Teacher as leader


Traditional teaching methods will not develop students' adaptability, innovation, resilience, critical-thinking or creativity. Dr Conrad Hughes reprises his recent lecture on the teacher as a leader of learning.

With the rapid expansion of ICT, schools need to ensure that they are developing the right skills in students that will equip them to be happy, fulfilled but also competitive in a world fraught with challenges and uncertainty. 

We cannot pretend that by doing business as usual in the classroom we will be actively developing the adaptability, innovation, resilience, critical-thinking (especially discernment and information analysis) and creativity that researchers, philosophers and organisations are showing us are more and more needed in an interconnected world.

While many argue that it is the entire schooling system that is at fault or that we need to redesign our curriculum, I believe that the real question is today where it has always been and will always be: not in the structure or the content of education (although these factors are still important) but in the teaching and learning.

What is the role of the teacher as leader in this complex environment? 

Nearly 300 years ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) created a revolution in education and his child-centred, inquiry-based learning has predominated schools of thought ever since. John Dewey, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Célestin Freinet and, in the UK, the outspoken founder of Summerhill, Alexander Sutherland Neill, all carried Rousseau’s flame high.

The needs of the learner come first in this model of education and the non-interventionist teacher’s role is to scaffold learning environments that will allow the full reach of exploration to develop in the child.

This expression of leadership reminds us of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s belief that a good leader is someone who does not take centre stage.

As such the teacher is not a “sage on the stage” but a “facilitator”, someone who stands in the wings and gives the student as much freedom as possible. In pedagogy this model is still very popular with Discovery Learning programmes across the United States, world-wide web-based learning projects that allow the student to take full ownership of the learning process and many inquiry-based primary school educational programmes. The word “facilitator” is used more and more and the word “teacher” less and less.

While educational philosophy might correspond with our beliefs and tastes, it is not scientifically researched and does not necessarily benefit from any hard evidence to back it up. Does the research in education tell us that the best model of learning is one where the teacher is a facilitator and the student is at the centre?

Arguably the most comprehensive study of pedagogical practice in schools is Professor John Hattie’s 2009 publication Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Prof Hattie’s work synthesises thousands of studies and looks at “effect size” (a calculation of the benefits using statistical data) of a large palette of strategies for learning.

The findings are not always what one would expect and make us step back and rethink the way we do things. 

The greatest effect sizes – indicating the greatest change after the use of a chosen strategy – do not come with the student at the centre and the teacher facilitating on the side, but on the contrary, with what Prof Hattie calls “active” teaching: the teacher drives the learning, makes learning objectives very clear and uses punchy techniques such as remediation (catch-up), mastery learning (the idea that a student should not move on to new material until the previous parts have been mastered), direct instruction (explicit sign-posting of learning objectives), and setting the students challenging goals.

So the research is telling us that the teacher as leader needs to be in control of the class and showing the way with a challenging, carefully structured pace, not letting students fall behind as they try to figure it out for themselves. 

We are far from the philosophy of the early part of the 20th century influenced by Rousseau and Dewey. Prof Hattie’s synthesis shows that quality feedback is the single greatest creator of improvement. 

The teacher needs to sit down with the student and explain exactly what needs to be done in order to improve. It seems obvious but how often is the teacher so hard-pressed to get through a pile of marking or finish a syllabus that this vital coaching technique falls by the way-side? 

If we want our students to improve then we have to make sure they have understood and internalised how this can be done.

Our students are entering a turbulent, chaotic era and they need to be strong, with a reliable compass to navigate the storms. As teachers, let’s use the benefits of research to make sure that we have empowered them to do so by teaching for learning and not being afraid to lead the way. After all, the Greek word pedagogy means “to lead the child”.

  • Dr Conrad Hughes is director of education at the International School of Geneva and has recently delivered a speech on the “teacher as a leader” at the annual Cambridge Teachers Conference, run by Cambridge International Examinations.

  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Oxford: Routledge.
  • Rousseau, J.J. (1762). Emile ou de l’Education. Paris: Garnier.


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