The leadership practices of school principals in respect of creating “physical spaces” to establish healthy learning environments in their schools

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This article concentrates on how two principals have utilised their leadership and spatial practices in order to establish productive learning environments at their schools. The research for this article took place as a result of our concern over the quality of education and the drop in learner achievement in South African schools. The focus of the research was on investigating the relationship between the leadership practices of the principals and the establishment of healthy learning environments at their schools. Our research privileged the principals’ work in respect of their utilisation of physical space in order to establish optimal learning environments at their schools. We argue that the schools’ architecture, gardens, furniture, lay-out, classroom semiotics, use of colour and various uses of physical space play an important role in enhancing the quality of human relationships in these environments. We view a school’s physical space as any natural space that is perceived via one’s senses, and which can influence one’s movement, thoughts and behaviour. The utilisation of space is therefore deemed as crucial in establishing conducive educational milieus.

This article is a response to the apparent lack of capacity and skills among principals to work productively with the extant physical spaces in their schools. We challenge this limited view about principals by discussing how two of them have gone about creating physical space in their primary schools. The geographical contexts of the two schools are vastly different: one is in an affluent rural location, while the other is in an impoverished urban context. Their class and cultural contexts are also different: the school in the rural location is attended mostly by Christian middle-class white learners and some non-white learners, while the urban school has working-class and lower middle-class Muslim learners. Both schools are regarded as high-performing schools in their respective districts. The conceptual focus of the research concentrated on how the two school principals went about turning their schools into inviting and inspiring educational spaces and how the physical spaces that they established have influenced the thoughts, behaviour, motivation and creativity of the learners and teachers at their schools.

We base our analysis of the spatial practices of the two principals on the work of the renowned French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, whose spatial theories, especially his notion of a spatial triad, provide a theoretical framework and an interpretive lens to understand the two principals’ leadership practices in their establishment of productive educational spaces at their schools. According to Lefebvre, space is constituted by three dimensions, namely perceived, conceived and lived space. He argues that it is out of the integration and interwovenness of these three dimensions that “lived space” is generated. Each of the three spatial dimensions is important to understanding how space is created. He points out that through his work he “does not aim to produce a (or the) discourse on space, but rather to expose the actual production of space by bringing together various kinds of space, and the modalities of their genesis together within a single theory” (1991:61). Although Lefebvre sees these three dimensions of space as part of a totality, we concentrate in this article on the physical dimension of space in the creation of productive learning environments. We acknowledge the importance of the other two dimensions of space in the article, but have chosen to foreground physical space in this discussion. Concentrating on physical space is motivated by our aim to present the reader with an understanding of how physical space, as the generative platform for ensuing spatial practices, is constituted. Articles that we intend writing later will focus on the mental (conceived space) and social (lived space) dimensions of space respectively.

The material for this article was drawn from a comprehensive qualitative research project on space and school leadership in the Western Cape (see Burger 2017; Fataar 2007). Based on the interpretive paradigm, we have positioned our research in relation to discourses about school leadership and spatial practices which are aimed at improving teaching or classroom practices through the creation of alternative and enhanced new physical learning environments. We have placed the emphasis on a holistic view of how the two principals constructed their spatial practices intuitively and instinctively in their specific contexts, which resulted in new and innovative learning spaces or learning environments (Silverman 2000).

The purpose of our research was to understand the practices and experiences of the two principals, coupled with the support and cooperation of the schools’ SMTs, SGBs, learners and parents with regard to the establishment of healthy learning environments at the schools. The research was based on semi-structured interviews with each principal, focus group meetings with selected school constituents, and in-depth observations at each school. By giving the principals the opportunity to tell us how they productively utilised the physical space at their school, we were able to gain an incisive understanding of their perceptions, definitions, meanings and approaches associated with their leadership approaches in relation to space-making.

The main research finding is that although each of the principals used a variety of leadership styles, their biographies and how they implemented their leadership styles, play a crucial role in the creation of healthy learning environments in their schools. We found that these principals are instinctive or intuitive spatial practitioners. They possess an extraordinary ability to visualise and articulate the emergence of inspirational and creative learning spaces and, with the support of others, turn their schools into accomplished learning environments. Their ability to promote professional interaction among their staff leads to increased collegial cooperation and support and the achievement of their schools' goals.

The other important finding is that the two principals work creatively to transform physical spaces at their schools into new spaces which have the potential to stimulate their learners' imagination and thinking. An outflow of their productive spatial practices is an environment that is sensitive to the emotional and social needs of their learners and teachers. Overall, it can be said that an outcome of the selected principals’ spatial and leadership practices is the establishment of safe and healthy learning environments that have a positive impact on learner performance at their schools.

Keywords: classroom practices; leadership; leadership practices; learning environments; spatial practices; transformational leadership

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Skoolhoofde se leierskapspraktyke wat betrekking het op die skep van “fisiese ruimtes” om gesonde leeromgewings by hul skole te vestig

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