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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Impressive Empathy: An Interview with Michael Fullan

By Peter DeWitt — September 03, 2011 5 min read
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One of the biggest barriers to improvement in school systems is the presence of punitive accountability. If you fail you will be put on a watch list. We have already seen that punishment (and even its opposite, reward) can never lead to intrinsic motivation to put in effort to solve a problem and to sustain one’s interest in solving inevitable future problems” (Fullan, p.79).

Improvement is a word we often hear in education but many of you reading this have probably not seen improvement in quite some time. Most educators are concerned that we are being forced in the opposite direction. We all have seen school closures, low enrollment, budget deficits, high class sizes, defeated school budgets, teacher and administrator lay-offs, and an overemphasis on high stakes testing.

It’s hard to focus on improvement in a school building or classroom when so many outside influences are working against us, but these are the times when we have to find a glimmer of hope for our students. We have to pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off at the knees, and start moving forward in a positive direction. It doesn’t mater whether you are leading a district, building or classroom, we must remain a positive influence for our students. However, as we move forward we must also question our state and federal mandates (i.e. NCLB, RTTT, High Stakes Testing) and it is possible to do both.

One way I try to erase the negativity and focus on the positive is take advice from some of my favorite authors and educational leaders. An author and leader who inspires me to work toward my greatest potential is Michael Fullan. Dr. Fullan is an international leader in educational change and has consulted and engaged in change projects all over the world. He has written numerous books that have been translated into many different languages.

Dr. Fullan’s insight into education is based on his own experiences and the work he has done to help schools improve. His philosophy can be used in classrooms, school buildings and districts. After reading his newest book entitled Change Leader (jossey-Bass), I contacted Dr. Fullan to ask him a few questions.

PD: You believe collaboration between adults can lead to creative solutions. How can we teach students to collaborate effectively?

MF: We have some of the best pedagogical strategies coming through now in our present educational time. For example, embedded informative assessment involves students looking at their own work and working with each other to give positive feedback and constructive criticism within frameworks and standards. Overall, the good news is that pedagogy and teamwork go together.

PD: In a time when it seems that state and federal mandates are taking the creativity out of classrooms, how do we generate energy and passion in our students through action (p.34)?

MF: The new Common Core State Standards have creativity within their framework. Given that they allow for creativity makes the new standards a lot better than what No Child Left Behind generated. However, there is a danger in that the standards strongly emphasize ELA and Math, which means they may be conceived too narrowly by those who have to teach them.

Those of us who are concerned with the wider curriculum, for example Sir Ken Robinson, think that we need to take this opportunity to redefine the curriculum using the Common Core Standards as a leverage point and make sure that the creativity part is included, so I think there is an opening there.

PD: Doesn’t the introduction to the Common Core Standards articulate that it should be used as a base and not the end all to be all?

MF: Yes, I think part of the issue is that we do not want educators to become passive implementers of it but to be proactive and use this as an opportunity to redefine the curriculum more broadly.

PD: You wrote a lot about impressive empathy, which is the ability to understand others who disagree with you; how can we educate our students on that concept?

MF: This is really part of our curriculum conversation. If you look at 21st century goals, they have to deal with race and cultural diversity. We have to teach students about understanding diversity and citizenship. We do not have to look at these issues one item at a time. Rather, we need to look at these issues and build empathy as an integrated system and teach students these things in an effort to educate them on how to be a global citizen

PD: There is a lot of research about the impact that poverty has on learning. How do we “stay the course” and create achievable goals for our students when they have so many outside influences working against them at home?

MF: There are two parts to this problem. One part is the living conditions our students go home to. The other part is what the school can do to have an impact.

My own personal view is that we know that the school can make a difference even within those difficult systems. Rick Dafore created the 90/90/90 Framework which basically says you can get ethnic minority students to reach a goal of 90% success.

In addition, we have worked with school systems in the U.S. and Canada and have success with students who come from high poverty backgrounds. As a school system you have to work away at those issues and not use it as an excuse.

However, at the same time we need social policies, which we cannot expect teachers to be in the middle of. We need social policies around employment, job opportunities, and housing. Teachers can’t do it all, but they can do their part where poverty and education are concerned.

PD: Do you believe NCLB has an impact on your concept of “learning for all”?

MF: NCLB has had a negative impact on education. It has had minimal value on putting the spotlight on those who are disadvantaged, which we all knew beforehand. It has been helpful to open the door a little on that issue. However, it has been a dysfunctional policy because it is too narrow.

In addition, there has really been no successful strategy to implement it. The standards set by NCLB are all over the place and most of us believe that NCLB has been a failure when you add it all up. Now, in addition to NCLB we have initiatives like Race To The Top (RTTT) and it’s time to rectify the failure it has helped create (End of Interview).

Change Leader offers great information and resources that we can use, but only if we allow ourselves to be open to using that information in a positive way. We cannot use present roadblocks to prevent us from educating our students. We must still find opportunities to meet their needs, even during the toughest of times.

In an effort to change our direction and lead our districts, buildings and classrooms in a positive direction we must look within ourselves to find the strength and wisdom to help meet the needs of our students. We need to continue to find creative and innovative ways to engage our students (ex. problem-based learning, inquiry-based teaching methods, etc.). Administrators and teachers need to work as cohesive teams to improve their schools, and collaborate with each other to find solutions to the current educational problems we all face.

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Dr. Michael Fullan is an international leader on educational change. He has developed partnerships to bring about major school improvements and is engaged in training, consulting and evaluation of change projects around the world. Dr. Fullan's newest book is entitled Change Leader. He can be found at www.michaelfullan.ca Fullan, Michael (2011). Change Leader. Jossey-Bass.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.