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Open to Learning

Most people would say that educational leadership is about building relationships. However, Professor Viviane Robinson argues that "a lot of instructional leadership get stuck in the inability" to have conversations about the quality of teaching. Therefore, the real challenge is to integrate building relationships and 'doing the work’.

Building these working relationships is not a question of building personal relationships and then “banking” on that relationship to have conversations about work. Staff trust their leadership on the basis of their observation of the leader's ability to do their work and treat people, on the leader's competence and their way of tackling people not being so.

“The Open-to-learning™ Leadership approach [is based around teaching] how to build trust in teams and with individuals, while tackling the tough issues associated with the work of school and teacher performance and improvement” (UACEL, 2018). This approach is based on the work of Chris Argyris (Harvard University) and Donald Schön, (MIT) and their theory of action and single and double loop learning.

Theories of action describe the links between what people do and the values and beliefs that propel those actions, as well as analysing their intended and unintended consequences. This analysis helps to understand why people and ourselves behave the way we do. By applying double loop learning we can find out what is driving the problem, rather than just acting on it (single loop).

Barth points out that “Schools are full of (...)  nondiscussables—important matters that, as a profession, we seldom openly discuss. These include the leadership of the principal, issues of race, the underperforming teacher, our personal visions for a good school, and, of course, the nature of the relationships among the adults within the school” (2006).

The main idea behind the Open to Learning (OTL) model is to bring those nondiscusebles to the forefront of Leadership, as a way of influencing students outcome positively. 

The Student Centred Leadership model is based around three capabilities: using knowledge, building trust and solving problems. According to Bryk & Schneider (2002), there are four determinants to build relational trust: interpersonal respect, personal regard for others, competence and personal integrity. Given that these elements are present, schools can develop a high level of trust, which would have positive consequences both for teachers and students. 

Firstly, teachers would develop a positive attitude to innovation and risk (facilitating change), they would be more committed to their school community, their students and their own learning, which in term would enhance the full professional community profile. Secondly, for students, this would lead to improving academic outcomes (and a high likelihood of positive social outcomes too). 


The secret to effective leadership is to progress the task (the conversation about issues at work) and maintain the relationship, by demonstrating respect for self and others and maximising valid information in order to build internal commitment (buy-in) to try to find a collaborative solution.

Learning (and therefore leadership) is only possible when institutions create an atmosphere of relational trust where teachers can experience and express vulnerability in order to encourage each other to examine their own role in the difficulties arising from their practice. That is to say “when everyone understands that act of questioning not as a sign of mistrust or an invasion of privacy but as a valuable opportunity for learning” (Argyris, 2000, p108).


Argyris, C. (2000). Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Strategic Learning in a Knowledge Economy, 279-295. doi:10.1016/b978-0-7506-7223-8.50015-0

Barth, R (2018). Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse. Retrieved from

UACEL. (n.d.). Aroha Heaslip. Retrieved from


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