The Principal and the Digital School


Leader or Dead Hand?

Mal Lee

Australia has principals on par with the best in the world, showing the way internationally on what is required to lead a successful, ever-evolving digital school.

Sadly Australia also has too many ‘dead hand’ principals seemingly content to maintain the status quo, operating in an Industrial Age mindset, lacking the desire or possibly even the wherewithal to create and lead a digital school.  The ‘dead hand’ they are laying upon their school’s evolution is admittedly not helped by bureaucrats preoccupation with micro-managing the everyday workings of the schools.

In recent months Australia’s Prime Minister has expressed the desire for Australia’s schools to be ranked within the top five internationally.

Bureaucratic micro management of school principals will most assuredly never bring about that lofty global standing. As Britain’s peak business council in its November 2012 report on UK schooling noted in its criticism of the UK’s micro management

At the moment, inspirational headteachers still tend to be mavericks – rebelling against the system to do what is best – rather than the norm (CBI, 2012, 46).

All school principals have to have the same lofty educational expectations as those pathfinders, be given the same kind of professional freedom as the mavericks have ‘taken’, be expected to perform at the international level, be given the apposite support and to openly account and be held responsible for their performance if Australia is realistically to compete internationally.

It is time society and governments recognised it is the principal who determines the international standing of the school, not some external bureaucratic process.

The Principal’s Leadership

Without an astute principal with the wherewithal to lead a digital school the school is destined to stay in its present mode, tinkering with the technology falling ever further behind and failing to meet the parents’, students’ and indeed societies ever-rising expectations (Lee, 2012).

If Australia is to successfully educate its young for the C21 and a digital and networked world and compete internationally with ever strongly and more focussed opposition it must appoint principals who can lead schools apposite for that world, able to compete with the world’s best.

It needs leaders and most assuredly not acquiescent managers.

What hit home in recent interviews with pathfinding schools internationally were the principals’ awareness of the leadership role they were playing in a global ‘competition’.

It is a competitive awareness rarely expressed by Australian principals or indeed sought by Australia’s political leaders.

Australia is very happy to set those expectations of its athletes and to laud the achievements of its team captains. The same kind of expectation needs to be set of the school’s ‘captain’ – its principal – for even more than team sport within the digital and networked mode that position determines the school’s on-going evolution and success.

As ever more schools go digital and experience the fundamental organisational transformation that comes, as industry found 15-20 years ago (Thorp, 1998), with the normalised use of the digital Australia must have principals who can successfully lead rapidly evolving, ever more tightly integrated, ever more complex organisations.

It is vital all appreciate the growing complexity and the ever-changing nature of schooling as it moves from an era of constancy to a period of on-going organisational transformation and rapid evolution.

Digital convergence naturally promotes ever closer integration of operations in and outside the organisation, tightens the interrelatedness of all the parts and opens the way for genuine synergy but at the same time positions the organisation’s CEO – the school’s principal – as the only person who can ultimately decide how all the myriad of parts can best be fused and directed to the on-going realisation of the school’s educational vision.

It requires a special kind of person not only to understand the interconnectedness of the parts in a networked organisation but also to ensure in a time of rapid, invariably spasmodic change all the variables, in and outside the organisation impacting on the school’s performance are constantly attuned to providing the desired education.

The more we research schools working within the networked mode the more we recognise the critical importance of and central role played by the principal, and the impact of his/her appointment and performance on the on-going success of the school.

The importance of the principal in a traditional paper-based school was, as the research attests, considerable.

Our research is suggesting that importance markedly escalates once a school goes digital and in particular networked.

The importance is as great, if not more so, as that of the CEO of a modern corporation.

Like a CEO principals alone can’t ensure the organisation’s success.

Principals alone can however most assuredly stultify a school’s development by laying on the ‘dead hand’.

Newly appointed principals can most definitely destroy years of hard developmental effort by the school and its community.

The research undertaken with colleagues over the last five years (Lee and Gaffney, 2008, Lee and Winzenried, 2009, Lee and Finger, 2010, Lee and Levins, 2012, Lee and Ward, 2013) affirms success in the digital and networked mode is always dependent on the leadership of astute principals. Whether it is

  • adopting an apposite shaping educational vision
  • the choice of the desired staff
  • the empowerment of all staff
  • cultivating a culture that accepts change as a natural part of the developmental process
  • ensuring a tight nexus between the educational vision and the use of the technology
  • providing all staff the requisite digital tools
  • expecting all teachers to normalise the use of the digital in their teaching
  • ensuring every teaching room has the requisite connectivity and technology
  • genuinely collaborating with the parents in the teaching of the young
  • the dismantling of internal and external school walls
  • pooling the resources of the school and its homes
  • the move to BYOT
  • the measurement and optimization of the benefits to be realised

ultimately it is the principal who determines the success or otherwise of those moves.

One can add many more.

Many of the principals whose work we examined, working as they are so often in unchartered territory, openly admitted to making wrong calls and needing to take an alternative route but all understood that after the listening they alone had to make the final decision.

Digital Acumen

In our research over the last five years all the principals leading successful schools operating in the digital or networked mode demonstrated a high level of digital acumen.

On first glance that might seem blindingly obvious.

If today I were in my old position as a director of schools or chair of the principal selection panel I’d not appoint a principal unless she/he had demonstrated that acumen.

Again that would appear to be obvious but in Australia today that is still not readily evident in the literature or the policies of the national or state governments.

In 2008 Professor Michael Gaffney and I writing in Leading a Digital School (Lee and Gaffney, 2008) stressed that although principals did not have to be an expert they did need a macro working understanding of the digital technology with which they would be working.  The digital in all its forms is core to all facets of the school’s operations and as the school’s chief educational architect they have to know how it should be used astutely.

Principals who delegate the technology to a middle manager are abrogating their role as the school’s chief educational architect and any hope the school has of going digital.

As the school’s ultimate decision maker the principal requires a level of digital acumen to see through ever more sophisticated technology sales pitches, keep ‘under control’ enthusiastic staff and technology specialists, ensure the apposite technology only is acquired, waste is avoided and the technology deployment is tightly linked to realising the desired educational benefits.

In the years since that imperative has become ever greater, and importantly will continue to do so as the digital moves from the periphery to being core.

So too has the importance of the principal working with a networked mindset, a mindset that emerges out of the understanding acquired in the normalised whole school use of the digital and networked technology.  As Thorp identified in 1998 in those businesses that had gone digital and networked (Thorp, 1998) the CEOs had to abandon their Industrial Age thinking and bridge the then considerable lag between the capability of the technology and the thinking of the organisation’s leadership if the organisation was to use the ever more sophisticated technology astutely.

The same has to occur with all school principals.

Those lacking that mindset and associated digital acumen will almost inevitably curtail the school’s effective use of the technology or botch its use, in both cases impairing the school’s development and the education it provides.

So too do unwittingly do the Australian National Professional Standards Principals issued by AITSL in July 2011. While the Standards contain much that is laudable and should rightly be expected of all principals they express what Sergiovanni (1987) was expecting of principals 25 years ago.

The all-pervasive sense in those Standards is that schools and the role of the principal will largely remain the same as we have known.

The use of technology, let alone digital technology is not mentioned once, nor is the notion of schooling undergoing a fundamental organizational transformation or they requiring principals able to lead rapidly changing, ever evolving, ever more integrated and complex organizations.

If Australia’s governments and education employers regard those as the standards that will enable Australia’s principals to compete internationally the Australia is already well behind the competitors.

One of the great shortcomings of the Standards is that the methodology used to identify them ensures they are an expression of the current expectations of those at the middle of the bell curve, most of whom are still leading paper based schools.

They don’t express in any way the requirements of the global pathfinders.

In contrast our research focuses on their cutting edge work and experience and uses that analysis as a guide for others following.

Principal’s Selection Criteria

If you want to appoint a principal with the wherewithal to lead an ever-evolving digital school able to compete with the best internationally you must plan the appointment as meticulously as any high stakes education initiative.

The appointment can’t be left to chance or the dumping of a compulsory transferee.

The selection criteria must express the expectations of the school, and specify the digital acumen and high-level awareness of and skill in leading highly complex, ever-evolving, tightly integrated and complex organisations required.


The emerging reality is that the quality of the principal will determine the success of all the school’s offerings and the students’ attainment such is the importance of the principal in a digital school.

If Australia genuinely wants to continually enhance the nature and standard of its schooling and move to the fore internationally it is imperative it advocate the appointment at schools small and large of principals who can successfully lead ever-evolving digital schools operating increasingly in the networked mode.

What does one do with the current ‘dead hand’ lot?


CBI (2012) First Steps: A new approach for our schools November 2012

Lee, M (2012) ‘Sustained Evolution or Increasing Stagnation?’ The Australian Educational Leader Vol 4, 2012

Lee, M and Gaffney, M (eds) (2008) Leading a Digital School Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Winzenried, A (2009) The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community Melbourne ACER Press

Lee M and Levins, M (2012) Bring Your Own Technology Melbourne ACER Press

Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: Transcending the schools walls Melbourne ACER Press

Sergiovanni. T (1987) The Principalship, Boston  Allyn and Bacon

Thorp, J (1998) The Information Paradox Toronto McGraw-Hill

About Mal Lee

Mal Lee is an educational consultant and author specializing in the evolution of teaching and schooling from the traditional paper based mode to one that is digital, and in turn networked, and the impact of the technology on that evolution. Mal’s is a macro focus examining all the elements associated with the development, leadership and operation of schools operating within a digital, and increasingly as networked school communities. Most importantly his is a positive approach that envisions how educators and school communities might best use the ever-evolving, ever more pervasive technology in the home, on the move and in the classroom to provide an ever better schooling for the full range of students. Mal is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and a member of the Mayer Committee that identified the Key Competencies for Australia’s schools. A Fellow of the Australian Council for Educational Administration (FACEA) Mal has been closely associated with the use of digital technology in schooling, particularly by the school leadership for the last two decades. A historian by training Mal has written extensively, particularly in the Practising Administrator, the Australian Educational Leaders and Access, Educational Technology Guide on the astute use of technology in the development of schoolings. Mal has released four publications with ACER Press. In 2008 Mal and Professor Michael Gaffney edited and had published Leading a Digital School. In 2009 he co-authored with Dr Arthur Winzenried The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools – Lessons to be Learned, and with Chris Betcher, The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution – Teaching with IWBs. In 2010 Mal joined with Associate Professor Glenn Finger (Griffith University) in the writing of his most significant work yet for ACER Press on Developing Networked School Communities: a guide to realizing the vision – on the next phase of schooling. Copies of the books can be obtained from the ACER Press website at -
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