Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Educational Leadership as Critical Practice

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_245



The aim of this entry is to introduce the turn to practice in the social sciences that has occurred in recent years and examine how and why this turn has been taken up by scholars in the field of educational leadership. This entry outlines major trends in emergent scholarship which adopt a “critical” approach to educational leadership as a form of practice, that is, one which embraces an explicitly political, humanistic, and transformative agenda in its theorization of practice. It examines the different approaches to theorizing educational leadership as practice drawing on recent developments in practice theory and philosophy that have emerged in the field as a result of this turn, including practice scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Theodore Schatzki. This entry summarizes the key contributions that a critical practice approach has made to the field and concludes with possible future directions for this trajectory.

Turn to Practice

In the past two decades, there has been a turn to practice in the social sciences as an alternative way of understanding the social world. This “practice turn” (Schatzki 2001) has renewed interest in what might appear at first glance to be ubiquitous and often overlooked, taken-for-granted phenomena underlying human life and social interaction – the everyday practices of human beings. One of the major reasons for this resurgence of interest in practice are attempts by social scientists and philosophers to move fields of research beyond the dualisms that still characterize much Western thinking, for instance, mind/body, theory/practice, objectivity/subjectivity, logic/emotion, individual/society, and masculine/feminine. The thinking underlying this practice in turn rejects notions of external social structures and systems framing social interaction and derives from a range of fields, most particularly the field of philosophy and thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Practice theorists are drawn from a wide range of disciplines and constitute a broad array of understandings and conceptualizations of what they mean by practice. However, practice approaches to the social world are characterized by some central and shared understandings. A key feature of practice accounts is that they accord primacy to the everyday practices in which humans engage as a fundamental part of daily lives. They view the social world as made up of practices and utilize practices as their fundamental unit of analysis. This is in contrast to analyses which afford primacy to individuals’ accounts of the social world – that is, social phenomena are constructed by the thinking and conceptualizing of the sovereign individual.

These practice accounts are in contrast to analyses which view the social world as composed of social structures and systems – which shape power relations between human beings. Moreover, practice approaches reject the rationalism – the commitment to a form of technical reasoning – that underpins modernity, as encapsulated in the Cartesian binary of the mind/body. As feminists have noted, such dualisms and forms of reasoning privilege particular forms of knowledge and ways of understanding the world. For instance, dominant discourses of leadership and management as rational, orderly, and linear processes reify forms of knowledge that are traditionally associated with constructions of (white) masculinity. This privileging locates critical and practice-based theorizing of leadership, which examines leadership as embodied, gendered, classed, racialized practices, composed of nonpropositional knowledge and tacit understandings – as “other” to these dominant paradigms.

Practice approaches represent what has been termed a practical ontology, rooted in the intelligibility of practices. In order for humans to make sense of our social world, we are crucially reliant on shared understandings of how to go on in this world. This practical intelligibility allows us collectively to make sense of, function in, and potentially transform the world in which we live. The centrality of everyday practices as described switches the researchers’ gaze from a functionalist and systems perspective – where the world is apprehended via objectified systems and structures, or from an individualistic cognition perspective – to one where the world is apprehended from the perspective of the individual acquiring knowledge and understanding.

For sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu or Anthony Giddens, a practice approach to understanding the social world assists theorists in transcending traditional social science divisions in which human activity is constructed as a dialectical interplay between individual human agency versus external social structures. For philosophers and literary theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard, understanding language as practice means reconceptualizing it as a “discursive activity” (Schatzki 2001, p. 10) of shared meaning-making made possible through people using and mastering the language. Mastering and employing a language is not an individual property, nor does language correspond to an external social structure or system. Rather, language and learning a language is a collective social phenomenon that shapes our social world. As a social phenomenon, it is thus steeped in and productive of power relations – to enter a discourse means learning what forms of knowledge and knowing are valued and foregrounded and, implicitly, which forms of knowledge are marginalized.

The centrality of practice to our social world is a key assumption that underpins more recent critical approaches to understanding educational leadership as a collective social phenomenon. A practice approach to educational leadership that adopts a critical lens views leadership as constructed by discursive understandings and forms of knowledge about this thing called “leadership.” It constructs leadership as a set of social practices which compose our understandings, know-how, and relationships with other human beings with whom we interact in the practice and in the material world in which the practice is enmeshed. Critical approaches to educational leadership posit leadership practice as invariably an effect, and productive of, power relations and as inherently political – situated in civil society and the institutions which compose that society. It is to how and why this approach has been taken up in educational leadership that we now turn.

The Emergence of Critical Approaches to Educational Leadership

Educational leadership as a field has been critiqued for its uncritical borrowing from the sciences and management, beset with questions of its legitimacy and dominated by a positivist approach in which researchers attempted to establish the field as a scientific discipline in its own right. The field has tended to be dominated by individual agency/structure and systems dualisms as a means of understanding the social world of educational organizations and their performance. Individualizing approaches to understanding the phenomenon of educational leadership and the performance of educational organizations such as schools have drawn on the “great man” theories of leadership. These theories predominantly valorized the traits of (male, white) individuals. More recently, notions of the individual, heroic transformational leader have been utilized as explanatory lens for why some schools may be more effective in their outcomes than others. The valorization of leaders and leadership has become a dominant tendency in the past two decades, supplanting an earlier dominant systems tendency in which educational institutions were viewed as part of complex systems, and educational leaders as the role incumbents in organizations. Thus a focus on systems as an external organizer of human practice became the main explanation for a school’s (or other educational organization’s) performance.

As part of an endeavor to establish itself as a science, educational administration scholars drew on technical and functionalist approaches to administration, in order to produce generalizations about schools as organizations. Post World War II, systems theory became a particularly popular explanatory lens by which the functioning of schools could be conceptualized. Schools as organizations were theorized as complex social systems composed of interrelating and interdependent sets of activities in which the formal role of educational leaders was but one aspect of the organization’s functioning, albeit an important one. The search for “law-like generalisations” (Evers and Lakomski 2012, p. 60) about the shared characteristics of educational leadership was premised on the belief that the structure and organization of schools could be controlled and predicted through scientific methods. This endeavor for prediction can still be seen in the many current attempts to produce Principal Standards that characterize many contemporary education systems in Anglophone nations.

Thomas Greenfield’s arguments in the 1970s for subjectivist and humanist approaches to the study of educational organizations represented the first major rebuttal of the positivist orientation of educational administration as a field of practice and scholarship. From the 1980s onwards, as a reaction to dominant positivist and functionalist accounts of educational organizations, and drawing on developments in the social sciences, as well as social movements such as civil rights and feminism, a range of scholars emerged, writing in what has come to be known as the “critical tradition.” This scholarship represents a broad range of approaches including feminism, humanism, post-positivism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, and critical policy. It examines the social and political impacts of educational organizations and of educational administration and leadership scholarship.

From a critical perspective, one of the major weaknesses of systems theory is that it conceives of organizations as abstract units, decontextualized from considerations of power relations, politics, and the specific historical and material contexts in which they are situated. Similarly, individualist accounts of the transformational leader who is able to transform a failing school are critiqued for they fail to consider the asymmetrical power relations within which leadership as a practice is exercised, such as the impact of gender and race on how leadership and leaders are conceived and represented. Nor do they consider the varying and specific contexts in which schools and other educational institutions operate. In short, critical scholars argue that educational leadership is not a politically neutral practice, exercise, or process. Nor is it a property that is owned and wielded by a solitary individual over others. For critical theorists schools and other educational organizations are not power-neutral and decontextualized sites which can be subject to a purely scientific gaze, but rather are a critical component of the broader social relations of ruling. The managers and administrators who lead them therefore are not politically neutral role incumbents exercising a technical and managerial “science” – the organizational outcomes of which can potentially be controlled and manipulated. Rather, they are social and political agents whose practices have educational, social, and political implications, operating in organizations where different kinds of practice only make sense as part of the collective meaning-making exercised by its agents.

Schools, universities, and other educational organizations are viewed as sites of permanent struggle and contestation over meaning, with educational administrators occupying a crucial role in frequently reproducing social and power relations as part of the status quo. Conversely, critical theorists point to the opportunity that administrators have for challenging and subverting institutionalized power, given the authority and power they hold. Hence, there is a body of literature that has emerged examining the role that educational leaders can play as social activists and community advocates. In the educational leadership field, critical theorists have played an important role in examining the potentially deleterious social impacts of major schooling movements, such as the shift towards school self-management that has occurred since the 1980s as a result of the spread of neoliberalism as a dominant ideology.

The Turn to Educational Leadership as Critical Practice

Drawing on the turn to practice emerging in the social sciences, a small body of work has begun to emerge in critical theories of educational leadership which examines leadership from a range of practice perspectives. Predominantly the “thinking tools” of French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu (Wacquant 1989, p. 50) have been employed. Initially, Bourdieu’s research with Jean Claude Passeron was widely employed by educational sociologists in the 1970s to examine how education acted as a site of cultural reproduction via the hidden curriculum. More recently, in educational leadership scholarship, Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field, capital, misrecognition, and strategy have provided an alternative lens with which to conceptualize the classic agency/structure dilemma of sociological theory. In other words, it has assisted in thinking beyond binaries, that is, how we take into account the role that social structures such as class, gender, and “race” play in shaping individual practices – while also recognizing the impact of individual practices – on these structures. It has provided useful tools with which to critique dominant tendencies in the field towards individualist accounts of the leader as transformational leader and manager, which overlook issues of the embodied nature of power, for instance, how social categories such as class, gender, “race,” and sexuality are socially constituted and embodied in the white male habitus of the principal. Alternatively, it has been employed to critique more positivist accounts such as the dominant school effectiveness movement. The latter attempts to isolate the key factors which effective schools and leaders exhibit but has tended to assume schools as socially and politically neutral sites and to overlook or downplay the impact of broader social and political contexts on schools and effective school leadership practices. It tends to reproduce essentializing and homogenizing constructs of the leader and leadership which are culturally decontextualized and empty of considerations of how schooling, as a field of social practice, is marked by struggles for legitimacy by differing agents who bring varying levels of capital to this field.

A number of insights have been gained through the employment of a Bourdieuian lens. It has helped us to understand leadership as a form of social practice which is constituted by the dialectical interplay between one’s individual habitus (the internalized social structures of individuals which embody how they view the world and which shapes one’s tastes, perceptions, and the principles which underlie our actions) and the fields of power (structured, socially constituted spaces such as schools and universities). The notion of the habitus of the effective principal, for example, suggests that educational leaders are not aggregates of personal qualities or traits, divorced from the social contexts in which they have been raised, but instead come to the field of practice of schooling with their tastes, preferences, and dispositions already shaped by the social categories of class, gender, and ethnicity which their habituses embody. Their habitus is activated by encounters with the particular logics of practice which are at play in the schooling field, such as in Anglophone nations, the application of neoliberal economic principles which valorize a competitive and individualistic logic of the market, in which improved test results are a crucial part of the stakes over which schools and systems struggle in their quest for legitimacy. These logics of practice locate principals as business managers, entrepreneurs, and corporate leaders, rather than educational leaders.

In addition to Bourdieuian analyses, alternative practice approaches have begun to be employed by critical practice scholars in educational leadership. For instance, Foucault’s analysis of knowledge and power has been used to examine how a market discourse of education and educational leadership “systematically forms that about which it speaks,” by legitimating “certain forms of leadership for certain purposes ascribed to leadership.” Thus, it is argued, such discourses produce “effects of power such as knowledge about what counts as leaders” and by implication, what does not count, what is delegitimated (Lingard et al. 2003, pp. 128–129).

Another recent approach is a site ontological perspective. One of the criticisms of Bourdieuian analyses of educational leadership practice is that concepts such as fields and habitus discursively suggest practices as “always and already structured” (Wilkinson 2010, p. 42). Ironically, then, this approach can draw the gaze away from the social practices that constitute educational leadership. The site ontological perspective instead argues that organizations such as schools can be conceived of as social phenomena unfolding through the “happening” of practices and activities’ (Schatzki 2006). Rather than analyzing educational leadership as interactions between participants in a practice, or as socially constituted and constructed fields and habitus, educational leadership practices are “sites of the social” (Schatzki 2002), interconnected with professional learning, teaching, and student learning practices, and needing to be analyzed as they unfold in specific school sites in all their “happeningness” (Kemmis et al. 2014).


The study of educational leadership as critical practice rejects the traditional theory/practice divide and the premise of the rational model of science, in which scientifically derived knowledge provides the basis for theories that are then applied to practice. Rather it refocuses the analytic gaze by bringing theory into the lifeworld of educational practices. It emphasizes the social and purposive nature of educational leadership as a practice, arguing that leadership practices can only ever be understood in the specific sites in which they occur – through the words, ideas, and discourses that construct knowledge/power relations; and through their performance in social spaces and in relationship with others and the material world. Adopting a critical practice lens to examine educational leadership practices over those of agents does not suggest a rejection of the agency of human beings. Instead it foregrounds a political, humanistic, and transformative agenda, by suggesting possibilities for dialectical explorations of the simultaneously reproductive and transformative nature of leadership practices in their moment by moment unfolding within social organizations such as schools.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Monash UniversityClaytonAustralia