Leaders’ sensemaking

Sensemaking is a cognitive activity. It ‘is an everyday occurrence that happens inside an individual’s head when s/he ‘makes sense’ of something’ (Giuliani, 2016, p.4)

As an act of cognition sensemaking is a common event, yet from a theoretical perspective sensemaking, according to Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld (2005) it is more complex. It includes sensemaking at the relational group and societal levels of meaning. Some of the popularity of the literature about sensemaking is because its application makes sense! Weick’s (1995) theoretical proposition of sensemaking has given scholars the opportunity to examine groups of sensemaking practices within a range of contexts, from organisations (Johnson et al., 2013) to literary texts (Hunt, 2020). This includes the ways that leaders (and particularly educational leaders) make meaning of imposed policies or external stimuli (Spillane, Diamond, et al., 2002; Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002; Werts & Brewer, 2014) and integrate, in various adaptations, such impositions within their school environments and organisations (Thiel, Bagdasarov, Harkrider, Johnson, & Mumford, 2012; Werts et al., 2013). Combining sensemaking literature with ethical decision-making frameworks demonstrates the importance of sensemaking strategies in the daily work of educational leaders, especially when making ethical decisions (Bagdasarov et al., 2015; Thiel et al., 2012).

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). Weick et al. (2005) explain that sensemaking starts when an individual realises that a foreign experience/event is happening and the sensemaking 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 sensemaking 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 sensemaking process is that the individual places constraints around the external stimuli (Weick, 1995, 2001). Weick presents a minimalist form in his development of his ideas about sensemaking, calling on the reader to rely on their ‘common-sense understanding of the terms employed’ (Weick, 2001, p. 461). Weick explains his ideas about sensemaking through a scaffold of seven properties. Each of the properties of sensemaking is defined briefly below, followed by the implications when the strategy ‘loosens’. Loosening occurs when the sensemaking is threatened or weakened, such as contradictory stimuli (Weick, 2001). The properties are 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 being cited more often in the sensemaking literatures (Allen & Penuel, 2015; Thiel et al., 2012).

  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 individual, who then starts to feel isolated from others, the individual’s grasp of what is happening 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 ‘identity is threatened or diffused’ (p. 461), such as in the early stages of a position within the group or losing ‘a job without warning’ (p. 461).
  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 individuals do not appreciate or recall the past or ‘use it casually, 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 individual’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 individual loosens 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).
  6. Plausibility: Thissensemaking property 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 ‘is constrained by agreements with others, consistency with one’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: 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). The old adages of ‘testing the waters’ or ‘dipping one’s toes in’ possibly describe this property. Loosening the grasp occurs when no probing actions occur, or no declarations are made.


Allen, C. D., & Penuel, W. R. (2015). Studying teachers’ sensemaking to investigate teachers’ responses to professional development focused on new standards. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 136-149.

Bagdasarov, Z., Johnson, J. F., MacDougall, A. E., Steele, L. M., Connelly, S., & Mumford, M. D. (2015). Mental models and ethical decision making: The mediating role of sensemaking. Journal of Business Ethics, 1-12.

Caughron, J. J., Antes, A. L., Stenmark, C. K., Thiel, C. E., Wang, X., & Mumford, M. D. (2011). Sensemaking strategies for ethical decision making. Ethics & Behavior, 21(5), 351-366.

Giuliani, M. (2016). Sensemaking, sensegiving and sensebreaking. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 17(2), 218-237. doi:10.1108/jic-04-2015-0039

Hunt, E. K. (2020). The Last Discourse: Jesus and Sensegiving in the Gospel of John. Regent University,

Johnson, J. F., Bagdasarov, Z., Harkrider, L. N., MacDougall, A. E., Connelly, S., Devenport, L. D., & Mumford, M. D. (2013). The Effects of Note-Taking and Review on Sensemaking and Ethical Decision Making. Ethics & Behavior, 23(4), 299-323. doi:10.1080/10508422.2013.774275

Spillane, J. P., Diamond, J. B., Burch, P., Hallett, T., Jita, L., & Zoltners, J. (2002). Managing in the Middle: School Leaders and the Enactment of Accountability Policy. Educational Policy, 16(5), 731-762. doi:10.1177/089590402237311

Spillane, J. P., Reiser, B. J., & Reimer, T. (2002). Policy Implementation and Cognition: Reframing and Refocusing Implementation Research. Review of Educational Research, 72(3), 387-431. doi:10.3102/00346543072003387

Thiel, C., Bagdasarov, Z., Harkrider, L., Johnson, J. F., & Mumford, M. (2012). Leader Ethical Decision-Making in Organizations: Strategies for Sensemaking. Journal of Business Ethics, 107, 49-64. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1299-1

Weick, K. (1995). Sense-making in Organizations. California: SAGE Publications Inc.

Weick, K. (2001). Making Sense of the Organization. Maiden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Weick, K., Sutcliffe, K., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409-421.

Werts, A. B., & Brewer, C. A. (2014). Reframing the Study of Policy Implementation: Lived Experience as Politics. Educational Policy. doi:10.1177/0895904814559247

Werts, A. B., Della Sala, M., Lindle, J., Horace, J. M., Brewer, C., & Knoeppel, R. (2013). Education Stakeholders’ Translation and Sense-Making of Accountability Policies. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 12(4), 397-419.

Leaders’ sensegiving

Theoretical Premises of Sensegiving

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Educational leaders’ capabilities in sensegiving may make or break the success of a school change or be instrumental in the school community coming to terms with critical events. As such, effective sensegiving leadership practices are fundamental to a school leader’s effectiveness in mobilising and/or influencing members of the school community. Sensegiving practices are ‘the symbolic constructions used to create meaning for others (i.e. to give sense)’(Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991, p. 448). The purpose of theorising about sensegiving is that it offers a feasible explanation of a different actuality. Importantly the intentionality of a sensegiving act is to influence another individual’s thinking to accept it as their own or the collective (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). It stands to reason that sensegiving literatures often are embedded in the field of management and leadership; the term provides an opportunity to be more explicit about the leader’s role, or more inclusively the ‘leadership activity’ in the sensemaking process (Catasús, Mårtensson, & Skoog, 2009). If sensemaking is explaining and justifying, then a leader’s sensegiving is the act of diffusing such explanations and justifications within the organisation (Green Jr, 2004). Sensegiving while normalising and legitimising certain realities and delegitimising others (Gioia & Thomas, 1996), also shuts down or constrains different interpretive meanings of reality (Voronov, 2008).[1]

In relation to others’ sensemaking, a leader’s sensegiving is the attempt to affect an employee’s sensemaking (Kraft, Sparr, & Peus, 2018). For some, this attempt is seen to be ‘a sender-centric view’ of sensemaking. Corvellec and Risberg (2007) contest ‘it is non-sensical to speak of sense without referring to interpretation and, thus, to a living audience’ (p. 322). This bypasses the sender’s evaluation of where the audience accepts the meaning or not (Corvellic & Risberg, 2007). In its place they reason that sensegiving acts are the activities of persuading audiences in a desirable direction of a preferred reality. Corvellec’s and Risberg’s point of the interactive nature of sensegiving. the Sensegiving is not simply ‘done’ to the other with blind acceptance; this interactive nature sheds light on the likely processes between schools leaders and teachers. The living audience in the school context is the teacher. The leadership ‘activity’ involves a ‘leader’s’ sensegiving act(s) to persuade teachers in their sensemaking with the hope that their sensegiving will influence teachers to act (teaching practices) in particular ways.

Applying this process of school leaders giving sense and teachers making sense about that sensegiving is what Gioia and Chittipeddi theorise as Phase 1 of sensegiving. Gioia & Chittipeddi (1991) organise the relationship between sensemaking and sensegiving into four phases (see Figure 1). The first phase as introduced in the previous paragraph is the Envisioning phase. The leader seeks to make sense of an event, this could be their own schema, shoring up a story or connecting to a previous event. Phase two is where the leader’s schema is formed into communicative acts of sensegiving, called Signalling. Such acts are diverse; they could range from storytelling to analogies of past events. These sensegiving acts may inject ambiguity or may ‘stir the setting’ in stable environments (Neumann, 1995). Such ambiguity calls for employees to make sense of what change is being promoted; this third phase of Re-Visioning may hold many different sensemaking properties, from plausible stories to identity fusion. These enacted sensemaking responses are fodder for further sensegiving, where the leader moves to the fourth phase of Energising, and similar to Signalling it is an influencing action. However, this Energising phase has more sway than the first Signalling because it includes modifications, adjustments to include the target audience’s own sensemaking—or in the school context to include the teaching team’s own sensemaking of the change or event.

Figure 1. Processes involved in the initiation of a strategic change

Educational Leaders’ Sensegiving Practices in Context

Educational leaders need to be credible, hold influence and persuasion in their relationships with their teaching teams, especially in challenging contexts of change or disruption. High velocity environments are those which become ‘hypercompetitive’ resulting from fast and continual changing expectations (Salicru, 2018, p. 130). The new context for educational leaders, during and post COVID-19 is complex, turbulent with disrupted social and economic realities. Sensegiving, in this new context, depends on educational leaders’ capabilities to make sense of events for others in their communities and in giving sense they are communicating their sensemaking.

The Envisioning phase is where the educational leaders make sense of the event which involves understanding, a form of cognition. Once the event is understood by leaders, their sensegiving acts aim to influence and motion actions in teaching teams; this Signalling phase involves action. Gioia and Chittipeddi propose that at this point leaders seek to understand (a cognitive function) the impact of their influence with teachers (gaining information from teachers) and ‘re-sensemake’; moving to the Re-Visioning phase. In an ideal collaborative school environment, the more leaders seek to adapt or adopt teachers’ own sensemaking, the less likelihood of rejection or resistance from teachers, and a greater likelihood of a strong Energising phase. The worst-case scenario is if the Re-Visioning phase is omitted. The influence by leaders may be diminished and the energising direction weakened or misapplied, or ‘loosing sense’.

An educational leaders’ sensemaking is as much influenced by their own ‘leader self’ as the school system regulators’, teachers’, students’ or parents’ sensegiving activities (Cornelissen, Holt, & Zundel, 2011; Kraft et al., 2018). As a sensegiving interpretive process individuals will exert mutual influence to affect others (Kraft et al., 2018) with a groundswell in a particular direction. Hence, sensegiving, unlike sensemaking, ideally is reflected in multiple mutual relationships. Figure 2 illustrates sensegiving processes in a school context.

Figure 2: Sensegiving in a school context

Successful sensegiving acts result in a shared interpretation of an event (Balogun, Jacobs, Jarzabkowski, Mantere, & Vaara, 2014), which organise themselves in ongoing cycles of influence between sensemaking and sensegiving (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). While the spheres of influence may not always be attributed the designated leader’s practices, generally those in formal positions call or dictate their role in sensegiving due to their hierarchical position (Ravasi & Schultz, 2006). In a school context, educational leaders perceive they are obligated to give sense to others because of their compelling responsibilities. In spite of the hierarchical positions of ‘principal’, ‘deputy’, ‘assistant principal’ or ‘faculty head’, they do not dictate a leader’s success or failures in influencing teachers’ practices. There are many moderators of such successes. For example, a leader’s communicative acts may determine their levels of influence.

Communicative acts are sensegiving practices (Huzzard, Hellström, & Lifvergren, 2014) employed by leaders to influence change with the community/organisation. In turn, these acts prompt the community members to ‘sensemake’, that is remaking sense either individually or ideally as a shared remaking in mutual relationships. School leadership teams consistently face the challenge in changing and disruptive contexts of organising, and reorganising after teachers’ sensemaking responses, resulting in the school leader reforming their sensegiving acts to maximise impact with their communities (Kraft et al., 2018; Stensaker, Falkenberg, & Grønhaug, 2008).

Yet, it needs to be considered that the educational leader’s sensegiving may not be aligned with teachers’ sensemaking. It most likely will not be. In a study on organisational change Bartunek, Krim, Necochea, and Humphries (1999) found that the recipients’ sensemaking was not the same as leaders’ sensegiving. There were multiple and at times conflicting understandings of a change event, where understandings were evolving continually. In a school environment it is a complex process in coming to an understanding of a shared vision or direction for the school. Yet organisations such as schools can achieve high levels of sensemaking and reduce ‘cognitive complexity when leaders connect sequentially with’ their communities ‘in dyadic sensegiving examples’ (Maitlis, 2005, p. 47). Devices and linguistic acts are ideal companions for leaders in realising such dyadic sensegiving.

Leaders’ Sensegiving Practices: Devices and Linguistic Acts

Some devices used by individuals in their sensegiving acts include metaphors, mantras and storytelling. The use of metaphors by entrepreneurs has a long history of anchoring their sensegiving (Hill & Levenhagen, 1995). Mantras and storytelling (Salicru, 2018) are other sensegiving acts which translate events into plausible scenarios and images to persuade and influence others to take action (Salicru, 2018). The oral-aural traditions of school environments lend themselves for educational leaders to give sense, in particular through storytelling, and more generally, through linguistic acts.[2]

Other devices fall into the realm of linguistic acts of appeal. These communicative acts, which Weick (1995) would call enacted sensemaking, pertain to persuasive appeal. Bartunek et al. (1999) drew upon Johnston’s (1994) theoretical language of sensegiving with persuasion, suggesting four tactics: a. discharging linguistic acts that demonstrate logic and reason—consistent with Maitlis’s (2005) findings that stakeholders’ sensemaking increases when leaders behave in a procedurally fair manner; b. employing praise and encouragement; c. acts which appeal to the members’ own values and norms (acts which identify with the in-group) and; d. building up a credibility story about the sender—being reasonable, ethical and for the common good. The original body of work on sensegiving by Gioia and Chittipeddi (1991) as described at the beginning of this section, is substantial. Their work has been a springboard for other research and models which further explain the relationships between sensemaking and sensegiving. For example, the body of work by Maitlis and Lawrence (2007) found that the trigger for leaders’ sensegiving practices occurs when issues are ambiguous and involve multiple relationships. Leaders in their study were enabled to give sense when they thought they themselves had the appropriate knowledge and skill. In turn the enablers for the organisational members were also their knowledge and skill and in contrast, their trigger for sensegiving was when they thought the event was important to them. This finding about leaders having a knowledge and skill base is an important point about leaders and sheds lights on Norris’ findings.

Still interested?

Sensegiving and Legitimate Power

While power is often viewed as a negative concept in school education, the addition of legitimacy improves its legitimacy! A moderating factor in the effectiveness of leadership practices (Kraft et al., 2015 and drawn from the power taxonomy by French and Raven, 1959) is legitimate power. When providing examples from the school context the term legitimacy is adopted here, instead of power.

Some may think that legitimacy stems the formal authority beset by an educational leader’s position in the school community, and anchored in policies, rules and laws. This thinking suggests that the leader’s sensegiving practices will be accepted without question. In reality this is not the common experience for educational leaders. Historically, early to mid-20th century, teachers’ work was relatively autonomous and carried out in isolation. Current practices encourage collaborative and subsidiarity decision making. Yet a leader’s level of legitimate power is found to moderate both the choice of strategies and language in their sensegiving practices. Four studies identified by Kraft et al., (2015) demonstrated the moderating effect of legitimate power where managers with positional power more often employed confrontation strategies. Yet, leaders with low or without positional power more often relied on strategies in the ‘what and how’ to communicate to increase receptiveness. As such leaders with low legitimate power were more aware of differing perceptions among their employees (Leonardi, Neeley, & Gerber, 2012). These leaders are more likely to seek real time feedback to ensure their sensegiving acts are acceptable (Kraft et al., 2015, p. 316). They were more likely to engage ‘team members in the interpretation process’ (Leonardi et al., 2012, p. 98). Given teachers hold high levels of autonomy as they go about their work, it is logical that the moderating effect of legitimate power may mirror those leaders’ strategies such us seeking real time feedback and to seek teachers’ understandings on events (interpretation processes). Kraft et al.’s (2015) first proposition relating to legitimate power is thus:

‘The level of legitimate power moderates the relationship between leader sensemaking and sensegiving such that: Leaders are likely to use indirect, multilateral sensegiving strategies if their level of legitimate power is low’ (p. 316).

Levels of legitimate power moderate leaders’ selection of sensegiving strategies along with their communicative acts, in several ways. One, leaders with low levels of legitimate power are likely to employ more hard fact justifications (for example, school enrolments will be jeopardised if results are poor) than leaders with high levels of legitimate power (Sonenshein, 2006). Those with high levels of legitimate power adopted more familiar language of their employees.

Moreover, the level of power and the accompanying differences in the abstractness of information processing also influences leaders’ choices in their sensegiving language. High levels of distance (cognitive or psychological) results in a leader’s ‘experienced abstractness’ which in turn becomes an abstract communicative act (Magee, Milliken, & Lurie, 2009 as cited in Kraft et al., 2015) and suggests the likelihood of overlooking negative aspects (Magee et al., 2009). That is, if the educational leader is far removed from knowing and understanding the work of teachers and students the more likely their communicative acts of sensegiving will be abstract and hence the less likely the sensegiving acts will hold strength or meaning for teachers.

The second proposition regarding legitimate power:

‘Legitimate power moderates the relationship between leader sensemaking and sensegiving such that: (a) Leaders are more likely to use abstract, positive and normative language if their level of legitimate power is high. (b) Leaders are more likely to use concrete, negative and rational language if their level of legitimate power is low’ (Kraft et al., 2015, p. 317).

In a school context if an educational leader’s legitimacy is high, they are likely to hold positive discursive abilities with abstract and normative communication. The educational leader who employs factual, negative and rational language is likely to have less legitimacy. The question this proposition raises is who determines the levels of legitimacy– the educational leader’s self-perception, their perception of the community’s perceptions or simply the community’s perception of the leader’s sensegiving acts?


Balogun, J., Jacobs, C., Jarzabkowski, P., Mantere, S., & Vaara, E. (2014). Placing strategy discourse in context: Sociomateriality, sensemaking, and power. Journal of Management Studies, 51(2), 175-201.

Bartunek, J. M., Krim, R. M., Necochea, R., & Humphries, M. (1999). Sensemaking, sensegiving, and leadership in strategic organizational development.

Catasús, B., Mårtensson, M., & Skoog, M. (2009). The communication of human accounts: Examining models of sensegiving. Journal of Human Resource Costing & Accounting.

Cornelissen, J. P., Holt, R., & Zundel, M. (2011). The role of analogy and metaphor in the framing and legitimization of strategic change. Organization Studies, 32(12), 1701-1716.

Corvellec, H., & Risberg, A. (2007). Sensegiving as mise-en-sens—The case of wind power development. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 23(3), 306-326.

Gioia, D. A., & Chittipeddi, K. (1991). Sensemaking and sensegiving in strategic change initiation. Strategic management journal, 12(6), 433-448.

Gioia, D. A., & Thomas, J. B. (1996). Identity, image, and issue interpretation: Sensemaking during strategic change in academia. Administrative science quarterly, 370-403.

Green Jr, S. E. (2004). A rhetorical theory of diffusion. Academy of management review, 29(4), 653-669.

Hill, R. C., & Levenhagen, M. (1995). Metaphors and mental models: Sensemaking and sensegiving in innovative and entrepreneurial activities. Journal of Management, 21(6), 1057-1074.

Huzzard, T., Hellström, A., & Lifvergren, S. (2014). System-Wide Change in Cancer Care: Exploring Sensemaking, Sensegiving, and Consent’, Research in Organizational Change and Development (Research in Organizational Change and Development, Volume 22). In: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Kraft, A., Sparr, J. L., & Peus, C. (2018). Giving and Making Sense About Change: The Back and Forth Between Leaders and Employees. Journal of Business and Psychology, 33(1), 71-87. doi:10.1007/s10869-016-9474-5

Maitlis, S. (2005). The social processes of organizational sensemaking. Academy of Management Journal, 48(1), 21-49.

Ravasi, D., & Schultz, M. (2006). Responding to organizational identity threats: Exploring the role of organizational culture. Academy of Management Journal, 49(3), 433-458.

Salicru, S. (2018). Storytelling as a leadership practice for sensemaking to drive change in times of turbulence and high velocity. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 15(2).

Stensaker, I., Falkenberg, J., & Grønhaug, K. (2008). Implementation activities and organizational sensemaking. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(2), 162-185.

Voronov, M. (2008). Toward a practice perspective on strategic organizational learning. The Learning Organization.

[1] Leadership activity: a term used to include practices of influence by any member of the community; whether the member is in a formal or informal position. The term disarms the assertion that only the formal leader is one to provide influence or in this case ‘give sense’.

[2] Storytelling is an effective sensegiving device which is used in diverse settings and cross-cultural leadership practices (Grisham, 2006). A theory to explain the power of stories called Narrative Parading Theory (NPT) was first developed by Fisher (1984). NPT regenerates the rational paradigm in the same way that sensemaking is not concerned with accuracy of facts but is rather about plausibility (Weick, 1995).

Thread: Stakes in education: Medium or rare?

‘The most pervasive and damaging myth, however, is that all children are motivated by competition’ …Highstakes testing in schools is based on the premise that if the student competes with others, they will do better (Richard Lavoie) 

A term that is rarely left out of accountability discussions is the subject of stakes. The term is relative and is dependent on those reporting on the stake. That is, what is ‘at stake’ says more about the person’s judgment of the context than the stake itself. The year 12 results (exit) Australia hold significant consequences for students’ career trajectories and arguably fodder for a school’s marketing opportunities. However, discourses in the literatures are scarce about such consequences being a high stakes exercise. In Australia, external tests cloak some school systems like old cardigans (the NSW HSC exam is close to a 40 year history), with high-stakes tests being the cloth that is worn as a symbol of a normalised culture (Ayres, Sawyer & Dinham, 2004). That is, the stakes associated with the HSC have become normalised to a point where little has been referred to in the literatures as suggesting high stakes. HSC designers and implementers (educators) espouse its credibility as a rigorous and almost the superior instrument over other exit credentials from other jurisdictions and programs in Australia (i.e. the Diploma of the International Baccalaureate). On the other hand, NAPLAN has been tarnished with destroying schools, cheating, teaching to the test and developing a ‘naplanish pseudo curriculum’.

Since the introduction of NAPLAN testing and its public disclosure of results, there are multiple references in the Australian literature claiming that NAPLAN testing and the consequences of its disclosure is now a high-stakes accountability exercise (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2012 ; Lewis & Hardy, 2015; Lingard, Thompson, & Sellar, 2015; Smeed, Spiller, & Kimber, 2009). It is an irony as the Year 12 exit credentials, across Australia, have more at stake for the individual student than the disclosure of NAPLAN results—which is limited to the amalgamation of student results telling a certain story about the school, not the student. The research studies arising from NAPLAN and the disclosure of results through MySchool is a hundred-fold compared to one or two sources about year 12 exit exams. One possible reason is that the school reputation is more important, or ‘higher stake’ than an individual student’s post school options. Another reason could be that policy makers continue to be steadfast in their views if schools are publicly held to account (inevitably high stakes) that this will drive school improvement.

While there are few definitions for the terms low or high stakes in the research literature, where they are mentioned, the term stake is interchangeable with the term ‘consequence’ (Jacob, 2005; Stobart, 2008). If we apply this understanding of a stake to this study’s definition of performative accountability, then the consequence (stake) would be the outcome with regard to the levels of favourability of the performance results from the external test. While consequences in accountability regimes are often described in terms of low or high stakes, the determination of the stake, similar to performance results, is often relative and subjective. However, in low-stakes environments it stands to reason that there are few or no consequences from the regulation of performance results (Klinger & Rogers, 2011). One such low stake is accounting to the school community in general terms regarding annual learning goals, in the form of the Annual Report (NSW Government, 2020). Whereas in other contexts, the consequences are classified as high (or extremely high) stakes (Stobart, 2008).

Some Australian educational scholars, such as Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith (2011), Smeed et al. (2009), Reid (2011) and Hardy (2015), describe the consequences of public disclosure of student performance results from NAPLAN testing as high stakes with detrimental consequences. For Australian education, the consequences such as low staff and student morale and loss of enrolments would suggest high stakes. However, some US jurisdictions have experienced greater consequences than this from public disclosures of students’ performances, such as loss of enrolments (funding), school closures and loss of employment (Perryman, 2006; Shipps & White, 2009; Stobart, 2008). Hence, the review of the interpretation of stakes in the literatures appears relative to the experiences of those reporting them. To date in Australia, there have been no high-stakes consequences compared to our global peers involving performance pay, school closures or loss of employment resulting from the nation-wide test results.

At the beginning of NAPLAN testing in Australia (2010), distinct differences were observed in the reactions from various school sectors to educators’ descriptions of NAPLAN testing and its consequences. These differences were marked in the first inquiry into NAPLAN testing (Senate References Committee on Education, 2010), with primary school principals by far the most disaffected group as a result of the initial testing and subsequent public disclosures of results. Secondary school principals featured less in the initial research (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2012 ), but they were included in the research from an ethical leadership perspective by Ehrich, Harris, Klenowski, Smeed, and Spina (2015). It is reasonable to propose that secondary school principals were normalised with external testing and disclosure of results. NAPLAN results itself hold fewer consequences in their minds about enrolments and the greater stake appears to be the results from the year 12 results. The public disclosure of these year 12 results are high stakes for both the students and the school: the students post school options and the school’s marketing opportunities, externally and internally. Of importance here is the influence that an external test has in the minds of educational leaders and their actions. Notably the higher the stake the greater the need to resolve some of the ensuing issues. Irrespective of the relativity of the stakes, the evidence is strong that high-stakes consequences are likely to present complications for school communities. International studies have shown that educational accountability systems that regulate outcomes through performance-based mechanisms (PBMs) with high-stakes consequences have undesirable outcomes for students, teachers and leaders (Stobart, 2008; Darling-Hammond,2010).


Ayres, P., Sawyer, W., & Dinham, S. (2004). Effective teaching in the context of a grade 12 high-stakes external examination in New South Wales, Australia. British Educational Research Journal, 30(1), 141-165.

Ehrich, L. C., Harris, J., Klenowski, V., Smeed, J., & Spina, N. (2015). The centrality of ethical leadership. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(2), 197-214.

Jacob, B. A. (2005). Accountability, incentives and behavior: The impact of high-stakes testing in the Chicago Public Schools. Journal of public Economics, 89(5-6), 761-796.

Klenowski, V., & Wyatt-Smith, C. (2011). The impact of high stakes testing: the Australian story. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 19(1), 65-79. doi:10.1080/0969594x.2011.592972

Klenowski, V., & Wyatt-Smith, C. (2012 ). The impact of high stakes testing: the Australian story, Assessment in Education. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 19(1), 65-79. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0969594X.2011.592972

Klinger, D. A., & Rogers, T. (2011). Teachers’ Perceptions of Large-Scale Assessment Programs Within Low-Stakes Accountability Frameworks. International Journal of Testing, 11(2), 122-143. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1530505058.2011.552748

Lewis, S., & Hardy, I. (2015). Funding, reputation and targets: the discursive logics of high-stakes testing. Cambridge journal of education, 45(2), 245-264.

Lingard, B., Thompson, G., & Sellar, S. (2015). National testing from an Australian perspective. National Testing in Schools: An Australian Assessment, 1.

NSW Government. (2020). Annual Reports. Retrieved from https://education.nsw.gov.au/about-us/strategies-and-reports/annual-reports

Perryman, J. (2006). Panoptic performativity and school inspection regimes: disciplinary mechanisms and life under special measures. Journal of Education Policy, 21(2), 147-161. doi:10.1080/02680930500500138

Reid, A. (2011). The NAPLAN Debate. QTU Professional Magazine (November, 2010).

Senate References Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. (2010). Administration and reporting of NAPLAN testing. Canberra: Senate Printing Unit

Shipps, D., & White, M. (2009). A New Politics of the Principalship? Accountability-Driven Change in New York City. Peabody Journal of Education, 84(3), 350-373. doi:10.1080/01619560902973563

Smeed, J., Spiller, K., & Kimber, M. (2009). Issues for principals in high-stakes testing. Principal Matters, 81, 32-34.

Stobart, G. (2008). Testing Times: the Uses and Abuses of assessment. New York: Routledge.

Evidence-based Leading for Learning

Leadership Threads

In the Master of Educational Leadership at Australian Catholic University we have a unit titled Evidence-based Leading for Learning – within the specialisation of Leadership for Learning.

Concerning terms

At the risk of confusing students I need to place a few thoughts down here, in case students have been thinking about these concerns as well.

While this is my first time teaching this unit I have experienced several concerns in gaining some conceptual understandings around several terms.

Settling on terms: Evidence-based leadership / evidence-based learning?

The first concern is understanding the meaning behind the title of this Unit. The title Evidence-based Leading for Learning could have three interpretations: a. it could mean the evidence we know about learning and the leadership that springs from this; b. the title could mean the evidence we know about ‘the leadership’ to lead learning or; it could mean both the evidence about learning and…

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The Pressure Cooker : Australian Education

metal pipes plumbing pressure
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Introduction from forthcoming publication: The Principal’s Scorecard: Friend Foe or Frenemy

At both a macro and micro level, the Australian educational landscape, is a pressure cooker of comparison and competition. At the macro level Australian policy makers compare student performance results with international jurisdictions through testing instruments implemented by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Gorur & Wu, 2014; Baroutsis & Lingard, 2016). Policy makers analyse the ‘high performing’ jurisdictions searching for their magical ingredient (Sellar & Lingard, 2013). As experienced in Australian school systems the ingredient in turn may be adopted and mandated (Harrison, 2008). State and territory governments also create their own regulated recipes for their school systems. In Australian jurisdictions performance results (from National Assessment Plan Literacy and Numeracy – NAPLAN) along with exit results can be publicly compared and ranked whereby schools are judged as worthy or unworthy (Thompson & Tomaz, 2011). At the micro level, to sustain funding by securing enrolments, principals and their school systems, market these results. Within this cooker of comparing, marketing and commodifying young peoples’ performance results, principals need to make decisions, often of an ethical nature.

Making decisions is fraught in these comparative cultures of performativity for any educational leader (Perryman, 2006; 2009). There are challenges for Australian principals when these external demands continue to drive for improved student performance  (Duignan, Burford, d’Arbon, Ikin, & Walsh, 2003; Ehrich, Harris, Klenowski, Smeed, & Spina, 2015). The leadership challenge positions principals in the centre of reforms (Gawlik, 2015; Volante, 2012) which calls for an analysis of leaders’ internal processes (Brezicha et al., 2015; Clifford et al, 2012), notably how they resolve external demands with their internal school commitments (Louis & Robinson, 2012). More so than in any time in Australian educational history a principal’s agency in producing successful student performances is public and understandably is highly accountable (Boies & Fiset, 2018; Robinson, 2011; Sun & Leithwood, 2017).

EdTech Evangelism: Where are Coding Evangelists Leading Us?

@acueducationandarts @acuedle #edle682 interesting discourse here Masterclass. Keen to hear your responses to these super questions


“Wow!,” “Fantastic,” and “Inspirational”were words that filled the Twitter feed coming out of the latest Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) Innovation in Teaching Day (#HRCEID2018), held November 2 and 3, 2018.  The primary cause of the frenzied excitement was a keynote talk by Brian Aspinall, author of the edtech best-seller Code Breaker, a teacher’s guide to training-up a class of “coder ninjas.”  The former Ontario Grade 7 and 8 teacher from Essex County honed his presentation skills at TEDx Talks in Chatham and Kitchener and is now the hottest speaker on the Canadian edtech professional development circuit.

Mr. Aspinall, the #CodeBreaker, is a very passionate, motivational speaker with a truly amazing social media following. He built his first website in the 1990s before graduating from Harrow District High School, earned his B.Sc. and B.Ed. at the University of Windsor, and learned the teaching craft in the…

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EdtechPosium2018 Oct 29 and 30


Screen Shot 2018-10-27 at 4.38.31 pmDesign. Develop.Play. I am pretty excited to be presenting a short session about our Masterclass. The focus of the session is building communities of practice in the online mode of teaching and learning. Notably the subset is increasing learner engagment. I am utilising my current Masterclass #EDLE685 @acueduandarts. Their final piece was to blog here about their evaluative tools in their mini research project on leading evidence based learning. Lots of layers here! Let’s see how many have engaged with this blog by the end of the weekend. I have 5 so far. Please blog I need some data, and evidence! Let me know if bribes work.

Masterclass: Evidence based Leading for Learning: Tools for evaluating an evidence based project

During the course of Evidence based Leading for Learning @ACUeducandarts #EDLE685 students have been invited to design a problem based project. The problem or concern is situated In their learning communities. Their first step is to identify a problem and provide evidence it is a problem! The problem needs to relate to student learning. Given this is a leadership unit students also need to frame the problem from a leadership (L) perspective. The L perspective is in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the project.  In this blog students are invited to share their evaluation techniques that they will employ.

Students: In the comment section post your framework/model/figure (FMF) to demonstrate how you will evaluate your evidence based project. Name the FMF and also you are invited to write a few sentences about it. Remember to acknowledge sources. 

Evidence-based Leading for Learning

In the Master of Educational Leadership at Australian Catholic University we have a unit titled Evidence-based Leading for Learning – within the specialisation of Leadership for Learning.

Concerning terms

At the risk of confusing students I need to place a few thoughts down here, in case students have been thinking about these concerns as well.

While this is my first time teaching this unit I have experienced several concerns in gaining some conceptual understandings around several terms.

Settling on terms: Evidence-based leadership / evidence-based learning?

The first concern is understanding the meaning behind the title of this Unit. The title Evidence-based Leading for Learning could have three interpretations: a. it could mean the evidence we know about learning and the leadership that springs from this; b. the title could mean the evidence we know about ‘the leadership’ to lead learning or; it could mean both the evidence about learning and the evidence about the leadership of that learning (which is also evidence based – that is, what we know through evidence of what learning is, or is not). For our Unit purposes of interrogating the evidence areas of leadership and learning and honouring that this is an educational leadership unit (as opposed to an education unit) then the third interpretation is the preferred understanding. That is, we will be looking at both – the evidence of leadership and evidence around learning in that leadership. For a further understanding of leadership visit this blog on ‘Leadership as a Verb’.

 Distinguishing data from evidence

The second concern is the distinction between data and evidence. However a lightening bolt about how to distinguish between the two concepts for the purposes of the unit distinction woke me last night. I propose that once we have our data (drowning in it some would say) and through analysis of the data when we arrive at our conclusions (or findings) we have our evidence – which we as educators may act upon or not. An easy idea for me to remember is that data do not speak for themselves – but evidence does.

I have taken several ideas of Clarke’s (2013) which I think aligns with the above thoughts and yet expands these ideas further. First he argues from the medicine (parent) discipline that evidence and data are distinguished from one another, and as Clarke argues, they must be.

Second he sources the science discipline where data become evidence when they stand in a particular testing relationship, such as a hypothesis.

His third source is the philosophy discipline where the distinction between evidence and data purporting that evidence is an intelligible concept, and data are not (that is, they are just that, ‘data’)

Brendan Clarke.