The interplay between leading and learning
The interplay between leading and learning

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The interplay between leading and learning

2 A learning community

When one leads, there is an element of learning. Think of the trainer leading trainees through new materials, the youth worker leading a project, the teacher leading colleagues in new ways of approaching a topic, or the member of staff taking on a leadership role for the first time. In every case, new things are being learned, often by the leader as well as those being led. This supports the assertion, then, that leadership and learning are inextricably linked. In the next activity you will consider further this close relationship between leadership and learning, and indeed, how it leads on to the concept of a learning community.

Activity 3

Timing: Allow up to 1 hour

Read the article Lessons from New Zealand: leadership for learning [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] by McPherson and Borthwick (2011) which reports on developments in New Zealand schools.

As you read, list the ways in which leadership and learning behaviours are described and evidenced. What were the students and staff reported as doing that led the authors to conclude that ‘We saw individuals, both students and staff, learning their leadership roles as interdependent members of the community at school and beyond’?

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This study carried out by McPherson and Borthwick is set in a specific context – that of New Zealand schools. Here, they say, there is an emphasis on notions of partnership and community. They assert that ‘school leaders, teachers, students, families, and communities across the country share the Ministry of Education’s vision’, although that vision is rather generic, and it would be difficult to argue against an education system that aims to ‘equip all citizens with the knowledge, skills, and values to be successful’. You might reflect on the extent to which the organisation you work in has a vision that is shared among all those who are part of it or the communities with which it interacts.

The authors claim that New Zealand has a ‘distributed’ view of leadership, and that there is ‘interdependence’ between members of the community that plays into the need to learn leadership roles. Explicitly included here are students – it is not just the staff who are seen as leaders of learning. Implicit in the phrase ‘distributed leadership’ here is the view that all share in the leadership. But that is not to deny that schools have ‘leaders’ to whom implementation is delegated by the ministry. Here, then, is the distinction between the designation of ‘leader’ – positional leadership, restricted to a few – and the behaviour of ‘leadership’, which is embodied in all.

In the article, a school principal says that leadership is ‘subversive’ and modelled and that, through this modelling can come a shared understanding of behaviours required. Here, then, is a manifestation of learning through leadership. Teachers, and those designated as leaders, are seen to be acting overtly as learners as they engage in ‘inquiry, self-reporting, and reflection’ (p. 21).

McPherson and Borthwick (2011) discuss aspects of student leadership. Here they cite independence, self-regulation and student-led reporting as evidence of leadership in learning in the learners themselves. The authors make explicit here the internal focus of leadership but they also refer to learners leading others – peers, teachers and other members of the community. Here is not leadership that is defined by role rather it is a behaviour, a way of being. The students were leading their own learning, supported by others – peers and staff. The article is set in the context of new technologies and learning for ‘the digital age’. Is it that this ‘new landscape’ provides different opportunities to re-evaluate learning or is it that such leadership of learning can be seen in more traditional or informal contexts? Are there examples in your own organisation where learners are able to exercise this sort of leadership?

It should be pointed out that in this re-evaluation comes the notion of leadership evolving to cope with new systemic demands. Leaders are not ‘heroes’ who blaze a trail. Instead, they respond to new contexts and those around them.

In many cases, such responsiveness results in the leadership role no longer being needed. It might be that those who previously needed leading become autonomous, or lead in their own right. It might be that the activity or project being led becomes established and embedded in the system and no longer requires a leader as such.

Another implicit act of leadership in the article is seen in the example of Auckland Viscount. Here there was an explicit requirement for all school members to ‘learn and help others learn’ (i.e. to lead learning). This then led onto a reflection on what it is to be a learner – and to a consideration of ideas of communities of learners. Aspects of reflection on leadership per se were excluded but can be seen as implicit in the activities which were being reflected on – these are seen in the examples of organisation and leading of conferences, participation, contribution and self-management. Here leadership is seen to have created conditions in which certain desired behaviours can flourish.

Teacher leadership of learning was brought out explicitly in the Discovery 1 case study, where learning and professional development were fused in ‘Learning Circles’ and where roles had been renamed to emphasise this different relationship. Of course merely changing names does not necessarily lead to changed behaviours and it may be easier to establish a pilot than to roll out across a system.


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