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Principals as leaders of learning cultures - Jennifer Garvey Berger


Edited transcript

The thing I think about in my work life is how it is we can spend a whole lot of time thinking about what kids need and how to teach children, what are the learning needs for people from 0-18? Then we spend very little time thinking about the learning needs of everybody else. This troubles me because I think we deserve some attention to our learning needs as well. It is important for principals to think about the learning needs of their teachers, because if the teachers are learning the students will have a harder time learning as well. I am trying to put ‘development’ back into ‘teacher professional development’.

We are thinking about learning all the time but we don’t think enough about supporting teacher learning.


  • What is maturity?
  • Link to adult development theory
  • How can you use the theory to help you create conditions for supporting teacher growth?

How do you know maturity when you see it? We have a sense of what it looks like when we see it. It is not how much someone knows, but instead how they ‘be’ in the world. How they are in the room. There is a difference between teaching someone new things to know and the blossoming and maturity which is more about learning how to be a different way.

What can we do?

  • How can we come to a common definition of maturity?
  • How can we grow it when we don’t know quite what it is?
  • Theories of adult development (like Robert Kegan’s) help us to name and begin to understand maturity.

“All that is needed for a new universe is a new mind”
William Carlos Williams

We need to figure out a way to create schools as contexts where people can go through these changes and come into maturity and identity. We have this idea that if we want to change the world we have to change our minds. We are in the mind changing business. How do we help change the minds of the adults in the mind changing business? I think this requires two big ideas to be useful.

  • The process of movement and the ways to support that process
  • The descriptions of the different meaning making worlds people inhabit over the course of their lives.

How do you get from one place to another place? Movement happens when you take something that is so close to you that you can’t see it, and then you come to see it. The root of education means to ‘lead out of’ so there is a sense of leading out from the thoughts and ideas we already have. This movement says that the way to grow is to lead out of yourself into another self. This is moving from ‘subject’ to ‘object’.

From subject

  • Unquestioned, unnoticed
  • Taken for granted, taken for true – or not really even taken at all
  • You don’t ‘have’ something that’s subject – something that’s subject ‘has’ you

To object

  • Can name it, take responsibility for it, make decisions about it, relate it to other things
  • You ‘have’ things that are object

This is the process, then there is the map of what do these places look like.

Meaning-making worlds

  • Kegan names five different meaning-making worlds from infancy to old age
  • These worlds are defined by how many shades of grey a person can see
  • The journey between one world and the next takes years or decades
  • Much of our lives are spent in the in-between places – partially making meaning in one world and partially in the next.

Think of a time when you needed the ideas or opinions of an outside authority rather than making up your own mind about an issue (this authority might have been an expert of some kind, a family member, a book…).

For how many of you did you think of your accountant or doctor? A parent or a mentor? These are people whose voices are very loud in our heads and can make us change our minds. Sometimes because we are new at something and don’t know enough. We each have people in our lives where we say I give up my authority to you. We can’t be the authority in everything. There are people who look for authority outside themselves always and haven’t learned to trust their own authority.

These people have a ‘socialised mind’

  • Able to internalise external ideas, opinions, and perspectives
  • Able to think abstractly, be self-reflective, and be devoted to something greater than own needs
  • Not able to have a perspective on the internalised ideas, opinions, and perspectives because they ARE those perspectives
  • No sense of what I want outside of others’ expectations or societal roles.

Often this has some relationship with age. It may be that younger people are more likely to be in this position than older. This is not always the way. This is actually a place where not just teenagers live but grownups live and spend happy productive lives looking outside themselves for authority.

Now think of a time when you disputed the voice/idea/opinion of an authority in whom you had previously placed your trust.

This stage is called the self-authored mind:

  • Able to have a perspective on – and make decisions about – the ideas, opinions, and perspectives of others
  • Have an internal set of rules and regulations – a self-authoring system
  • “Own” their work, are self-guided, self-motivated, self-evaluative
  • Cannot yet have a perspective on the running of their own internal system

Why does this matter to school leaders?

It turns out these ideas influence hugely how people make sense of their workplaces and what teachers are able to do. People have these two developmental places described and many people are in the middle. People are able to transfer their understandings from a professional development experience in a different way if they are farther along this path.

Development influences people’s ability to:

  • Transfer their understandings of professional development to a classroom setting
  • Withstand and work against negative socialising factors in their schools
  • Develop new understandings of what curriculum might or should be
  • Exercise complex professional judgment even in times of stress or many different opinions
  • Self evaluate their teaching; create a professional development plan

Development with a distance from yourself and your own thinking helps you make decisions rather than being so much inside it and swept up with everyone else. It has a strong impact on how you do in times of stress, and when there are many opposing voices and you have to choose from them.

We often have an intuitive sense that this is a journey into adulthood. We recognise this journey in teenagers. Researchers have found this can take over 20 years. This means that when young new teachers come into classrooms, they are likely to not be where the teachers who leave classrooms at retirement have been. There are new forces and new tides with these new teachers however they come with new meaning making system that may require different things from leaders. I think it requires psychologically spacious schools that think about process and pictures of growth. Schools that value adult differences just as they do student differences. A school that says adults come in all different sizes and my school can support everyone from where they are now to the next step on their road. We do this for our kids.

It is our job to support people from where they are to where they need to go. Can you imagine if a teacher of six year olds said I actually prefer kids who know how to read on the first day, so those who don’t know how to read have to go home? But we say this to grownups all the time. “I prefer people who have a central core and I don’t want to help you develop this central core because I think you should already have it”.

This means development in education is about making hidden things visible. If you think about what is hidden to people and how you can make that visible, you can think about professional development if a different way.

What practices help teachers see something that was once invisible to them?

  • Video taping teaching
  • Teaching observations
  • Conversations about why a teacher made particular choices
  • Teaching blogs or forums about particular ideas or techniques
  • Visiting other schools
  • Reflective teaching journal…

It is so hard to get teachers to have the space to get outside their own universe they’ve created within that classroom. Each of these is about removing yourself from that space and having time and support for reflection.

What do you do in your school? What could you do differently?

We spend a lot of time personalising student learning but we don’t spend a lot of time personalising teacher learning. We assume everyone is on the same page, even though teaching is this bizarre profession where you could be doing basically the same stuff on the first day of your professional career as you could be on the last day of your professional career. In many ways there is no profession that needs more personalising than teaching. You could be doing the same basic things for so long that if you don’t learn new ways of doing it you will be bored out of your mind, and you won’t be the only one who is bored.

Growth for the socialised mind:

How might you help teachers meet some of these goals:

  • To see that no one theory, group, or organisation is infallible
  • To develop a more personal and nuanced set of beliefs and loyalties
  • To listen to and begin to trust self

Pathways to growth

  • A journal to help hold on to the growing internal voice
  • Teacher research or other knowledge building projects
  • Training and practice in very careful, reflective listening
  • Adult development theories to help understand separation as deepening

A teachers’ job is so full on there is so little time for thinking and so much expectation of doing, we don’t have a whole lot of time to get some perspectives on what we are doing. Time is an important factor.

“Of all the creatures on earth, only human beings can change their patterns. Man alone is the architect of his destiny… Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”
William James

The thinking of teachers creates the schools, the thinking of teachers creates the practice, and the thinking of teachers mingles with the thinking of children to create the learning. I believe that if you don’t think hard about teacher thinking, you’re not thinking hard enough about student thinking either. If the teachers are not growing how can we expect them to help other people grow. We need to create places to think about the transformation of adult lives and how you could support those transformations.

I think we have to take seriously the idea that schools are not just a place for young people to learn. Schools are places for grownups to learn. We should also be thinking about this with parents and community members. This is what schools are about. If we thought harder about how to support the growth and development of the grownups around us, you would have to work less hard and they would have to work less hard and things would go a little bit easier.

Published on: 20 Jul 2009