Thanks to John Catt Educational, I’ve had the chance to read and review some great education books. My last John Catt review was on Walkthrus I and II and this post will contain some of my thoughts on the excellent book “Leaders with Substance” by Matthew Evans.

One of the best leaders I’ve ever met was the Executive Director of the summer camp I worked at when I was in college. He possessed all of the leadership traits that many of us have come to know and admire, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, collaborative skills, and the rest. In addition to these “domain-general” leadership traits, he also possessed deep wells of “domain-specific” knowledge that he had picked up after years of running camps; How to complete the ACA accreditation process, how to counsel a homesick camper, how to train young adults to sing camp songs, and so on. This category of knowledge, while not broadly applicable to other domains (he couldn’t, for example, use camp songs to perform open heart surgery) was just as important, if not more important, to being a great camp director as the domain-general traits that formed his leadership style. In fact, many would argue that whenever a domain-general trait, such as critical thinking or problem solving, is demonstrated it is actually just a bunch of domain-specific knowledge in disguise.

In educational leadership, we revere domain-general leadership traits like critical thinking and problem solving, and we downplay education-specific knowledge. Nobody seems to worry too much, in my experience, if a principal doesn’t have an accurate mental model of the learner, or is unfamiliar with the latest in educational psychology research, or couldn’t name at least five formative assessment techniques, to name a few examples of clearly useful pieces of knowledge for an educational context. What people seem to want are wholly generic leaders possessing what Matthew Evans would call “hollow skills” rather than leaders who know anything of substance about teaching and learning. Some would go so far as to promote the idea that we don’t even need educators to be our leaders, but that we should be looking towards the world of business for our principals. These people seem to ignore the crucial role that domain-specific knowledge plays in expert performance.

Evans’s book, Leaders with Substance: An Anecdote to Leadership Genericism in Schools, continues in this vein, hitting hard against our misguided faith in hollow leadership and advocating for leadership with substance. Chapter after chapter he argues that the best school leaders tend to know a whole lot of stuff that only applies to schools. He doesn’t go so far as to suggest that a successful ski resort manager would be a hopeless school manager; There are clearly skills (e.g., how to balance a budget, conduct interviews, organize large numbers of people, etc.) that would transfer between the two contexts; but he shares my belief that schools would be better off with more leaders who possess a well-developed schema of knowledge on, say, learning theory, instructional strategies, and teacher professional development.

There’s probably very little an individual in my position can do to put a complete end to the emphasis on “hollow skills” in educational leadership. If, like me, you’re someone who is regularly on hiring committees, you could forgo the usual routine of asking the interviewee to “name their favorite leadership trait and why”, and instead ask them to describe implications of cognitive science for the classroom, or ask them to respond to a scenario about a novice teacher who is struggling to manage student behavior. Perhaps instead of asking them to talk about “the importance of communication,” you could actually get them to communicate their knowledge about teaching and learning over the course of the interview.

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg

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