Lead your school and leadership with doubt in mind

Leading schools successfully in today’s new normal calls for shifting principals’ mindset to cast doubt on existing practices. School doubting, an innovative term, is an active framework for organizational unlearning through which educators utilize doubt while questioning existing teaching and learning. This future-oriented approach requires principals and their educational staff to undergo an unlearning process, through which old routines, behaviours, and beliefs are unfrozen. Dr Ganon-Shilon and Prof Schechter explore how Israeli principals shape a school-doubting process in order to implement a national curriculum reform and uncover that doubting leaders nurture a collective unlearning culture and while also building school capacity.

Charles Darwin argued that: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.’ With that in mind, how do school leaders adapt to changes in the 21st century? Which conditions can foster, or impede, principals’ and teachers’ adaptive mindset?

Equipping students with the skills and competencies needed in a fast-changing world suggests the need to reform school curriculums from within. Curriculum reforms focus on central considerations, such as what students should learn, as well as why, and how, to assess their learning. This learning process urges schools to unlearn old instructional routines in order to embrace new curriculum understanding. Unlearning means letting go of outdated knowledge, values, or behaviours that no longer serve the school or those who attend it. Though complex and challenging, ‘school doubting’ is a critical precondition for the successful implementation of a curriculum reform, and for preparing schools for uncertain future.

Doubt vs school doubting: what’s the difference?

Doubt presents an opposite perspective for every given opinion and its purpose is to reach absolute cognitive freedom from pre-existing opinions. We can also think about doubt as an underlying force that calls for deep inquiry into taken-for-granted ideologies, knowledge, and routines. Dewey (Dewey, 1922) takes this assumption one step further in relation to schools, and claims that the skill of doubt suggests tremendous potential for individual and communal growth. When examining this idea in relation to educational establishments, school doubting occurs when the principal introduces doubt and encourages the teachers to examine values, beliefs, and practices through collaborative interactions. Educators pose questions, explain the reasons for their doubts, listen and reflect on old structures and processes. Pulling away from their comfortable routine, teachers take the risks of shaking their beliefs with colleagues.

If risk is on the table, what do you think is more challenging – doubting when you succeed, or when you fail? When schools are being run successfully, it is less likely for educators to examine the current practices. It seems that one must be sufficiently dissatisfied with the present state of affairs to engage in doubting, and to even raise the consideration that doubting would be needed. This is also relevant in the context of schools when educators are confronted with crisis or failure, whether these are actual or potential. A crisis or a failure, if managed correctly, can give rise to opportunities to deepen insights.

Doubting leaders, or how to mobilise the school toward school doubting?

The principal is a key player in shaping a school doubting process. Creating conditions for teachers to adapt new ways of teaching depends on the degree to which a school principal creates an ‘unlearning environment’, or one which encourages teachers to take risks, make mistakes, and unlearn previously held patterns of behaviour. This sense of ‘psychological safety’ referring to people perceiving their environment as conducive to interpersonally risky behaviours like speaking up or asking for help, impacts the degree to which unlearning can occur.

A productive curriculum change can occur when the principal views the status quo as insufficient, and reframes his/her mental models to facilitate the unlearning of teachers’ mental models. Mobilising educational staff toward this critical thinking perspective means promoting an unlearning school-culture and capacity building. Thus, the principal serves as an unlearning leader, helping teachers to figure out how to advance toward the new curriculum.

The key takeaway from the research is that doubting leaders encourage teachers to implement the new curriculum through collective responsibility to common goals. This research proposes that curriculum change should come through collective responsibility taken at the local level, rather than through a top-down imposition of change. Developing a doubting culture requires safe time and space for school doubting. Centring on building school capacity, doubting leaders should also invest in collective opportunities for knowledge and skill development to stimulate their educational staff with new curriculum perspectives.

Ganon-Shilon, S, Schechter, C, (2022) Doubting leadership: Principals shaping a school doubting process within a national curriculum reform, Journal of Educational Administration and History, pp. 1–20. Available at: doi.org/10.1080/00220620.2022.2097650
Dewey, J, (1922) Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. New York: Holt.

Related posts


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share this article