Designing a Leadership Program

Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Spring 2022

Curious as to the design behind successful leadership programs? This peek behind the curtain offers you a look at the scaffolding and design work behind UBC’s Transformative Educational Leadership Program. If you are looking to design a student-focused leadership program or a district-educator leadership program, you’ll find this a useful read. Find out the design secret to successful leadership learning.

By Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser

A careful look at learning systems around the world lead us to believe that those systems with teachers and formal leaders who use their collective curiosity in learning teams are the ones doing the strongest job of helping learners with the deeper forms of learning required today. John Watkins, Amelia Peterson, and Jal Mehta argue:

Faced with all the possibilities, inequities, anxieties, and complexities of contemporary life, educators and students alike are balking at an inherited approach to schooling that does little to prepare students for those challenges. They are finding ways to orient student work around meaningful questions and practices, replacing coverage with mastery of knowledge, busy-work with disciplined creativity, and one-size-fits-all with a diversity of promising approaches. Some of them have described this as a reorientation towards deeper learning (2018, pg. 3).

Jal Mehta introduced the notion of symmetry in educational change. Educators in many systems want young people to be curious, inquiry-minded thinkers, thoughtful problem-solvers, and wise decision-makers. The idea of symmetry is straight forward – if we want these outcomes for our students then we need to strengthen adult competencies in these same areas.

Applying the notion of symmetry to the design of the Transformative Educational Leadership Program (TELP) has led us to understand that if we want leaders to create systems characterized by equity, quality, curiosity and community, then they need to experience those values in their own learning. This paper will focus on the ways in which these four values are shaping the leadership program and the experiences of participants.


One of the major areas of concern in British Columbia is the inequity of experience and outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth. This has been an on-going challenge for some time.

More recently the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action as well as reports by the Auditor General and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) underscore the need for system-wide changes to create equity in education for Indigenous learners.

In her forthcoming book, Jo Chrona argues that:

Because systems tend to want to perpetuate themselves, strong, complementary forces are often required to motivate social change. Systems change for equity and anti-racism requires grass-roots level, relationship building and education, and policy change at provincial or territorial levels. Relying only on top-down policy level change will not have the desired effect in education as disengagement of educators can result in the continuation of existing perspectives, biases and actions that maintain the status quo. As well, relying on grass-roots level, ground-up relationship building and education without corresponding policy change and mandates at the ministry level can result in too little change, for too few learners, over too long a period of time (2022, pg. 94).

Initially, in TELP, one session was devoted to Indigenous understandings. We drew on the wisdom of Indigenous scholars such as Dr. Lorna Williams and Dr. Joanne Archibald to challenge participants’ thinking and we included readings connected to Indigenous understandings. We realized that a focus on equity and specifically equity connected to Indigenous learners in British Columbia needed to be a central focus throughout the program. Now, required readings for every session include current articles on Indigenous perspectives. Living case studies are invited to share their stories of confronting racism, of addressing the biases of low expectations, and of challenging the status quo.

This persistent focus is having an impact. In her TELP impact study, Professor Louise Stoll interviewed graduates. She found that districts led by TELP graduates “are addressing longstanding issues such as anti-racist approaches to Truth and Reconciliation and integrating Indigenous perspectives, disengagement and graduation rates of struggling learners, or pushing for more innovative learning practices and environments, including challenging traditional student assessment practices” (2021, pg. 17). An important development to be sure.

This direction requires intentional decisions. Participants in TELP learn the Decision Maker Moves and the common traps that can get in the way of making better – more equitable – decisions. This values-based and evidence-informed framework resulted from a collaboration decision scientists and TELP graduate Brooke Moore. Ken Leithwood states that “many decisions faced by leaders are ethical dilemmas and almost all decisions are influenced, one way or another by the leaders’ values” (2021, pg. 4). One of the most important values held by successful educational leaders is the primacy of students’ best interests in decision making.

While we are making progress towards our equity goals in BC, there is still a great deal of work to be done. The conscious decisions within TELP to create diverse groups within each cohort, to infuse Indigenous understandings into each session, to provide case studies of courageous leaders, and to reinforce the importance of a decision-making framework are intended to contribute to a system-wide focus on equity.


Equity without quality will not help us achieve the goal of all learners crossing the stage with dignity, purpose and options. While the graduation rates for Indigenous learners in British Columbia have been steadily improving, there are still significant concerns in some districts about the quality of the diploma being conferred. Allowing young people to leave school without the necessary credentials to engage successfully in post-secondary programs of their choice is an example of the racism of low expectations.

Just as we expect school and district leaders to create high quality programs for all students, so too are we trying to build in high quality design features into TELP. Support for participants to get the most out of readings comes in two forms: participation in facilitated reading groups and the provision of reading guides for each of the readings. For several years we have argued that assessment for learning is the bridge from a sorting system to a learning system. Feedback within TELP is strongly formative in nature and reflects the power of an appreciative, strengths-based approach.

Another quality building feature is the principle of slowing down the propensity for quick action in response to a complex problem. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains that we all use two systems of thinking. System 1 is our fast thinking system. Automatic, intuitive, and effortless, it produces impressions. It drives our gut reactions. System 2 is slow thinking. It’s what we do when we use our heads. TELP participants are expected to use the year of the program to think, reflect, and inquire before moving to action. We want the TELP experience to reflect that learning takes patience and time – one of the First Peoples’ Learning Principles.

We also want participants to be in the place of Cwelelep – a learning principle from the Lil’wat people that recognizes the need to sometimes be in a place of dissonance and uncertainty to be open to new learning. This principle requires space and time – conditions that can feel scarce given the challenges school and district leaders face with managing the complexities presented by the on-going pandemic. In a recent paper, Alma Harris stated that:

For school leaders working in these demanding and chaotic circumstances, the pressure is relentless, the options are limited, the sleepless nights are frequent and school leaders are caught in the unfavourable position of being the pinch point in the system … Every expectation either from above or below asks more of school leaders professionally and personally (2021, pg. 1).

Harris argues that leadership programs need to adapt to these circumstances. At the 2019 NOIIE symposium, Helen Timperley stated that complex problems require adaptive expertise and that we build adaptive expertise through collaborative inquiry. We don’t know what lies ahead with regard to challenges we will face. We do know, however, that providing a space for school and district leaders to share ideas and experiences, to have the opportunity to challenge their own thinking, to review their decisions, and to feel they are part of a supportive learning community can help.

TELP uses the following design features from on-going international research on effective leadership preparation programs:

(Huber, 2009 & 2011)

  1. Recruitment of highly qualified leaders with strong leadership development backgrounds is a key variable.
  2. Selection of participants is important.
  3. Leadership programs need a clear and explicitly stated set of aims, using the core moral purpose of school as a focus.
  4. Development must be viewed as a continuous process.

(Jenson, 2015)

  1. Inquiry based
  2. Collaborative
  3. Linked and coherent
  4. Led by the profession
  5. Takes place over time


The Spiral of Inquiry is an evidence-informed approach to system change designed to increase educator curiosity (Kaser & Halbert, 2010; Timperley, 2014). We want to emphasize that the first stage of the Spiral is to engage in scanning – to question, listen, probe, and reflect – with the aim of developing a deeper understanding of what is going on for learners. Our experience has been that when educators, no matter their role, listen carefully to learners, significant positive changes result. Curiosity grows when individuals listen to understand rather than to judge.

TELP participants are asked to apply the Spiral of Inquiry framework throughout the course of the program as they sharpen their focus on the specific changes that they will make to enhance equity and quality in their individual settings. The on-line learning conversations and the reading group meetings are designed to provide space for different perspectives to be raised, for questions to be asked, for assumptions to be challenged, and for curiosity to be heightened. Introducing participants to four forms of inquiry (narrative, appreciative, critical, and reflective) is also designed to build curiosity.


An important feature of TELP is the commitment to creating a sense of community within each cohort and following that with continued community engagement after the program concludes. Belonging is a universal human need. We believe that the research on belonging applies to adult learners as well as to young learners.

In a recent study on structures for belonging, Healey and Stroman (2021) cite research from a range of disciplines that suggests belonging-supportive learning environments share a set of interrelated characteristics, which, together, communicate to students that their presence and intellectual and social contributions are valued. Belonging-supportive environments:

  • respect each student’s identity along multiple dimensions, so that every student feels understood and known as a person and thinker in the environment.
  • affirm each student’s capacity to succeed in the environment by combining high expectations with the feedback and support needed to meet them.
  • recognize each student’s agency and contributions to the classroom, institution, community, and society (2021).

The TELP team strives to build a sense of belonging by focusing on the individual rather than on their formal role, creating diverse reading and discussion groups facilitated by former TELP participants, providing personalized formative feedback, organizing check-ins at every session to ensure every voice is heard and respected, and having scheduled individual conversations with participants.

Teamwork and community are modelled by the TELP teaching and support teams. Reading group facilitators function as a team as do the facilitators for the on-line discussion forums. Social connections are valued.

Building a sense of on-going community among TELP participants has been important since its inception and is connected to Huber’s finding (2010) that the most effective leadership development programs provide opportunities for graduates to stay connected after the program concludes. The Network of Inquiry and Indigenous Education and alumni events provide a space for leadership and continued learning.

TELP graduates are involved in several aspects of NOIIE from designing the annual symposium to leading NOIIE events. TELP graduates have presented at international network events and major convenings. Others have hosted study groups from England, Sweden, Australia and Catalunya. Many have published journal articles, written playbooks, developed resources for use across the international networks, and participated in international research. An increasing number of TELP graduates are now engaged in doctoral studies.

Concluding Thoughts & Next Steps

Building educational systems focused on equity and quality for every learner requires courageous, curious, connected leaders with adaptive expertise and a strong contemporary knowledge base. TELP offers participants the chance to experience equity, quality, curiosity and community first-hand. Transformation starts with the personal experience of leaders.

Taking bold action to change the experiences of learners in significant ways cannot be the sole responsibility of any individual leader. Addressing complex challenges requires teamwork. For this reason, we are encouraged by the districts that support groups of educators participating as teams in TELP. Following the work in these districts over the next few years will give us greater insights into the ways in which TELP is contributing to system change.

Linda Kaser headshot

Linda Kaser

Dr. Judy Halbert and Dr. Linda Kaser lead the Transformative Educational Leadership Program at the University of British Columbia. Prior to coming to UBC, Linda and Judy developed and taught graduate leadership programs at the University of Victoria and Vancouver Island University.

Judy Halbert headshot

Judy Halbert

Linda and Judy have served as teachers, principals, district leaders and policy advisors with British Columbia’s Ministry of Education. They are the founders of the Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education. In 2019, along with NOIIE leader Debbie Leighton Stephens, they were awarded the prestigious Cmolik Prize for the enhancement of public education in British Columbia.

They are deeply committed to achieving equity and quality for all learners and to networking for innovation and improvement across systems. To that end, they served as Canadian representatives to the OECD international research program on Innovative Learning Environments. They are pleased to support inquiry networks in British Columbia, the Yukon, England, Catalonia, Spain, Sweden, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, New Zealand and Queensland.

They are the co-authors of The Spiral Playbook (2017), System Transformation for Equity and Quality (2016), Spirals of Inquiry (2013), Leadership Mindsets: Innovation and Learning in the Transformation of Schools (2009) and with Helen Timperley, A Framework for Transforming Learning in Schools: Innovation and the Spiral of Inquiry (2014).


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