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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Pedagogy and Politics Must Partner

By Michael Fullan — April 22, 2019 8 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Michael Fullan, an international expert on leadership and school systems.

Five years ago, we started to work with education systems on “deep learning.” We did this partly because increasing numbers of students were bored with regular schooling—as many as 70 percent were disengaged.

However, we also found that the world was becoming increasingly troubled because of climate change, an unclear and diminished job market, growing inequity, increased anxiety and stress, wild and unpredictable technology, deterioration of trust, increased inequity, and crumbling social cohesion.

Overall, one could say that far from being an agent of local and global improvement, education was increasingly on the receiving end of a bad society.

Through our work, we co-developed with our partners in schools a framework that enabled and supported the work. It focused on six Global Competencies: character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.

To support the six competencies, we developed four learning pillars that support deep learning: partnerships, high-yield pedagogy, learning environment, and leveraging digital technologies. The competencies and pillars in turn were linked to conditions at the school, district (or region), and system levels.

We found that deep learning well implemented gave students a sense of focus and increased their consciousness of being a learner. I will label this the “pedagogical pathway.” Recently, a new strand is emerging that I will call the “political pathway.” Both of these must be pursued and feed on each other as students negotiate their way through life.

Why Pedagogy and Politics Pathways Must Partner
A pedagogical pathway is paved with “engaging (learning about) the world,” and “changing it for the better.” Pedagogical efficacy is not sufficient for all changes in the lives of our students. It will certainly help the individual do better in life. And many individuals and groups will take up aspects of societal improvement after they leave school, but it won’t be enough to change education policy. What now is emerging is the possibility that pedagogical savvy and political action may make for a surprising combination with students as a force for change.

Ontario has long been seen globally as one of the best-performing education systems in the world. Whether it be the results from the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) or from the research that has come out of Ontario focusing on inclusion, equity or literacy, Ontario has shown great success.

Conservative populism has taken hold in various places around the world, where ideology takes precedence over evidence. Ontario’s newly elected government is no exception as it continues its attack on critical fundamentals that heretofore have made Ontario a global leader. The government tried to roll back the sex-ed curriculum to a 1995 version but had to retreat due to widespread criticism. Another action that the government took in March caught people’s attention in a big way—especially on the part of students. The government announced that it would increase class size from 22 to 28 students in high schools, resulting in the loss of 3,500 positions, which would be accommodated through attrition. This meant, for example, that students entering grade 9 would experience their entire high school tenure with hardly any new teachers being hired.

In this context, our work on deep learning is critical to a more informed and democratic future. In the case in hand, and seemingly at the speed of light, the students in the province organized a demonstration that resulted in a protest of more than 100,000 students that occurred on April 4 and was reported by the Toronto Star newspaper. The government quickly dismissed the event as organized by teachers’ union leaders that they called “thugs.”

The students became incensed and sent Premier Doug Ford the following letter on April 6:

We, the provincial organizers of ‘Students Say No’, felt it necessary to release an official statement to Doug Ford [Premier], Lisa Thompson [Minister], and the Ford government as a whole in response to their disrespectful, dismissive, and completely false allegations about the origins of our movement.

‘Students Say No’ was founded by Natalie Moore, a grade 12 student from the Avon Maitland District School Board in rural Ontario [the education minister’s own riding (electoral district)]. Natalie decided to start the walkout after hearing about the proposed cuts that she knew would be absolutely catastrophic to the education system we have here in Ontario, as well as to its most vulnerable students. Quickly, the movement spread across social media, and she was joined by the student organization March for Our Education as well as thousands of students across Ontario. There was absolutely no union or adult involvement at all in any part of our journey, and honestly, I ‘m sure you know this. We would greatly appreciate it if you stopped lying to the people of this province in order to discredit our work.

The movement spread quickly because students care about their education and are begging to be heard. To claim that this walkout was organized, orchestrated, or puppeteered by adults is not only false, but extremely insulting to the young people of Ontario. The attempts to diminish these efforts speak for your government loud and clear: You are scared of us. The youth of Ontario are a force to be reckoned with, and we took this opportunity to show you exactly how strong we are, and you’ve made it clear as day that our strength terrifies you.

What you must understand is that this province is a democracy, not a dictatorship. You can’t ignore, discount, and dismiss the voices of people who are telling you that you’re harming them. You’re here to serve us, not the other way around, and we the students will not stand for having our voices and our lives ignored.

You do not sit in these classrooms. You do not have to take these online courses. You do not suffer from these cuts. The people who see the difference in class sizes and online learning and autism funding are telling you that this will not work for the students of Ontario, and you’re making the conscious decision to ignore us. We are smart enough to know when we are being shortchanged for your own gain. And we are tired of being disrespected—being told that we don’t have the autonomy, the power, or the responsibility to organize ourselves. We are the students, and we’re making our voices heard. It would be wise to listen.


The letter was signed by two student organizers—the first of whom was Natalie, who goes to school in one of our Deep Learning Districts with all of its 10 secondary schools involved in deep learning implementation.

On April 6, 10,000 teachers demonstrated, many of them inspired by their students but also having their own agenda. On April 10, the Toronto Star published another article with the headline: “Students at North York’s Emery C.I. have always felt left behind. Fighting Ford’s cuts helped them raise their voice.”. The article focused on why the students spoke out and how they felt after they did. There were many great points by the students, but one that stood out is:

Emery has not been heard before in that way. It really empowers us. It just allows us to say, 'Well you know, we do have a voice.' " And, "We need more than a teacher, we need a student-teacher relationship, because a school is a safe place for us. The school is a place where we forget about our financial problems, we forget about our father being jobless, we forget about our mother being disabled."

Students, in other words, were speaking for equity and had the sensitivity to know that quality relationships with their teachers are critical factors for their learning and well-being.

The two statements above from students reflect the political pathway of deep learning on the rise. School doesn’t directly prepare students to be political. However, we are finding that deep pedagogical learning (Engage the world, Change the world) predictably makes them more sensitive to their environments, locally and globally. It doesn’t mean that the students will always be right, just that they should be a partner in education improvement that should be taken seriously.

Political sensitivity and action are a natural byproduct of “engaging the world, changing the world.” The stronger the pedagogical base, the more effective the political pathway if the latter is chosen. In this context, our work on deep learning is critical to a more informed and democratic future in dealing with the increasing disrespect for evidence. Is it an accident that those who eschew evidence in relation to their self-serving ideological pursuits seem to disrespect and disinvest in high-quality education that is designed to develop effective problem-solvers. Students in Ontario are serving notice that governments will be held to the same standards of evidence that that they themselves expect as students of a high-quality education system.

Additionally, environments are deteriorating. One item of particular significance is the relentless increase of inequity. We have found that deep learning is good for all students but is particularly good for students who are disaffected. In this domain, the pedagogical and political pathways can combine as a particularly powerful combination. Deep learning students are needed as part of determining societal solutions. The combination of deep learning (the pedagogical pathway) and political action (the political pathway) may turn out to be the strongest force we have ever seen in the cause of social justice and high-quality education essential for the rest of the 21st century.

Michael Fullan, O.C., is the global leadership director, New Pedagogies for Deep Learning and a worldwide authority on educational reform with a mandate of helping to achieve the moral purpose of all children learning.

A former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto, Michael advises policymakers and local leaders around the world to provide leadership in education. Michael received the Order of Canada in December 2012. He holds honorary doctorates from several universities in North America and abroad.

For more information from our team, see: Fullan, Quinn and McEachen, Deep Learning: Engage the World Change the World (Corwin 2018), and Dive Into Deep Learning: Tools for Engagement. Quinn, McEachen, Fullan, Gardner & Drummy, Corwin, in press).

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.