The notion of supervision has undergone shifts from school inspection to ensure that children were receiving instruction in the earlier days of the 1800s, to lay supervision to improve instruction in the colonial period, to professional supervision as a vital administrative function in schools in the late nineteenth century, to the modern concept of democratic and cooperative supervision during the period of 1937–1959 (Lucio & McNeil, 1962; Burnham, 1976), to an approach that was more inclusive (Smyth, 1997), to the hope for the systematic reform of schools through supervision programmes, to a social political (Barott & Galvin, 1998; St. Maurice, 1987; Sergiovanni, 1997; Smyth, 1997; Zepeda & Ponticell, 1998) or micropolitical view of instructional supervision (Blasé & Blasé, 2002), and to the notion of supervision leadership. Starting in the late twentieth century, especially until 2000, the study of supervision was blended with the study of teacher evaluation; professional development; instructional leadership; curriculum, teaching, and learning; and curriculum leaders. The concept of instructional supervision faded away mainly due to its loss of legal authority as an instrument for evaluating teachers to satisfy bureaucratic accountability. The term also met with resistance from both practitioners and scholars, who felt it did not fit the new era of educational contexts that emphasise democratic processes, collaborative inquiries and growth, professional development, empowered teachers, and motivated learners. Today, supervision of instruction, though not an independent field of inquiry, still remains a key aspect of related fields including leadership, teacher evaluation and development, and teaching and learning.

Social research, the scientific method, positivism, both practitioners and theorists, and ontological and epistemological assumptions have shaped the kind of methodological approaches accepted in the field (Glanz, 1998). Influenced by these factors, supervisory practice has been characterised as inspectional, and later redefined as an efficient, authoritative, managerial function, a cooperative process, and instructional leadership. The field of supervision has grown with the increasing complexity of education in a complex society and thus entered the 1970s with much ambiguity as to its role and function in schools (Glanz, 1998). Different district office personnel, principals, assistant principals, curriculum workers, mentors, classroom teachers, peer consultants, educational evaluation coordinator, directors, coaches, team leaders, senior teachers, department heads, associate or assistant superintendents, and specialists performed the responsibilities of managing schools and providing instructional services to teachers (Glanz, 1994; Neagley & Evans, 1980).

Studies in the early twentieth century focused on the behaviours of supervisors and processes of supervision, and its general usefulness and effects on teachers’ dispositions. Studies of the relationship between the effects of supervisors’ characteristics, teaching, the conditions for effective supervision, and the effects of instructional supervision on learning are scarce (Leithwood, Begley, & Cousins, 1990; Short, 1995). Conflicting evidence exists regarding usefulness of clinical supervision, and its effects on teaching practices and student learning.

Despite a lack of clarity in the responsibilities of supervisors from the 1920 until the 1980s, a small body of empirical studies documented effective practices of clinical supervision by principals and superintendents. Teachers’ beliefs, their trust in their supervisors, and the match between the conceptual level of the supervisors and the supervisees were found to mediate the supervision process and its effects. School level and district size were found to moderate supervision behaviours.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, and continuing throughout that century, the supervisory profession attempted to recover from its inherited bureaucratic legacy by employing democratic, scientific, clinical, collaborative, human-resource-based, developmental, transformative, and other similar methods of supervision (Glanz, 1994; Blasé & Blasé, 2002). In spite of these efforts to find a balance between the necessity to evaluate (a bureaucratic function) and the desire to genuinely assist teachers in the instructional process (a professional goal), the profession was not able to resolve this basic conflict (Blumberg, 1992; Frederich, 1984; Glanz, 1989; Tanner & Tanner, 1987). Scholars (e.g., Starratt, 1997) began to suggest the official abolishment of the term ‘instructional supervision’.