Developing and Sustaining a Collaborative Learning Community

Wahlstrom et al. (2010) make mention of the fact that often times leadership is something that “is born and not made” (p.32). I too, when thinking about leadership, envision a general leading men into battle, or the athlete who refuses to quit. The truth however, is that in a world of constant and accelerating change, this view of leadership is not only outdated but unsustainable. When considering how collaboration can be sustained and used to engage the entire learning community, two themes emerged. First was the idea of leading by example was evident. Wahlstrom et al. (2010) identify principals, second only to teachers as having the greatest school based impact on student learning. I thought about what it would mean to lead by example and what would that look like in a school. The vision I kept coming back to is positioning the principal as the lead learner within the school. Much like the outdated view of leadership residing in one person, teachers and principals have long been viewed as holding all knowledge and when I was in school, it was unheard of for a teacher to say “I don’t know.” Instead, I remember getting a response along the lines of “You will not need to know that” or “you will learn about that in another year.”  How powerful would it be for principals, teachers, students and parents to openly reflect on their own learning? Astin & Astin (1996) discuss the importance of such self-reflection and the role that it plays in deepening one’s own self-awareness. Branson (2007) builds on this idea and explains that when one reflects, they begin to view the world through another’s eyes.

The second theme that emerged was the importance of creating a space or culture where individuals, whether they be students, teachers or principals to exercise informal leadership. What if we were to publicly reflect, what impact would that have on an organization? What if principals, teachers, parents and students shared what they had learned, the struggles they encountered and questions moving forward? Could this change the mindset many still have of the infallible leader or the holder of knowledge? Could this new openness illustrate learning as a process and lifelong? A core component of any formal leadership is having an understanding of one’s core values and beliefs. I believe that sharing these values and beliefs is important, as it provides opportunities for those values and beliefs to be respectfully challenged and built upon. Leaders such as principals have a lot of responsibilities, but I believe they can lay a foundation that builds capacity amongst staff through the leading by example and developing a reflective mindset that builds in opportunities for reflection. This capacity will outlive the tenure of any single leader and will help establish a school as a learning community where not only the students are learning.


Astin, H., & Astin A, (1996). A social change model of leadership development. (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

Branson, C. M. (2007). Improving leadership by nurturing moral consciousness through structured self-reflection. Journal of Educational Administration, 45(4), 471-495.

Pauken, P. (2012). Are you prepared to defend the decisions you’ve made? reflective equilibrium, situational appreciation and the legal and moral decisions of school leaders . Journal of School Leadership, 22(March), 350-384.

Wahlstrom, K. L., Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., & Anderson, S. E. (2010). Learning from leadership: investigating the links to improved student learning. Alexandria, VA: Educational Research Service.


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