Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

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.

School & District Management Opinion

Why We Can’t Escape the Status Quo in Education

200 years of doing the same thing just won’t cut it
By Michael Fullan — January 09, 2023 3 min read
Screen Shot 2022 12 23 at 5.34.44 AM
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This is Part I in a two-part series by Michael Fullan.

The first mystery of system change in education is why has the 200-year-old current system in Western societies not transformed when the majority of people have known for at least 50 years that it does not work?

The second mystery is why “the system,” aside from using technology more frequently, is likely to revert to the status quo even when a pandemic has presented the opportunity to make fundamental change?

The general reason is that inertia is powerful—things keep on doing what they are already doing. Under stress, the brain does not like uncertainty; we “flock” to what we know best, the old patterns of being. The second reason is that COVID and its related forces have given society an individual and collective nervous breakdown. There is little energy to fight back. Yet there are huge resources being poured into some notion of “build back better.” The current system is based on “academic obsession,” which serves only a few (and even many of them don’t do so well). Today, there is more sensitivity to well-being, and questioning of traditional assessment practices, but no concerted effort to change the purpose and nature of learning.

The questions are:
What shall we focus on?
How can we make change more likely?

The moment for serious change will be fleeting unless there is action that provides early and continuing energy to change practice. The new purpose should be to help young people cope and thrive in an increasingly complex world, including developing the competencies to do well under circumstances never before experienced. A big part of making this successful is to figure out how to make individual and group (small and large) interests and actions fuse or at least work together. System change is a collective matter. But here is my worry—my mystery if you like—even when change is badly needed, hidden forces pull us back to pockets of the status quo or worse.

The content of the strategy

We need a few of our basic change assumptions to guide our early action: Employ triage (urgency of need); “go slow to go fast"; seek specificity without imposition; and engage in joint determination (those with the problem must have a hand in shaping the action, assessing how it is going, and what corrections to make).

The foundation of the new strategy is well-being AND learning. However, we need two other terms—relationships and pedagogy—that are easy to remember in the educational context, grounded in practice, possible to judge whether they are evident, and above all, can work in tandem. Well-being has always been part of the learning lexicon, but until COVID, it took a back seat to learning. In fact, its earlier manifestation was more concerned with ill-being—those students who didn’t have the conditions to learn normally or at all. Later, when COVID ill-being became front and center, stress, anxiety, and dysfunction became everyone’s affliction—young and old alike. At the same time, within a very short time period (2020 to the present), some of us began to see well-being as associated with thriving—with what we call deep learning: the ability to learn how to learn, know oneself, and care about “the other” and the environment.

Neuroscience and our common sense told us that ill-being is part and parcel of extreme stress. But we lucked into the flip side of the equation: well-being (sense of purpose, belonging, the plight of humanity, engagement, making a contribution, and so on) led us to realize that well-being and learning together was what education should have been about in the first place. This science also supports the notion that education must recognize the role of emotion in learning, “I feel, therefore I learn.”

The 6Cs—character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking—combined with “deep-learning pedagogy” (neuroscience again) was the key to transforming education. There is also evidence that this combination, well-being and learning, could be one of the keys to equity and equality.

Maybe 200 years of doing the same thing is enough, and it’s time to focus our efforts somewhere else?

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.


Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind
Student Achievement K-12 Essentials Forum Tutoring Done Right: How to Get the Highest Impact for Learning Recovery
Join us as we highlight and discuss the evidence base for tutoring, best practices, and different ways to provide it at scale.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management First Latina Selected to Lead National Principals Group
Raquel Martinez is a middle school principal in Pasco, Wash.
3 min read
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Courtesy of the National Association of Secondary School Principals
School & District Management Four Things to Know From a State's Push to Switch Schools to Heat Pumps
Installing a heat pump is complex, but the payoff is well worth it, says an expert in Maine who's pushing their adoption in schools.
4 min read
Close up of a heat pump against a brick wall
School & District Management 3 Things That Keep Superintendents in Their Jobs
Two experienced leaders say strong relationships with the community and school board make all the difference.
5 min read
Magnet attracting employee candidates represented by wooden dolls
School & District Management 5 Things to Know About How the Culture Wars Are Disrupting Schools
Disruptions were more acutely felt in districts with more affluent and white students, but there weren't always clear-cut political lines.
6 min read
Illustration of neutral warning symbols, with two standing out in the colors red and blue.
filo/DigitalVision Vectors + EdWeek