Open-to-learning conversations: background paper

by Viviane Robinson


This paper is a revised version of material found in School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration. It has been developed to support Module 3 of the First-time Principals Programme (FTP) but has relevance for all school leaders: experienced and first-time principals, and middle and senior leaders. It is a practically focused piece that school leaders will be able to adapt to suit the issues and dilemmas they face in their particular contexts where their focus is on improving student outcomes.

The paper defines open-to-learning conversations as those in which we are ‘open to learning’ about the quality of thinking and information that we use when making judgments about what is happening, why and what to do about it. They are conversations where participants remain open to learning about the validity of each other’s point of view.

New Zealand research has shown that open-to-learning conversations have the potential to increase the effectiveness of the relational aspects of school leadership.

One of the important ways in which school leaders can make a positive difference to students’ well-being and achievement is through their leadership of learning within the school. This involves building trusting relationships, for example by dealing with difficulties in respectful ways. School leaders who use open-to-learning conversations with their staff deal constructively with conflict situations, give and receive negative feedback, identify and clarify issues, and develop positive future action.

This paper does not avoid discussing the difficulties which face school leaders in these situations. It provides specific examples of how issues arise as well as models of ways to deal with them. There are vignettes from both primary and secondary schools in New Zealand which track the process of potential conflicts and dilemmas from recognising them to handling and resolving them.

It could also be used for professional learning workshops and discussion with the school leadership team or with principal cluster groups.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions can be used to guide your reading of this paper:

  • Identify a list of issues within your school where the ‘guiding values and key strategies’ of open-to-learning conversations (identified on page 4) would increase the chance of improved learning and teaching.
  • In small groups or pairs work through one of these issues to identify some of recurring key components of open-to-learning conversations (see tables 3 and 4) that could be used in conversations with teachers about the quality of teaching and lead to improved student outcomes. It might be useful to tape rehearsed conversations so that you can reflect on your actual words and how you as a school leader kept the conversation and open-to-learning one.
  • In relation to one of the identified issues, and before embarking on a ‘real’ open-to-learning conversation, identify your own assumptions about the situation. You could work with a trusted colleague on this. For example:
    •  what preconceptions about the person do you hold?
    •  what are the actual causes of the problem that has been identified?
    •  how is what you might do in the situation different from what this person can do?
    •  what resources are you able to allocate to the situation?

Download the background paper from this page.

Further reading

Cardno, C. (2007). Leadership learning – the praxis of dilemma management. International Studies in Educational Administration Quarterly, 35 (2), 33 - 50.

Robinson, V. Hohepa, M. & Lloyd C. (2009). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Timperley, H. Wilson, A. Barrar, H. & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development. Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.


Robinson, V. (2009). Open-to-learning Conversations: Background Paper. Module 3: Building Trust in Schools Through Open-to-learning Conversations. First-time Principals Programme. The University of Auckland.

Tags: Leadership BES

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