Bringing about change in education, Change Theory

 Fullen (2006) Change Theory, Center for strategic education Seminar Series Paper No. 157, November

Whilst this article does not directly relate to special education I thought it an essential item for special educationalists to add to their tool kits.  As a special education teacher or leader having the ability to effect and manage change is crucial to the success of inclusive education theory being put into practice.

Michael Fullen is a leading academic on change theory. He applies many of the concepts that are used by leaders in corporate and industry settings to school leaders.  He opens this article with stating that:

Having a theory in use is not good enough, of itself. The people involved must also push to the next level, to make their theory of action explicit.

The point that he is making is that even if research has proven a practice to be effective or a 'good idea' without effective driving by educational leaders and support by teachers it will not take hold and will invariably fail.

Fullen's article explores three flawed change theories that all appear to be strong researched backed practices that improve the outcomes of students. They are:

  1. Initiatives to raise standards
  2. Professional learning communities that are set up to implement and support change
  3. Qualification frameworks that are set up to support the retention and growth of quality leaders.  
Using a North American example Fullen outlines why a standards based initiative failed despite having all the perceived elements necessary in place.  The authority had identified world class standards in literacy and numeracy.  They developed a system of assessing the students achieving the standards, they developed a curriculum based on the standards and they invested large amounts of capital in the form of professional development and resources to support the program.

This brings the first question what went wrong in the middle of theory to practice.  Fullen states that the first mistake was the impetus of the program.  Despite having the theory and support in place the belief that change would take place was based on the notion that aligning all the key components of a successful program and driving them forward with pressure and support will invariably produce results.  In this instance Fullen suggests that forgetting to ask how continual change will occur and how the model will change the ingrained culture in place sets the initiative up for failure before it has begun.  The strategy whilst focusing on the end product forgets to take into account the key element of classroom practice and the changes necessary within these classrooms.  By focusing on outcomes and theory instead of practice the initiative is quick to loose steam and teachers are left with increased pressure to meet a set of higher outcomes.  On reading this I feel that in NSW the drive to raise education standards through the National Assessment Program of Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) mirrors this sentiment.  Whilst setting and assessing benchmarks is founded on solid educational theory it misses the point, expressed by Fullen, that change will not occur until there is a shift from scrutiny over benchmarks to that of processes in place to achieve these results.

Fullen moves on to critique Professional Learning Communities.  These are groups of teachers within educational settings that meet to discuss on act upon initiatives of change.  Whilst Fullen states that many of these groups are flawed in their approach he adds that they should not be discarded as they can be valuable tools for change.  The problem with many PLC's is that they become stagnant.

The term travels faster and better than the concept. Thus we have many examples of superficial PLCs  - people calling what they are doing ‘professional learning communities’ without going very deep into learning, and without realizing that they are not going deep. This is a kind of ‘you-don’t know-what-you-don’t-know’ phenomenon. So, problem one is the danger and likelihood of superficiality. People make the mistake of treating PLCs as the latest innovation. Of course, in a technical sense it is an innovation to the people first using it, but the moment you treat it as a program innovation, you run two risks. One is that people will see it as one innovation among many – perhaps the flavor of the year – which means it can be discarded easily once the going gets rough, and that other innovations come along next year. The other risk is that once you see it as an innovation ‘to be implemented’ you proceed in a fashion that fails to appreciate its deeper, more permanent meaning. Professional learning communities are in fact about establishing new collaborative cultures. Collaborative cultures, ones that focus on building the capacity for continuous improvement, are meant to be a new way of working and learning. They are meant, so to speak, to be enduring capacities, not just another program innovation. (pg.6)

Reflecting on this as a leader of a literacy and numeracy committee it is valid that the group does run the risk of being superficial and when the going gets tough (the other pressures of teaching are upon us) then the committee falls along the wayside only attended if it is timetabled by the senior management.  This in turn leads to a loss of drive and innovation from the committee.

Fullen outlines that there are seven elements of change that need to be present for initiative to become action:

The seven premises are

  1. a focus on motivation;
  2. capacity building, with a focus on results;
  3. learning in context;
  4. changing context;
  5. a bias for reflective action; tri-level engagement;
  6. persistence and flexibility in staying the
The chances for the increased use of change knowledge are mixed, although I perceive
an upward trend in the number of leaders gravitating to its use. The inhibiting factors
are threefold. First, the use of change knowledge does not represent a quick fix, which is what many
politicians seek. Second, not only is the knowledge difficult to grasp, but many leaders must possess it simultaneously (our guiding coalition) for its use to spread and be consistent. This is a tall order given the turnover in leaders. Third, it does represent deep cultural change, which many people resist, tacitly or otherwise. Consider, for example, the de-privatisation of teaching – through observing and improving classroom teaching. This has proved to be one of the most intractable aspects of getting at continuous improvement.  (Fullen, p14)

Whilst Fullen talks about change on a district level I feel that change theory can be applied by middle managers in bringing about change in small settings. To quote from Fullen's paper, ....... reform occurs in a thousand small ways during the journey. Don’t go on this journey without being equipped with an active and open-ended grasp of change knowledge.