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Creating an instructional “super vision” within a distributed network

The schoolhouse is a complex system. Too often, teachers are considered the “experts”

who teach “novices” new information in a linear fashion, handing out grades that rank learners

often discouraging those who learn at a slower rate. Similarly, administrators who provide

clinical supervision often end up influencing how teachers perform when being observed with

little assurance that observed practices will have any sustaining effect in subsequent lessons.

Defining instructional supervision and developing a legitimate rationale for pursuing a shared

vision creates a basis from which to interpret and evaluate how the interactions of a stakeholder's

work influences improved student achievement.

From a traditional perspective, the term instructional supervision implies an individual or

a group of individuals, higher in position, observing the instructional practices of others in an

evaluative manner – as if there were a prescribed way of teaching whereby all students magically

benefited equally from a given class lesson. Unfortunately, learners (and teachers) are much too

complex to have preconceived notions of what instructional method(s) to be implemented,

especially when top-down directives are being imposed. Siemens describes complex theory

within the social sciences as, “numerous interacting elements [producing] various outcomes”

(Complexity..., 2008). In other words, the exact same teaching scenario produces very different

learning experiences depending on the learners needs, interests, and learning styles. From a

research standpoint, cause-and-effect relationships are difficult (if not impossible) to generalize

given the variety of circumstances that exist in a single scenario. Therefore, when defining

instructional supervision, principles of complex theory push the leadership paradigm to a more

distributed and connected relationship among administrators, teachers, students, and parents.

Instead of viewing instructional supervision as a hierarchy relationship (e.g., principal

and teacher), interactions among all stakeholders ought to be aligned with a shared vision in

terms of congenial, collegial, and communities of practice.

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Congeniality has to do with the climate of interpersonal relationships in an enterprise.

“Collegiality has to do with the extent to which teachers and principals share common

work values, engage in specific conversation about their work, and help each other

engage in the work of the school” (Little). [And] teachers and principals...need to be

involved in a shared practice for which all are responsible (as cited in Sergiovanni, 2005,

pp. 12-13).

Thus, instructional leadership implies interpreting the positive and negative effects of

congeniality, collegiality, and communities of practice all within the context of a school vision.

In doing so, this provides a rationale for looking at instructional supervision in a more connected

and distributed way.

Understanding conflict puts the notion of instructional supervision in a perspective that is

more conducive to improved efforts that lead to student achievement. Thompson, L, Aranda, E.,

Robbins, S., et al. distinguish between two types of conflict: “emotional” and “cognitive”. They

go on to say, “Emotional conflict is personal, defensive, and resentful, [and] cognitive conflict is

largely depersonalized [which] consists of argumentation about the merits of ideas, plans, and

projects” (2000, p. 218). In a traditional supervisory model, principals and administrators are less

likely to be questioned about the directives they are promoting, thus avoiding cognitive conflict

for fear that it might lead to emotional conflict. But instructional leadership that recognizes

cognitive conflict for what it is, is better positioned to take on tasks that promote “direct

assistance” to teachers, “group development, professional development, curriculum

development”, and “action research” (Glickman, Gordon, and Ross-Gordon, 2007, p. 10), all of

which are designed to improve student achievement.

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When looking at instructional supervision and the interactions between administrators

and teachers, a network metaphor provides the means for showing how participants play various

roles within a complex community. A network is made up of a series of nodes (i.e., a person, a

book, the Internet, etc.) that are linked through unidirectional and bidirectional ties. For

example, a teacher reading a book would involve two nodes connected by a unidirectional tie

(i.e., information transmitting primarily from the book to the teacher). A unidirectional tie can

also be seen in a traditional principal-teacher relationship whereby interactions tend to be top-

down. Conversely, teachers who collaborate well together, such as being able to resolve

cognitive conflict, maintain a bidirectional tie through dialogic interaction. The quality and

frequency of a tie determines how strong or weak the relationship is and at a macro level,

provides insight as to how knowledge is distributed throughout the entire network. Instructional

supervisors, then, must understand the overall dynamic of their network (i.e., community, group,

etc.) through the interactions (i.e., congeniality, collegiality, and communities of practice) of its

members in determining how the shared vision is being achieved.

As stated earlier, complex theory assumes that strong and weak ties remain in a state of

flux, and that connected knowledge contains emergent properties (i.e., the sum being greater than

the sum of its parts). Therefore, in order for instructional supervision to be most effective,

teachers, administrators, students, and parents – all nodes within the network – collectively play

various roles in how knowledge, influence, and power is distributed throughout the school (i.e.,

network). The ability and support that stakeholders have to supervise supersedes the traditional

notion of supervision based on rank or position. For those teachers, for example, that lack the

experience and ability to lead are encouraged to take on this new role, as the notions of leading

and learning come to the forefront of day-to-day practices. As roles and responsibilities change,
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teachers and administrators begin to address change by capitalizing on the strengths of network

depending on the circumstances.

A successful instructional supervisor has the ability to empower teachers, students, and

parents to work more interdependently towards a collective goal or vision. Moreover, control is

preferred over power in avoiding marginalizing those participants who have opposing views.

Giving each teacher a voice provides the means for consensus building in determining how

decisions are to be reached. Instead of imposing a given educational philosophy (i.e.,

essentialism, pragmatism, existentialism, etc.), teachers are given the chance to reflect and share

on their own philosophy in determining its appropriateness in light of a collective vision. The

instructional supervisor facilitates this process by maintaining close contact with all teachers and

by providing the ways and means of sharing ideas with the entire faculty. The Downing

walkthrough (2004) is a useful technique in this regard.

To conclude, effective instructional leadership within a complex network (i.e., faculty,

students, parents, etc.) assumes that information and knowledge are a set of relationships that

promote and empower all participants to take on leadership roles at various times. The basic

premise is that a school can be “smarter” if the knowledge, influence, and power are distributed

throughout as opposed to residing in just one or a few individuals. Additionally, congeniality,

collegiality, and communities of practice are descriptive representations of how instructional

supervisors interpret the interactions of its participants. Empowering all participants by

providing equal opportunities to have a voice and act towards a collective goal is at the heart of

building a learning community that celebrates diversity and welcomes change as a continual

process for improved student achievement.

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Downey, C., Steffy, B., English, F., Frase, L., and Poston, W. (2004). The three-minute classroom
walk-through: Changing school supervisory practice one teacher at a time. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Glickman, C., Gordon, S., and Ross-Gordon, J. (2007). Supervision and instructional
leadership: A developmental approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the heartbeat: Leading and learning together in schools.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Siemens, G. (October 12, 2008). Complexity, chaos, and emergence. Retrieved on December 14,
2008 from

Thompson, L, Aranda, E., Robbins, S., et al. (2000). Tools for teams: Building effective teams in
the workplace. Boston, MA: Pearson.