An Interview with Michael C. Johanek, Editor of Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance.

Oct 27, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Michael C. Johanek

Johanek is senior fellow at Penn GSE and directs their Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership. In this interview, he responds to questions about educational leadership in these turbulent times.

     1. What is the hardest part about taking an inquiry stance?

For some, it’s actually a relief; it means taking seriously and collectively the complexity everyone actually lives in, dispelling with the “quick fix” fads so often hawked.  But it does challenge leaders to get past the expectations that the leader should have all the answers, and that leadership means always reacting quickly.  Our chapter authors describe this well.  It means setting out a path of decisiveness that is not rash, that honors both evidence and thoughtful sense-making by colleagues. Managing disparate views,and views perhaps not previously voiced, requires a leader’s active listening and direction-sensing – and a healthy dose of emotional intelligence.  It puts the questions of the work centrally on the table, and requires a confident transparency and willingness at times to engage awkward questions for the organization. It can be quite liberating, in the end, but does also force leaders past the false lure of security in top-down or instrumental, technical decision-making.

      2. When inquiring, is one looking for change or more of an explanation? Are those inquiries qualitative or quantitative in nature?

In a sense, neither and both.  Bottom line? One is looking to make sense of daily interactions and practice, toward enhancing those experiences, per the mission of the organization.  Often specific issues or questions generate a focus of our inquiry, a collective concern, as the book chapters attest.

What are we doing now as a community to support our students’ growth?  Why do we seem to serve some students well and less so, others?  From a point, a deep understanding, how do we build on what we’ve created, enrich it, expand access more fairly across our community, grow the perspectives that inform it, etc.?  

As a leader, how do I help this community by leading it with our eyes wide open both to our successes and to our shortcomings?  How do we bring in the wealth of experiences and perspectives across the community’s full expanse, from students and faculty to staff and parents and other community members?  A truly rich inquiry will most often involve both qualitative and quantitative aspects, shifting in mix as the questions emerge, evolve, and extend.

     3. Does having a lot of people subscribe to an inquiry stance muddy the waters for leadership responsibilities? We ask because if people all investigated into issues they all will come up with different answers because people question things differently. Thus, everyone getting different answers and thinking theirs is the one to follow, might create leadership/power struggles.

Muddy, no; extend, yes.  Developing a culture of inquiry involves cultivating a shared respect for the mix of perspectives, for the access to fresh evidence and wider experience that such a mix represents, and for the shared responsibilities of leadership across an organization.  By centering upon a shared sense-making, we privilege each person’s role in contributing to community life.  Yet leadership must still shepherd this work, keep it on the table in front of the community, maintain respect for evidence and experience, and insure full engagement across stakeholders — especially those who may not have been engaged fully in the past. 

We’re not talking about a rudderless ship nor an endless set of small boats floating in separate directions.  Leading from an inquiry stance deepens the breadth and meaning of leadership in an organization, including but not restricted to those with titles, but still requires marshalling the collective leadership toward generative sense-making.  We generally don’t find rambling discussions enjoyable nor productive. 

Similarly, we look for leaders to engage the community fully and broadly in inquiry, and also insist they guide the inquiry into deeper and more productive directions for the school.

     4. When talking about third space, do you feel it can help diversify homogenous hang out groups? Did more people from different cultures or ethnicities hang out with each other? Or are we still trying to search for an inclusive third space?

The third space used in one of the chapters refers to the reality of spaces between and across the dominant and non-dominant cultures/languages.  We may think in stark categories, but real lives mix that up constantly.  Leading from an inquiry stance asks us to see the lived spaces, beyond the constructs we may have in our mind.  The existence of those spaces should remind us of the fluid boundaries and dynamic interactions that shape the real lives in our community. 

We all exist in a variety of spaces, dominant and non-dominant, and part of what leading from an inquiry stance posits is the need to plumb those experiences so that we’re making sense of actual lives and not some set of pre-set categories.  We may think of Hispanic versus Anglo cultures, for example, while the children of immigrants spend large chunks of their days in a space that integrates those in a new “third” reality.  Leading from an inquiry stance seeks to surface this complexity, in part by broadening whose experiences are included, and yes, to then generate a shared space of collectively-engaged inquiry. 

That inquiry space becomes the plaza in which we meet each other in; indeed, it’s where we can learn about and shape our democratic plaza. We need to attend to that plaza rather desperately these days.

     5. Does the inquiry stance only pertain to teachers and people in education?

No, certainly not in principle; leading an engaged,collective, respectful inquiry into one’s practices as a community promises a generative experience for any organization. However, the fact that education integrates a particularly complex mix of private, public and positional goods does make inquiry a particularly compatible fit.  We bring the complexity of ourselves as a people for starters and then toss into the mix the messy array of deep personal ambitions and contested collective goals that we have for the enterprise.  Well-facilitated collective inquiry leadership leverages it, rather than pretend it’s otherwise.

      6. How much do evaluations go into inquiry stances?

Well, there are a variety of evaluations taking place inschools, so I’m not exactly sure of the question.  Part of sense-making is constantly evaluatingevidence of what we know, what we think it means, how it might inform our nextsteps in enhancing what we do.  Using empirical evidence is part of what inquiry is about. In that sense, it’s a far more integrated and comprehensive notion of “evaluation” than what might be anexternally-imposed formulaic approach.

     7. Do you always have to investigate negative aspects of the way an institution seems to be running? Your book gives an example of “What is special about our special education program?” which kind of has negative implications or positive depending on the outcome.

There’s certainly no reason it has to be negative, and indeed much of what one will uncover will speak to the assets, strengths and celebrations of a community.  Several chapter authors describe such instances. The idea is to see more, and from the varied eyes in the community.  That should absolutely include the positive. 

     8. How does the inquiry stance work for people who believe in “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it?”

Well, if what they mean is “let’s affirm what’s working,”then well-facilitated inquiry will do this. Unless we think we’ve reached nirvana, though, our ambitions for our students and ourselves will likely exceed where we’ve gotten as a community.  So, can you envision a more effective, richer, or exciting set of outcomes than what you are experiencing?  Maybe not, but most often, yes.

     9. Does third space encompass not only as a place to speak amongst peers but for people of similar backgrounds to converse with? We ask because your book talks about a third space for faculty and staff as well as the students of different ethnicities and cultures.

As I mention above, part of leading from inquiry means borrowing lenses from varied fields, like language acquisition, that may help us see more of what’s happening in our communities/schools.  So, yes, we all gather in both formal and informal spaces – the famed water cooler encounters or after-work gatherings – and those spaces don’t stay constant.  The peers that gather may or may not share the same backgrounds, yes, but also perhaps a shared need, or a shared aspiration.

If we recognize that, then leadership is well-served to understand those fluid aspects of the community, as appropriate, and especially as shared from collective engagement. Again, it’s about seeing more clearly who we are, how we live in our organization, what we share, what we hope to accomplish.  We can then move forward solutions that align to our reality, not some imagined or pre-ordained vision of ourselves nor some context-free application of the latest reform programming.

    10. How can teachers and principals cope with increasing expectations and complexity in their work?

Many leaders, frankly, have found that this sort of leadership, from an inquiry stance, addresses that.  It looks the complexity squarely in the face,and recruits the community into making sense of it, toward deepening what we can accomplish together. 

     11. Schools and school systems have to be able to continuously learn, change and improve while all the while keeping up with the latest technology and changing legislation. When will teachers find time to do these things?

We certainly seem to toss everything on our schools, including those aspects of social policy we may be avoiding dealing with in other, more direct ways.  Leaders still play an inglorious but necessary role simply in protecting the time of their colleagues for the core instructional work, and against the external pressures that distract daily. 

Inquiry doesn’t make that go away.  Rather, it argues for protecting those locally-crafted internal routines that support good, efficient use of the range of knowledge/experience around the building. That’s the key facilitation of leadership in maintaining an inquiry stance.  We also don’t have to all try to keep up with everything; we begin to depend on each other’s vantage points, and get in the habit of holding each other accountable for contributing.  That saves us all time, actually.  Though, the capacity of wider systems todistract is not to be underestimated, by any means.

     12. Are we going to need to lengthen the school day or year?

No. We just need to be more strategic with the use oftime that we spend together, sustaining inquiries as regular routines overtime, supplanting administrivia sessions and building sense-making capacity internally.

     13. What have we neglected to ask?

Each of the leaders in this book attest to the many ways in which inquiry leadership stretches individuals personally as well as professionally.  Courage is not an inappropriate term here.  Leaders don’t park emotions, trepidations, enthusiasms, biases, etc. at the door.  Being open-ended in an inquiry stance allows for my own role as a leader – and maybe some things about me personally as a leader – to be included in the mix, just like everyone else’s.  It can challenge your sense of self, and a leader must be able to exist in that state of discomfort for a time. These can be tough, if powerful, rewarding, growth opportunities for a leader.

If I view myself narrowly as an implementer of programs or manager of resources, I can pretend to separate myself from the work.  Reality of course is different, and inquiry offers that more clear-eyed view into our work, including where/how I fit in,and how I may need to change so as to better serve this community.

     14. Do you have a website? Where can our readers find more information about your book?

Yes. Please visit for more information on the book.  We invite you to join us in this work, in the wider conversation, and in any of our upcoming events.

About Michael C. Johanek:

Michael C. Johanek is a Senior Fellow at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), University of Pennsylvania, where he is also Director of the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership; Co-Director of the Inter-American Educational Leadership Network; founding Director of the Penn Educational Leadership Simulations (PELS) Program; and affiliated faculty for the International Educational Development Program, and Education, Culture and Society Division. He teaches as Profesor Invitado Internacional at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Before coming to Penn, he served as Vice President of Professional Services for Teachscape, a for-profit blended technology services company, where he managed all service engagements nationally. He is the former Executive Director for K-12 Professional Development, The College Board, where he managed programs supporting over 500,000 middle and high school teachers, college faculty, coordinators, and administrators, including those involved in the Advanced Placement Program. He founded, developed, and managed a program development and operations department with responsibilities including new product development, in-person training, web services, electronic and print publications, regional office operational support, marketing and research. A former high school teacher in Cleveland, New York, and Lima, Peru, he taught in and managed the Fellows in Teaching Program and Urban Fellow Program at Teachers College, Columbia University prior to joining the College Board.

Dr. Johanek currently serves on the board of The Loyola School (NYC), and on the Advisory Group for the Inter-American Teacher Education Network (AGITEN), Organization of American States; he previously served on the Advisory Council of the Penn Center for Educational Leadership and on the board of Research for Action, a non-profit organization engaged in education research and evaluation. He has previously served on the U.S. Department of Education’s Working Group for Postsecondary Linkage Efforts to Improve College Readiness, on the independent Annenberg Commision on Public Schools for their Institutions of Democracy Project, and as a reviewer for the DOE’s 2010 and 2012 Race to the Top competitions.

Dr. Johanek has also served as co-PI and advisor in several National Science Foundation-funded professional development research projects. He has also recently served as a peer reviewer for AERA, UCEA, Educational Researcher, Theory and Research in Education, Journal of School Leadership, the History of Education Society, and the Fondo de Investigaciones Educativas (PREAL).

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