Making sense of external partnerships : Principals’ experiences of school–university collaborations


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Research Areas

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Publication Details

Author list: Sahlin, Susanne

Publication year: 2020

Start page: 51

End page: 71

Number of pages: 21

ISSN: 2056-9548

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-02-2019-0004



The purpose of this paper is to examine principals’ sense-making of a school–university collaboration taking an institutional perspective on organizational change. The study’s context involves three schools in a collaboration focusing on leadership and school improvement with one university.


The study draws on findings from a qualitative case study that examined principals’ sense-making of this type of school–university collaboration. Data were collected over three years and consisted of semistructured interviews, meeting notes, field observations, field notes and document analysis. A qualitative content analysis was performed using the Atlas.ti 6.2 software tool.


The findings showed that mattering sense-making for the principals in this collaboration is related to the cultivation of collective participation and responsibility, the development of trust and improvement culture among actors, and the sense of moving towards research-based and collaborative learning-oriented practices in their schools.

Research limitations/implications

This study encountered several limitations that need to be addressed and recognized. First, the small number of cases in this multiple case study, as well as the specific social context, limits the possibilities for the generalization of the findings. Second, the study was not independently selected and the findings and analyses were linked to national and local contexts, which can be seen as a limitation and a strength. Nevertheless, this study provides in-depth information about the principals’ experiences and constructions of meaning as they helped lead a school–university collaboration in their schools. Finally, although the sample was small and not representative, the findings provided useful insights into and examples of how principals understand and interpret a school–university partnership in their schools’ improvement processes.


The findings provide an elaborated illustration of how intentional efforts to collaborate and develop the schools in a school–university partnership may affect the regulative, normative and cultural–cognitive aspects in schools.


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