You are here

Developing leadership through blended action learning

Kate Thornton

Meaningful leadership development opportunities are rare for those working in the New Zealand early childhood education sector. What difference can they make to leadership practice? This article describes the experiences of participants in a study that used a blend of ICT and face-to-face sessions to support leadership learning. For the participants, this approach resulted in an increased awareness of leadership and a greater confidence in leadership practice.

Developing leadership through blended action learning

Kate Thornton


Those in leadership positions in the New Zealand early childhood education sector have few opportunities to engage in leadership development programmes, particularly comprehensive long-term programmes that allow them to focus on strengthening their own leadership practices. They may also feel isolated in their leadership positions and have few opportunities to work collaboratively on issues or challenges arising from their work. The diversity of early childhood education services and the pace of change affecting them contribute to the sense of isolation experienced by leaders in the sector. This article reports on research conducted as part of a doctoral study that explored the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to support leadership development in the New Zealand early childhood education sector (Thornton, 2009). It will discuss the experiences of study participants and present a model that illustrates the leadership learning process.

The early childhood education context

The lack of support for leadership development in the early childhood sector has been noted both in New Zealand and overseas. A position paper published by the New Zealand Teachers Council in 2009 commented on the lack of support for leadership development, particularly in comparison to the school sector (Thornton, Wansbrough, Clarkin-Phillips, Aitken, & Tamati, 2009). Although there are some small-scale programmes available in different parts of the country, there is no co-ordinated approach to leadership development, and many of those in leadership positions have no opportunity to strengthen their leadership practices or to network with others in similar positions. This lack of support for leadership development is also an issue internationally and has been noted by authors from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. There is widespread agreement that those in leadership roles should be further supported through the provision of appropriate training and professional development opportunities (Bloom & Bella, 2005; Hard, 2004; Muijs, Aubrey, Harris, & Briggs, 2004; Rodd, 2006). There is, however, little published research on what effective leadership development programmes may look like or the effects they may have on leadership practice.

The use of ICT to support professional learning

The New Zealand Ministry of Education promotes the use of ICT to support professional learning in both schools and early childhood education settings (Ministry of Education, 2005, 2006). Online communities of practice are one way of supporting professional learning; however, blended communities of practice are seen as preferable to virtual communities because of the difficulties of building trust, sustaining participation and sharing practice in communities without any face-to-face interactions (Kimble & Hildreth, 2005; Kling & Courtright, 2003).

Another approach to professional learning that is less commonly used in the New Zealand education sector is action learning. Action learning involves working on issues or problems with the support of a group, and blended action learning involves both meeting face to face and interacting online. The six essential components of an effective action learning process identified by Marquardt (2004) are: an action learning group; a problem, challenge or issue; a questioning and reflective learning process; the ability of group members to act on the problem; a commitment to personal learning; and an action learning coach or facilitator. Action learning groups meet regularly and participants take turns to discuss the issue or problem they are working on. The other group members ask questions aimed at clarifying the nature of the problem and also practise reflective listening. Action learning is seen to be ideally suited to leadership development because it encourages the development of a number of leadership competencies, such as emotional intelligence—the ability to recognise feelings, to motivate and to manage emotions in oneself and others (Goleman, 1998)—and the ability to reflect, question and problem-solve (Marquardt, 2004). It has been successfully used in educational leadership development programmes in the United Kingdom (Paterson & West-Burnham, 2005), although not as a blended learning approach.

The research study

This article is based on a qualitative study into the use of blended action learning to support leadership development in the New Zealand early childhood education sector. This case study involved the establishment of two blended action learning groups. Each group was comprised of six leaders of early childhood education services in the Wellington region. The groups met initially for a full-day session where participants got to know each other, became familiar with the action learning process, considered recent literature and thinking on leadership, reflected on their own leadership journey and aspirations, and became familiar with the ICT tools. Online interactions using Moodle, an open-source software learning platform, began after the first meeting and included the keeping of online reflective journals, forum discussions initiated by participants and chat sessions. Resources were also posted on the site. The online interactions alternated with face-to-face follow-up sessions over the next five to six months for each group. Action learning occurred over this time both in the face-to-face sessions and in online action learning forums.

Data in this study were collected in the form of interviews, emails, online reflective journal entries, forum entries and chat sessions. The data were analysed in two main ways. The first phase of data analysis involved using the Community of Inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) as a framework. This model encompasses three interrelated aspects of the online learning process: cognitive presence; social presence; and teaching presence. Cognitive presence involves the construction of meaning through online discussion and reflection; social presence relates to the way individuals portray themselves online; and teaching presence refers to the design and facilitation of the learning experience. Following this phase of data analysis, individual leadership journeys were compiled and analysed. I developed the model of leadership learning through blended action learning presented later in this article (Figure 1) as a result of the integration of findings from these two stages of the data analysis process.

Leadership experiences

The leadership experiences of participants in this study will be presented in two ways. First, some general comments from participants on different aspects of their involvement will be considered, and second, the leadership journeys of several participants will be described. Pseudonyms have been used to preserve the anonymity of participants.

Leadership journeys

The leadership journeys of three of the 12 participants are presented below to give an idea of the leadership goals they chose and the changes they made in their leadership practice as a result of their participation.

Diana’s leadership journey—“Peace at all costs”

Diana was a very active member of the first action learning group. She used her reflective journal extensively and contributed to forum discussions and chat sessions. At the first whole-day meeting of the group, Diana identified that she was very much an affiliative leader who valued a harmonious work environment and endeavoured to build strong relationships within her teaching team. However, she realised that this leadership style did not fit all situations. Diana reflected in her first journal entry that the group process had been useful in helping her with this recognition:

The others helped me realise that a crucial element of this whole debate within myself was that I value very much what my staff think of me, and sometimes that hinders me being their leader.

Her reflections led her to the decision to try some different leadership approaches in situations she was coping with at work. In her first leadership goal she identified two staff situations in which she needed to use a different leadership style from the affiliative and supportive styles that she mainly used. The actions taken to address these situations included being firmer about performance expectations and addressing issues around team dynamics.

The online action learning forum process helped Diana realise that in order to feel more comfortable in dealing with conflict, she needed to change the way she reacted to conflict situations, and this became her second goal. She continued to work on addressing conflict situations that arose within her teaching team in various ways, including making conflict resolution the focus of a teacher-only day, asking for help from management and insisting that teachers sorted out their own conflicts rather than always bringing them to her. By the time of the final interview she felt she had made considerable progress towards meeting her goal:

We’ve certainly taken some steps, and I guess the most profound of those steps is that I’ve stopped running from conflict and I’ve started to stand, albeit shakily, and look at it in the face and say to myself and to the people involved: ‘We need to sort this out and we need to give it the time and energy it deserves.’ So that’s been a real struggle, a real challenge and a real growth.

Throughout her leadership journey, Diana became more aware of her own preferred leadership style and her natural inclination to avoid conflict at all costs. Although by the time of the final interview she admitted she still found dealing with conflict challenging, she was facing up to it and supporting her team to do the same. This confidence continued to grow and, nearly a year after the final interviews, Diana reported that she was dealing with conflict situations more rapidly and confidently (personal communication, 30 October 2008). The leadership action learning group process encouraged her to explore new ways of demonstrating leadership, and through this process she identified that she had become more confident in her leadership and more empowering of her teaching team.

Fiona’s leadership journey—“I used to do it all”

Fiona was one of the more active members of the first research group. She used the reflective journal regularly, and although she did not participate in many chat sessions because of a lack of easy access to a computer outside work hours, she was a valuable contributor to forum discussions. The goal Fiona identified at the first whole-day face-to-face meeting was that she wished to change the fact that she was solely responsible for the leadership and management of her service, a situation causing her stress. In her first leadership goal she expressed her intention of asking for help and taking it when offered. Fiona identified action steps that would help her reach her goal, including looking at her workload, sharing more responsibilities with other teachers and asking for administrative support. Among the changes she made was devising a system whereby other teachers could deal with enrolment enquiries rather than passing them on to her, a change that had benefits for both Fiona and her teachers. She was pleased with the fact that she had engaged in this problem-solving process: “I also felt good that I had identified a problem and then made a step to solve it and I do think it will make a real difference in my work, and in the confidence of the other teachers.”

The shifts in practice Fiona made as part of implementing her goal included delegating tasks, such as staff training, to another teacher. This caused Fiona to reflect, in both reflective journal entries and in chat sessions, on how she was working to empower the other teachers in her centre.

In the final interview Fiona commented that she was still learning about how to effectively encourage leadership in others:

I learnt that I still have quite a long way to go in terms of developing myself, I guess, in the way of how to develop other people without doing so much for them, and I think I always had that idea that to be really supportive of people you did things, you might rescue them or you are the supportive one because you carry everything, but I’ve learnt that that’s not the way and I’m still working on that all the time.

This shift around the way she worked with others was the most valuable learning Fiona took from her participation in the leadership action learning group, and the aspect of her leadership she felt most positive about. Throughout her leadership journey, Fiona took opportunities to ask for support and to work with other teachers in ways that encouraged them to take on more responsibilities. This relieved her of some of her workload and meant that she felt more in control of her work. Fiona tried out different leadership strategies over the course of the research, such as coaching and encouraging reflection, and she felt that these different ways of working had empowered others and created a stronger team.

Grace’s leadership journey—“Out of my comfort zone”

Grace was an active member of the second research group. She used her reflective journal extensively, writing in-depth reflections, and also began this group’s only online action learning forum discussion. Grace’s natural leadership style was a collaborative one that encouraged leadership in others, although this was proving a challenge with her current teaching team due to their lack of experience and skills. In her initial goal she identified that she wanted to encourage the teachers to use their initiative and become more independent. Implementation of this goal included taking on a more directive leadership style at times. Grace tried using the action learning questioning process to help teachers become more aware of their responsibilities, and, although this was aimed at fostering the teachers’ independence and involving them in the leadership of the centre, it proved to be a slow process:

I think that ultimately the questioning process will foster the expectation that the teachers need to think for themselves. Ideally I would like for us to collectively own the programme, however I am needing to really drive it.

Having to shoulder most of the responsibility for the effective working of the centre was very draining and Grace reflected that the stress she was under in terms of workload and the umbrella organisation expectations made it a challenge to deal with staff problems:

When I had a think about it I worked out that people issues, particularly difficult ones that relate to performance, personal and professional limitations, I find the hardest ones to deal with. I guess I’m trying to avoid dealing with the real hard stuff because I’m struggling to manage everything else.

After a Christmas break Grace identified that she needed to slow down the rate of change that was occurring in her centre, and that she needed to try to look at issues more analytically and less personally. As a result of this greater confidence in her own leadership, she began to encourage a higher level of participation in the running of the centre from one of her other teachers. This was done by giving her more responsibility, which resulted in a considerable increase in confidence. This heightened Grace’s awareness of the importance of using different strategies with different teachers:

It’s made me aware of the challenge of working with the group and yet having to respond to different individuals. I never would have known that a year ago, it would never even have entered my head that it would be that specific.

Overall Grace valued her participation in the leadership action learning process. In particular she appreciated having frameworks to guide her leadership and feedback on her reflections. In the final interview she commented:

I found it immensely helpful and I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to do this because I think my leadership would have been a hell of a lot more disorganised and harder having not. So I’ve certainly got a great deal out of it.

Grace was struggling with her leadership role when she joined the leadership group, and, although she faced continuing challenges in her centre context throughout the process, she gradually became more confident and more strategic in her leadership. She learnt to use different leadership styles in different situations, and, as her repertoire expanded, she felt that the confidence of her teachers and their ability to contribute to the leadership of the centre also grew.

Comments on experiences

Participants commented on the benefits of a number of aspects of their involvement in this leadership development opportunity. One of the main features they valued was the blended action learning approach. The face-to-face meetings and online interactions were seen to be complementary, as the meetings were important for establishing and maintaining relationships and for practising action learning, and the online postings and interactions encouraged reflection and leadership learning. The following comment by one participant illustrates the value of the blended approach:

The mix of the online and the face to face was really, really important because I think one without the other wouldn’t have worked so well, I think you needed both kinds of contact to work. The personal contact helped build relationships and that sense of trust. (Fiona)

The online interactions meant that when someone had an issue they wanted to discuss, they received immediate support rather than having to wait until the next face-to-face meeting. Action learning also encourages both individual and shared reflection, and participants commented on the increased amount of reflection they were doing as a result of their participation; for example, Beth said: “I have reflected so much since doing this course on my leadership and how to deal with others.”

Participation in the group was perceived to reduce the feeling of isolation often experienced by those holding leadership positions in the early childhood education sector. This isolation can relate to the fact that people holding senior positions are unable to share the issues they are facing with team members in their own settings, either because of their sensitive nature, or because team members not holding leadership positions would not understand their perspective. The following comment illustrated how participation in the group allowed participants to share the issues they were facing which otherwise would have remained private:

It is one of the greatest things about this cluster group, to have the freedom of speech and professional companionship which we are unable to have in our teams because of hierarchy. I get on beautifully with the teachers at my centre … but there is still always a certain distance there when it comes to work issues, right? (Charlotte)

Participants who worked for larger organisations, and who did have colleagues in similar positions to themselves, commented that they would not necessarily feel able to talk freely to these colleagues about leadership issues, because of the lack of a trusting relationship. They appreciated having the opportunity to network with other leaders:

I found [the group] really useful and thought provoking and I think we’re isolated little islands in our communities now and it’s lovely to think that you had things in common and you weren’t alone. I really enjoyed listening to the others and where they were at and learning from that too. (Lisa)

Hearing others talking about the issues they were facing also helped reduce the sense of isolation. Participants described the realisation that other people were facing similar problems as being quite a relief. The recognition that they are not the only one struggling and that others may be facing similar issues can result in people feeling more supported and more confident in their own leadership. The small group size appeared to support the development of trust between participants, and it was evident from the data that all participants felt a sense of commitment to the group.

Having a range of service types (rather than having all participants from one service, such as kindergarten) and having differing amounts of leadership experience in the group were also seen to be positive, and exposed participants to different ideas and practices. Fiona said: “I think having a range of people with a range of experiences and services was really useful in that you got a more diverse group of people.”

Confidentiality agreements, made at the beginning of each group, encouraged honest and meaningful sharing of experiences and reflection. These agreements were important in allowing participants to feel able to explore the issues and problems they were facing in more depth:

It’s better professional development for me personally because I don’t have to worry about what I’m saying—and often in professional development you do—and that means that you can go through those layers and work out problems by talking and also by typing. So that it’s the confidentiality part that is probably the most significant in terms of more learning, getting more depth out of it. (Grace)

All the technologies used were valued as they offered different and complementary approaches to the leadership learning process. For some participants, the reflective journal was the most useful tool, and, for others, the forums and chats were more highly valued. A number of participants made a positive comparison between this model of professional development and other experiences they had had. One of the features of this approach that was appreciated by some participants was the ongoing nature of the professional learning experience compared with one-off courses. Diana particularly valued the combination of different elements:

It has been probably the most valuable professional development I’ve had, and I think it’s due to that kind of small-group, intensive, really proactively facilitated type environment, and that there has been in that environment things for everyone: there have been the readings, there’s been the personal face-to-face stuff for those people who really like the networking stuff, there’s been the one-on-one for people who get more out of that situation—so it’s been all these things, and normally you would only get one of those things in a professional development experience and sometimes none. So I think the model is a really, really good model.

Model of leadership learning

The findings from this study indicate that the blended action learning process enabled and empowered participants to work through issues they were facing, and in the process they developed greater awareness of and confidence in their leadership practices. The development of increased awareness related to several different areas of leadership practice, and included increased self-awareness; heightened awareness of one’s own context; and greater awareness of leadership in general, including different frameworks and leadership styles. Four elements of this leadership development approach—the role taken by the blended action learning facilitator, the blended action learning process, the ICT tools and the blended action learning group—all positively impacted on participants, with the result that they developed more confidence in their leadership practice. The process of leadership learning, as reported by study participants, is illustrated in the diagram in Figure 1.

Contribution of the model

The model of leadership learning (Figure 1) contributes in a number of ways to our understanding of the leadership development process employed in this research. First, it illustrates the progress made by participants over the course of their involvement. This progress can be seen through the reported development of different forms of awareness, the shifts in practice made and actions taken, and the increase in confidence. A second contribution of the model is its recognition of the importance of both the individual and group aspects of the learning process. Although the leadership journeys of individual participants were unique because of the different contexts they worked in, the different issues they faced and the different stages they were at in their leadership journeys, there were also aspects of collaboration and group learning. The leadership learning of individuals was supported by participation in the action learning groups. The other participants made a major contribution to each person’s leadership learning by providing different perspectives on leadership practice, reducing the feelings of isolation experienced by participants and supporting each other’s learning. The complementary aspects of the blended action learning facilitator role supported both the individual and group learning. The third major contribution of the model relates to a greater understanding of the importance of the different processes in supporting leadership learning. It was the combination of the action learning processes of reflection and questioning, participation in the action learning group, the use of appropriate ICTs and the role of the blended action learning facilitator that contributed to the leadership learning of participants.



There is currently little support for leadership development in the New Zealand early childhood education sector, and few opportunities for those in leadership positions to learn about leadership or to work collaboratively on issues or challenges arising from their work. This article has described the experiences of participants involved in a research study into using a blended action learning approach to leadership development. The use of blended action learning to support leadership development has several advantages including: allowing for an intensive professional learning experience while not requiring a large amount of scheduled meeting time; encouraging both individual and shared reflection; and supporting participants to become more self-aware, more confident and to identify and take action on issues that they face in their everyday work. The leaders’ experiences as reported in this article support the use of a blended action learning approach to leadership development; a possible way of helping fill the gap in the provision of leadership support for those working in the New Zealand early childhood education sector.


Bloom, P. J., & Bella, J. (2005, January). Investment in leadership training: The payoff for early childhood education. Young Children, 32–40.

Garrison, D., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 2(2–3), 87–105.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. London: Bloomsbury.

Hard, L. (2004). How leadership is understood in early childhood education and care. Journal of Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 11(1), 123–131.

Kimble, C., & Hildreth, P. (2005). Virtual communities of practice. In M. Khosrow-Pour (Ed.), Encyclopedia of information science and technology (pp. 2991–2995). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Kling, R., & Courtright, C. (2003). Group behavior and learning in electronic forums: A sociotechnical approach. The Information Society, 19, 221–235.

Marquardt, M. (2004). Optimizing the power of action learning. Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black.

Ministry of Education. (2005). Foundations for discovery. Supporting learning in early childhood education through information communication technologies: A framework for development. Wellington: Learning Media.

Ministry of Education. (2006). Enabling the 21st century learner. Wellington: Learning Media.

Muijs, D., Aubrey, C., Harris, A., & Briggs, M. (2004). How do they manage? Journal of Early Childhood Research, 2(2), 157–169.

Paterson, F., & West-Burnham, J. (2005). Developing beginning leadership. In M. Coles & G. Southworth (Eds.), Developing leadership: Creating the schools of tomorrow (pp. 108–126). Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Rodd, J. (2006). Leadership in early childhood (3rd ed.). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Thornton, K. (2009). Blended action learning: Supporting leadership learning in the New Zealand early childhood education sector. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Victoria University of Wellington.

Thornton, K., Wansbrough, D., Clarkin-Phillips, J., Aitken, H., & Tamati, A. (2009). Conceptualising leadership in early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand. Wellington: New Zealand Teachers Council.

Kate Thornton is a lecturer in the School of Education Policy and Implementation, Victoria University of Wellington.