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Leadership and Change Smackdown

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Live From NSDC, St. Louis-- When it comes to the professional literature on educational leadership, I'm pretty much an unrepentant Fullanite. Not that Michael Fullan is a particularly eloquent writer or inspirational speaker. He's neither--and his luncheon keynote today was classic Fullan: turgid, chock-full of video clips, way too much text and information, delivered at machine-gun speed, interesting but borderline incoherent.

But here's the thing about Michael Fullan--his ideas are powerful and they square with the messy, uncontrolled nature of human learning and change. I fell in love with Michael Fullan when I plowed through "Change Forces," and read his theories about premature planning and goal-setting. Having spent a depressing number days of my life serving on school committees, I am well aware of the fact that changes in practice happen after two simpatico teachers share ideas at lunch, and planning teams are generally the place where innovation goes to die.

A few, unrelated nuggets from Fullan's remarks:

It's a myth that profound change in schools takes eons--within two months, an elementary school can turn around a failing literacy program.

We should stop talking about "data-driven instruction"--because instruction should really drive data.

The problem with targets is getting hung up on numbers. Student achievement targets are OK, provided that you don't obsess, the target is broad and worthy, and failure to reach the target does not result in punitive action.

As a new leader, if you come on too strong--you're toast. If you come on too gently, you get absorbed into the culture.

The size and the attractiveness of the planning document are inversely related to the quality of subsequent action and effect on student learning (paraphrasing Doug Reeves). The simpler the plan, the more likely the impact.

Acquisition of skills and experience increases clarity--clarity does not precede goal-setting or action.

Behavior changes before beliefs and attitude.

Excitement prior to implementation is fragile, and prone to dissipating in the heat of real life. Communication during implementation is vastly more important than communication before implementation. The real trick is getting participants to understand that errors are opportunities for learning.

It struck me, repeatedly, in Fullan's address that much of what he's saying does not align with other change and leadership gurus in education. His "small number of broad goals and tolerance for ambiguity" schtick is directly oppositional to the other hot, sticky topics on the NSDC menu: data mania, "results," and the tools-and-levers school of ed leadership. I looked around at my fellow luncheon guests. Were they buying Fullan's ideas? They were certainly taking notes, and laughing at the video clips. But maybe they will return to their districts and continue with data-driven everything, four-color flow charts outlining five-year goal planning and charting results.

5 Comments

I'd question further if his message makes any difference in the national educational establishment, as what he's saying runs contrary to just about everything the federal DoE is endorsing under Race to the Top.

I agree, Tracy. The schism between "data-driven instruction plan" (read: whatever makes the scores go up) and Fullan's more organic change theory is really distinct.

I'm not sure what the audience was responding to, today--his ideas or his presentation style. Because you can't endorse what Fullan was espousing and then return home to a program of test prep.

I cringe every time I hear "data-driven." I know I'm not the first to suggest "data-informed" or "data-guided" as steps in the right direction. The original phrase suggests that if we have the data then the next step is self-evident. Even the variations on that phrase empower the information too much - because a lot of what we have just isn't that useful. In fact, (I wish I could remember the source for this - Cizik?) I recall learning that when you're dealing with any given student, the idea of using a subtest from a standardized test to inform decision is no more reliable than a coin-flip.

"Behavior changes before beliefs and attitude." - There's another one that presents a challenge. I've been studying texts about professional learning communities, where I've seen a lot of focus on buy-in, mission statements, establishing trust, shifting culture, all as prerequisites to real shifts in the learning community. Obviously, you need both, but this quote sounds a bit like "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Is there more to it?

"Communication during implementation is vastly more important than communication before implementation. The real trick is getting participants to understand that errors are opportunities for learning." - Indeed! Unless you just get more opportunities than you know what to do with...

I know precisely what you mean about "data-driven." There was a sense, in the films clips we saw, that prior to the two principals' arrival in their schools, nobody was paying attention to tangible results. There may be a sliding scale, from "oblivious" to "obsessed with tiny numerical bumps?"

Fullan's point about action was that sometimes teachers have to actually try something that they initially view with suspicion, before they can endorse it. He didn't use this example, but I immediately thought of DuFour's contention that sometimes teachers have to be part of PLCs before they believe that PLCs can make substantive and productive changes in practice. Fullan actually is a great believer in theory and meaning before action plans. I've used his quote often: "A good theory beats a detailed action plan any day."

Education change, like fossil formation (http://www.k5geosource.org/content/dd/fossil/pg1.html (first page only)), can happen very rapidly under the right conditions. But once institutions become "fossilized," they resist change for a very long time.

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  • Sclgoya: Education change, like fossil formation (http://www.k5geosource.org/content/dd/fossil/pg1.html (first page only)), can read more
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  • Nancy Flanagan: I agree, Tracy. The schism between "data-driven instruction plan" (read: read more
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