NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL VOLUME 30, NUMBER 3, 2013

ETHICS TOOLS ANCHORED BY ACTION LEARNING: A PRAXIS FRAMEWORK FOR COLLABORATIVE DECISION MAKING
Bobbie Eddins, Ed.D. Brenda Russell, Ed.D. Ann Farris, Ph.D. Jeffrey Kirk, Ph.D.

School of Education Texas A&M University-Central Texas
ABSTRACT School leaders and those who work with them in chaotic campus environments face complex issues involving ethical questions. The staggering diversity of issues confronting school leaders and the speed at which issues arise demand “learning in action” decision making skill. The authors propose in this concept paper a praxis framework to guide aspiring school leaders in learning about, using, and teaching ethical decision making skills. The framework is grounded by a three-part approach: 1) the leader’s need to understand and model a personal values structure while assisting others in the school community in defining their beliefs about their work, 2) the capability of those involved in decision making to use ethical “tools” such as moral principles and ethical dilemma patterns to define and solve complex issues, and 3) the use of action learning as a protocol for decision making in real time. Based on the three-part approach, a learning-in-action collaborative decision-making process is discussed. The use of this process in all courses in a school leadership preparation program allows students to gain the confidence and skill to develop teachers and other school leaders as more effective ethical decision makers.

Introduction School leaders and those who work with them in school communities face complex issues in chaotic environments every day
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issues rife with ethical questions. Many believe that prescriptive measures and tight control hold the key to effective leadership in public schools today. Sarason (1982) suggests that “principals, especially those new to their positions, often choose stability over creativity, opting to assert authority or withdraw from the fray” (p.160). Some, however, would argue that a much more creative and powerful course of action rests in the development of school leaders as purpose holders who collaboratively involve other leaders in learning, leading, and ethical decision making. Although some facets of school leadership do not focus on concerns directly related to moral issues, moral purpose is essential to schools’ learning endeavors (Fullan, 2003). Starratt (in Cordeiro & Cunningham, 2013) indicates that “coming to terms with what one knows, to explore its use and its misuse, to avoid its distortion or manipulation is both a moral and an intellectual obligation” (p.15). He adds that “learning is a moral search as well as an intellectual search for truth – truth about ourselves, about our community, about our history, about our cultural and physical world.” While the truth will remain “incomplete, fallible, partial, and generative,” Starratt suggests that this search is the grounding work of whole schools – those involved in making sound choices about themselves and the communities they create. Clearly, one of the most important social justice issues facing school communities today is the capability of school leadership to act with a sense of moral purpose and ethical conscience. Because of the size and complex nature of schools, this necessitates increased leadership capacity among all stakeholder groups – teachers, students, parents, community members, and administrators – with all leaders gaining knowledge and skill to be collaboratively involved in effective decision making (Lambert, 2003). Additionally, the staggering diversity of the issues confronting school leaders and the speed at which they arise demand a “learning in action” decision making process in which many minds think creatively about the complex issues at hand (Herasymowych & Senko, 2008). The use of a common group protocol is an option that provides the parameters for candid conversations in group settings without the fear of alienation or

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retribution; ideally, a process in which focused inquiry and the free exchange of ideas are expected in an environment of psychological safety. Key to the success of school leaders in growing this kind of collaborative capacity building is sound training, particularly in preparation programs (Beck & Murphy, 1994; Serviovanni, 1992; Strike, 2005).

A Praxis Framework for Social Justice and Ethical Behavior Within a School Leadership Preparation Program A praxis framework has been created as one option for learning about collaborative and ethical decision making in school leadership preparation programs. The framework is grounded by a three-part approach: 1) the leader’s need to understand and model a personal values structure while assisting others in the school community in defining their beliefs about their work, 2) the capability of those involved in decision making to use ethical “tools” such as moral principles and ethical dilemma patterns to define and solve complex issues, and 3) the use of action learning as a protocol for decision making in real time. Based on the three-part approach, a learning-inaction collaborative decision-making process has been developed. The use of this process to solve real problems in real time in all courses in a school leadership preparation program allows students to gain the confidence and skill to develop teachers and other school leaders as more effective ethical decision makers. Part one of the praxis framework, understanding and utilizing a set of personal values, is essential to leading consistently. Fullan (2003) cites the need for a strong sense of moral purpose in order to get through troubled leadership times. In the midst of a variety of tasks and the diversity of people involved in the school environment, school leaders can quickly lose sight of higher purpose and grounding beliefs. Leaders who take the time to explore their own beliefs have the opportunity to develop critical consciousness about their work that

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can be used to anchor their leadership efforts. The development of a code of conduct or ethics lays a foundation for leadership behavior. Sergiovanni and Starratt (2001) advocate for the creation of an educational platform of “basic assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and values that are underpinnings of an educator’s behavior” (p. 84). Many authors offer value sets as characteristic of ethical leadership. Included in a discussion by Northouse (2010) are respect for others, a service orientation, a concern with fairness and justice, honesty, and desire to build community. Starratt (2004) provides three overarching virtues to be valued in the leadership of schooling – responsibility to a host of stakeholders for authentic learning, quality teaching, and a healthy and effective environment; authenticity in relationships with learners to promote authentic learning; and presence in affirming, critiquing, and enabling the relationship between responsibility and authenticity. A process to define a set of values set is offered by Kouzes and Posner (2003) as foundational to exemplary leadership practice. Unique to each individual, a personal set of values will provide guidance in defining leadership practice. School leaders should be able to create such a set and guide leaders and others on their campuses in the development as well. Also important and readily available to school leaders are tools helpful in diagnosing and solving ethical issues, part two of the praxis framework. Attention to personal values, ethical principles, and dilemma patterns in the pursuit of a sound decision may result in a better “fit” for those involved. Five basic principles from ethics theory provide a lens to see ethical dilemmas from different viewpoints and serve as a rudder in finding solutions. Three principles are mainstays of discussions on this topic: ends-based thinking (utilitarianism) with actions benefitting the greater number, rule-based thinking (categorical imperative) defined by the moral duty/suitable role everyone should follow in similar situations, and care-based thinking (altruism, the Golden Rule) focused on a concern for others. Gregory (2010) offers two additions: communitarianism which speaks to the common shared values of the community with members taking responsibility for their part, and Rawl’s justice as fairness perspective which advocates for

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equal rights to the same liberties and all opportunities open to all. Also helpful in the diagnosis of ethical issues is the use of right versus right patterns in ethical dilemmas as defined by Kidder (2009): 1) individual versus community in which the rights of many are balanced with the rights of the individual, 2) short term versus long term which examines the benefit of short-term gains with the effect of those long term, 3) justice versus mercy contrasting the desire to see justice served with feelings of empathy being right as well, and 4) truth versus loyalty in which a balance between the two may be difficult. The use of these tools in diagnosis and decision making is helpful in generating workable solutions. The third part of the praxis framework calls for the use of action learning as the anchoring process for more collaborative decision making. Current literature provides a good number of approaches and processes for more ethically sound decision making. Strike (2007) outlines four characteristics of a good decision: 1) the decision is supported by evidence, the ends aimed at by the decision are the appropriate ones, 3) the decision can be morally implemented, and 4) the decision has been legitimately achieved. Utilizing both ethical and legal principles, Stader (2013) discusses a three-stage decision making model:    Stage one – define the problem, the parameters, the primary decision maker, and acceptable outcome. Stage two – research to determine legal and ethical factors, input by presenting the problem to others for possible solutions, and evaluation of possible solutions. Stage three – making a decision from the options, implementing the plan, and evaluating the acceptability of outcomes.

While these and many additional examples have merit, the addition of the action learning protocol as an option for decision support provides many unique praxis-related components.

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Action learning is a decision making process that utilizes many of the steps found in current models while grounded in collaborative discourse. In a recent review of literature, (Cho & Egan, 2009), action learning was characterized as a process of inquiry which “is based on the pedagogical notion that people learn most effectively when working on real-time problems occurring in their own work setting” (p. 434). Two themes resonate across the literature on action learning: work-based real issues and team learning. Herasymowych and Senko (2008) concur, noting that the real time nature of the process provides the flexibility to deal with change and complexity. They indicate that focusing on the learning that occurs in solving a problem becomes the focus rather than just solving the problem. “You get the best of both worlds: you learn from your actions while solving the problem… There is a paradox in action learning: when you slow down to learn from your actions, you actually speed up your ability to take actions that are more effective in the long term” (p. 7). Certainly the use of team learning is not a new theme, with writings and research that include positions by Senge (1990) that team learning is a foundational building block in an effective organization and Raelin (2008) that when peers can take the time to offer perspectives into each other’s workplace problems within a collective inquiry process, learning occurs within the context of the work. Herasymowych and Senko (2008) cite the emphasis on generative rather than adaptive learning in an action learning problem solving cycle. They indicate that adaptive learning focuses on problem solving, just one part of the learning, while the second part of the learning is generative and requires people to be conscious of their contribution to the organization’s problems, and how they can change the ways in which they think and act in order to solve those problems…Without generative learning, organizations and the people within organizations fall prey to the same reactive thinking and behaviors that are used each time a crisis arises, even when these behaviors no longer work. (p. 14)

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Reg Revans, widely considered by to be founder of the action learning process, emphasized the need for a balance between action and learning, with learning providing the generative results and action facilitating any necessary change (Revans, 1998). Cho and Egan’s (2010) review of the literature supports this notion, highlighting the recurring theme that “solving a problem or addressing an issue is critical only if there is learning from the experience” (p. 435). Honey and Mumford’s (1995) research indicates that people solve problems in a four-stage process: generate and analyze data on the action, make sense out of the data through patterns and conclusions, make decisions and formulate plans that produce desired results, and take action on the plan. This natural learning cycle provides for both action and reflection. To strengthen the learning, Honey and Mumford identify four learning orientations – active, reflective, theoretical, and practical – that define participative preferences within the learning cycle. When learning orientations are diagnosed, two or three dominating orientations are usually discovered, providing opportunities for participants to “shine” naturally in the learning cycle and learn to operate effectively in all four orientations. According to Herasymowych & Senko (2008), the eight elements of the action learning process can be seen through the learning orientation lenses: reflective – step one gather data and step two question assumptions; theoretical – step three generate a summary statement and step four generate ideas; practical – step five test ideas and step six make a decision, and active – step seven take action and step eight tell the story. By cobbling together the action learning process with values sets, ethical principles, and ethical dilemma patterns, a learning-inaction ethical decision making process is created that is usable throughout the school environment. Most closely aligned to Kidder’s ethical checkpoints decision making process (2009), the following outlines the steps for a learning-in-action process anchored by action learning (Herasymowych & Senko, 2008) and viewed with ethical tools.

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Step I – Diagnosis of Data The following considerations are critical before analyzing data:  Describe the situation (the non-negotiables, what’s working, what’s not working, who is being affected and how, what will happen if nothing changes, expectations for those involved, any steps taken so far to resolve the situation). Check to see if any law or policy has been broken. Describe any ethical dilemmas (patterns) at play in the situation (truth v. loyalty; short-term v. long-term; individual v. community; justice v. mercy). Describe personal values possibly influencing actions by those in the situation. State the problem in one to two sentences as you understand it.

   

Step II – Opportunities for Leverage To ensure optimal application of effort:   Generate ideas for improvement that could resolve the problem. Test each idea on merit by identifying positive and negative results and who/what will be needed to make the idea work. Be sure to discuss the presence of ethical principle lenses from the traditions of moral philosophy and ethical theory (endsbased, rule-based, care-based thinking, communitarianism, and justice as fairness). Utilize a leverage matrix to prioritize ideas by effort needed and value added.

Step III – Plan for Impact To ensure best possible outcomes unanticipated negative consequences: and to minimize

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   

Choose idea(s) to action plan. Describe situation if the ideas are implemented (ideal outcome). Utilize an action planning format to create a plan to take action on the idea(s) to include tasks/accountability, resources required, timeline/end date, and desired results. Describe the possible pitfalls to watch /plan for when the action plan is implemented.

The use of the three-part praxis framework – development of a values set and critical conscience, the skill in using ethical tools, and the use of the more collaborative action learning approach to decision making – may be infused throughout the coursework in a school leadership preparation program. The first course in the learning sequence combines a study of leadership theory (Northouse, 2010) with an examination of ethical leadership and decision making topics. Students develop a knowledge base about ethics through reading and dialoguing about oppression (Freire, 2000), servant leadership (Greenleaf, 2002), ethical dilemmas (Kidder, 2009), ethical leadership (Starratt, 2004), moral imperatives (Fullan, 2003), and the work of Heifetz concerning conflicting values and Burn’s development of transformational leadership (in Northouse, 2010). Each student develops a personal code of conduct, utilizes the blended learning-inaction process to make decisions in a complex case study, and designs a plan to improve ethical decision making on his or her home campus as the course practicum activity. The praxis framework and learning-in-action decision making process are used in the following semester to begin development of a personal best leadership project with defined values (Kouzes & Posner, 2003); additionally, a personal mission and a values-driven educational platform are created. Students collaboratively examine their personal anchoring documents to practice the identification of commonalities which will serve as the basis for a shared collection of organization foundational documents – school vision, mission, guiding principles, and portrait of a graduate. In each subsequent course,

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school leadership students utilize their personal anchoring statements, the shared foundational statements of their cohort, and the learning-inaction decision making process to examine ethical issues related to the course content: high expectations and the student learning plan (curriculum, instruction, and assessment); communications, diversity, and community relations; the supervision and growth of faculty and staff; and the leadership and management of a safe and engaging learning environment. Upon completion of the preparation program, students have gained the skill to facilitate others’ learning about ethical leadership and decision making specifically related to the praxis framework and the learning-in-action decision making process. The use of ethical tools and the learning-in-action decision making process by leaders at every level in the school setting is essential. Ethical issues are usually not created in isolation. Most teachers, students, and other stakeholder s in the school community have not been trained to deal with the complex ethical dilemmas created in the midst of accelerating change. In most situations, no one is wrong and multiple truths are to be expected. Unless leaders at every level in the school community can learn to think and act differently, problems will go without generative solutions. MacKenzie and MacKenzie (2010) point out that while all educators are responsible as professionals to share a responsibility to their schools and students as well as to hold to a set of professional standards, “there are times when the standards of an employee’s profession come into conflict with the needs or wishes of others with whom he or she works” (pp. 97-8). Additionally, the authors agree that “teachers do not always define professional obligations in the same way” (p. 58). Insert the views of parents, students, administrators, and other community members to the complexity of issues, and interactions can be laden with ethical challenges. Just as campus administrators struggle with heavy workloads, so do teacher leaders. The broader issues faced by the school community, many of which contain the themes of social justice, are

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often pushed to the back burner in deference to an out of control student or an irate parent. But the decisions about how the values of the school are articulated and manifest in the school also happen on a daily basis. It is not a question of what the school’s mission statement says but about how daily practices and policies represent and model that vision and that mission. (Blankstein & Houston, 2011, p.151) A deep understanding and substantial skill related to ethics and ethical decision making process that is developed across a whole preparation program of study and application will serve school leaders well as they build the capacity of leaders throughout their campus communities to understand and use sound and collaborative decision making processes. As an option to making isolated decisions concerning complex issues found in every area of school life, the use of the praxis framework and the learning-in-action decision making process has the potential to assist leaders at every level in guiding the development of generative solutions in participative settings.

Mindfulness as Ethical Thinking Margaret Wheatley (2007) promotes the need for mindful learning, noting anytime you can keep yourself from instantly reacting, anytime you can pause for just a second, you are practicing mindfulness…. Instead of letting your reactions and thoughts lead you, you step back and realize you can choose your reaction… Instead of being angry, you hesitate for a moment and realize that you have other choices available. (p. 131-32) Through action and reflection, leaders at every level of school communities have the option to be mindful about their craft.

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Preparing administrators for ethical practice requires more than the establishment of courses. It demands that faculty and students engage in ongoing reflection and conversation about their beliefs and commitments and the ways in which practices and policies support or contradict these. (Beck & Murphy, 1994, p. 95) The praxis framework and learning-in-action decision making process described in this paper for the study of ethics by school leaders is one option for growth.

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Northouse, P. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Raelin, J. (2008). Work-based learning. San Francisco, CA: JosseyBass. Revans, R. (1998). ABC of action learning. London, England: Lemos & Crane. Sarason, S. (1982). The culture of the school and the problem of change (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of a learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday. Sergiovanni, T. (1992). Moral leadership. San Francisco, CA: JosseyBass. Sergiovanni, T., & Starratt, R. (2001). Supervision: Human perspectives. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Stader, D. (2013). Law and ethics in educational leadership (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. Starratt, R. (2004). Ethical leadership. San Francisco, CA: Wiley & Sons. Strike, K. (2007). Ethical leadership in schools: Creating community in an environment of accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Strike, K., Haller, E., & Soltis, J. (2005). The ethics of school administration. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Wheatley, M. (2007). Finding our way: Leadership for uncertain times. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

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