No school principal is an island: from individual to school sense-making processes in reform implementation


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Authors: Sherry Ganon-Shilon and Chen Schechter

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go TOGETHER”

This African proverb highlights the need to explore how can head teachers and faculty members reform schools from within. Educational reform implementation in today's fast changing world requires a critical transition from individual to school sense-making processes. This blog is based on our paper which proposes the concept of sense-making as a collaborative framework, explaining how head teachers make sense of policy reforms with their faculty members through dialogue and negotiation within the unique and complex school contexts in which they operate.

In this high-stakes era of higher standards, national reforms have become central tools for school improvement. However, these policies produced the opposite of the intended results. Interpreting reform demands while relying on their existing knowledge and experiences, the head teachers and the educational staff often reconstruct policy messages in various ways, from reinforcing pre-existing practices to leading new school practices.

School sense-making is a two-way interaction, both shaping and being shaped by the school mediators – the head teacher and the educational staff. We argue that building a shared understanding of the reform is essential for a successful school development. This school sense-making approach integrates top-down and bottom-up initiatives while emphasizing the importance of the school community in facilitating a social daily practice through a collaborative framework.

School sense-making in reform implementation is an interrelated and interconnected process, as illustrated in Figure 1. Implementing an educational reform on the basis of a school sense-making approach is not a linear but rather a circular, continuous process. Taking a retrospective look at their prior knowledge, experience and beliefs, head teachers and the educational staff work together to understand and process the new demands within their social context. Educators collaborate to produce a map of the unfamiliar situation, construct and enact a school meaning of external reform demands.

 Figure 1

Figure 1. A school sense-making process in reform implementation

In our paper we illustrated how head teachers, who have encountered a national reform plan aiming to maximize high schools' measurable performance (students' entitlement to a matriculation certificate, and dropout prevention), employed a school sense-making approach. Their quotes were generated by a qualitative study that explored the considerations of Israeli principals perceiving and structuring shared sense-making practices within the implementation of a national education reform. The Courage to Change national reform, initiated in the 2011-2012 school year and implemented in high schools, encompasses many aspects of school life, including pedagogical and managerial aspects as well as teachers' employment conditions. The Courage to Change is based on a top-down authoritarian relationship between policymakers and schools, and provides detailed instructions as how to structure the expected changes. There has hardly been room for personalized implementation or creative interpretation.

The reform calls for a reorganization of teachers’ educational-pedagogical work by adding individual hours to their regular work hours. These individual hours were utilized for tutoring groups of up to five students, enabling thus personal attention, to promote scholastic achievements. The specific content of these sessions was determined by the school following the Education Ministry's guidelines. We collected data during the 2012-2013 school year through semi-structured interviews designed to explore principals’ personal perspectives.

Our research indicates that the participating head teachers perceived and enacted shared sense-making practices relating to three major themes. The first theme was a common language: head teachers presented individual teaching hours as a platform for pedagogical and emotional discussions with their teachers, in formal as well as informal settings, while others framed reform messages as a ‘financial discourse’. The second theme was a collaborative learning process: prioritizing time for a collaborative learning process, head teachers constructed mutual goals for school improvement and created opportunities for teachers to question beliefs and practices. The third theme was a shared working culture: presenting individual teaching hours as an opportunity to reinforce a shared working culture, head teachers communicated a new collaborative routine with their educational staff.  

In today’s increasingly interconnected and globalized world, no school principal is an island. Placed in the vital and crucial position of bridging between the school and the educational system as well as the outside world, the principal cannot make sense of and enact an educational reform in isolation. Accordingly, we highlight the need to develop 'school sense-making' cultural approach. Learning from and with peers within school culture facilitates an expanded range of sense-making options in dealing with new information and experiences. Toward this end, head teachers should design school practice fields, namely fields of play, where faculty can collectively construct various scenarios of reform implementation in their unique school context. This reflective practice (Bannink and Van Dam, 2007) provides a safe arena for both head teachers and faculty members to negotiate their understandings of the content and process of reform implementation over time. Expansion of faculty members' perspective from one of solely performing – solving daily school problems – to one entailing processes of rehearsing, experimenting, and simulating reform implementation can also nurture a bottom-up framework for traditional top-down policy demands.

Dr. Ganon-Shilon is a Researcher at the Irsaeli Ministry of Education ( Prof Schechter is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Educational Administration and a Full Professor with Tenure at the Department of Educational Leadership, Administration & Policy, School of Education at Bar-Ilan University, Israel (
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