Why Pedagogical Leadership?

by Mike Abel

April 25, 2016


Read more from the whole leadership blog series

Editor’s Note: For the past several weeks, the McCormick Center has been publishing blog posts on the topic of Whole Leadership. These posts have highlighted leadership essentials and administrative leadership—two of the three key domains that the McCormick Center has proposed for the framework of Whole Leadership. In this week’s post, Mike Abel focuses on the third proposed domain— pedagogical leadership.

With all the buzz in educational circles about instructional leadership and pressure on K-12 for improved academic performance, an overemphasis on instruction may be a misguided notion for early childhood. Born in the effective schools movement, instructional leadership has traditionally been applied to the role of a school principal—particularly one that is actively engaged with teachers in the curriculum and academic learning in the classroom. This picture of leadership seems inadequate to address the complexity of early childhood programs, birth to age 8, where child growth and development go hand-in-hand with learning activities.

This disconnect shifted our thinking at the McCormick Center to consider another term that might better reflect the breadth of our field to describe leadership for teaching and learning practice—hence pedagogical leadership. It is not a new term for our field. Lilian Katz, wrote about pedagogical leadership in Leadership in Early Care and Education (Kagan and Bowman, 1996). We realize the term may sound rather scholarly or even stuffy, but in our ongoing dialog to develop a leadership framework, we are choosing to embrace it. Pedagogical leadership is more inclusive of what an early childhood program director might demonstrate to improve a learning organization. When we began this series on Whole Leadership, we offered the following description of pedagogical leadership:

Pedagogical leadership is about supporting teaching and learning. It includes instructional leadership—supporting classroom teachers in their key role of implementing curriculum. But, pedagogical leadership is a broader term that encompasses many roles and functions in learning organizations. For example, pedagogical leadership impacts teaching and learning by establishing organizational norms of continuous quality improvement. Pedagogical leaders influence children’s learning by fostering family engagement, ensuring fidelity to the organization’s curricular philosophy, using data to evaluate the effectiveness of the learning program, and meeting standards established to optimize learning environments.

Early childhood program leaders influence what happens in the classroom by fostering an organizational climate where teachers and other staff members optimize learning opportunities for children and strive to improve their own practice. Pedagogy is the art and science of teaching with an emphasis on the dispositions and behaviors of teachers and their interactions with children. Pedagogical leadership can apply to infant/toddler classrooms and Kindergarten classrooms alike. Pedagogical leaders keep the collective focus of the teachers and families on whole child development and protect against mission drift.

In light of the pervasive use of “instructional leadership” in K-12 education, do you think it is better to adopt the term in the early childhood discourse or do you believe a distinctive term—like pedagogical leadership—is better? Do you think the term pedagogical leadership is too scholarly (or just too awkward) to be a domain in a Whole Leadership framework? Please share your thoughts and join this debate.

Mike Abel is the Director of Research and Evaluation at the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University. His background is in early childhood program leadership, teacher education, and applied research. He has worked on a number of state and national projects related to systems development and highly vulnerable children and families. He served as the Missouri AEYC-MO President and as a member of the NAEYC Affiliate Council Executive Committee.


4 Responses to “Why Pedagogical Leadership?”

  1. Linda Hampton says:

    Common language across ECE and K-12 is essential to the continuum dialogue for young children. It raises the bar for early educators to see themselves as part of a system that begins at birth and continues throughout one’s lifetime. I applaud this expanded thinking which is more encompassing. I used it generously in my dissertation on perceptions of school readiness and ready schools between program directors and principals. Both groups agreed on the characteristics of readiness, but directors had more positive perceptions. Pedagiogical thinking is needed to make the conection a cross these venues as each recognizes and use similar language. I hope your efforts will include educating the early childhood field and elementary leaders that our goal is the same and a myriad of strategies are available to ensure leaders that they in fact directly influence learning.

  2. Mike Abel says:

    Linda, thank you for highlighting the need to bridge the preK-3rd grade continuum. It is a recurring theme both in ECE and K-12 communities. There is certainly cross-sector agreement that young children need additional support in transitioning across systems. You hit the nail on the head by emphasizing the need for common language—a key purpose of this blog series. The theme of our upcoming Leadership Connections Conference is Whole Leadership and we hope to engage over 600 early childhood professionals in conversations leading to a shared purpose and understanding of these ideas. Next steps: explore the “myriad of strategies” you mentioned to help early childhood leaders influence teaching and learning. We are grateful for your input.

  3. Andrew Krugly says:

    This is fascinating to me. After being an elementary school principal for 17 years, and really focusing my efforts on being an instructional leader, I know find myself in a leadership role in the early childhood world. I actually love the term “pedagogical leadership” – especially as you have defined it. But I also agree with Linda that as we are trying to bridge the early childhood world and the k-12 world – having common terms and common vocabulary is essential. My fear is that in using a wonderful term like this will actually create a further disconnect between two educational sectors we are trying to bring together.