Innovating teaching and instruction in turbulent times: The dynamics of principals' exploration and exploitation activities

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In turbulent environments, schools have to adapt to constantly changing conditions. According to ambidexterity theory, whether they are successful in this primarily depends on their leaders and how they manage the tension between the use of current knowledge (exploitation) and the search for new knowledge (exploration). Through unique top-down and bottom-up pathways, they thus influence the innovation outcome of a school. However, it is so far unclear whether these assumptions are correct. Using data from a panel of principals who are representative of Germany and were surveyed before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we therefore investigate if and how school leaders adapted to the turbulent environment caused by the pandemic and evaluate the extent to which this had an impact on their schools’ innovations in teaching and instruction. The results demonstrate that principals’ exploration activities increased markedly during the pandemic, while their exploitation activities decreased noticeably. Further, a focus on the use and refinement of existing knowledge in comparatively predictable (pre-COVID-19) environments harmed principals’ readiness to explore new knowledge in increasingly uncertain environments. Nevertheless, exploitation had positive consequences for the innovativeness of schools, and exploration goes along with more radical innovations in teaching and instruction. Our research suggests that schools that innovatively addressed the COVID-19 pandemic had school leaders who were able to quickly shift between the two modes of exploitation and exploration. A capacity to transition seamlessly between these modes of thinking and working thus appears to be vital for the longevity of schools.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Educational Change
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)549-581
Number of pages33
Publication statusPublished - 09.2023

Bibliographical note

Open Access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL. This work was supported by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [Grant No. 451458391 (PI 618/4-1)].

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© 2022, The Author(s).