral research with a high school physics teacher (Kris Newton) and her students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, generated insights into how people learn for understanding and the conditions needed to support learning. These insights revolutionized my understanding of learning and how I thought about my work as a classroom teacher.  

For example, I realized that while the well-crafted lecture can convey to an attentive audience certain knowledge of the scientific world (the names and structures of planets and plants, etc., conceptual understandings of how those things work cannot be so readily conveyed.  Conceptual understanding is constructed by the learner and requires that the learner, rather than assuming the stance of passive recipient, become actively involved in the learning process.  When learning is defined as having an understanding of how something works, rather than the recall of discrete pieces of information, learning becomes an activity in which the learner must become engaged. Similarly, teaching, rather than the act of transferring information, becomes the act of facilitating learning by engaging learners with the phenomena to be understood. A learning-informed teacher uses his/her authority in the classroom, not to deliver specific and discrete information about the world; but, instead, uses his/her special knowledge to make the subject matter accessible to students such that they can be the authors and authorities of what they know by making active explorations into the subject matter and sharing observations, questions and insights with peers.   When learning and teaching is viewed from this perspective, classrooms are inherently democratic, student-centered, and collaborative, as discussions about the subject matter of study are inclusive of all ideas and observations shared.  Collaboration and respect for what others are seeing, noticing and questioning among students and between teacher and students—and trust that students have the capacity to make sense of—and ultimately transform– their world–is an intellectual necessity. Teachers are no longer viewed—by either themselves or their students—as the source of knowledge; rather, it is the subject matter itself and students’ self-directed explorations of it that form the basis of understanding. Teachers become facilitators of knowledge construction rather than deliverers of knowledge. The more familiar a teacher is of the subject matter and the different ways their students are seeing and thinking about it, the more equipped the teacher is to enrich the learning environment and support knowledge construction.    Teacher and learners enter a new relationship as learners explore and engage perplexing phenomena, and teachers facilitate learning by using their knowledge of the subject matter and students’ ideas to modify the environment to support developments in learners’ thinking.

It is this understanding of learning and knowledge construction that I take with me into my work as an administrator and academic leader at a community college in southern New Hampshire. Community colleges are facing a number of perplexing phenomena, such as low completion rates, which require innovative solutions and changes in practice. I frequently find myself deciding when to produce changes in practice through the implementation of policy (what might be called administrative action)  and when to use of learning-inspired practices.  

From the perspective of learning research, learning within a system is produced much like that within the individual. Meaning that the environmental conditions that need to be met to support genuine “learning” within an individual must also be met to support real learning and real changes in practice within a social system. Without this, any changes produced result from external pressures and compliance rather than through a genuine internal re-organization of thinking. Such compliance-induced changes in behavior are sure to be short-lived and discontinue when the external pressure or stimulus is removed. 

In addition to what I see as the short-comings of changes that result from compliance to external pressures and stimuli (punishments and rewards), I am equally motivated by the non-cognitive outcomes of a teacher as facilitator view of learning. These outcomes include collaboration among learners, the formation of community within the classroom, and teachers listening to learners’ observations, questions and explanations of the phenomena they are studying. I have experienced the transformation (and yes liberation and freedom) that can happen for both teachers and students when teachers use their expert knowledge to engage students with the world of phenomena they are studying, and interact with students from a research stance, or from what Freire might describe as a position of “epistemological curiosity,” to understand what different students are seeing, noticing and questioning.    As Duckworth has described, it just so happens that when a teacher assumes a research stance and interacts with learners to explore their understanding of subject matters that engage them, learning happens “in the very process.”

And so, in my work as an academic leader in a community college, I began where I started so many years ago-almost. Deciding how to best use the authority that comes with my position (and limited time that I have) to produce changes in behavior and thinking.

My interest in involving faculty and staff in developing innovative solutions to troubling educational phenomena by engaging them in exploration of the phenomena must be balanced by and not outweigh my responsibility to ensure that all students have access to those “treatments” which research has found to be effective with similar populations. And while as an academic leader I have a responsibility to support the professional growth of faculty and staff, I have a responsibility to ensure that students have access to practices and policies that research has shown to be effective in supporting their well-being and learning. My struggle and dilemma is and will continue to be deciding how to best use the authority that comes with my position such that faculty, staff and students are well-served. So long as I recognize that to serve students and faculty well this dilemma must always be a part of my thinking I will be in good stead.


Leadership that is informed by learning theory is inherently democratic, collaborative and inclusive in that it elicits and encourages input and perspectives from all stakeholders in the decision-making process. Communication structures result from a genuine desire to promote dialogue and conversation among stakeholders.

Learning-informed leadership is the exception to the norm, and administrators who ascribe to a learning view of leadership encounter several challenges. Challenges involve time, space, skills and trust.

Time. Rarely do institutions have sufficient time built into the schedule to permit the conversations and dialogue among stakeholders necessitated by learning-informed leadership.  On those few occasions when stakeholders do come together time is typically used for the sharing of community announcements regarding facilities, budget, and the likes.

Space. The physical spaces within institutions are rarely structured to facilitate face-to-face communication nor are they sufficiently large to accommodate all community members. Such space limitations put constraints on the conversation among stakeholders.

Skills. Facilitating conversation among stakeholders for the specific purpose of gaining diverse perspectives on an issue of significance requires that the facilitator have deep knowledge of both the issue and stakeholders and the skills to bring multiple perspectives to bear on the issue.

Trust. Of all the challenges a learning-informed leader is likely to encounter, gaining the trust of stakeholders presents the greatest challenge. When academic leaders act in ways contrary to stakeholders’ previous experiences, using time to explore and bring multiple perspectives to bear on an issue rather than announce a new initiative, for example, such use of time can be perceived and construed by stakeholders as a lack of experience and competency rather than a desire to engage the community in designing their own solutions to the phenomena.

So given the challenges and threats to learning-informed leadership, why not continue with the leadership practices of previous administrations? What motivates an academic leader to persist in the use of learning-informed practices. The answer to this, I believe, lies in the promise of what can be for faculty, administration, staff and students when decision-making centers on the well-being and learning of students and results from the inputs of all parties.  When decision-making happens in this way, faculty, administration, staff and students are brought into new relationships. New questions are raised, new solutions to perplexing puzzles are considered, and, perhaps of greatest importance, all are viewed as knowers. Stakeholders, rather than acting out of compliance to external authorities, act out being a part of a learning community with shared interests and goals. It is this vision of what can be that motivates the learning-inspired leader despite the odds.   

Finally, as an academic leader I strive to use my position and authority that comes with that position to create for faculty and staff the same inclusive learning environment that we aspire to create for students. These environments support authentic learning and respect all community members as thinkers, knowers, innovators, collaborators and problem-solvers.

One thought on “Learning, Leading and Learning-Informed Leadership: Dilemmas and Struggles of a Community college Administrator

  1. Hi Fiona:

    This is all inspirational and profound. I particularly admire the sense that institutional leadership should follow a similar democratic model that is urged in the classroom. Yo describe accurately many of the obstacles, helpfully summarized in your 4 categories.

    So, how do you feel about your success in all of this? What factors emerged that, perhaps, you had not thought of at the start of your institutional leadership?

    Michael Wilson


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s