Interview with Michael Fullan

Screen Shot 2014-01-20 at 10.38.54 AMDr. Michael Fullan is a leading authority on educational reform. Fullan’s work in Ontario contributed to impressive improvements in literacy, numeracy and high school graduation rates, while closing the gap at schools in impoverished areas. A prolific, award-winning author, he now advises policy-makers and local leaders around the world.

In conversation with The mg Times, Fullan argued that a powerful push-pull dynamic in schooling has made it inevitable that disruptive change will happen. Meanwhile, exploding and alluring technology offers exciting possibilities to turn learning on its head but it isn’t always used productively. Fullan predicts that the next five years will see more radical change than the last 50.

Q: Describe what you see as the fundamental problem facing education systems today.

In most traditional school systems, even ones that function reasonably well, students are bored. And as they go up the grade levels, they get more and more bored. So teachers don’t enjoy teaching because it’s not good to teach bored people. But also they’re alienated by policy actions that are anti-teacher, especially in the US and England. So there’s a real demoralization among students and teachers that pushes them out of school psychologically, and in many cases literally.

At the same time, technology is poised to disrupt education. There is this relentless pull towards the digital world that we can’t avoid. How technology is used in schools can be superficial or negative, but it can also open up possibilities. One counterproductive move would be to try to rein in students — not a chance against the allure of technology. Another would be to marginalize teachers on the grounds that technology can replace them. But mere immersion in the land of information does not make one smarter.

For the first time ever, in 2013, these push-pull factors have reached a breaking point. The status quo is no longer possible. Change is going to explode no matter what we do. New Pedagogies for Deep Learning: A Global Partnership is our attempt to put a frame around this change.

Q: So how do we move forward?

The current situation is a natural part of our society transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy that is global, interdependent and steeped in technology. When highly complex systems change, chaos occurs. But in that chaos there are seeds of new patterns.

We’ve begun to identify those patterns in education; new goals for learning relevant to this new era. This is “the what.” But we still urgently need “the how”: the processes of education that will help us achieve the new goals of learning. This focus on mobilizing innovation defines the vision of New Pedagogies for Deep Learning.

Q: What are these new learning goals?

I’ve been referring to them as the six Cs: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and imagination, character education and citizenship.

Q: These sound very similar to what we’ve long called 21st century skills.

21st century learning skills have been around since 1990, so they’re old. They’re getting stale. One limitation of that term is that it’s attached to 25 years of not doing much with a big concept. We need to shift from superficial homage to 21st century skills to actually implementing them in practice.

The other limitation is that 21st century skills are too academic or cognitive. They’re missing two big pieces: character education and citizenship. Character education is the quality of perseverance, hard work, integrity, resilience, grit. Citizenship captures the qualities people need to be effective in a complex society. It’s about participating in improving the world locally and globally. The best label we have come up with — and it’s still not perfect — is deep learning.

Q: Am I right to say that you see the role of New Pedagogies for Deep Learning as pioneering “the how” the processes that move us towards achieving deep learning?

Yes. We have “the what,” which is our directional vision. New Pedagogies for Deep Learning is a response to the opportunity of a generation. The future of the world depends on educated people. The moral imperative is to raise the bar and close the gap, but that’s in a lot of vision statements that aren’t being acted on. We want to see the moral imperative realized.

Q: Where did the idea for New Pedagogies for Deep Learning originate?

It was somewhat seamless. I’d been working with people like Michael Barber and Greg Butler and in places like Ontario, England, Finland and Singapore on whole system reform. Then I published a short book called Stratosphere, which argued that the time is right to bring together knowledge of systems change, new pedagogies and technologies that allow change to scale through diffusion. It instantly hit a mark with everyone. The next catalyst was Greg’s idea to do something big. So my ideas met with Greg’s instinct to do something concrete on a large scale.

Q: What exactly are the new pedagogies?

In Stratosphere I suggested that any learning solution that could achieve deep learning would have to do four things: it would need to be irresistibly engaging for both students and teachers, it would have to be elegantly efficient and easy to access and use, technology would be ubiquitous 24/7 and it would be steeped in real-life problem solving.

Q: So what does this look like in action? Can you describe students’ experience of these new pedagogies?

Students take charge of their own learning. They amass knowledge, but also create knowledge. They learn to do. The word entrepreneurialism is relevant here, but not in the old business sense. This is about learning the skills to innovate to do good. I call it education plus: what will an educated person be able to do individually and collaboratively to make the world better in both big and small, everyday ways?

What we need to work out is the role of the teacher as the student becomes more liberated and has more agency. We are seeing this in boutique schools, and whole systems are starting to think this way.

Q: What do you understand the role of the teacher to be?

The teacher has an important role, but it’s not entirely well defined. It has to do with what Sir Ken Robinson talks about: being a mentor, helping people find their passion. It has to do with helping students organize. Students need to be able to make judgements: Am I learning something? What is the quality of my learning?

The basic notion considers teachers and students as learning partners. But, as John Hattie showed in his 2012 meta-analysis of over 1000 research studies, effective learning partnerships are more than “teacher as facilitator.” We don’t want a “guide on the side” any more than we want a “sage on the stage.” A more effective partnership is a more proactive one — “teacher as activator” — in which teachers use tools like reciprocal teaching, feedback, meta-cognition and goal challenging in a deeper way.

Not only does this require radically new learning relationships between students and teachers, but also among students.

Q: What are the economic implications of this change?

The per-pupil cost of education in the current model is inefficient as well as ineffective. It’s breaking the bank. I had a throwaway line in Stratosphere: “Get twice the learning for half the cost.” This now seems to be an overestimation of the cost of running the new pedagogies.

There are two obvious time and cost savers. First, students become pedagogues. Put students in charge of technology, and they teach themselves and each other. To put it crassly, this is student labour. Second, because technology allows learning resources to be accessed 24/7, the learning day is effectively doubled or more. The new system will be cheaper, easier, deeper and more engaging.

Q: There are initiatives aimed at reforming education all over the world. What is new about New Pedagogies for Deep Learning?

Detailing the new learning relationship between student and teacher is new.

But the important thing that is new is the specificity of doing it, the pedagogical precision. We are trying to really nail down what this change looks like in practice. A lot of us have aspired to foster 21st century skills, but often the academics are too much in charge. They map it out conceptually but don’t get around to specificity. Sometimes the politicians get involved and they have fabulous aspirations but no strategies.

The whole system focus is new. We want to detail how to change on a big scale: whole districts or whole states or provinces. Some have looked at the whole system for literacy or numeracy, but that is not breakthrough innovative stuff. That is the existing system getting better. But now ubiquitous technology can be mobilized to make radical change happen on a big scale.

Q: But many education systems have been investing in technology for years. How is this different?

No system, including Singapore and Finland, has really tackled technology in relation to deep learning. What has happened so far is technology’s natural evolution, which is essentially a huge market success because people think it’s the future to acquire stuff. Technology naturally takes on a life of its own, thundering into the world in a ubiquitous fashion, and overwhelms people. Without guidance, technology is not used or is just layered into old-style pedagogy.

What we want to do is start with the educational goals and the necessary pedagogy to be successful. Only then do we ask how we can harness technology. We recognize the power of technology, but it’s an undisciplined power, and we’re trying to provide focus in relation to pedagogy and deep learning outcomes.

Q: Many countries are attempting to reform education. Why do we need a project of this scale?

Every time we have learned something on scale it’s because we’ve created a living laboratory. This is my third laboratory of substance. The first was in England when Tony Blair focussed on literacy and numeracy with Michael Barber as his chief advisor. We learned a lot about what to do and not do, and how to build capacity. The second was in Ontario. When we set out to change 5,000 schools in 72 districts, we had directional vision and preliminary ideas, but we really nailed those down by doing it.

That brings us to New Pedagogies for Deep Learning; we have the directional vision but we need the living laboratory.

Q: You’ve said in past that this isn’t a research project. What’s the distinction between a research project and living laboratory?

Are you familiar with the lean startup concept? It’s an alternative to the traditional approach where you spend a lot of time on research and pilot projects before releasing a product. Instead, you get out into the world and interact with customers and co-determine innovation in a rapid fashion.

We believe that if we want to create deep change we have to co-develop it with the people who implement it. School leaders, students, teachers, government, the district administrators will be co-determiners of the innovation. Laboratory is probably the wrong word, but it’s a living, dynamic strategy where we create radically new things by doing.

Q: What have you learned about the role of government from your past work? What type of leadership will be effective?

A lesson to take from Ontario is that we should avoid either of two extremes: tight imposition doesn’t work and loosey goosey doesn’t work. So you can’t prescribe what pedagogy should be from the centre, and you should avoid leaving it up to any old thing.

Effective leaders manage to integrate push and pull factors. If you only push, people back off. If you only pull, there’s nothing to grab on to. Leaders have to challenge the status quo, but that’s not enough if they haven’t built trust and high expectations.

It’s also essential to create a commonly owned plan for success. I recently read a relevant quote from a CEO: “Leaders need to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning.”

Finally, there needs to be a letting loose during the innovation period; a culture of “yes.” Then later, crucially, there is a reigning in when leaders keep the pressure on to assess what’s working, consolidate and scale.

Q: How will you define success?

We must link our work to outcomes. This keeps us honest, so to speak. We are harnessing new ways to assess these deep learning goals.

When people say “The most important things can’t be measured,” my response has been: you must not be clear on what is important because they can be measured. For example, the well-being of students is measured by UNESCO and OECD. The good thing about measurement is that we’re forced to get clear about what we’re measuring.

Q: If New Pedagogies for Deep Learning is wildly successful, what does that look like three years from now?

These 1000 schools are just the start of a much larger movement. That movement is already underway. Over the next few years, we will see learning of the likes we have never seen before. If New Pedagogies for Deep Learning is wildly successful it will produce thousands of concrete examples of powerful learning; it will be part of an ever expanding innovations in learning. It doesn’t get more exciting.


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