The professional learning leadership of school mathematics leaders after participation in a large-scale primary school mathematics improvement project : An activity theory perspective

PhD Thesis


Sexton, Matthew (Matt). (2023). The professional learning leadership of school mathematics leaders after participation in a large-scale primary school mathematics improvement project : An activity theory perspective [PhD Thesis]. Australian Catholic University https://doi.org/10.26199/acu.8z10q
AuthorsSexton, Matthew (Matt)
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy
Abstract

This thesis examines how mathematics leaders, working as middle leaders in three separate primary schools in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to project sustainability in the years that followed participation in a large-scale school mathematics professional development project. Informed by a cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) perspective, the thesis presents how those mathematics leaders contributed to the sustainability of project-initiated reforms through their post-project professional learning leadership activity.

Project sustainability is a complex issue in school settings, often proving to be challenging activity for practitioners and researchers alike. One important element of enduring school improvement requires a focus on sustaining change, yet that proves to be the significant challenge. A reason for that challenge is the lack of knowledge, derived from research studies, that examines the sustainability of projects beyond the time of participation in them. Another added layer of complexity is that middle leadership, like that enacted by the mathematics leaders, remains an under-researched area of educational leadership. Even fewer studies have drawn attention to how mathematics leaders contribute to project sustainability.

This thesis asked how the mathematics leaders contributed to project sustainability as middle leaders of professional learning in their school sites. Acknowledging that middle leadership has been theorised as a form of practice, CHAT was used as the approach to understand the collective facets of the mathematics leaders’ activity. A focus was taken on how their object-oriented activity developed and transformed over time. CHAT concepts associated with the activity system were used as analytical tools to understand how the mathematics leaders’ professional learning leadership activity progressed in response to contradictions that surfaced within their activity.

Drawing on the work of CHAT researchers, a research process was specifically designed as a series of actions intended to realise the objective of the thesis. Those actions included conducting CHAT workshops with the mathematics leaders, clarifying the historicity of their activity system, producing and reporting findings of the historical activity system as a member-checking strategy, conducting a detailed inquiry into post-project activity system, and producing and reporting findings of the post-project activity system for member-checking.

As a means of generating data to respond to the research question, the data methods of interviews, observations, and document retrieval were employed. Data were analysed using deductive and inductive analysis. Concepts from the CHAT and literature were used to create coding schemes to support those data analysis approaches.

The findings of this thesis are presented through three discussion chapters that offer a temporal sequence of activity experienced by the mathematics leaders from the time of their leadership activity during project participation to the years following participation. The first of the findings chapters discusses the historical trajectory of the mathematics leaders’ professional learning leadership, beginning with the descriptions of the historically accumulated contradiction that gave rise to the decision for the mathematics leaders' schools to participate in the project. There is an explanatory focus on the motive objects of activity pursued by the mathematics leaders during project participation. The claim is presented that the mathematics leaders shifted the direction of their leadership from managerial motive objects to ones that focused more on leadership as project participation progressed.

The next chapter discusses findings that reveal that at completion of project participation, the mathematics leaders were relieved that their principals established commitment rules intended to mediate project sustainability. The historical contradiction, which had faded in prominence during the project, resurfaced and manifested as a critical conflict realised as several problems of practice. That gave rise to several post-project problems of practice that realised struggle for the mathematics leaders. That struggle was compounded by feelings of responsibility for project sustainability in their schools. The claim is made that mathematics leaders responded to their struggle and feelings of responsibility through care and creativity which initiated enactment of their form of resourceful practice.

The final discussion chapter presents further evidence that the mathematics leaders enacted their resourceful practice that became their contribution to project sustainability. Through their attempts to resolve the post-project practice problems, the mathematics leaders reconfigured the motive objects of their activity, seeing them privilege relational trust building for and about mathematics teaching. Through that motive object reconfiguration, the mathematics leaders’ activity was multi-motivational activity and realised through new leadership actions. Evidence of a newly surfaced contradiction is reported, and its existence is explained. The claim is presented that that contradiction surfaced due to the relational motive object that the mathematics leaders privileged, revealing the enabling yet constraining potential of the relational dimension of their professional learning leadership activity.

This thesis contributes to knowledge about project sustainability, claiming that as middle leaders in their schools enacting their resourceful practice, the mathematics leaders acted as agents of project sustainability. The findings add further information of mathematics leaders as middle leaders who play a crucial role within the school leadership factor of project sustainability. The implication of the thesis is that professional development designers and facilitators must attend to the factors of project sustainability and pay attention to the vitality of relationality that penetrates the motive objects of activity enacted by mathematics leaders through their professional learning leadership.

Keywordsmathematics leadership; middle leadership; teacher professional learning; project sustainability ; cultural-historical activity theory; mathematics professional development ; primary schools
Year2023
PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.26199/acu.8z10q
Page range1-413
Final version
License
File Access Level
Open
Supplementary Files (Layperson Summary)
File Access Level
Controlled
Output statusPublished
Publication dates
Online26 May 2023
Publication process dates
Completed2023
Deposited26 May 2023
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Sexton, Matt and Lamb, Janeen. (2023). Evidencing relational trust within mathematics leadership activity. 45th annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia. University of Newcastle, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia 02 - 06 Jul 2023 Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (MERGA). pp. 459-466
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Object-motives of mathematics leaders’ professional learning leadership during participation in a mathematics project
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School mathematics leaders' perceptions of successes and challenges of their leadership role within a Mathematics Improvement Project
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Using concept cartoons to access student beliefs about preferred approaches to mathematics learning and teaching
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