A Conceptual and Methodological Framework of Arts-based Approach for Investigating Distributed Leadership

Meng Tian

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter in a published conference proceeding


This study aims to make an original contribution to knowledge by formulating a conceptual and methodological framework of using arts-based collage as a method for investigating distributed leadership. This framework is planned to test and develop through empirical research in the future. Studies have shown that by engaging teachers in the school leadership process, more leadership resources are created, and more opportunities are provided for teachers to exercise their agency (Tian, 2016; Tian et al., 2016). Replacing traditional heroic leadership, distributed leadership is regarded as a more effective leadership approach for 21st century schools (Harris, 2008; Spillane & Healey, 2010; Woods & Roberts 2018). However, distributed leadership does not take place automatically (Harris, 2013). It requires school leaders to purposefully design a supportive organisational structure and to nurture a democratic culture (Murphy et al., 2009). More importantly, to avoid distributed leadership being misused to overload teachers with miscellaneous administrative burdens, school leaders and teachers should be equipped with knowledge and tools to openly discuss and analyse the dynamics of leadership work (Gunter et al., 2013; Woods, 2004; Woods & Roberts, 2016). Research also shows that power differences and variations in status impact upon the practice of distributed leadership. These require greater attention in research so that a more critical understanding of distributed leadership is developed (Lumby 2013; Woods and Roberts 2018). Recent work in the field formulates a framework for studying the multiple authorities distributed across teachers in schools and highlights the processes of authorisation and status attribution that occur in leadership distribution (Woods, 2016; in press). Investigation of how these processes are perceived and exercised by teachers would add significantly to the understanding of distributed leadership. Drawing upon an extensive literature review and earlier experimental studies of using collage making to explore distributed leadership in the U.K., Finland and China, this study answered the question: How to theorise a conceptual and methodological framework of collage creation as a method for investigating distributed leadership? The theorisation work of the framework was drawn through concepts of physicality (the value of moving artefacts and materials to create images); wholeness (the ability of an image to allow a picture of the phenomenon to be seen, at the same time as allowing connections to be identified that might be hidden in a linear account); and participant agency (the fact that the collage creator is the designer and expert in the meaning of the image, which they explain the meaning of, and is in control of what they want to explore on the topic being researched). Methodology or Methods/ Research Instruments or Sources Used The arts-based method is relatively a new approach in educational leadership research. More desk-work is needed to further theorise this method. Thus, a literature review was undertaken which examined the rationale, ontology, epistemology and results of the collage method and published accounts of its use in educational leadership research. This study also drew upon the authors’ experience and reflections from three pioneering studies. These pioneering studies examined distributed leadership with the arts-based method of collage creation by research participants the U.K., Finland and China (Tian, 2017; Woods & Roberts 2016; Woods et al., 2016). Collage here comprises the use of objects which are placed by the participant on a surface as they explore the question they have been asked to consider. The authors shared and compared the field notes, collage images, interview transcriptions to reflect on how the selected collage materials facilitated research participants’ thinking process and what can be done differently of using collage creation as a method. Synthesising the results of this review with several pioneering studies conducted by the authors, a conceptual and methodological framework for further research into distributed leadership was formulated. This framework theorises the themes and processes of collage creation (such as physicality, wholeness and participant agency) that appear to facilitate its ability to offer the participant a tool through which to illuminate tacit knowledge, unspoken assumptions, and experiences that are challenging and often unshared in professional practice and will set out key steps in conducting the method. Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings Researching school leaders’ and teachers’ perceptions of relationships and matters of power, authority and status in leadership distribution is a challenging process. It raises issues that evoke emotional responses and experiences that may be sensitive. This study confirms that arts-based methods have a capacity to illuminate and enable exploration of hidden meanings, tacit knowledge and individual experience that are difficult to express in words (Black, 2002; Leitch, 2006; Loads, 2009; Marshall, 2007; Spouse, 2000; Vaughan, 2005). They offer much potential in the critical investigation of school-based distributed leadership practices and the tacit knowledge that is generated through practice (Eraut 2000). Using art materials as the mediators, they provide an alternative platform for research participants to engage in the discussion of sensitive topics, such as the tensions, conflicts and struggles at work (Barone & Eisner, 2012). Compared to the traditional ways of using surveys or interviews for school leadership development and research, the arts-based method creates a new platform for researchers, school leaders, and teachers to present, discuss, reflect, and design school-based distributed leadership practices with the help of visual aids. The intention is that the framework finally emerging from the study will be a contribution to the field of researching leadership distribution, of use to researchers and to those developing distributed leadership in schools and elsewhere. The empirical phase will test the framework but at the point the paper is written will not be ready to report and subject of a later paper. References Black, A. (2002) Making sense of what it means to teach. Teacher Development, 6(1), 75-88. Eraut, M (2000) Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work British Journal of Educational Psychology 70 113-136. Gunter, H., Hall, D., & Bragg, J. (2013). Distributed Leadership: A Study in Knowledge Production. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 41(5), 555–580. Harris, A. (2008) Distributed leadership: according to the evidence, Journal of Educational Administration, 46 (2), 172-188, Leitch, R. (2006) Limitations of language. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12(5), 549-569. Loads, D. (2009) Putting ourselves in the picture. International Journal for Academic Development, 14(1), 59-67. Lumby J (2013) Distributed leadership: The uses and abuses of power. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 41(5): 581–597. Marshall, J. (2007). Image as insight: Visual images in practice-based research. Studies in Art Education, 49(1), 23–41. Murphy, J, Mayrowetz, D, Smylie, M. (2009) The role of the principal in fostering the development of distributed leadership. School Leadership & Management 29(2): 181–214. Spillane, J. P., & Healey, K. (2010). Conceptualizing school leadership and management from a distributed perspective. The Elementary School Journal, 111(2). Spouse, J. (2000) Talking pictures. Nursing Times Research, 5(4), 253-261. Tian, M. (2017). Visualizing Distributed Leadership with a Novel Arts-based Method. Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Copenhagen. Vaughan, K. (2005). Pieced together: Collage as an artist’s method for interdisciplinary research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 4(1), 27–52. Woods, P. A. (2004). Democratic leadership: drawing distinctions with distributed leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 7(1), 3–26. Woods, P.A. (2016) Authority, power and distributed leadership, Management in Education, 30(4): 155–160. Woods, P. A, (in press) School Organisation: Authority, status and love as an integrative power, in M. Connolly, D. H. Eddy Spicer, C. James & S. Kruse (eds), The International Handbook on School Organization, London: SAGE. Woods, P. A. (2016). Authority, power and distributed leadership. Management in Education, 30(4), 155–160. Woods, P. A., & Roberts, A. (2016). Distributed leadership and social justice: images and meanings from across the school landscape. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 19(2), 138–156. Woods, P.A., Roberts, A. and Chivers, L. (2016) Collaborative Teacher Learning: Cases from the HertsCam Network. Hatfield, Hertfordshire: Centre for Educational Leadership, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire. Woods, P. A. and Roberts, A. (2018) Collaborative School Leadership: A critical review, London: SAGE. Keywords: Distributed leadership, arts-based method, conceptual and methodological framework
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEuropean Conference on Educational Research (ECER)
Place of PublicationBolzano
Publication statusPublished - 6 Sept 2018


Dive into the research topics of 'A Conceptual and Methodological Framework of Arts-based Approach for Investigating Distributed Leadership'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this