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Observation Methods: Learning about Leadership Practice through Shadowing

Peter Earley


It is known that the role of principals is crucially important to school success. It is also known that their work is very demanding and stressful. Can anything be learned about principalship from studying how school leaders spend their time or from observing them at work? Research studies based on observation of principals as well as diaries and logs completed by school leaders themselves generally show a relentless, complex and emotionally demanding workload consisting of a variety of tasks characterized by volume, pace, brevity and fragmentation. This paper considers different methodological approaches to studying school leaders at work. After consideration of a number of relevant studies, it draws upon data derived from a recently completed small-scale study of new heads in large English cities (Earley et al., 2011) to analyse how leaders spend their time at school. Observation schedules, guides and checklists identify the many different activities that school leaders undertake, usually falling within such broad areas as strategic leadership, organization management, administration, external and internal stakeholders, staff development and personnel. This paper describes the observational guide used in the English study and suggests that shadowing new heads can be a useful tool for learning about leadership, helping to increase our understanding of how time is used by principals and for what purpose. However, used on its own it has a number of limitations and these are noted.


Leadership development; New principals; Observation of leaders; Qualitative methods; Shadowing; Metodi qualitativi; Nuovi presidi; Osservazione dei leaders; Sviluppo della leadership

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7358/ecps-2012-006-earl

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Journal of Educational, Cultural and Psychological Studies (ECPS)
Registered by Tribunale di Milano (19/05/2010 n. 278)
Online ISSN 2037-7924 - Print ISSN 2037-7932

Research Laboratory on Didactics and Evaluation - Department of Education - "Roma Tre" University

Executive Editor: Gaetano Domenici - Associate Executive Editor & Managing  Editor: Valeria Biasci
Editorial Board: Eleftheria Argyropoulou - Massimo Baldacci - Joao Barroso - Richard Bates - Christofer Bezzina - Paolo Bonaiuto - Lucia Boncori - Pietro Boscolo - Sara Bubb  - Carlo Felice Casula - Jean-Émile Charlier - Lucia Chiappetta Cajola - Carmela Covato - Jean-Louis Derouet - Peter Early - Franco Frabboni - Constance Katz - James Levin - Pietro Lucisano  - Roberto Maragliano - Romuald Normand - Michael Osborne - Donatella Palomba - Michele Pellerey - Clotilde Pontecorvo - Vitaly V. Rubtzov - Jaap Scheerens - Noah W. Sobe - Francesco Susi - Giuseppe Spadafora - Pat Thomson
Editorial Staff: Fabio Alivernini - Guido Benvenuto - Anna Maria Ciraci - Massimiliano Fiorucci - Luca Mallia - Massimo Margottini - Giovanni Moretti - Carla Roverselli 
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