Leadership and Change Smackdown

By Nancy Flanagan — December 07, 2009 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.