Special Journal Issue
Instructional leadership in East Asia

Qualitative studies of principal instructional leadership in East Asia

This special issue of the journal is devoted to reporting second-stage findings from the Instructional Leadership in East Asia project. More specifically, the issue is comprised of reports of preliminary empirical investigations of principal instructional leadership in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. The broad goal of the studies was to illuminate current instructional leadership practices from the perspectives of primary school principals in each of these societies.
Issue Objectives
To illuminate current instructional leadership practices from the perspectives of primary school principals in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam societies.
Professor Allan Walker
Joseph Lau Chair Professor
of International Educational Leadership
Dean of Faculty of Education
and Human Development
Director of The Asia Pacific Centre
for Leadership and Change
The Education University of Hong Kong

Professor Philip Hallinger
TSDF Chair Professor of Leadership
College of Management, Mahidol University

Senior Research Fellow
Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change
The Education University of Hong Kong


Professor Allan Walker

The Education University of Hong Kong

Professor Philip Hallinger
Mahidol University & The Education University of Hong Kong
& China

Leading learning in Asia –
Emerging empirical insights from five societies


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to synthesize findings from studies of principal instructional leadership conducted in five East Asian societies. The authors first identify similarities and then differences in approaches to instructional leadership across the societies. Then the findings of the synthesis are compared with broad findings from the global literature on principal instructional leadership.

Design/methodology/approach – The paper employs a thematic approach to synthesizing findings from the five qualitative studies.

Findings – The authors identified numerous similarities in practices of instructional leadership across the five societies. These included first, a top-down approach to defining the mission and goals of schools whereby principals worked within a fairly narrow zone of discretion. Second, principals devoted relatively little attention to coordinating the curriculum due to working within strict national curriculum frameworks. Third, principals executed their instructional leadership practices with an ever-present sense of the need to honor hierarchical relations and maintain harmony among staff and other stakeholders. Differences across the five societies centered on the extent to which the instructional leadership role of principals was explicitly defined and the extent to which they received training for the role.

Originality/value – This synthesis sought to build upon reviews of research published in a special issue of this journal two years ago. The synthesis and this body of research papers have contributed toward moving empirical research on educational leadership broadly, and instructional leadership in particular, forward in East Asia.


Mr. Nguyen Thanh Dong

Dr. Ng Foo Seong David
Ms. Yap Pui San
National Institute of Education

Instructional leadership structure in Singapore: A co-existence of hierarchy and heterarchy


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore the instructional leadership practices and structure in Singapore primary schools.

Design/methodology/approach – The study employs a qualitative approach. Data were collected from interviews of 30 Singapore primary school principals and 25 working-day observations of five principals. A grounded theory method was utilized to analyze the qualitative data.

Findings – The instructional leadership roles of principals can be categorized into four key themes: vision development and implementation, physical and organizational structure, professional development, and leading and managing instruction. Importantly, the study illuminates a hybrid structure of instructional leadership in which both hierarchical and heterarchical elements exist.

Originality/value – The current study expands the global knowledge base on instructional leadership by providing indigenous knowledge of how instructional leadership is enacted in Singapore schools. Simultaneously, this study suggests an agenda for future research on instructional leadership.


Professor Pan Hui-Ling Wendy
Dr. Nyeu Fong-Yee

Tamkang University

Dr. Cheng Shu-Huei
National Taiwan Normal University

Leading school for learning: principal practices in Taiwan


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to discuss how principals in Taiwan lead student and teacher learning at a time of leadership and learning paradigm shifts and the imminent implementation of the curriculum guideline for 12-year basic education.

Design/methodology/approach – This study interviewed 32 elementary and junior high school principals purposively sampled based on reputation and recommendation from senior principals and government officials.

Findings – As a society which values credentialism, principals in Taiwan face challenges in executing the vision of educating student as a whole person. The authors discuss how principals are solidifying whole person education as the espoused value, how they are enforcing school-based curriculum and effective instruction, and encouraging teacher professional learning. Principals are sharing power by recruiting stakeholders’ participation in guiding school development and enacting distributed leadership, while also building relationship as social capital and soliciting support from the community to establish the conditions to improve teaching and learning.

Research limitations/implications – This paper highlights how principal practices are evolving in a time of changing conception of learning from academic achievement to multiple competencies and the shifting paradigm of power from participatory decision making to distributed leadership. This paper ends with a discussion on how leadership for learning (LfL) as a community engagement has emerged.

Practical implications – With the shifting of the concept and paradigm of learning, principals in a high power distance society like Taiwan are now facing opportunities as well as challenges to lead teachers to engaging students in inquiry and collaboration.

Originality/value – This paper highlights the indigenous practices of principal LfL in a high-performing East Asian education system in a time of changing notions of learning and leadership.


Dr. Qian Haiyan
Professor Allan Walker
The Education University of Hong Kong

Dr. Li Xiaojun
Guangdong University of Education

The west wind vs the east wind: instructional leadership model in China


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to develop a preliminary model of instructional leadership in the Chinese educational context and explore the ways in which Chinese school principals locate their instructional-leadership practices in response to traditional expectations and the requirements of recent reforms.

Design/methodology/approach – In-depth interviews were conducted with 22 selected primary school principals in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. A qualitative analysis was conducted to categorize the major leadership practices enacted by these principals.

Findings –
An initial model of instructional leadership in China with six major dimensions is constructed. The paper also illustrates and elaborates on three dimensions with the greatest context-specific meanings for Chinese principals..

Originality/value – The paper explores the ways in which Chinese principals enact their instructional leadership in a context in which “the west wind meets the east wind”; that is, when they are required to accommodate both imported reform initiatives and traditional expectations. The paper contributes to the sparse existing research on principals’ instructional leadership in non-western cultural and social contexts.

Professor Alma Harris
Dr. Michelle Jones
University of Bath

Dr. Kenny Soon Lee Cheah
Mr. Edward Devadason
Dr. Donnie Adams
University of Malaya

Exploring principals’ instructional leadership practices in Malaysia: insights and implications


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to outline the findings from a small-scale, exploratory, study of principals’ instructional leadership practice in Malaysian primary schools. The dimensions and functions of instructional leadership, explicitly explored in this study, are those outlined in the Hallinger and Murphy’s (1985) model.

Design/methodology/approach –
This study is part of a larger international, comparative research project that aims to identify the boundaries of the current knowledge base on instructional leadership practice and to develop a preliminary empirically based understanding of how principals conceive and enact their role as instructional leaders in Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. Using a qualitative research design, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 30 primary school principals in Malaysia. The sample comprised principals from 14 Government National schools (SK), nine principals from Chinese schools (SJKC) and seven principals from Tamil schools (SJKT). The qualitative data were initially analysed inductively, and subsequently coded using ATLAS.ti to generate the findings and conclusions.

Findings – The findings showed that the Malaysian principals, who were interviewed, understood and could describe their responsibilities relating to improving instructional practice. In particular, they talked about the supervision of teachers and outlined various ways in which they actively monitored the quality of teaching and learning in their schools. These data revealed that some of the duties and activities associated with being a principal in Malaysia are particularly congruent with instructional leadership practices. In particular, the supervision of teaching and learning along with leading professional learning were strongly represented in the data.

Research limitations/implications –
This is a small-scale, exploratory study involving 30 principals.

Practical implications –
There is a clear policy aspiration, outlined in the Malaysian Education Blueprint, that principals should be instructional leaders. The evidence shows that principals are enacting some of the functions associated with being an instructional leader but not others.

Originality/value –
The findings from this study provide some new insights into the principals’ instructional leadership practices in Malaysia. They also provide a basis for further, in-depth exploration that can enhance the knowledge base about principals’ instructional leadership practices in Malaysia.


Professor Philip Hallinger
Mahidol University & The Education University of Hong Kong
& China

Professor Allan Walker
Ms. Nguyen Thi Thinh
The Education University of Hong Kong

Ms. Nguyen Thi Hong Dao
The Institute for Research on Educational Development

Dr. Truong Dinh Thang
Quang Tri Teacher Training Institute

Perspectives on principal instructional leadership in Vietnam: a preliminary model


Purpose – Worldwide interest in principal instructional leadership has led to global dissemination of related research findings despite their concentration in a limited set of western cultural contexts. An urgent challenge in educational leadership and management lies in expanding the range of national settings for investigations of instructional leadership. The current study addressed this challenge in the context of Vietnam, a nation with a very limited formal knowledge base in school leadership (Hallinger and Bryant, 2013b; Hallinger and Truong, 2014). The purpose of this paper is to describe the perspectives of Vietnamese primary school principals toward their role as instructional leaders, illuminate instructional leadership practices perceived as important by the principals, and develop a preliminary model of instructional leadership within the Vietnamese education context.

Design/methodology/approach – This study was a qualitative inquiry that sought to illuminate the perspectives of Vietnamese principals toward their role as instructional leaders. The research employed semi-structured interviews with 27 primary school principals. Data analysis employed grounded theory in order to synthesize results gathered from the principals into a preliminary conceptual model.

Findings – The study yielded a preliminary model of principal instructional leadership in Vietnam. The authors’ model evidences similarities to western models of instructional leadership by including dimensions focusing on setting direction, managing curriculum and instruction and developing the school learning climate. Differences also emerged in terms of two additional constructs, building solidarity and managing external relationships. Other distinctive practices of Vietnamese instructional leaders also emerged in the findings which the authors suggest can be linked to the institutional, political and socio-cultural context of education in this society.

Research limitations/implications – Key limitations arise from the focus on primary schools, small size of the sample, absence of data from the Northern region of Vietnam, and lack of verification of principals’ perspectives with data from other stakeholders.

Originality/value – This study is one of the first empirical studies of Vietnamese school leadership submitted for publication in international refereed journals and the first study that has that sought to conceptualize the instructional leadership role of principals in Vietnam. Moreover, the study illustrates how conceptualizations of school leadership are shaped by features of specific societies. This lends credence to scholarly admonitions concerning the lack of universality of leadership theories.