Inside OBE: Teachers must take charge

In the previous edition of the Teacher, I introduced a different way of thinking about “the basics” in education. They are the basics not of learning skills, but of the conditions that make learning happen, and they apply directly — and even urgently — to the daily work of teachers. To introduce these ‘real” basics, I established four things.

First, there are five conditions that are critical to the success of any ‘change” in any kind of organisation. They are: purpose of the change; vision of the change; ownership of the change; capacity to implement the change; and support for the change. Without all five conditions being met, change efforts inevitably falter.

Second, it is the role of leaders to establish and sustain these five basics within their organisations. Leaders lead change; this is their key task and responsibility if they intend to be successful.

Third, learning is change. Learning introduces new things to a person’s life. If the learning is going to ‘stick” and be useful to the learner, these same five basics apply. There needs to be a purpose for the learning; a vision of the learning being enacted in thelearner’s life; ownership for thelearning by the learner; capacity built, so that the new learning can ‘take” and be applied successfully; and support for the learning, so that it can be internalised and applied successfully in the long run.

Fourth, at the very minimum, teachers are the leaders of their classrooms, and as leaders of learning they face these five challenges every day.


But in too many schools in too many countries, the structure of the education system has undermined the leadership role of teachers. These systems have set up policymakers as ‘the leaders”, principals as ‘the managers” charged with putting the policies in place, and teachers as ‘the implementers” of the policies. This model assumes that the policymakers know everything and have it right; the principals only need to be watchful and make sure the policies are carried out; and the teachers should simply follow orders.

Despite all claims to the contrary, this way of thinking about education has never worked and cannot work — because it completely ignores these five real basics.

What this structure ignores is that the ‘real work” is done by teachers: facilitating learning. Given that learning is change, if teachers don’t lead learning by establishing these five basics in their classrooms, they can only hope to manage learning — and those strategies only work for a small minority of learners. In short, to be successful, teachers must become leaders of learning.

The total leaders model

In 1998, my colleague Charles Schwahn and I published our book Total Leaders. In it, we spelt out what leaders do to establish and sustain these five basics of change. The person who can do this we call a total leader. In our research into leadership and successful change, we discovered that there were five distinctive schools of thought about leadership. Each emphasised a particular piece of the picture, but not the whole. We named these five:

– authentic leadership;

– visionary leadership;

– cultural leadership;

– quality leadership; and

– service leadership.

‘Total” leaders were those who functioned effectively in all five areas.

We then linked each of these five to one of our five basics of change. ‘Authentic” leaders focus on creating a convincing purpose for the change. ‘Visionary” leaders focus on establishing an inspiring vision of the change. ‘Cultural” leaders focus on developing ownership of the change. ‘Quality” leaders focus on building capacity for the change. ‘Service” leaders focus on sustaining support systems for the change. And, of course, total leaders focus on all five.

What I’m suggesting here is that every teacher can and should take on the role, not only of leader, but of total leader. What teachers should always remember is that total leaders exist everywhere in effective organisations because effective organisations are continuously growing, learning, changing and improving. Change is a fact of life all over — just like in classrooms!

In short, leadership is not about the formal or legal ‘position” one holds, but about functions and actions of the individual. It’s about what people do in their positions that make them leaders; it’s not about the position itself.

Yes, of course! When you think about it, it’s basic.

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