Fullan’s Change Forces With a Vengeance

A reflection on Michael Fullan's "Change Forces with a Vengeance" for EDUC 902. For more information, see this linked post.

I am not sure whether I should reject Fullan outright or entertain some of the ideas he (tries) to weave together. For over a week I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about this text that does not sit well with me. Various metaphors don’t seem to work (sheep in wolf’s clothing, or the other way around, is the closest but still so far away).

A few of my hesitations.

Complexity theory

I am not convinced that this systems-based theory creates the sort of space we want to talk about educational reform. Within that space, I am not sure what complexity theory really gives us other than some version of “things are complicated.” The irony, of course, is that the book presents the progression of change (with a few textual caveats) as rather simple.


Despite framing an argument about system-wide change, it seems that the district- and state-levels get more attention than the school. Many things trouble me here including: (1) How can I trust a policy maker to make policy about education and teaching when they have no experience or understanding of the domain and profession? (2) Even if they did have a certain level of understanding, should they have a larger voice in what the system as a whole should be doing and for what purpose(s)?

Still within my top-level concerns, Fullan pulls from Heifetz & Linsky’s book on leadership... a lot. And he also draws on his own work comparing business CEOs to school leadership in the closing chapters (which, by the way, if he completed that research with federal monies, I want my money back). Should we be comparing business leaders with school leaders? Are they really comparable? Are there other models/frameworks we might consult?

Transparency & Assessment

One of the change forces or lessons or whatever he calls them talks about the need for greater transparency when it comes to the educational realm and with special attention paid to assessment. Picking this apart for a second, there is a presupposition here that if we could just pull back the curtain on classrooms and teachers’ brains then parents and upper-levels would be able to see what is really going on (a la pulling the curtain on the Wizard of Oz). This, obviously, presupposes that if we could snap our fingers and turn on transparency then parents and other stakeholders would ultimately see “the light,” the truth of what they see/hear. Is this really so? Are parents really searching for certainty? (p. 30)

Only tangentially connected is the relationship to assessment. Most (all) of the arguments within the text are founded on the conclusions (assumptions) drawn from test scores related to literacy and numeracy. (Not to mention the reliability of closing the gap as a good measure of success?!)

Slips of the keyboard?

And then there are the slips of language that tripped me up. Take, for example, the conversation around trust and moral purpose on p. 34:

If people believe they are doing something worthwhile of a higher order they may be willing to put in the extra sacrifices and effort. It is also a matter of trust. It is not just the actions of governments that count but also the perceived integrity and motivation.

Perceived integrity and motivation? How about the integrity of governments, rather than just seeming to be?

On the next page we enter a conversation that is at once familiar yet strange:

We also know that quality relationships, once they do develop inspire great loyalty. Studies of courageous actions in war indicate that it is not so much moral purpose that lies behind putting your life on the line (although that can be part of it) but the more tangible presence of loyalty to your buddies. (p. 35)

Thank god for my war buddies down the hall...

Yays! Or... wait... didn’t we know this already?

But there are pieces of Fullan that drew a resounding YES from my innards. The conversations regarding relationships and human beings from pp. 44-47 and context-based change on p. 27 are two examples.

Yet I return to a quote on p. 68 with concern:

It is crucial to stress that complexity theory is systemic, that is, the eight lessons operate in interaction providing internal checks and balances. To put it directly, if you use any one of the lessons in isolation you will end up making mistakes; by using the eight in combination you can’t make a mistake, or more accurately, what mistakes are made are inevitably corrected because the very processes guarantee it.

Just so we are clear--humans make mistakes, but the system can correct our mistakes. Are we willing to accept this?

Surely there is much that is correct within these pages... but is it true?


Fullan's Website: http://www.michaelfullan.ca/

The Book: http://www.amazon.com/Change-Forces-Vengeance-Michael-Fullan/dp/0415230853

EDUC 902, Fullan’s Change Forces With a Vengeance


Popular posts from this blog

Re-Imagining Online Teaching & Learning: A Cognitive Tools Approach

Matthew Arnold: Literature and Science