Education Leadership Adaptive Problems vs Technical Problems

Recent studies in education leadership by such leading theorists as Kenneth Leithwooed, Andrew Hargreaves, Michael Fullan and others have increasingly pointed to the differences in the types of problems education leaders are called upon to solve. Though school principals and vice-principals wear a variety of hats every day, their main function is instructional leaders, i.e. principal teachers in the school. In theory, assisting teachers with curriculum matters, classroom management issues, teaching and learning strategies, and assessment techniques should make up the bulk of the work that school leaders do. Unfortunately, however, the reality is that school leaders spend a great deal of their time dealing with strictly technical building management issues such as heating and cooling problems, security problems, maintenance details, and endless streams of urgent but unimportant matters that crip up on a daily basis.

These kinds of problems are straightforward technical problems, and they require little specialized skill to solve. Usually a phone call or two to the proper department is all that is needed to address most of them, but the time consumed in investigating, discussing, phoning around, and supervising is considerable. And though these may be serious matters, such as the heat failing, or the air flow stopping, they are not the types of problems most school leaders are prepared to handle. Education leadership requires advanced education, usually at the graduate school level, in addition to specialized courses in school administration. Ontario, Canada, for example requires a two-part principal’s qualification course in addition to either specialist qualifications in two subject areas or a master’s degree. Prospective leaders then go through rigourous selection processes to ensure that they are prepared to lead a school. Yet with all this specialization in education leadership, most principals and vice-principals do not use the skills, talents and knowledge they’ve developed that qualify them to be leaders.

This is an unfortunate situation because the distraction of dozens of technical problems distract from the more difficult and ultimately important adaptive problems that school leaders are really hired to solve. Adaptive problems, unlike technical problems, are more complicated and difficult to solve because they do not have set solutions. Unlike a broken water pipe or failed heating unit, an adaptive problem involves far more abstract issues like perspective, bias, orientation, practice, experience, and philosophy. The leader who takes on an adaptive problem is not expected to know who to call to fix a problem: he or she is expected to know which people skills to draw upon in order to change a prevailing school climate or culture.

The most common adaptive problems implemention of district or government reforms. The teaching profession, by its nature, is conservative, charged as it is with the duty of passing on civilization from one generation to the next. Individually and collectively, teachers’ thinking is epochal rather than topical. Typical courses in teacher training deal with educational thought since Aristotle. Rapid change or upheaval is not only uncomfortable for teachers but also counterintuitive. But governments think much differently and generally have a useful life of 18 months between election cycles. This makes for ambitious and aggressive change agendas that bring much consternation to the teaching profession. Curriculum relevance, drop-out remediation, assessment theory, and school discipline are hot-button issues that governments at the district and state/provincial level frequently attempt to address with wholesale changes to the way schools work. Recent intiatives into student success, for example, have allowed for significant changes to school staffing, credit assignment, diploma requirements, course selections, and school-community partnerships. Getting staff, parents, students, and the greater community to understand, appreciate, accept and ultimately embrace these changes is tremendously difficult as they require changing the way people think.

But this is what school leaders are best trained to do. Their resourcefulness as thinkers and leaders is what makes them effective in resolving these types of problems. Adaptive problems require a change in thinking, direction, orientation or philosophy rather than a change of parts as in technical problems. Adaptive problems require superior communication, gentle persuasion, creative staff development, and sincere desire for change whereas technical problems require a generally unsophisticated knowledge of maintenance department phone extensions, paper-trail generation, and paperwork processes. Competence is measured by the latter, but effectiveness by the former. Aspiring (and inspiring) leaders in education are the most valuable when they develop adaptive problem-solving skills.