Thursday, July 16, 2009

School Reform by Michael Fullan

The latest ideas on school reform by Michael Fullan

A good friend of mine loaned me Michael Fullan's latest book and I was so impressed I was loath to give it back. In the meantime I wrote a summary of the book for myself and thought it might make interesting reading for all who subscribe - however there is nothing like the real book!

There is no doubt that a new environment is replacing the technocratic accountability, competitive top down, market forces model. The new millennium will bring dramatic changes in all areas of life whether we are ready or not. Schools are at the edge of great democratic possibilities if educators are to play a major part in the reinvention of a fairer more inclusive society. If so it will be a time for true inspirational leadership not compliance management.

Bruce Hammonds.


Michael Fullan is Dean of the Ontario Institute in Education of the University of Toronto
In 1982 Michael Fullan wrote his revolutionary book on school reform. He has now revised and expanded on his ideas in his 'The New Meaning of Educational Reform'. For school leaders, who want an insight into future possibilities, the book paints a powerful picture and offers those with the courage a real creative challenge.

The following is a personal summary of some of Fullan's main ideas.

Essentially it is a book about the need for schools to develop shared meaning.

The basic premise is that all learning, both organisational and individual, is a continual process of 'making meaning'. This generative model of understanding is in line with the new pedagogy of constructivism which underpins modern approaches to learning.

The key to successful change is the improvement in relationships between all involved and not simply the imposition of top down reform. The new emphasis is educational change is based on creating the conditions to develop the 'capacity' of both organisations and individuals to learn. The focus moves away from an emphasis on structural change towards changing the culture of classrooms and schools, an emphasis on relationships and values.

The principal is the key player to develop this 'capacity' in each school. The challenge is how to share and sustain ideas about change so as to transform what is essentially an conservative system Teachers and schools need to be seen as 'moral change agents' making democratic communities possible - this is the vision that Fullan believes is 'worth fighting for'.

Key words for future change will be: meaning, coherence, connectedness, synergy, alignment and capacity for continual improvement. This is in contrast to the previous emphasis on a simplistic linear model of change.

School's world-wide, following a decade of top down reform are now suffering from overload. Any success, Fullan believes, that is happening, is happening in 'spite of the system'. It is now appreciated that all change involves anxiety and struggle and cannot be assimilated unless meaning is shared by all involved. At best this cultural change is a three to five year process. Predictable 'rational' imposed solutions have backfired because they ignored the culture of each individual school. As each school is unique one schools success cannot be simply transferred from one school to another.

The main agents (or blockers) of change are principals. Innovative principals can develop 'moving' or 'learning enriched' schools - or what Fullan also calls 'interactive communities of practice'. In any change situation 25% is knowing what to do and 75% is the more difficult area of developing effective processes and conditions as there are many forces maintaining the status quo. Leadership for change requires a 'bias for action, a sense of urgency' and a mix of 'pressure and support'.

Fullan believes that most people do not develop new understanding until they are involved in the process. Ownership, in the sense of clarity and commitment, is a progressive process achieved individual by individual until a 'critical mass' is achieved. This developmental process applies as much to an individual or a class as to a school. Educational change Fullan says is very much the 'science of muddling through' a process of trying things out and keeping what is best.

These idea Fullan writes are in line with the findings of complexity or chaos theory and indicate that success depend on coping with unpredictability, conflict and inconsistency. In such an environment organisations need both security and a desire to grow. Change is an uncertain balance between stability and excitement - a self-organising process making sense of things as ones goes along - leaders need to develop the schools and individual teacher's capacity to do this together. To be successful all involved need to feel a common stake in the future.

Changing schools, Fullan states, is a complex business, as no one knows for sure what is best.

Teachers - it depends on what each of them do and think!

Educational change depends on what teachers do and think - it is as simple and complex as that.

The conditions for teaching appear to have deteriorated - stress and alienation and the intensification of teacher's work, is at an all time high. Teachers look first to other teachers in such times for sources of help and their greatest rewards come from, those moments when they feel their students have learnt something, and from respect from their fellow teachers. Too often teachers work in isolation increasingly feeling frustrated and burnt-out with imposed curriculum and accountability demands.

Change is needed to develop schools as Learning Communities.

Collegiality provides the best starting point in the process of teacher regeneration. 'Moving' or 'learning enriched' schools are what Fullan calls 'professional learning communities'. Teaching needs to be seen as a collective rather than an individual enterprise. This is the reason why it means it is easier to teach in some schools than others. Successful schools enforce, through moral obligations, consistent standards and they are more likely to trust and value others and ask for and share expertise. This is what makes such schools more easy to teach, and learn to teach better in, than others. Teachers in such schools are less likely to uncritically conform to imposed ideas. They have developed the capacity to self reflect, to examine student performance and act on their own understandings.

Effective teachers, Fullan states. account for 30% of the variance of student progress. There are three areas of importance to be effective: teaching skills; classroom climate; and professional characteristics such as, holding high expectations, a passion for improving, holding people accountable and team work.

Real pupil improvement Fullan states comes from the 'power' of having 'three good teachers in a row'.

To achieve such change requires reculturing the teaching profession as Fullan believes that there are few schools that currently could be called true learning communities.

Wanted a 'miracle worker' - the role of the principal.

The principal is the gatekeeper of change. There is not an improving school without a leader who is good at leading transformational improvement. Successful principals share leadership, they reach out to their parents and community and work hard to expand the professional 'capacity' of the teachers to develop a coherent professional community. Such leaders are relationship centred, able to develop a clear collegial value framework and individual accountability. Such principals foster the conditions required for school growth and develop a commitment to a mutual purpose and a shared belief in ongoing common actions. By doing this they develop school capacity which in turn affects the quality of the teaching within the school. Such individual and school-wide capacity development combats the fragmentation and curricula incoherence presented by multiple innovations.

Only a minority of current leaders, Fullan believes, achieve this.

Leadership is a complex art and what is at stake is the reculturing of a school. Effective leaders are energy creators, creating harmony, forging consensus, setting high standards, and developing a 'try this' future orientation. They are forever hopeful. With excellent leaders students are more likely to achieve the power of 'three good teachers in a row'.

The students the missing participants in school change.

Student views often get lost in the shuffle of school change. They are rarely thought of as participants in the process. Fullan asks, what would happen if we valued their opinions?

Students to be successful need to be provided with relevant, engaging and worthwhile experiences. Disengaged students lack meaningful connections with teachers. Few students report that teachers ask them for their opinions, many find lessons boring, and a great majority of student comments reflect an alienation theme.

Student learning is enhanced when they understand what is expected of them, when they get recognition for their work, learn quickly from their errors, and receive guidance in improving their performance. Too many students, particularly at the secondary level, are disengaged from their learning - and a growing number feel alienated. Some thing needs to be done. More of the same will not work.
Professional communities work hard on the problem of relevance. Teachers work hard on expanding and refining their teaching repertoire. And students notice.

Effective teachers give students a 'voice' in their classrooms. Such teachers invite students to talk about what makes learning difficult, what diminishes their motivation, makes then give up, or settle for a minimum effort position. They expose students to an 'atmosphere of hope'.

Students have ideas about how schools should be. Students in recognition for a safe and caring environment where their efforts are rewarded, will work hard. Children, Fullan believes, are vastly under-utilised resources. Not only must they be part of the solution, but also, in many cases, they may even have better ideas for solutions.

Regional Support for schools - a new role to play?

Where school have been left to the vagaries of self-management it is over to each school to ensure its own development. If a district presence is part of the system they can play an important role in school transformation. Success however requires the difficult art of balancing top down and bottom up change. Districts that are a powerful force for change can share and develop the ideas of 'moving 'schools but to be successful plans for successful implementation must be left up to local schools.

Chicago, in the late 80s, like New Zealand, decentralised all it's schools. What eventuated was called the 'rule of three thirds!' One-third engaged in self-initiated re-construction, one-third struggled/complied, one third were left behind. Since 1992 Chicago has re-organised districts as key players to becomes advocates for local schools, focussing on capacity building and intervening in failing situations. Successful districts need to maintain a strong interest in spawning and diffusing innovative local school developments.

Fullan draws attention to the similarity between an effective school, an effective leader, an effective teacher and an effective district. Leadership based on relationships and trust is needed at all levels to encourage schools to pursue autonomy in the midst of a potentially dependency situation; achieving this autonomy is an entrepreneurial act. The most critical role of any cental office is to support learning especially amongst principals, who will in turn do the same for teachers, who in turn will empower their students. To achieve this ideal regional support systems will requires their own cultural transformations.

Educational Consultants - do we need them?

Consultancy is also about developing the school's capacity, motivation and commitment to engage in improvements. It hardly ever happens that way. In particular, there are no easy answers for 'struggling' schools. Innovations are more successful if they have effective leadership, with an instructional focus, combined with strategies to obtain support at the school and in the wider community.

Too little emphasis has been given to creating the conditions to create engagement and emotional commitment to take action when translating 'answers' seen in effective schools. It is often to easy to accept a false consensus and to ignore silent 'voices'. Such developments are sure to fail.

The parents and the community - whose schools are they anyway!

Fullan reminds us that if schools have trouble comprehending change imagine what it is like for the parents - particularly those whose memories of their own schooling is less than positive?

Involving parents is important because the closer parents are to the educator the greater the educational impact. This is another case of Fullan's 'power of three'; teachers, parents and students aligned make all the difference.

Schools need to reach out to parents but to do this will require shifts of power and influence. Parents, and the wider community, have largely untapped expertise essential to the partnership. However well, or badly parents do, they are the students first educators. Schools need to develop an 'invitational' attitude towards parents and do more to help parents assist their children. 'Moving' schools involve parents in a range of innovatory ways.

Most parents do not want to run the school but they do want their children to do better. There is little evidence to indicate over the years that schools and parents have become closer. Parent involvement cannot be left to individual teachers it must involve a school wide emphasis. Parent involvement must be seen as a crucial and alterable variable. This 'power of three' too often remains an unleashed force. School Boards and teachers need to take the first steps.

Involving the wider community is future challenge. Too many schools still operate in isolation from their community. Schools belong to the community they reside in and 'moving' schools acknowledge this. New community/regional organisations may well be required in integrate schools into the wider community?

Governments role - historically few governments have got it right!

Lasting school improvement cannot occur if the system is not helping. All people, at all levels, need to work on building learning organisations. Historically most governments have got it wrong.

If governments rely only on accountability measures, and pressure and support to change schools, but neglect capability building, deep and lasting changes will not be achieved.

Structural changes, curriculum and accountability measures, popular world-wide in the 90s, create overload and have done little to change the quality of teaching and learning. Accountability schemes can never work because they cannot create the beliefs and behaviours necessary for success. Too often curriculum innovations have side effects worse than the cure. It takes a courageous principal to act flexibly in such situations. Leaders with ' capacity' are less likely to 'toe the line' and will adapt innovation to suit their own purposes. For many principals is easier to comply with imposed demands and in the process 'get better at a bad game'.

For central governments it is too easy to err in providing either too much or too little control. What is necessary, Fullan believes, is to start with top down change, and then to add 'capacity building' in phase two. This is in line with leadership both at the school and classroom level. Develop standards, set expectations and then move into developing an environment (or culture) that develops schools as professional learning communities.

The professional development of teachers to attract teachers into teaching.

There is an urgent need to attract good people into teaching. Exciting transformed schools, fired by moral purpose, is one attraction. Improving teacher education is another. Once in schools new teachers need to be provided with expert mentors and support programmes. Re-culturing schools as exciting learning communities is the only way to attract talented people.

There is a need is to focus on supporting school leadership to re-culture the teaching profession. To be effective schools need to develop agreed standards of practice that are evident in the daily organisation and culture of the school. This demands that teachers work together, modelling commitment and sharing ideas so that quality learning and teaching can be cultivated.

Everything converges on school leadership that can articulate and implement an agreed vision of learning, and to ensure that it is shared by schools community. Leaders need to advocate, nurture and sustain a school culture, and an instructional programme, conducive to student learning and staff growth. Such leaders promote the success of all students by promoting a safe and effective learning environment.

It may be a simplification, Fullan says, that the difference between success and failure of any school is the quality of the principal, but it is not far from the truth. Unfortunately for many principals their careers have prepared them to manage a system that no longer exists. There is a need to attract and develop a new generation of school leaders who are able to develop learning cultures to thrive in a radically new and demanding world.

Principals do need contact with exemplary programmes. They need mentors and peers to break down the privacy of their own practices that produce isolation; isolation at any level is the enemy of improvement.

Recreating the teaching profession

Even the most successful principals are still dependent on the knowledge and skills of each individual classroom teacher. The biggest revolution, Fullan believes, is re-culturing the teaching profession. The profession, he believes, is yet to come of age. This new professionalism will be collaborative not autonomous; open rather than closed; outward looking rather than insular; and authoritative but not controlling. More than anything the new professionalism will make huge demands on teachers' own learning to learn about: learning styles, multiple intelligences, how to integrate technology; how to interact with adults 'out there' and how to get more support for their teaching.

The problem is that is to easy to miss how very deep the need for this collegial learning approach is to develop a new culture of teaching. Leadership will have to come from many sources.

The future of educational change - two forces at play!

There are, Fullan says, two major forces of change at play, both with 'evil twins'. One is the top down curriculum accountability model we are all to aware of, and the other the development of schools as professional learning communities. Top down accountably models too easily turn into 'name and shame' environments which does little to help failing schools while the learning community approach can too easily turn into unrealistic 'navel gazing'.

Both approaches, Fullan believes, are important. They must team up if educational transformation across the wider system is to occur. Imposed structures and standards will never by themselves be able to gain teacher commitment and ingenuity, but equally, school left alone will either be unable to share effective ideas or become isolated. A delicate balance of top down and bottom up reform will be required but to succeed individual school must not only feel that they are in control of their own development but also feel part of a bigger society transformational movement; something 'worth fighting for!'

Six Messages from Fullan about Change

  1. If people cannot find meaning in any reform it cannot have an impact. Learning is about 'meaning making' and it requires a radically new way of approaching learning - one that guides the individual mind through the process of many minds working together.
  2. Existing strategies will not get us to where we want to go. We cannot simply imitate principals of successful 'moving ' schools we must change the existing conditions in each school so that it is normal and possible for all people to move forward.
  3. Although short-term gains can be achieved by standards based reform it is deadly if the conclusion is that schools should do more of the same. The learning community model will fail if teachers and principals do not have the capacity to act effectively. With numbers of schools struggling, there is a need to fast track phase one of change by pushing hard on standards , providing quality support material and examples of successful practice, and providing focussed professional development. As results begin it is then necessary to shift to 'capacity building', to encourage local ownership. This cannot be a simple linear process and phase one can be seen as pre- capacity building. The flow is from tighter to looser forms of control, from external to internal commitment, from control to guidance. A process that applies process at all levels.
  4. The 'learning organisation/community' is more than a cliché. This phrase is one of the most superficially understood terms in the change business. Learning organisations are required because improvement is a function of learning to do the right thing in the setting where you work. Ultimately no amount of outside motivation can specify the best solutions for a particular situation.
    It is about 'organisational knowledge creation'.
    • People must work together to figure out what is needed to achieve what is worthwhile.
    • You cannot get internal commitment and ingenuity from outside - expertise lies within.
    • The only problems worth solving are the ones that exist in each and every organisation.
    • Change is forever. Problems don't stay solved, so you have to learn to do the right thing over and over again.

All together these make up the 'learning organisation'.
Professional learning communities constantly worry about what is worthwhile and how to get there. They continually convert tacit knowledge into explicit shared ideas; they are 'energy and knowledge creators'.

  1. We need to consider the collective good. The 'market forces' model that underpinned the educational changes of the 90s may have been efficient, generating competition and choice but it misses two fundamental matters. Firstly school systems and democracy are closely connected. Education has a strong moral component - education should enable people to work together to achieve higher purposes that serve both the individual and the collective good. Secondly we can only move forward by learning from each other's successes and failures. Schools have to share their ideas for the benefit of the students of all schools.
    Transformational change cannot be achieved:
    • if teachers identify with only their own classrooms - they must be concerned with the success of other teachers of the school.
    • if principals identify only with their own schools - they must be concerned with the success of all other schools.
    • if school districts identify only with their own areas only. And so on.

As well, now more than ever, we must identify with and help improve the surrounding community the school resides in. Everything is interconnected. All must all work together. This will be a new challenge both for schools and the wider community.

  1. We have to learn to live with change. This means we have to take change both less and more seriously at the same time. Less, because most change is superficial and more because it is important to work through change until we get shared meaning and improvement. The best defence against the relentless pace of change, Fullan believes, is to build professional learning communities that are good at sorting out the worthwhile from the non worthwhile and to look for support and healing when ill conceived or random changes takes its toll.

Fullan's book is well worth a full read. It contains a hopeful message of the power of the reciprocity of personal and shared meaning - how they both contribute and enrich each other. The ultimate goal is where people see themselves as shareholders in a community with a stake in the success of the system as a whole and with the pursuit of shared meaning the key.

Bruce Hammonds.

1 What exactly these standards are is problematic. Government do need to provide 'guidelines' to ensure equity and quality assurance but in the past implementing imposed frameworks have in themselves become part of the problem.