We need leaderpreneurs and teacherpreneurs
who innovate learning in partnership with students.
– Manoj Chandra Handa

Michael Fullan is Professor Emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Canada. Professor Fullan is recognised as a worldwide authority on educational reform. During his Australia tour conducting a series of workshops on “Maximising Leadership for Change”, Professor Fullan generously conversed with me (formerly, I served as Chief Education Officer, New South Wales Department of Education and Communities) about maximising school and system leadership. Engaging with the thought leader was a great learning experience for me. Here are some excerpts with Professor Fullan’s insights:   

Key drivers of system reform

              MCH: Based on your rich experience with successful systems around the world, what do you believe are the key drivers of meaningful whole system reform?

              Fullan: The work we’ve been doing around the world with different systems is all embedded in the system trying to improve itself. It’s not us just observing it. It’s us participating in the improvement process and the key drivers. When you put them together as a cluster, in addition to focusing on a small number of ambitious goals, the drivers themselves are capacity building, i.e., how you build up the skills and competencies of teachers and principals. A second driver is social capital. We call it so because you don’t just depend on individuals being strong. You want the entire group to be strong. Pedagogy, as the third driver in deep and structural practice, is tied to assessment of learning and improvement of learning. And the fourth driver is something we call “systemness”. It’s an odd word. But “systemness” means that you develop experiences in people where they start to identify with the bigger part of the system itself. So a teacher, for example, who moves from just thinking of “my classroom only” to thinking of all the kids in the school—that’s “systemness”. The same applies with a principal who starts to participate in a network, and then tries to improve an entity larger than themselves; and when many people get involved in “systemness”, the whole thing works. If you have these four foundation drivers in place – and there are secondary enablers that we could talk about – then you’ve got the strength to really mobilise a big process that gets improvement in a fairly short order of time.

Fostering school and system leadership

              MCH: In your paper, “System Thinkers in Action”, you write about the long lever of leadership. You mention that if a system is to be transformed, leadership at all levels must be the prime engine. How can system and school leaders foster leadership in others?

              Fullan: If we take school leadership as the starting point, one of the key points about leadership is that the leaders not only develop the required skills, but they also produce other leaders: teacher leaders, coaches, and whatever the school leadership team is. It’s not just the principal, it’s the whole team. When a principal does that, two big things happen. One is you get more done because several people are working on it. Secondly, as you build a pipeline to the next level of leadership, the young people on the leadership team learn about leadership before they get into more responsible positions. This is just at the school level, and subsequently, it could be system leaders: regional directors, or leaders at the state level. We’ve done it in Ontario at both those levels.

              So how do we develop principal leadership? How do we develop leadership in network leaders? And that part is the same phenomenon. Whatever level you are at, you want to multiply your influence. We do that somewhat by leadership training, which is but only one aspect. We do it especially by placing people in situations where they can learn. We call it “learning is the work”, because it’s a collaborative culture, because they have good mentors and supportive leadership. So good principals start to connect with good regional directors or network directors, and vice versa; and when you get these connection points, they start to multiply leadership influence.

Maximising student achievement

              MCH: Can you please describe how and why the principal’s role might change to maximise student achievement?

              Fullan: Research tells us that the teacher is the most important person for children’s learning. But then the principal is the second most important, second to the teacher in a sense. That’s the starting point of my book. If we agree that the principal is the second most important influence for the learning of children, what does it mean to maximise that? In my book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, I describe three keys to maximise the effect of principal’s leadership.

              One key is the principal as lead learner. We know from research that the principals, who affect the performance of the entire school, are those leaders who, and here’s the key phrase, participate as learners with the staff to move the school forward. We have the principal, as lead learner, modelling learning with the staff, learning with the teachers, and getting better at that because they do it year after year. If you want to change the group, use the group to change the group. The more the principals can get teachers together, support them, and be with them, the more they can have a bigger impact because the group has a bigger impact than any individual. The second key I have in the book is the principal as system player. Again, a bit of an odd way of putting it. But making sure that we’re aware and the principal is aware that it’s not just your own school as your own domain that you operate in. You have to be part of a network of schools learning laterally. You have to interact with the state policy.

              The third one that we’re zeroing in now is the principal as change agent. This is about the actual competencies that people need, the skills, the detail; and those skills are becoming quite clear. I generally categorise them as push factors and pull factors. A push factor is when leaders challenge the status quo; when leaders say, “This is a problem, it’s urgent. We’ve got to work on it. This way of working is non-negotiable.” So, there is a set of push factors that pushes change forward. But at the same time you have to have an equal set of pull factors: “How do you build trust? How do you have communication that’s clear? How do you develop a common plan that is associated with success? How do you develop leadership in others?” When these push and pull factors interact—and there are only three or four of each of them—they have the power and the support to move the organisation and the system forward.

Collaboration is key

              MCH: What do you think are the challenges in moving people to embrace increased collaboration and how can we overcome those challenges?

              Fullan: The challenges for collaboration, I think, are considerable. Put it again in a bit of a strange way: if you’re in a bad relationship, you’d rather be alone. What this means is that if teachers are finding that their colleagues are not really great to work with, or they are finding that the principal is not a good leader, they would rather be left alone to work in their own classroom. One of the challenges is to get leaders—who know how to bring the group together—to make it a positive experience. That’s one big challenge. The second big challenge is that sometimes the wrong drivers are used with too much accountability, or there are fragmented policies. So most people, when they feel the system is disjointed, often withdraw from it, and that only makes it worse.

              Even if the system is a bit not aligned, you can work it out with your colleagues, with other teachers, with the principal, and with a couple of schools. You can establish collaboration that makes it more effective. The reason ultimately that collaboration will be attractive is because people will get more work done and achieve more progress which they find satisfying. The second reason, I think, is that it’s a basic human condition that we like to work together to get things done if the work is good, and if the group is good. There’s a really intrinsic attraction to work with other people on an important issue such as educational improvement.

Engaging with student voice

              MCH: Research shows that student voice has the power to influence change and bring whole school improvement. How can we nurture and promote student voice to enrich the curriculum, foster staff professional learning, increase student engagement, and raise student self efficacy?

              Fullan: The whole area of student voice and participation is quite complicated. If principals and teachers are not well organised, they will find student voice threatening. They won’t know how to handle it because they themselves don’t have the capacity. We’ve spent a lot of time building up the capacity of teachers and principals to be more open so that they are better able to relate to students. The second thing that we’ve done is actually to bring student voice and participation into the pedagogy. A new learning partnership is required between, and among, students and teachers. In this learning partnership, students are much more influential with each other, much more influential with the teacher, and they have a voice in their own learning, if you like. The third element is that students actually can have a voice in shaping some of the rules of the school. So you can actually get students as part of decision making, and the environment of the school.  If you get all three of those elements working in synergy, you get a powerhouse of learning.

Nexus between school improvement and school innovation

              MCH: Michael, do you see any creative tension between school improvement and school innovation? Can they coexist? What is your view about this relationship between these two perspectives? Can we embrace the “genius of AND”, or do we have to be stifled by the “tyranny of OR”?

              Fullan: We have worked with the two concepts in school improvement and innovation. So let’s start there. We’ve come to, I think, a fairly clear conclusion. If an institution only does improvement, it misses innovations. If an institution only moves from innovation to innovation, it doesn’t consolidate. So it is the “both..and” that have to be brought together, and I’ve just actually written about it for Ontario. I said: We’ve worked on literacy, we’ve worked on numeracy, we’ve worked on high school improvement and retention, and we need to continue to work on that. We need to do the continuous improvement that’s necessary to keep going to raise the bar and close the gap. But I also said: As we do that, we should add a small number of, and here’s a good phrase, focused innovation.

              So, focused innovation on deepening the learning – not just literacy and numeracy, but critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication, citizenship, and character development. That is deeper. It’s innovative, it’s really pushing forward. The second area of focused innovation is the improvement of early learning before age five, and we have done some major things for four and five years olds: “All Day Kindergarten”, we call it. A number of things have to be done from pre-natal to age three. These are innovative because we haven’t done them before. In one sense then, today’s innovation is tomorrow’s continuous improvement, and the next day’s continuous improvement is the next day’s innovation. They go together. You need both, and it’s dynamic if you can get them both going.  

Future horizon

              MCH: Michael, what sort of future trends do you envisage on the horizon for the school leaders, teachers, and students?

              Fullan: I think in the immediate future we’re seeing a dynamic phenomenon that is going to spread rapidly, and is already spreading rapidly. It is a new relationship between students and teachers that is underpinned by the rapid involvement of technology. Students are immersed in the use of technology for learning, and are using it all day, and in the evenings, and the groups keep going. It’s a bit messy, admittedly because no longer can you contain it nine to three or whatever the hours are.

              Nonetheless, what I see on the horizon, I’ll put it this way: around the world we’ve seen a certain push problem. The push problem is that in normal schooling, students are increasingly bored as they go up the grades. I call it a push factor because the students are being pushed out of the schools psychologically, if not literally. Teachers, for a lot of reasons, might be more alienated now because of the policies, and because the working environment may not be good enough. The dissatisfaction with the status quo is problem one. Then the excitement of technology and new pedagogy is the pull factor.

              You put those two together, and there’s a breakthrough! I think that leaders will have to manage a very complex process because once these things break open, they are not so easily contained. Leaders can help focus; they can help take advantage of the opportunity; they can help people zero in; and they can encourage innovation. There’s a whole set of things that makes the role certainly a lot more demanding, but also a lot more exciting. It is real leadership that they can show, that they can benefit from, and get better results.

              So, I see a much more dynamic future, not so much contained simply within the school, but linking to the communities and the wider environment through technology, and participating in the wider world. It is a whole new exciting phenomenon that has some trouble spots in it. But more than trouble spots, it has great opportunities, and that is what leaders have to help take advantage of.

              MCH: Thank you, Michael, for sharing your insights.


DuFour, R., & Fullan, M. (2013). Cultures built to last: Systemic PLCs at work. USA:  Solution Tree Press.
Fullan, M. (2004) System thinkers in action. London: The Innovation Unit and NCSL.
Fullan, M. (2014). The Principal: Three keys to maximising impact. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About Professor Michael Fullan

Michael Fullan (www.michaelfullan.ca) is Professor Emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Recognized as a worldwide authority on educational reform, he advises policymakers and local leaders around the world in helping to achieve the moral purpose of fostering all children’s learning. Professor Fullan received the Order of Canada in December, 2012. He is a prolific, award-winning author whose books have been published in many languages.

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