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The codification of leadership knowledge

Written by: Jen Barker and Tom Rees
9 min read
Jen Barker, Dean of Learning Design – School Leadership, Ambition Institute, UK
Tom Rees, Executive Director – School Leadership, Ambition Institute, UK

In Issue 9 of Impact (Barker and Rees, 2020a), we introduced an approach to developing school leaders that we argued took a different perspective to the dominant conception of school leadership. The approach we proposed is focused on the development of school leaders’ expertise and their mental models: what they need to know and be able to do to lead a school well. This approach, we argue, challenges the orthodoxy of leadership and related concepts, such as transformational change, vision and the personal characteristics of individual leaders.

The new Headteachers’ Standards and the reformed National Professional Qualifications (NPQ) frameworks in England signal an opportunity for us to make a step change in the way we think about school leadership development. Whereas previous NPQ frameworks have drawn heavily from the field of generic or transformational leadership, emphasising concepts such as change, strategy, vision or personal characteristics, the new frameworks pay much closer attention to the specific underpinning knowledge required to develop expertise.

In this article, we explore three themes:

  1. the role of knowledge in leadership development
  2. the codification of leadership knowledge
  3. the importance of a broad conception of knowledge.

The role of knowledge in leadership development

In a chapter that we have written for the researchED guide to leadership (Barker and Rees 2020b), we explore the idea of ‘expert mental models’ – the knowledge that is held by an individual and the way in which it is organised to guide action. Like others (Tricot and Sweller, 2014; Stein and Nelson, 2003; Timperley, 2011), we argue that expertise – and expertise in school leadership – is predicated on knowledge. Importantly, we think that it is important to view knowledge broadly, encompassing skills, beliefs and values. If we want school leaders to become more expert, then it follows that we need to understand more about what leaders need to know, and how we can help them to learn this.

In their 1993 book Surpassing Ourselves, Bereiter and Scardamalia emphasise the importance of knowledge and the reluctance for it to be accepted as integral to the work of experts (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993, p. 43):

‘Most people we talk to do not want to believe that research shows expert performance is mainly a matter of knowledge. They do not necessarily have an alternative explanation ready, but they feel there has to be more to expertise that that.’

Professional development for school leaders must therefore, at the very least, involve access to rich sources of formal knowledge, alongside significant amounts of experience of the work. Leaders should have opportunities to make sense of formal knowledge, put it into practice in their own contexts and receive expert feedback on what they have learnt.

Central to developing effective professional development for school leaders is an understanding of the knowledge that they need in order to carry out their work – what we might call a taxonomy of leader knowledge.

The codification of leadership knowledge

Codification can be thought of as the action or process of arranging knowledge in a systematic form or code. At Ambition Institute, we are particularly interested in the codification of teacher and leader knowledge and how we can understand and arrange it into a structure, or taxonomy, that makes it easier to access, understand and talk about.

By identifying and codifying a taxonomy of school leadership knowledge, we are able to give leaders a starting point from which to better understand their work and continue their development. Codified knowledge can also offer a shared language for leaders, and those responsible for their development, to communicate with, and to enter debate.

Codification of knowledge is taking place all the time. With advances in various fields, we have access to and can understand knowledge that, for several decades, was either unknown or only tacit. Micheal Polanyi (1962) writes that (Polanyi, 1962, p. 92):

‘The major difficulty in the understanding, and hence in the teaching of anatomy, arises in respect to the intricate three‐dimensional network of organs closely packed inside the body… it is left to the imagination to reconstruct from such experience the three‐dimensional picture of the exposed area as it existed in the unopened body, and to explore mentally its connections with adjoining unexposed areas around it and below it. The kind of topographic knowledge which an experienced surgeon possesses of the regions on which he operates is therefore ineffable knowledge.’

The knowledge of anatomy may have been ineffable in 1962, but developments in medicine mean that it no longer is. This process of creating, or revealing, knowledge continues all the time. Cognitive load theory, for example, was developed by John Sweller in the 1980s. Before that, we didn’t fully appreciate the impact of working memory on learning (although of course we started to learn about working memory many years before that). Research constantly reveals new insights into how we can support pupils to learn.

If we are to capture a comprehensive view of the knowledge that leaders need to undertake their roles, there are two things that we need to consider:

The work that leaders are doing

The way in which any individual brings knowledge to bear on a situation is governed by the task in question – what it is that they are trying to do. Thomas Nickles’ (1981) definition of a problem helps us to get to the heart of what it is that leaders do. Nickles describes a problem as ‘the demand that a goal be achieved, plus constraints on the manner in which it is achieved’ (Nickles, 1981, p. 111). The constraints that exist around a problem are important to understand, as they drive leaders’ selection of knowledge as they go about their day-to-day work. Key to this is the context within which leaders are operating. Schools are complex, dynamic places, and so the clearer the understanding of how context shapes the constraints around the problem, the better.

What leaders actually know

A taxonomy of leadership needs to capture what leaders already know: to get inside their heads and understand what knowledge they have and why they are using it. However, we should also consider the knowledge that leaders don’t yet have; here we have to turn to the literature to understand what relevant – but as yet unknown – knowledge would be most useful. Defining this body of knowledge is a real challenge: who gets to have the final say on what it is that leaders should know? We think that this needs to be a collective endeavour, curated by individuals who work in the system and understand the work of leaders.

A good example of a process of codification that looks at only what individuals – in this instance teachers – already know, is Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (TLAC). A series of techniques are captured in written and visual form, which many experienced teachers do all of the time but find hard to explain. As Lemov himself states, TLAC was simply an attempt to codify what effective people do; it is not underpinned by literature and doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive view of everything that teachers should know and be able to do.

Another example of codification which attempts to bridge both leaders’ knowledge and the research base underpinning teaching can be found in a publication by the Centre for Education Statistics and Education who synthesise research into cognitive load and translate it into a range of classroom-based strategies.  Each section explains why the strategy is likely to be effective and provides exemplification as to what the strategy might look like in practice.

At Ambition Institute, in developing the new national programme for early career teachers, we have designed a curriculum from the ECF framework which represents a codification of the knowledge early career teachers will learn. To try to codify the knowledge that school leaders require is an even more complex task. Of course, much of the knowledge that leaders need is rooted in what teachers need to know, but there is additional knowledge that leaders benefit from having, and this is why we think codification is important. The process of codifying leadership knowledge is complex and requires us to have a broad conception of knowledge. This leads us to consider the different types of knowledge that leaders need to hold.

The importance of a broad conception of knowledge

When thinking about knowledge, it’s common for people to think initially of ‘formal’ knowledge: the type of knowledge that can be codified in books, compared, contrasted and relatively easily taught. Formal knowledge enables those who hold it to ‘give justifications and explanations that will withstand critical examination’ (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993, p. 64). Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) argue that formal (declarative) knowledge and procedural knowledge (also commonly referred to as ‘skills’) represent two of five categories of knowledge that, in areas of expertise, are developed to a high degree (see Table 1).

The remaining three categories of knowledge are referred to by Bereiter and Scardamalia as the ‘hidden knowledge of experts’, which, they say, ‘must be recognized if one is to understand expertise in a productive way’ (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993, p. 47). 

The ‘hidden knowledge of experts’:

  1. informal knowledge
  2. impressionistic knowledge
  3. self-regulatory knowledge.

Table 1: Categories of knowledge

Type of knowledge Description Example
1.       Formal knowledge Can be explicitly stated, codified and written into books or documents. A combination of declarative and procedural knowledge. The literature base about the science of learning
2.       Informal knowledge A combination of formal knowledge and experience that is hard to explain or codify. Can be thought of as ‘expert common sense’. Hard-to-articulate decisions about adapting classroom questioning to different groups or individuals
3.       Impressionistic knowledge Feelings associated with knowledge that allow us to form opinions of people and things. Predicting how an individual teacher might react to a new policy or initiative
4.       Self-regulatory knowledge Knowing how to manage yourself to do the job. Includes habits such as planning or practice. Habits built around planning or practice, or practice for high-stakes conversations/meetings


Leading schools is a complex task and requires high levels of relevant expertise. If we accept that expertise is predicated on knowledge, which is gained through a combination of study and experience, it follows that understanding the knowledge base needed by teachers and leaders is an essential part of supporting their development. The breadth of knowledge needed by leaders is significant and, as a profession, we are likely to have only scratched the surface of building a comprehensive taxonomy of what leaders need to know and be able to do. A further challenge, which we don’t have the words to do justice to here, is the means by which different types of knowledge are best acquired, for example through formal training, on-the-job experience or self-reflection. This represents another fascinating area of study.

Despite being challenging and contentious, we think that it is a worthwhile endeavour to build a taxonomy of leader knowledge so that we can better support the preparation and development of leaders in a range of positions in schools. The new NPQ frameworks provide a more granular focus on formal, domain-specific knowledge than previous iterations and offer us one starting point upon which to build such a taxonomy. Codifying the body of knowledge that leaders use to enact their day-to-day practice represents a huge challenge but a fascinating and important area of development.


Barker J and Rees T (2020a) 2020: A new perspective for school leadership? Impact 9, pp. 46–47.

Barker J and Rees T (2020b) Developing school leadership. In: Lock S (ed) The ResearchEd Guide to School Leadership. Woodbridge: John Catt.

Bereiter C and Scardamalia M (1993) Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry Into the Nature and Implications of Expertise. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Caviglioli O and Sherrington T (2020) Teaching Walkthrus: Five-Step Guides to Instructional Coaching. Woodbridge: John Catt.

Nickles T (1981) What is a problem that we might solve it? Synthese 47(1): 85–118.

Polanyi M (1962). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Stein M and Nelson B (2003) Leadership content knowledge. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 25(4): 423–448.

Timperley H (2011) Knowledge and the leadership of learning. Leadership and Policy in Schools 10(2): 145–170. DOI: 10.1080/15700763.2011.557519.

Tricot A and Sweller J (2014) Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review 26(2): 265–283.

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