Voices in Education

Leaders Should Be Learners, Not Experts
No one wants to be labeled as “needing improvement.” The phrase may sound benign when taken at face value. But on rubrics that evaluate the performance of teachers, administrators, schools, and even districts, the designation “needs improvement” is a black mark. “Needs improvement”—often just one step away from failure on the hierarchy of high-stakes school ratings and teacher evaluations—is a warning sign signaling that desperate measures may be needed to achieve proficiency. This is the world in which contemporary school reform is taking place.

And yet, the acknowledgment that one “needs improvement” is also an essential prerequisite for learning—and by extension, for continuous school improvement. By admitting that there are things we do not know, we make ourselves more willing and invested learners. Based on my findings in “In Here, Out There: Professional Learning and the Process of School Improvement,” in which I observe an administrative leadership team working to incorporate reflection as a core element of their day-to-day work (Noonan, Summer 2014, Harvard Educational Review), I believe that normalizing and even encouraging a “needs improvement” mindset may lead to greater learning for everyone in schools: students, teachers, and administrators.

Adults in many domains wear expertise like a coat of armor, and this protectiveness, this unwillingness to show uncertainty, is especially common in education. Adults who work in schools—teachers and administrators alike—are in positions of authority where they are assumed to have some measure of expertise. This perceived expertise is a vital resource, but is too often equated with infallible competence. Cracks in the seemingly impenetrable fortress of one’s expertise are therefore often seen as cracks in one’s competence. As a result, so-called experts—teachers and administrators—expend precious energy to preserve the appearance of expertise at all costs, lest they be viewed as incompetent. This mindset in turn discourages people from asking for help and from seeking authentic collaboration.

Principals (like the one I observed) who admit to not knowing something risk appearing incompetent. But rather than being a weakness, I am convinced that the frankness and humility required to ask for help is a strength. After all, the work of school leadership is not technical work. That is, the work is not made up of precise procedures done either correctly or incorrectly. More often, the work of adults in schools is uncertain and fraught with decision points where the right answer is not clear. Teaching and learning are unpredictable activities, and so learning to be better teachers (and better learners) means being able to manage uncertainty well.

In the process of school improvement, school leaders need to break apart the equivalency between expertise and competence. Similarly, if one of the ultimate goals of education is to cultivate a disposition toward lifelong learning, then we ought to celebrate those who acknowledge what they do not know, and who admit that no matter how much they know they still need improvement. By cultivating learners instead of experts, schools and school systems can nurture individuals who can manage inevitable uncertainty with ease. 

About the Author: James Noonan is an Ed.D. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Spencer Foundation Early Career Scholar in New Civics. His research focuses on the design of professional learning environments for teachers and their impact on teacher practice and student learning.