Thinking Critically on School Leadership and a Shared Sense-Making Process


By Sherry Ganon-Shilon, winner of the 2018 Emerald/EFMD Outstanding Doctoral Research Awards in the category “Educational Leadership and Strategy” with her thesis titled Exploring School Principals’ Sense-Making of Their Leadership Role within the National Reform ‘Courage to Change’


Warren Bennis defined LEADERSHIP as the capacity to translate vision into reality. Is this definition relevant to the 21st century? Critical thinking, a 21st century essential, prompts us to ask how school leaders translate the complicated reality of frequent changes and uncertainty into a vision that drives their schools forward. This other-way-around perspective suggests an effective research tool of interpretation, a sense-making process, which holds benefits for school leaders experiencing a role crisis while reconciling new demands with school needs.

Making Sense of School Leadership

Today’s ever-changing world involves ambiguous reforms, pressing the school leadership to decide whether to truly undergo a process of change, or find ways of evading it and maintain existing practices. Sense-making is a process through which individuals and groups work to understand issues or events that entail ambiguities and are inconsistent with their prior beliefs. The connections between sense-making and school leadership implementing an educational reform have not yet been investigated sufficiently. Therefore, this blog is based on my doctoral thesis that explored the concept of sense-making in school leadership through a holistic approach, focusing on Israeli high-school principals’ perceptions, considerations, and enactment of their role complexity, during the implementation of national education reform. Utilising an integration of sense-making, cognitive and social constructivist approaches, my dissertation offered a consistent structure towards answering the research question, how school principals perceive and enact their role within a sense-making framework while implementing national reform demands?

A Shared Sense-Making Process

Promoting a long-term school improvement in today’s increasingly interconnected and globalized world means dealing effectively with all aspects of school leadership complexity through collaboration. This new perspective, a shared sense-making process, focuses on developing an understanding of the interdependent sense-making relationship between school principals, teachers, and policymakers. The potential use and application of my study’s results propose a critical transition from individual to shared sense-making processes (Ganon-Shilon & Schechter, 2018). Placed in the crucial position of bridging between the school, the educational system and the outside world, no school leader is an island. Accordingly, my dissertation highlights the need to develop a ‘shared sense-making’ cultural approach.

Shared sense-making is a two-way interaction, shaping while being shaped by the school mediators – the principal and the educational staff. Implementing an educational reform through a shared sense-making approach is a circular, continuous process in which the principal and the educational staff navigate through uncertainty, ambiguity and confusion, relying on prior knowledge, experience, and beliefs embedded in their social context. Creating a cognitive map of the unfamiliar situation, educators construct and enact a shared meaning of external demands. Figure 1 illustrates the continuous interrelated and interconnected motion of educators’ shared sense-making in reform implementation.

Figure 1. A shared sense-making process in reform implementation

Figure 1. A shared sense-making process in reform implementation


Building a shared understanding of the reform is essential for a successful school development. This shared sense-making approach integrates top-down and bottom-up initiatives, while emphasizing the importance of the school community in facilitating a social daily practice through a collaborative framework. Learning from and with peers within school culture facilitates an expanded range of sense-making options in dealing with new information and experiences. Toward this end, principals should design school practice fields of play, where teachers can collectively construct various scenarios of reform implementation in their unique school context. This reflective practice (Bannink & Van Dam, 2007) provides a safe arena for both school principals and faculty members to negotiate their understandings of the content and process of reform implementation. Expansion of faculty members’ perspective from one of solely performing – solving daily school problems – to one entailing processes of rehearsing, experimenting, and simulating reform implementation can also nurture a bottom-up framework for traditional top-down policy demands.

The shared sense-making process suggests a reciprocal negotiation of meaning, which might suit better today’s rapidly changing educational scene. Highlighting the need to conceptualize and empirically investigate shared sense-making as a complementary framework for policy enactment, it is important to explore how shared sense-making might help policymakers, principals and teachers to navigate complexity and uncertainty in reform implementation. Therefore, researchers working in the field of educational leadership and policy, policymakers, school principals and teachers would be the immediate beneficiaries of this research.