5 key characteristics of digital school leaders

In my last post, I suggested that principals should take a more active and central role in the digital transformation of their schools. I’d now like to consider a few of the characteristics of the digital school leader.

Being a digital school leader means not only taking the time to understand how new digital tools can impact on teaching and learning. It means understanding the ways in which tech is disrupting standard models of management in every sector. In the words of Josh Bersin, we need to move from ‘doing digital’ to ‘acting digital’.

Here are 5 ways in which we can move into a more digital way of school leadership. Thanks to econsultancy for some of the below headings.

#1 – Pupil-centred

In their book Frugal Innovation, Radjou and Prabhu suggest that traditional research and development should now give way to a process of ‘engaging and iterating’. This involves pushing out what has been coined a ‘minimally viable product’, getting fast customer feedback, and making changes to that product accordingly. It’s what Facebook has been doing from the start.

There is no reason why we cannot adapt this approach to teaching, learning materials, and assessment. Real-time pupil feedback on the this vital trinity places far more emphasis on pupil voice in the improvement process.

Hubert.ai, currently in Beta, allows pupils to offer feedback on teacher course materials using real-time chat with an AI bot. As pupils complete the work, Hubert chats with them, asking them questions about their experience. The feedback is used to create a report on the materials and offer suggestions for improvement. Hubert will soon offer teachers support to improve both the quality of teaching and assessment. 

As a digital school leader, you should understand the ways in which technology can support you in your school improvement role. The more this can focus on the pupil experience the better.

#2 – Tech-savvy

As principal you should be publicly comfortable with the technology you use. You cannot stab aimlessly at your iPad uttering ‘well, all this is beyond me’. It is not acceptable to wholly delegate this to the keen deputy (as I suggested in my last post). You are the one who the community looks to for direction and guidance.

You might not know the detail over how tech can be applied in every subject, but you should take the time to understand the theory that sits behind it. A useful starting point is the SAMR model, which Apple have used to teach tech integration.

Go on courses (Apple provide some excellent ones), network, read and blog. Don’t leave it to the deputies to carry the flag for digital change. It doesn’t happen in industry and it certainly shouldn’t happen in schools.

#3 – Visionary

Some might argue that this has nothing to do with going digital, but in an era of the dynamic and shared vision I would disagree. People expect to buy into a vision and want to see it at the heart of all they do. You’re now employing millennials as teachers who have grown up with Facebook’s ‘Move fast and break things’ and Apple’s ‘Think Different’. They want to feel part of something bigger.

Ask anyone in your school what its mission statement is. If they don’t know it then it’s either not clear enough, poorly communicated, or non-existent. When I visited ESSA Academy in Bolton many years ago I was struck by how every child knew their motto: ‘All will succeed’. It was easy to remember and gave every pupil a clear sense of what the school wanted for them and what it set out to achieve.

As well as a clear vision, the digital school leader needs to be someone who others wish to follow. Thought leadership is now a critical part of the digital school leader’s arsenal, and one of the best ways to demonstrate this is through blogging.

As well as helping your school rise up the Google rankings, blogging can firmly establish you as an expert in your field (which of course you are). It also forces you back into the position of learner, which is another important characteristic of the modern school leader.

#4 – Data-driven

Having tightly controlled mechanisms to capture, format and analyse data is critical for a school’s success.

However, whilst many schools are good at the process, they are often guilty of valuing what they measure rather than measuring what they value. A school’s vision should inform its strategy. A strategy’s impact should be measured through KPIs. And KPIs can only be measured accurately if you have the right data formatted in a user-friendly way.

Data on its own is meaningless: nothing more than red, amber and green squares on an excel spreadsheet. The digital school leader recognises this and creates a circular improvement process. Reliable data can tell you how far you are on the journey to achieving your vision. This can then impact on strategy, measured through KPIs, and so on.  

The vision doesn’t change, but the strategy might flex depending on the story the data is telling. In this way the digital school leader is able to maintain a steady course whilst being sufficiently flexible to weather any sudden turbulence. And there’s always plenty of that.

#5 – Adaptive and agile

In a previous post I wrote about how I see technology disrupting the ways in which schools are organised. The typical, fixed model of principal, deputies, and heads of department/year will I believe change as digital tools to monitor progress and performance become ubiquitous.

This creates opportunities for the digital school leader. By freeing leadership from much of the day to day business of quality assurance, senior and middle leaders can take on a more agile role, acting as lead teachers and the innovation engine of your school.

However, all of this is contingent on establishing a clear vision backed up with a solid strategy. If you can do this, using data to monitor the impact of your strategy, you can spend more time looking ahead and less time being buffeted by the abovementioned turbulence.

Organisations that thrive in a more uncertain world are those who can adapt without losing track of who they are. This is no less important in schools today.


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  1. Pingback: 5 key characteristics of digital school leaders – re.Education – Bilgi Her Şeyi Yener

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