by Michael Fullan
It may seem strange to say that professional development—educators going to workshops and conferences, and taking courses—bears little relationship to classroom and school improvement. Similarly teachers toiling away as individuals do not add up to school or system success. What really counts is what happens ‘in between workshops’ or what I call learning is the work (Fullan, 2008).
Learning on the job, day after day, is the work. My colleague Richard Elmore (2004) nailed the problem of superficial school reform when he notes that “improvement is more a function of learning to do the right thing in the setting in which you work” (p.73). He elaborates: “The problem [is that] there is almost no opportunity for teachers to engage in continuous and substantial learning about their practice…observing and being observed by their colleagues in their own classrooms and classrooms of other teachers in schools confronting similar problems of practice” (p. 127).
Fortunately there is new work underway that is building new collaborative cultures within and across schools in order to build the individual and especially collective capacity to improve instruction linked to student needs and achievement. This work is driven by the moral imperative of raising the bar and closing the gap for all students, and doing so for the whole system—not just for some schools, but for all students; not just for some districts but all districts; and not just a one level but at all levels. We call this ‘whole system reform’ (Fullan, 2010).
The research has been clear and consistent for over 30 years—collaborative cultures in which teachers focus on improving their teaching practice, learn from each other, and are well led and supported by school principals result in better learning for students. The difference in the past few years is that we are moving from research to improved practice. In this article I will examine the nature of this work, what results it gets, and what the implications are for the future.
The Nature of Collaborative Work
Starting within the classroom the basic building block is instructional practice linked to student achievement. I am going to call this the instruction-achievement nexus. This work has to be clear, specific and precise so that it can be understood and well implemented. We have done this for example with literacy and numeracy in Ontario. Instruction and assessment operate as a two-way street, one informing the other. Personalization, i.e., individual needs of students becomes the focus. So the first element is focus.
Second, for teachers to improve their practice they learn best from other teachers provided that these teachers are also working on improvement. These exchanges are thus purposeful, and based on evidence.
Third for this system to develop it must be led. Supportive leaders become an essential component including for example literacy or other instructional coaches, and principals as instructional leaders. Again this work is precise and always under development. To take one example, we and others have found that the greatest impact a principal can have on student learning is the degree to which the principal participates as a learner in working with teachers to make improvements.
Fourth, it is not sufficient for schools to work out collaboration on their own. External facilitation is required. And since we are interested in system change we also need schools to learn from each other. Thus we employ strategies where schools are in small clusters (3-8 schools for example).
Fifth and finally there needs to be some vertical support across the levels—schools and communities, districts, province—for this to develop on any scale.
To take another specific version of the same principles in action we can consider ‘professional learning communities’ (PLCs) as developed by Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, and Karhanek (2010). There are three ‘big ideas’ that underpin PLCs:
The first and biggest idea is that the fundamental purpose of schools is to ensure that all students learn as distinct from all students should be taught. This will require the development of shared goals and vision, the alignment of procedures and practices, and specific indicators of progress.
The second big idea is that helping all students learn requires a collaborative culture and collective effort. Educators will need to work in interdependent teams to achieve a common goal to which they hold themselves mutually accountable for all students learning.
The third big idea is that all schools will be unable to monitor their effectiveness unless they create a results orientation. They use common assessments and make results from those assessments easily accessible and openly shared in order to build individual and team capacity.
Surrounding these big ideas is the need for school cultures to change toward collaboration; for district cultures to change toward school-to-school openness, and greater two-way partnerships between schools and districts; and for governments to change toward partnership with the sector in which capacity building as distinct from compliance (or equally problematic, site-based school autonomy). All of this means that the individual, isolated autonomy of the teacher becomes passé. The cultural transformation then involves the de-privatization of teaching. The new norm is interactive professionalism, which incidentally is the way of all advanced professions.
In sum, the big difference between effective and ineffective schools systems—and all organizations for that matter– is the ‘collective or shared depth of understanding among members about the nature of their work’. You can’t get collective depth from a workshop, or from episodic team meetings. You can only get shared depth one- way—make learning the day-to-day work.
In Ontario we have use this fundamental strategy of collective capacity building to improve the whole system. The public school system in Ontario consists of 2 million students, 130,000 teachers, 4000 elementary schools, 900 secondary schools organized in 72 districts (public, catholic and francophone districts, all publicly funded
Prior to 2003 the system was stagnant for at least five years in terms of literacy, numeracy, and high school graduation. There was constant strife between the government and teacher unions. A new government was elected in 2003 with its Premier, Dalton McGuinty declaring himself as the ‘education premier’. He appointed me as his Special Advisor and we set out to transform the system using the collective capacity building linked to results as the core strategy.
The details of the strategy and results are discussed in my book All systems go but the short version is that we began to get improvement within two years. Now in our seventh year (with a second term of office in 2007) literacy and numeracy has improved 14% across the 4000 elementary schools; high school graduation rates have increased from 68% to 81%; and the morale of teachers and principals is better. More importantly, the capacity of educators is greater providing the basis for further development.
The results of the Dufours’ PLC work in schools and districts are equally impressive. In chapter after chapter reporting on 6 schools (elementary, middle and secondary), and three districts we see teachers collaborating around the three big PLC ideas and getting impressive results for diverse student populations (Dufour et al, 2010).
The cases in our work in Ontario, and in that of the Dufours cover the waterfront: rural, urban and suburban settings; large and small schools; elementary, middle and high schools; single schools and entire districts– all benefiting through focused collaboration that increases skills, and commitment at the individual and group levels.
An even more convincing case comes from an intriguing small study by a business professor at the University of Pittsburg, Carrie Leana. She starts with the well- known finding that the patterns of interaction among teachers and between teachers and administrators when focused on student learning make a large measurable difference on student achievement and sustained improvement. This she calls ‘social capital’, which she contrasts with individual capital that is based on “the widespread belief in the power of teacher human capital to transform public education [which] is one of the cornerstones of current reform efforts” (p.12) Leana set out to test the relationship between the power of human and social capital. She and her team followed over 1,000 4th and 5th grade teachers in a representative sample of 130 elementary schools across New York City. The human capital measures included teacher education and qualifications, and experience and ability in the classroom. Social capital was measured in terms of the frequency and focus of conversations with peers that centered on instruction, and that was based on feelings of trust and closeness between teachers. She studied the impact on math achievement over a one-year period.
Leana uncovered several interrelated themes directly related to my argument here. If a teacher’s social capital was one standard deviation higher than the average, her students math scores increased by 5.7%. It is of course the case that teachers with high ability outperform teachers with low ability, but that is not the big driver. Leana reports that teachers who were both more able (high human capital), and had stronger ties with their peers (high social capital) had the biggest gains in math achievement. She even found that low-ability teachers perform as well as teachers of average ability “if they have strong social capital” (p. 10, italics in original’).
Remember human capital refers to the teacher’s cumulative abilities, knowledge, and skills developed through formal education and on-the-job experience. Social capital is not a characteristic of the individual but instead resides in the relationships among teachers and between teachers and principals. Leana’s findings mean that bad working conditions (low social capital) make good teachers less effective, and make poor teachers get even worse. Her findings also mean that the goal is to develop in concert both high human and high social capital. More than that –high social capital is a powerful strategy to leverage human capital.
I could site other examples but the point has been made: focused, purposeful team work, facilitated and well led produces better results. Given the moral imperative of serving all students it would seem non-negotiable that teachers should throw their commitment and energies behind developing collaborative cultures within and across schools. However it is the case that some jurisdictions are not conducive to supporting collaborative cultures. For example, governments that focus on punitive accountability, bureaucratic compliance, low-trust of the teaching profession undercut the likelihood that collaborative cultures will thrive. Nonetheless, my argument is that teachers have a moral obligation to help redefine the profession toward interactive professionalism. Paradoxically they will gain more autonomy and respect for the profession if they become more effective in raising the bar and closing the gap in student learning and achievement.
To return to whole system reform it has become obvious that the development of a collaborative teaching profession is associated with performance of the leading countries in the work. Whether one takes the recent PISA results (OECD,2010), or the in-depth study of 20 jurisdictions and countries my Mourshed and her McKinsey colleagues the message is the same. Top performing systems invest in the teaching profession, but as the profession evolves they discover that the next breakthrough requires the peer culture of teachers lead the way. As the McKinsey group found, when capacity of teachers is low more direct methods of capacity building are required, but if you are going to get breakthrough results innovation must come from teachers working in collaboration. Leadership at the school, district and system levels, in other words must help develop such an interactive system.
Finally, it is revealing how accountability plays itself out. It turns out that blatant accountability focusing on tests, standards and the like is not the best way to get results. Rather, successful systems combine strategies of capacity building and transparency of results and practice. In these ways they get deeper de facto accountability. The public is assured by the vertical accountability of transparency, and the system generates greater lateral accountability because peers working with peers in a focused deliberate way provide both support and pressure to improve in measurable ways. When this works gets underway it actually causes greater moral purpose—what we call the ‘moral imperative realized’ (Fullan, 2011). Realization becomes its own further force for continuous improvement. There is no greater motivator than internal accountability to oneself and one’s peers. It makes for a better profession, and it makes for a better system.
by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman | 8:00 AM July 30, 2014
A few weeks ago, we were asked to analyze a competency model for leadership development that a client had created. Its was based on the idea that at different points in their development, potential leaders need to focus on excelling at different skills. For example, in their model they proposed that a lower level manager should focus on driving for results while top executives should focus on developing a strategic perspective.
Intuitively, this makes sense, based as it is on the assumption that once people develop a skill, they will continue to exercise it. But, interestingly, we don’t apply it in athletics; athletes continue to practice and develop the same skills throughout their careers. And as we thought about the excellent senior executives we have met, we observed that they are, in fact, all very focused on delivering results, and many of the best lower level managers are absolutely clear about strategy and vision. This got us to wondering: Are some skills less important for leaders at certain levels of the organization? Or is there a set of skills fundamental to every level?
To see, we compiled a dataset in which we asked 332,860 bosses, peers, and subordinates what skills have the greatest impact on a leader’s success in the position the respondents currently hold. Each respondent selected the top four competencies out of a list of 16 that we provided.We then compared the results for managers at different levels.
As you might expect, the skills people reported needing depended not only on their level in the organization but also on the job they held and their particular circumstances. But even so, there was a remarkable consistency in the data about which skills were perceived as most important in all four levels of the organization we measured. The same competencies were selected as most important for the supervisors, middle managers, and senior managers alike, and six out of the seven topped the list for top executives. Executives at every organizational level, our respondents reported, need a balance of these competencies. The other nine competencies included in the study were chosen only half as frequently as the top seven.
This suggests to us that as people move up the organization, the fundamental skills they need will not dramatically change. Still, our data further indicate, the relative importance of the seven skills does change to some degree as people move up. So, in the graph above the top seven competences are listed in order of importance, as it happens, for the supervisory group. With middle managers, problem solving moves ahead of everything else. Then for senior management, communicating powerfully and prolifically moves to the number two spot. Only for top executives does a new competency enter the mix, as the ability to develop a strategic perspective (which had been moving steadily up the lower ranks) moves into the number five position.
What to make of all this? From our analysis we conclude that there is some logic to focusing on distinct competencies at different stages of development. But, more fundamentally, it shows us that there are a set of skills that are critical to you throughout your career. And if you wait until you’re a top manager to develop strategic perspective, it will be too late. Lack of a strategic perspective, our research has further indicated, is considered a fatal flaw even when your current job does not require it. Your managers want to see you demonstrate that skill before they promote you.
So it is useful to ask yourself which competencies are most critical for you right now. But it’s also critical to ask yourself which competencies are going to be most critical in the future for the next level job. Demonstrating those skills in your current job provides evidence that you will be successful in the next job.
Every creative solution begins in gridlock. We know we’re close, but we don’t know how to proceed. In these vexing moments—those painful instances when you’re overcome with the feeling of simply not knowing—it’s tempting to give up. We’ve reached the limits of what we know, and unearthing a solution feels impossible.
In May, David Letterman interviewed Louis CK on The Late Show. CK performed his usual shtick but also made a shrewd insight about the nature of learning.
My kids panic when they [can’t figure out a problem]. And that’s ok. My mother was a math teacher and she taught me that the moment where you go “I don’t know what this is”—the moment when you panic—means you’re about to figure it out. That means you let go to what you know and you’re about to grab onto a new thing that you didn’t know yet. I’m there for them in those moments.
It’s a great insight because it’s true: no one likes getting stumped. And when we do, it’s natural to think that the problem is a lack of brainpower. Yet years of research demonstrate that CK is right. Impasse is a sign that we’re nearing the solution, a veiled indication that we’re almost there. The trick is how we respond.
If we believe that intelligence is the problem—what the psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”—we give up easier. But if we believe that persistence, effort or grit is the problem—a “growth mindset”—we push through the gridlock and, as Dweck has demonstrated, solve more problems compared to a control group.
Dweck’s distinction is aimed at students and schools but it’s a nice way to think about employees and work. When we’re struggling with a problem in the office, it’s easy to blame the rigid hierarchy—the equivalent of the fixed mindset—and give up. On the other hand, once we treat the office as malleable we’re more likely to accomplish our goals.
This distinction matters because in the fixed mindset, good ideas are enough. If you’ve made a great suggestion and everyone ignores it, off to the bar to complain about your colleagues—you did everything you could. In the growth mindset, good ideas are just the beginning. Overcoming those dreaded office absurdities is the real challenge.
Businesses talk about being “lean” or “agile.” Given Dweck’s insight, however, I wonder if these approaches are overrated. Instead of restructuring the company, remind employees that their job isn’t just to fulfill their responsibilities but to improve how the company operates. CK is right. You know those moments when you complain about how inefficient your department is? That means you’re one step away from a solution.
It’s no secret that Japanese kids perform much better on international math tests than Americans do. Japan is ranked second in the world, while the US is far below average.
But there’s a surprising twist. Japanese teachers’ methods for teaching math were developed in the United States, yet never caught on here. Why not? Perhaps because many Americans assume good teachers are born, not trained; that teaching well requires innate talent, or recruiting the best and brightest to begin with.
Elizabeth Green, who founded the education news siteand serves as its editor and CEO, spent five years researching those assumptions. She visited the classrooms of talented teachers and charter schools renowned for high test scores, and traveled to Japan to watch math teaching methods in action. Her book, Building a Better Teacher, argues that teaching is perhaps the most complex profession there is, but that training, not talent, can create exceptional educators. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Libby Nelson: What’s the most important thing about teaching you learned while writing this book?
Elizabeth Green: Teaching is not something that even the most brilliant and gifted among us is born knowing how to do. I think I would have said of course, it’s hard work, it’s important, it’s a skill. Even early elementary school teachers are doing so much more than sitting on carpets and wiping noses. They are really thinking about ideas — numbers theory and algebra in math, and teaching a child to read is an incredibly detailed enterprise.
I didn’t really know that, really. And I think most of us don’t really get that, and I think that leads to policies that are misguided. I came away feeling like, I get it. I get why teachers feel under assault. They are really misunderstood.
LN: How would you describe the thought process of a really good teacher at work?
THE ONLY COMPARISON THAT REALLY COULD APPLY IS AN EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTOR IN A NATURAL DISASTER
EG: One of the characters in my book compares the work of teaching to the practice of medicine. He at first was really interested in studying the mind and how people think, so he assumed that the most ideal subjects for that research would be doctors, because they must think the most on the job. Only later did he end up studying teachers.
If you’re comparing teachers with doctors, the only comparison that really could apply is an emergency room doctor in a natural disaster. With doctors, you just have one person that you’re working with, and they want to be there. With teachers, they have as many as 30 or more people they’re working with at one time, and some of them do not choose to be there.
Teachers have to be mind readers at the same time as they have to be incredibly interpersonally sophisticated. They have to be masters of emotional intelligence. And at the same they’re supposed to be teaching academic content. Even the most sophisticated practitioners that we can imagine — it’s still more complicated to be a teacher, I ended up thinking.
LN: Why is there so little attention paid to the practice of classroom teaching?
EG: The fathers of educational psychology, the first education school professors, were bored by classroom practice. Edward Thorndike, who set the tone for all future education researchers, said when somebody asked him what he would do in a particular real-life situation at a school, “Do? I’d resign!” I think that’s typical of a university system that focuses on disciplinary research — it’s the history of education, the psychology of education. It’s not education itself as a thing to study. That has meant that we train future teachers in everything but how to teach, pretty much.
LN: What about after teachers are already in the classroom?
EG: We don’t give teachers the space to do anything but work, work, work. They have no space to learn. Whereas in Japan or Finland there are 600 hours per year of time spent teaching, in the US, it’s 1,000 hours or more. So teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum. They have no way of seeing anything that’s happening outside their own classroom.
They have no time to see each other teach. Other countries show that time is some of the most valuable time. When you get to have a common classroom experience to look at, then you get things like figuring out that “13 minus 9” is the very best problem to teach subtraction with borrowing. That kind of learning doesn’t happen in the US.
LN: One fascinating thing you found is that reforms in math teaching that were proposed in the US but never really caught on have transformed teaching in Japan.
EG: The Japanese were doing all these things differently in terms of teaching. I didn’t know how Japanese teachers got to that point, so I went to Japan myself and I asked them. It was this really strange experience where they would all say, “We learned from you. We learned from the US.” I was like, “From who, what?” and they would name these seminal figures throughout US history who had influenced the Japanese system.
WE TAKE GOOD IDEAS AND WE MANDATE THEM
The difference is they take good ideas and they know how to put them into practice. We take good ideas and we mandate them, and we pay no attention to how to put them into practice. The policies we come up with to try to put them into practice are the opposite of what actually makes sense.
LN: How do the Japanese do this differently?
EG: The Japanese are lucky in that they start from the place of believing that teaching is a craft. They already had a way for teachers to have time to learn, and they have the space to learn from each other. In their lesson study system, they not only do demonstration lessons of best practices, but they pose questions: Is 13 minus 9 really the best problem to teach subtraction with borrowing? Let’s try another problem.
They have the teaching equivalent of Iron Chef. One teacher will teach the same concept one way, and another teacher will teach it a different way. And they’ll have a discussion of what was good and what was bad, and you can see in these discussions why that system is so important. Teachers are learning about all the different things they need to know, all at once in this one experience in this really condensed way.
They’re learning about how children make sense of the problems they’re given, what children are likely to misunderstand. They also learn what techniques are useful to let children track the flow of ideas. They have an entire art of how to write on the blackboard that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.
LN: The one place you found a similar system in the US was at charter schools.
YOU CAN’T INCENTIVIZE YOUR WAY OR FIRE YOUR WAY TO BETTER SCHOOLS
EG: They have a system of watching each other teach, sharing ideas about what they’ve seen. They have time dedicated just for learning about teaching. It’s really simple, basic things, but they make a huge difference, and they don’t exist inside the traditional US school system.
I think we take the wrong lessons from charter schools. I think a lot of policymakers have looked at the successful charter schools, and they’ve said the lesson here is they operate in a free-market system where they can fire and hire whomever they please. And students choose to go there.
When I asked the charter school leaders, they don’t credit their success with market models. In fact they talk about the limits of those models. Instead, they credit their success to the “build it, don’t buy it” approach. You can’t buy talent; you have to build it. You can’t incentivize your way or fire your way to better schools. You have to give teachers opportunities to learn.
LN: When we talk about improving teacher education, one idea that tends to come up most is that education schools need to be much more selective — that teaching needs to be like law or medicine.
WE CAN’T SIMPLY EXPECT TO GET THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST
EG: One place we have to start is with the reality of the scale of the teaching profession. There are 3.8 million teachers in this country, and that number actually understates the challenge because of teacher turnover. In the next several years we’re going to have to have a million new teachers.
That is unlike any other profession. It just totally pales in comparison. We can’t simply expect to get the best and brightest — it’s not a feasible idea at all. If recruiting talented, smart, more academically successful college graduates were enough, then Teach for America would not think it needs to invest so much in training. They obviously invest more in recruiting the best and brightest and even do a better job of it than some investment banks.
There is nothing wrong with elevating the status of the teaching profession. I think that’s a great idea. It’s just obviously not enough.
“At the end of the day, what qualifies people to be called ‘leaders’ is their capacity to influence others to change their behavior in order to achieve important results.” Joseph Grenny
In a time where the only constant in education is change, people involved with education need to become “change agents” more now than ever. You can understand pedagogy inside out, but if you are unable to define “why” someone should do something different in their practice, all of that knowledge can be ultimately wasted. People will take a “known good” over an “unknown better” in most cases; your role is to help make the unknown visible and show why it is better for kids.
Look at the debate over “new math” right now. Many people, including educators, are pushing back over the new curriculum based on the idea that math was taught in a much better way when we were kids. Simply explaining the process and the way we teach and learn math is not enough. It has to go deeper. Ultimately, you want people to feel that this is so much better than they were kids, and that their children are better off. Innately, people want what is better for kids. Tap into that, and people are more likely to move forward.
“To sell well is to convince someone else to part with resources—not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end.” Daniel Pink
So how does this happen? Below are some things that I have seen effective leaders to have not people only accept change, but embrace it as an opportunity to do something better for kids.
- Model the change that they want to see. Although this might seem extremely “cliche”, it is the most imperative step for any leader in leading the “change effort”. Many organizations talk about the idea that people need to be “risk-takers”, yet they are not willing to model it themselves. Until that happens, people will not feel comfortable doing something different. It is also the difference between talking from a “theoretical” to “practical” viewpoint. Have you ever seen a PowerPoint on “21st Century Change” from an administrator who does not exhibit any of the learning that is being discussed in the presentation? Me too. People will feel more comfortable taking a journey to an unknown place if they know that the first steps have been taken by someone else. Although I believe in the idea of distributed leadership, the idea of “leaders” is that they are also ahead; they have done things that have not been done before. Chris Kennedy has shared the idea that leaders need to be “elbow deep in learning” with others, not only to show they are willing to embrace the change that they speak about, but to also be able to talk from a place of experience.
- Show that you understand the value that already exists. The word “change” is terrifying to some because it makes them feel that everything that they are doing is totally irrelevant. Rarely is that the case. I have seen speakers talk to an audience for an hour and people walk out feeling like they were just scolded for 90 minutes on how everything that they are doing is wrong. It is great to share new ideas, but you have to tap into what exists already that is powerful. When you show people that you value them and their ideas (and not in a fake way which is pretty easy to read through), they are more likely to move mountains for you., and for themselves. Strengths-based leadership is something that should be standard with administrators to teachers, as it should be standard with teachers to kids.
- Tell stories. Data should inform what we do and is an important part of the change process, but it does not move people. If you look at major companies like Coke and Google, they use stories to elicit emotion from people. Of course they have numbers that they use in their process, especially when it comes to stakeholders, but organizations know the importance of telling a story to make people “feel” something. To inspire meaningful change, you must make a connection to the heart before you make a connection to the mind. Stories touch the heart. What is yours?
- Bring it back to the kids. What does a 80% to a 90% tell us about a kid? That they are now 10% better? Most educators got into the profession because of a strong passion for helping kids, so when we reduce who a child is to simply a number, or teaching simply to a process, we lose out on why many of us became educators. To help kids. If you ever get the change to see Jennie Magiera speak, watch how she shows kids in her presentations and it shows the impact of her work on them. A 10% difference does not create the same emotion as watching a student talk about something they learned or have done. I have shared a video of Tony Sinanis doing a “newsletter” with his students and I have watched educators all over the world engrossed by what they are seeing. Think about it…it’s a school newsletter. Imagine if I handed out a piece of paper to educators and asked them to read a newsletter from another school. Do you think they would care as much as seeing the kids, their faces, and their emotions? Don’t let a grade tell a story; let the kids do it themselves.
- Get people excited and then get out of the way. I have been to schools, watched administrators encourage their teachers to embrace something different in their practice, and they make that change impossible to do. Giving the answer that “we need to change the policy before you can move forward” not only encourages the detractors, but it kills the enthusiasm in your champions. When “yeah but” is the most commonly used phrase in your leadership repertoire, you might as well just learn to say “no”; it’s essentially the same thing. The most successful people in the world rarely follow a script, but write a different one altogether. Are teachers doing something better “because of you” or “in spite of you”. If you want to inspire change, be prepared to “clear the path” and get out of the way so that change can happen.
“Increase your power by reducing it.” Daniel Pink
The change process is a tough one but simply being knowledgeable is not enough. Some people that actually “know less” but “influence more” create more change than some of the smartest people you know. Education is not about “stuff” but about “people”. Tap into that and you are more likely to see the change that you are hoping to see.