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Research proposal

December 5, 2015
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“I have three questions: What makes teaching so difficult? How can teachers learn to manage, cope with, and eventually master those difficulties? What forms of school reform can contribute to creating the conditions for teacher learning?” (Shulman & Wilson, 2004, p. 505).

Possible Titles

Exploring leadership and trust in the school: Links between organisational culture, accountability, and quality teaching.


The issues of trust and professional identity in secondary Independent Public Schools in Perth, Western Australia.


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Topic description

The proposed qualitative study is designed to generate theory about the perspectives of school leaders on professional identity in public schools in Perth, Western Australia: an interpretive study of secondary Independent Public Schools (IPS).

Managing change in schools can be seen as complex, multifaceted and unpredictable:

The change process is often non-linear and discontinuous, appearing or being experienced as a set of discoveries or epiphanies (Boyatzis, 2006, p. 608).

While research indicates that school leadership is powerful as a learned, shared, and adaptive contributor to a culture for achieving improvements in student learning (Barber, Whelan & Clark, 2010; Leithwood, Louis, Anderson & Wahlstrom, 2004), the methodology is open to interpretation (Boyatzis, 2006).


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Professional practices are defined as an important contributor to teacher effectiveness (AITSL, 2013; Hattie, 2003), yet the literature is scarce in relation to participant perspectives on what they consider constitutes quality teaching, especially when considering the Australian IPS context. Rather than a prescribed list of professional attributes, quality teaching is conceived as problematic, and definitions of professional identity – what counts as outcomes, and how to measure them – is clearly a site for struggle (Ozga, 2000; Sachs, 2001).

Key distinctions between evaluation and feedback are useful emphases to underscore the ways in which trust is eroded within rigid system structures which undermine professionalism (Bottery, 2003). A common recommendation – reculturing – appears as a metaphor to challenge mental models of leadership which still prevail according to critics of new managerialism and charismatic instructional leadership (Senge, 2000; Timperley & Robertson, 2011).


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Attendant theories relevant to this study are derived from:

  • Distinctions drawn between internal accountability for professional identity and reliance on external accountability measured against standards (Fullan, Rincon-Gallardo & Hargreaves, 2015);
  • notions of trust defined as both a two way process, and a fundamental necessity for social relationships, especially as its absence or erosion generates consequences, one of which is negative impact on morale (Bottery, 2003);
  • and consideration of rules and beliefs as powerful theories in use underpinning school leaders’ behaviours, since the ways these are used are applied to understand others’ actions (Argyris & Schon, 1974).

Research questions

Four guiding questions will inform the research:

  1. What are the aims or intentions of school leaders in regard to building professional practices in self and others? What reasons do they give for these intentions?
  2. What strategies do school leaders say they have for realising their aims and intentions and what reasons do they give for employing those strategies?
  3. What do school leaders see as the significance of their aims or intentions, and their strategies and what reasons can they give for this?
  4. What outcomes do school leaders anticipate from pursuing their aims or intentions, and what reasons can they give for this?

Sites for data collection

Specific metropolitan Perth secondary IPS contexts will be studied. School cultures of greatest interest are those which are new or undergoing renewal.

Possible participants

Approximately 10-15 participants in metropolitan secondary Independent Public Schools will be invited. Purposeful sampling will occur, drawing on a professional learning network which incorporates Twitter, Facebook and Connect online, and extends to involvement in TeachMeet as well as English and History Teachers’ Associations.

One participant from each setting is desirable for initial sampling, however, ongoing observations will inform further research dependent on categories identified during data analysis. It is anticipated that purposeful sampling which attends to

categories such as age, gender, ideology, status, role or function in organization, stated philosophy or ideology” will yield the greatest range of insights (Coyne, 1997, p. 624).

Research paradigm

Generating theory on professional identity in secondary Independent Public Schools in Perth, Western Australia depends on qualitative research and draws on an interpretivist approach applying grounded theory (O’Donoghue & Punch, 2003). By design, the conceptual framework devised for this study involves theoretical sampling of qualitative data where the researcher is the instrument for data collection, and the methodology is grounded theory (Punch & Oanacea, 2014).

The purpose is to generate theory about the perspectives of school leaders on building professional practices in cultures where trust has been eroded, schools are new or newly defined as IPS. Within the interpretivist framework adopted, narrative inquiry will be a secondary means by which professional identity and the organisational culture of case study schools are explored through school leaders’ life stories (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000).


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Methods of data collection will include participant and non-participant observations collected during fieldwork, along with semi-structured interviewing recorded as notes, emails, tweets and photographic artefacts. Document interrogation will include IPS websites, school plans and policy statements. An audit trail will be maintained using Storify. As a complementary method, narrative inquiry is expected to illustrate participants’ perspectives in response to discussion questions which follow semi-structured interviews.

My own sense of belonging within the IPS context will lead to confirmation of the calibre of much of the data; lines of inquiry will remain open through shared documentation, reflective conversations, and ongoing review of data. Coding of transcripts will identify categories and major themes of perspectives on professional identity, while narrative inquiry processes capture participants’ living stories.

Narratives arising around artefacts, such as photographs and notes will be analysed alongside responses to conversation questions. In summary, this proposed study focuses on eliciting participants’ voiced accounts of professional identity framed within a research puzzle.


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Research experience gained from undertaking a Masters includes ongoing engagement in action research, narrative inquiry, data analysis and wide reading. Furthermore, I have learned that drafting and editing papers is exacting, also that praxis is complex, collaborative and reflective. These aspects are necessarily intertwined.

For more than 25 years teaching in Western Australia in diverse contexts, I have been practising a difficult art-science (Shulman & Wilson, 2004). Since 2012, I have embraced depersonalised reflective practices by blogging in order to seek understanding of leadership practices through sharing with others. This has been a revelatory experience and one which – by the open and visible nature of considered scrutiny – enhances professional growth and self-awareness.

Selected references

AITSL. (2013). Professional learning for school effectiveness in Australia: What does it take? Retrieved September 10, 2014

Argyris, C. & Schon, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Barber, M., Whelan, F. & Clark, M. (2010). Capturing the leadership premium: How the world’s top school systems are building leadership capacity for the future. Retrieved February 14, 2015

Bottery, M. (2003). The management and mismanagement of trust. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 31(3), 245-261. Retrieved July 21, 2014

Boyatzis, R.E. (2006). An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective. The Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 607-623.

Clandinin, D.J. & Connelly, F.M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Coyne, I.T. (1997). Sampling in qualitative research. Purposeful and theoretical sampling; merging or clear boundaries? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 26, 623-630.

Fullan, M., Rincon-Gallardo, S. & Hargreaves, A. (2015). Professional capital as accountability. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23(15), 1-22. Retrieved March 5, 2015

Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence?  Paper presented to Australian Council for Educational Research Annual Conference. Melbourne, 19–21 October. Retrieved September 15, 2014

Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning: Learning from leadership project. New York: The Wallace Foundation. Retrieved July 31, 2013 from

O’Donoghue, T. & Punch, K. (Eds.). (2003). Qualitative educational research in action: Doing and reflecting. RoutledgeFalmer: London and New York.

Ozga, J. (2000). Policy research in educational settings: Contested terrain. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Punch, K.F. & Oancea, A. (2014). Introduction to research methods in education (2nd Ed.). London: Sage.

Sachs, J. (2001). Teacher professional identity: Competing discourses, competing outcomes, Journal of Educational Policy, 16(2), 149-161. Retrieved August 16, 2014

Schon, D.A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York:  Basic Books.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation (revised edition). London: Random House.
Shulman, L. S., & Wilson, S. M. (2004). The wisdom of practice: Essays on teaching, learning, and learning to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Timperley, H. & Robertson, J. (2011). Establishing platforms for leadership and learning. In J. Robertson & H. Timperley (Eds.). Leadership and Learning (pp. 3-12). London: Sage.


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