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The Head of School at Dystopia’s Edge: Relationship-Based Independent School Leadership in the Age of Networks

Barnett, Paul / Chad (2019) The Head of School at Dystopia’s Edge: Relationship-Based Independent School Leadership in the Age of Networks. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Inspired by their commitment to support their students’ complete development, independent school leaders are assessing and responding to the paradoxical effects of social media and mobile technology on their students and school communities. Networks linking students to each other and all forms of information have introduced new forms of ambivalence where technology brings utopian hopes and dystopian fears. Heads of independent schools take seriously the rise in anxiety, loneliness, and depression reported by students. Several unintended consequences of the technology have emerged, and schools require commensurate relationship-based leadership strategies to support students exhausted by their networked lives.
This study explores the influence of social media and mobile technology on students’ social, emotional, and cognitive experience. Additionally, the study identifies the degree to which heads of school believe these innovations have influenced their school communities. Extending empirical data from heads of school, the study offers a conceptual path forward using cyberpunk science fiction (The Matrix and Ready Player One) and aesthetic alternatives (Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems) to explore the risks, obligations, and opportunities for schools and students.

The study pursues these aims through narrative inquiry with attention paid to the texts of real lives through autoethnography and fictional lives through techniques from literary studies. Additionally, an original survey of independent school heads seeks to reveal how they understand the phenomenon and what responses feel useful in cultivating a thriving community.

The study’s empirical research shows that heads of school perceive increasing ontological complexities introduced by social media and mobile technology to students’ experience. Yet, an epistemological focus guides their engagement with struggling students. Additionally, aesthetic illustrations of the phenomenon illustrate the importance of developing in students the cognitive capacity to think simultaneously inside and outside the digital platforms shaping their lives. To extend effective relationship-based leadership practices in the age of networks, it is recommended that heads of school ground their practice in care ethics with renewed focus on empathetic listening. Further research could assess if a school’s commitment to practicing care ethics contributes to reduced feelings of loneliness and anxiety among students and associated improvements in schools’ climate and culture.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Barnett, Paul / Chadpaulchadbarnett@gmail.compcb14
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee CoChairGarman, Noreenngarman@pitt.edungarman
Committee CoChairGunzenhauser, Mikemgunzen@pitt.edumgunzen
Committee MemberMcClure, Maureenmmcclure@pitt.edummcclure
Committee MemberMcMahon,
Committee MemberMcHale,
Date: 31 January 2019
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 20 November 2018
Approval Date: 31 January 2019
Submission Date: 7 December 2018
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 245
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: School of Education > Administrative and Policy Studies
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: social media, technology, networks, ambivalence, utopia, dystopia, independent school, leadership, head of school, anxiety, reflexive modernity, postmodern, care ethics, community, cyberpunk, science fiction, the matrix, ready player one, narrative inquiry, autoethnography, ontology
Date Deposited: 31 Jan 2019 16:22
Last Modified: 31 Jan 2019 16:22


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