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Principals and Problem-Solving

How context and interpretation shape decisions for educational leaders
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If you’re a school principal, how does context matter when you’re facing a difficult problem? Where do you find your source of support, and do the people you turn to actually help you to reach effective solutions?

Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell explores these questions in a paper published in Organization Science with co-author Theresa Lant, finding that the type of people principals surround themselves with, and to whom they turn for counsel, has a lot to do with how they think about their role and their challenges in the first place. This “cognitive context,” she found, helps determine their social context and is predictive of how they’ll go about solving problems or advancing their agenda.

Bridwell-Mitchell studies educational leadership, management, and organizations, often exploring the tension between structure and agency — “how we make choices within constraints,” as she describes it. “A lot of education policy is focused on what we can do to get people to make better choices — how we can spur them to be more gritty, or how we can incentivize them. But all the choices people make — even if they’re properly incentivized, even if they’re extra gritty — are constrained in some way by context. It turns out that when you look at differences across individuals, what best explains the variation is context. People in one context tend to think and do things a certain way, and very differently than people in another context.”

How Context Matters

In the recent paper, she set out to explore just how context matters when school principals are faced with decisions. She wanted to understand not only how principals’ social networks mattered, but also how cognitive context mattered — how they thought about or framed their problems.

She investigated two different ways in which principals might frame a pressing problem: as political, having to do with influence or power, or as strategic, having to do with performance and resources. She wanted to see whether that framing had an effect on the kinds of people they chose to go to for help.

She found that when people frame their problems politically, they are more likely to turn to advisors they think are trustworthy and have influence. But when they frame problems as being strategic, they are more likely to turn to people they think are accessible and have resources.

The Takeaway

What does all this mean in terms of helping principals solve problems? “If people have persistent patterns in how they see problems, then they have a tendency to choose certain kinds of people, irrespective of whether that’s what the problem actually is or those are the people they actually need,” says Bridwell-Mitchell. “You can imagine that people might be thinking about the problem in the wrong way and choosing the wrong people and not ending up with the solutions they need.”

“It really gives us an incentive to invest in what people often call shared decision making or shared leadership,” she continues. “What this is saying is, you need people to help you think carefully about these problems, so you can make sure you’re conceptualizing them in ways that will get you to the right people for help.”

Next Steps

Bridwell-Mitchell is doing a follow-up study to assess which cognitive contexts and social contexts may be more effective at solving which types of problems. She’s asking groups of principals to work through the issues involved in two randomly assigned scenarios, one about bullying and one about increasing achievement in middle-performing students, and then to come up with a solution. A set of experts — other principals and field experts — will assess and rate the solutions. The goal is to shed light on which factors were more helpful in arriving at effective solutions — cognitive framing, social context, or a combination of the two.

The bottom line is that context matters — perhaps more than any other factor — in effective leadership, says Bridwell-Mitchell. “If we’re not thinking about how much context matters, and how to change context, we’re losing most of the leverage that we have to actually get people to behave differently.”


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