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Michael Fullan in Edinburgh

Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to Michael Fullan when he spoke at the Edinburgh Learning Festival. Fullan is well known around the world for his work related to teacher and leadership development, and the improvement of education systems. A lot of this has been done in conjunction with Andy Hargreaves and a small, but highly experienced, team based in Ontario. Fullan was talking to school leaders from Edinburgh, and other areas of Scotland,about his latest book 'The Principal - Three Keys for Maximising Impact.'

So he was speaking to school and education leaders about better school leadership by headteachers and others. So what did he have to say?

As part of his introduction, he spoke of current programmes that he and his team are currently involved in. They are working with states and education authorities in New Zealand, Australia,  United States and Canada. He noted that he and his team were now focused on deep change but over a wide scale in all the projects they were involved with.

He was invited by the English education ministry to carry out a deep audit and assessment of the English Literacy and Numeracy strategies in 2002, and he noted four big lessons learnt from this work. Two positive and two negative. After looking closely to what had happened in England the four messages were as follows. Firstly, don't have punitive accountability practices in your systems, they don't work. Secondly, don't become obsessed by targets as this can have more negative impacts. Thirdly, they saw that having a focus on a small number of goals did give the best opportunity to succeed. Finally, they recognised that capacity building amongst leaders and teachers was crucial to development of schools.

He noted wryly that he and his team had decided to focus more on the last two observations, whilst education authorities in England seems to be focused on the first two, which don't work. They saw much the same when they looked at the USA education system. They had lots of research and evidence to show what worked, but they had tended to ignore all of this seem determined to focus on the wrong things. Fullan and his team saw that a lot of the evidence they looked at reflected what they had and others had seen elsewhere. Ontario decided to focus on the two positives from the English evidence and dramatically improved their educational performance as a result.

Fullan described how he had learnt a lot from workshops that he and his team have led. They use these as the major vehicle for disseminating information and new practices to the school leaders they work with. They were also vital in order to learn from these school leaders about what was working and what was not. When asked about managing the change process and whether he saw evolution or revolution most necessary, he quoted a leader he had met who said, 'a good change process is voluntary, but inevitable.'

 Fullan has identified what he calls Right Drivers and Wrong Drivers for change in schools and education systems. Right Drivers would be capacity building, collaborative working, pedagogy and what he described as systemness. This last one he explained further as teachers and schools understanding the bigger picture and how they fit into this. He used the example of teachers recognising their responsibilities to all the pupils in their school, not just the ones in their class or who they taught directly. Wrong Drivers that could be found were, negative accountability practices, focus on individual teacher and leader quality, technology and systems and schools being target driven.

Fullan stated that it was very important for educational leaders to 'connect the dots' between schools, local authorities or districts and national agendas and policies. He said that good school leaders 'exploit policy'. That is, they work within local or national policies but still find ways to do what is right for them and their schools. This was later supported by the Director of Children's Services in Edinburgh, but she did admit she would probably regret that at a later date!

It was interesting to note that Fullan and his team have decided that to improve systems, change should be focused in the middle, rather than the top down, or bottom up approach. He felt that this way change could be directed in both directions from the middle, up and down. He and Andy Hargreaves have written another book 'Leadership From The Middle' that further expands on this theory and strategy. Another important point that he wished to make was that, from all the evidence they had seen, schools that are autonomous and left on their own, don't develop. For schools to develop, trust is a key component. But, what do you do where you don't have a culture and ethos based on trust in place? His advice was to name it, 'you can trust me, model it, through your behaviours, and then monitor it, to make sure it was still in place and felt by all.

Fullan was keen to point out that we need to get accountability right. To do this we need to turn it on its head. School leaders need to be non-judgemental in their dealings with teachers, and they need to train themselves to be so. He pointed out that people are not motivated when they are told they are terrible, but that they would not improve if just left to their own devices. As school leaders, our aim should be to build capacity in all our staff. We should be wary of micromanaging individual teachers who we feel are under-performing, but instead focus on collective and collaborative capacity building and development. We should focus on human capital, social capital, decisional capital and professional capital in our schools and amongst all our staff. He noted, like many others, that headteachers who lead learning, and engage with learning with all their staff, have the biggest impacts on learning and teaching development in their schools.

We were asked to consider which of the following had the greatest impact on teacher learning?
1) Teacher appraisal
2) Professional development
3) Collaborative culture
He said that the evidence was that the third of these, collaborative cultures, was the one factor that had the greatest impact on teacher development and understanding, and therefore school development.

He noted that evidence from throughout the world showed that talented schools improved weak teachers. That is those schools that worked collaboratively not only improved the performance of strong teachers, they also had the same impacts on the weaker teachers. Unfortunately , what they had also seen was that talented teachers will leave weak schools. Where strong teachers find themselves with weak leadership, they will vote with their feet and leave. Our goal should be to reduce bad variations in teaching standards within schools and between schools. Fullan argued that the way to do this was through collaboration and capacity building.

The three key roles that are indicated in the title of Fullan's latest book  are for school leaders to be leaders of learning, agents for change and system players. He said it was vital that leaders not only walked the talk, but were able to talk the walk. By this he meant that , as leaders, we should be able to articulate, explain and justify the direction of travel in all our schools. The inference being that saying you were doing something because you had been told to do it by someone else is not an acceptable stance for strong school leaders.

He cautioned against passionate leaders who lacked skills. These were dangerous to their schools and to their staff. He used Steve Jobs as an example of such a leader. Driven and passionate about what he wanted to achieve, but a nightmare for staff and colleagues who worked with him.

These were the main messages from Fullan's talk and I hope I have captured them accurately from my scribbled notes. He was very keen to refer people to his website, michaelfullan.ca for more information and detailed evidence. Of course, there is also the book if what you have read here has pricked your interest and desire to find out more.

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