Final Mark: How educational leaders can actually change the system, according to Michael Fullan

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EngagED Learning Magazine Cover

This article is part of
Vol. 1, issue 1 (Fall 2021)
of EngagED Learning magazine.

By Martine Rioux and Audrey Miller

Why are some leaders successful and others not? This is the big question Ontario researcher Michael Fullan tries to answer in his work, and he has several answers! Here are a few from a recent conference for school administrators, which we attended. 

Michael Fullan is the Director of New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. The Ontario researcher is recognized for his many works and publications on educational leadership. As the former Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, he advises local policymakers and leaders around the world about educational leadership. He also helped to implement educational reforms. 

What is nuanced leadership?

While from the outside all styles of leadership may be alike, the most successful leaders seem to have certain characteristics that Fullan expresses as follows:

1- Curiosity about what could be possible (being open to all possibilities)

2- The ability to see under the surface (considering a situation as a whole)

3- Connection between humans (knowing how to connect people to their own humanity and to those of others)

4- The instinct for concertation (being determined that the group will succeed)

5- Humility, courage and commitment (to fully engage in the system for the good of humanity)

6- Action based on in-depth knowledge of the context (taking the time to understand in order to act accordingly)

7- Awareness of the fact that the arrival of a new context automatically « disqualifies » you (engage relentlessly in your professional development and stay abreast of changes)

Change leadership: Foster the establishment of a common vision and goals by participating as a learner within a group in the definition and continuous redefinition of goals.

Fullan stressed the importance of school administrators adopting a learner posture. « Success comes when you participate in a collective process as a learner. You have to learn to be an expert and a learner at the same time ». This means that the leader knows how to listen to others, is ready to recognize their good ideas and to take them into account in order to readjust. They also know how to provide the group with the benefit of their expertise when relevant and necessary.

How to lead change

Of course, as Fullan points out, we can expect change in education to come from higher organizational and even ministerial levels. However, in his view, the notion of leadership in a culture of change in the school environment requires first building internal accountability in each school if we then want the external accountability (from the larger system) to really have an effect.

To do this, he recommends that school administrators rely on precision in their expectations of teaching staff, but avoid prescription: we cannot impose something on someone who does not see the merits. 

Aim for collective effectiveness and look elsewhere

He also stresses the importance of developing collective effectiveness among teachers, a « collaborative professionalism ». But be careful! He reminds us that we must also learn to collaborate in an effective way, otherwise, we can also make mistakes even when collaborating. As researcher John Hattie highlighted, collective teacher effectiveness is one of the most important factors influencing educational success.

In addition, Fullan encourages administrators to actively participate in discussions with teachers in order to identify with them what works, in addition to fostering connected autonomy among staff members, that is to say to remain themselves and to help others learn, while learning from them as well. In addition, he mentions that we must never forget that collaboration must be integrated into the school’s culture – in fact, informal collaboration (which occurs outside of organized meetings and learning communities) is just as important as that experienced in “formal” moments.

Lastly, a leader who wants to help improve the system should not stay only in their school, says Fullan. They must see their role beyond, as a member of a larger network. « You have to get outside of your work environment to forge new connections and to go looking for ideas where you don’t always expect to find them. »

For him, someone who focuses their attention solely on pedagogy within their own environment and never looks elsewhere won’t be as successful as those who are inspired otherwise. Networking must be seen as a fundamental part of getting out of the box.

“Transform yourself so you can change the system. Don’t wait for the others!” (Michael Fullan)

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