Thread: Educational leaders making sense of external demands

 A leader loses their grasp when they ‘lose their ability to bound ongoing events, to keep pace with them by means of continuous updating actions and interpretations, or to focus on interrupting conditions’ (Weick, 2001, p. 462).

The changing demands of regulatory processes by policy makers and stakeholders have significantly changed in the early part of the twenty-first century. These changes have elevated the importance of the educational leader’s role in managing such demands and integrating these expectations with their school communities (Earley, 2013).
The problem is that we are not aware at the conscious level of how we as educational leaders go about making sense of these increasing external demands – except possibly when facing a crisis or high stakes ethical decision. There are a few studies such as Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith (2012 ), Pettit (2010); Smeed, Spiller, and Kimber (2009) and Norris (2016) which provide some clues how educational leaders respond and enact external demands in Australian educational contexts.
This blog explores one framework and provides an application which may help educational leaders when facing external stimuli such as public disclosures from performance results and the subsequent judgments.
When faced with external demands of regularity processes, educational leaders will experience similarities to any individuals who are faced with external stimuli. A new stimulus can require adjustments by the individual. A process that describes such adjustments by individuals is ‘sense making’ (Caughron et al., 2011). Some of the popularity of the literature about sense making is because its application is cathartic and provides cognitive boundaries for leaders in tight situations! The process of sensemaking enables individuals to work out the possible causes of the situation, the likely outcome of the situation and how they as individuals may influence the progression of the situation (Weick, 1995). Combining sense making with ethical decision-making frameworks has demonstrated the importance of sense making strategies in the daily work of leaders, especially when making ethical decisions (Bagdasarov et al., 2015; Thiel, Bagdasarov, Harkrider, Johnson, & Mumford, 2012).
Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld (2005) pose sense making starts when an individual realises that a foreign experience is happening. The process finishes when the individual comprehends the experience enough to allow them to make a decision to ‘act, monitor, or ignore’ the situation (Caughron et al., 2011, p. 353). In an organisational setting, when people are talking about sense making they discuss at least seven properties that have an effect on their efforts to ‘size up what they face’ (Weick, 2001, p. 461). Notably, part of the active sense making process is that the individual places constraints around the external stimuli (Weick, 1995, 2001).
Each of the seven properties of sensemaking is drawn from Weick’s 2001 publication Making sense of the organization, rather than Weick’s landmark volume (Weick, 1995) because of the 2001 refinements and its more often mentioned in the literatures about sensemaking (Allen & Penuel, 2015; Thiel et al., 2012). Note the way Weick uses the lenses of loosening in their relationship with sense making.
1. Social context: Strategies in making sense of an event are influenced by the ‘actual, implied, or imagined presence of others. Sensible meanings tend to be those for which there is social support, consensual validation, and shared relevance’ (Weick, 2001, p. 461). Weick names these sensible meanings as ‘social anchors’. When social anchors seem to be absent or disappear for the educational leader , who then starts to feel isolated from others, their grasp of what is happening in their community loosens.
2. Personal identity: This sensemaking property describes an individual’s sense of who they are, recognising their threats or enhancements in a setting. ‘Loosening’ occurs when the educational leader’s ‘identity is threatened or diffused’ (p. 461), such as in the early stages of a new position within a leadership team or being demoted without warning.
3. Retrospect: An individual is influenced by what they have noticed ‘in elapsed events, how far back they look, and how well they remember what they were doing’ (p. 462). Loosening occurs when the leader does not honour or recall the past or use it sporadically, ‘where they put their faith in anticipation’ (p. 462).
4. Salient cues: The individual uses their resourcefulness to elaborate on tiny indicators into full-blown stories, often shoring up an initial hunch. Loosening occurs when the cues become contradictory or unstable, the leader’s preferences change, or because the situation is dynamic.
5. Ongoing projects: ‘Experience is a continuous flow’. It is made a sensible event when the individual can place boundaries on some portion of the flow or when some interruption occurs. The leader loses their grasp when they ‘lose their ability to bound ongoing events, to keep pace with them by means of continuous updating actions and interpretations, or to focus on interrupting conditions’ (p. 462). Bounding in educational leadership is essential in communities with rapid and high stakes change.
6. Plausibility: This sense making act is about individuals developing coherent stories, ‘how events hang together’, a sense of reasoning and credibility to explain the event. This property is influenced by the other six properties. Plausible sense may be constrained by agreements with others, consistency with leader’s ‘own stake in events, the recent past, visible cues, projects that are demonstrably under way, scenarios that are familiar, and actions that have tangible effects’. Loosening occurs when ‘one of more of these sources of grounding disappears’ (p. 462).
7. Enactment: Action is taken as a sense making act when the individual sees what they are ‘up against, tries a negotiating gambit, makes a declaration to see what response it pulls or probes something to see how it reacts’ (p. 463). Metaphorical images of educational leaders ‘testing the waters’ or ‘dipping one’s toes’ is likened to this act. Loosening the grasp occurs when no probing actions occur or no declarations are made.
A purposeful question at this point is whether and how Weick’s properties could be useful for educational leaders. One way to answer this question is to evaluate whether the seven properties could be applied to ways external demands facing educational leaders. The table below attempts such application.

The Application of Weick’s Sense Making Properties with Acts by Educational Leaders

1.  Social context
Sensible meanings of external demands, with educational leaders (EL) seeking support, consensual validation and relevance with their communities. These are the social anchors in making sense of external demands.
2.  Personal identity
ELs sense of who they are with integrating external demands with existing internal school events. ELs recognise the threats or enhancements in their school contexts, which may determine their sense of efficacy where ‘judgments of relevance and sense’ emerge (Weick, 2001, p. 462).
3.  Retrospect
The capacity for ELs to notice elapsed events, going back and remembering what they or others have done to meet an external demand. For example, ELs may draw upon the past year’s student performance data to make sense of their current experiences.
4.  Salient cues
ELs use their resourcefulness to pick out indicators (Shipps, 2012). They shore up stories (Rigby, 2015) about the external stimuli (Koyama, 2014). For example, ELs may draw upon empirical research of the negative consequences of national testing from other countries. When these stories become contradictory, such as poor parallels in educations systems, the grasp of making sense loosens.
5. Ongoing projects
ELs make sense of the external stimuli by constraining the external stimuli and/or by updating their actions and interpretations of the stimuli. They may negotiate and enact for example external demands in ways that are creative and savvy (Koyama, 2014).
6. Plausibility
ELs make sense by developing coherent stories (Elmore, Forman, Stosich, & Bocala, 2013) about their expectations. These stories hold certain levels of credibility and reasoning. The EL’s level of coherence in a story is often constrained by the agreements of their communities, their own stake in the expectations, familiar scenarios, action and credible effects. They also create models which scaffold their stories (Darling-Hammond 2010; Kuchapski, 2001).
7.  Enactment
ELs take action to see what they may be up against. They may try a negotiating gambit or make a declaration (possibly to the policy makers’ expectations).

Several questions are put forward here:
1. Recall a leadership action in public life that demonstrated one or more of Weick’s properties.
2. When have you engaged in Weick’s properties in your educational leadership experiences?
3. What examples have you witnessed or experienced about loosening?
4.a. Take one external stimuli event from an educational setting and apply Weick’s 7 properties
4.b. What insights has this application provided in terms of your own sensemaking?
5. What other insights do you have with regard to sensemaking and educational leadership?

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