Breaking the Mold: An Educational Perspective on Diffusion of Innovation/Fullan’s Educational Change

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By Chuanli (Lily) Zhou

Michael Fullan, an innovator and leader in the field of educational change, has developed a number of partnerships designed to bring major school improvement and educational reform. His research covers a wide range of educational change projects with school systems, teachers' federations, and government agencies in Canada and America, and his book, The New Meaning of Educational Change, guides many teachers and principals all over North America. In this chapter, Zhou first summarizes key points of Fullan’s New Meaning of Educational Change and then links her experiences with China educational changes and Fullan’s approach. Finally, limitations of this approach are discussed in terms of differences between now and the past.

Summary of Fullan’s New Meaning of Educational Change[edit | edit source]

Generally speaking, Fullan strives to talk about something new in the field of educational change in his many books and articles. He had demonstrated the necessity of educational change for all educational stakeholders in three levels, i.e., the local level, the regional level and the national level. Each chapter talks about one stakeholder of educational change, begins with problems and citations, and ends with solutions.

Educational Change at the Local Level[edit | edit source]

At the local level, six types of change agents - the teacher, the principal, the student, the district administrator, the consultant and the community (including the parents), are discussed. They are all crucial stakeholders in the education system and changes couldn’t be actually achieved without their participation.

The Teacher[edit | edit source]

The teacher plays a leading role in the execution of educational change. “Educational change depends on what teachers do and think” (Fullan, 2002, p. 115). Therefore, only if teachers accept the change theories and are willing to implement new strategies, educational change would then actually happen. However, according to Lortie’s conclusions, the circumstances of teaching had not changed much during the past 25 years (Fullan, 2002, p. 120), from 1976 to 2001. And “teachers all over the world are feeling beleaguered” (p. 117), because they are fully occupied with the daily maintenance, student accountability and lesson planning and generally without receiving enough support and learning opportunities. In learning-impoverished schools, isolation and uncertainty are often associated with settings where teachers are not able to learn much from their colleagues (p. 122). In other words, teachers are not in a strong position to experiment and improve the old teaching methodologies. Comments from middle school teachers were cited to demonstrate the needs to change, which were followed by describing the situations in learning-enriched schools where teachers share collaborative solid goals and feel certain.

The Principal[edit | edit source]

Not only the teacher, but also the principal is experiencing growing overload with no educational changes taking place. According to What’s Worth Fighting for in the Principalship (Fullan, 1997), “90% of the principals reported an increase over the previous 5 years in the demands made on their time, including new program demands, the number of directives from the Ministry of Education. Time demands were listed as having increased in dealing with parent and community groups (92% principals said there was an increase), trustee requests (91% reported an increase), administration activities (88%), and board initiatives (69%)” (p. 139). The principal’s role has become decidedly more complex and more daunting because no definitive list of steps but only guidelines could be provided for the principal to implement educational changes. Fullan’s six guidelines for principals are listed below:

  1. Steer clear of false certainty (there is no ready-made answer out there to the “how” question).
  2. Base risk on security (promote risk-taking but provide safety nets of supportive relationships).
  3. Respect those you want to silence (incorporate and learn from dissenters).
  4. Move toward the danger in forming new alliances (“out there” may be dangerous, but you need external partners).
  5. Manage emotionally as well as rationally (work on your emotional intelligence, don’t take dissent personally).
  6. Fight for lost causes (be hopeful against the odds).

The Student[edit | edit source]

As the biggest beneficiaries of educational changes, students were struggling in “teacher-directed and sometimes impersonal classrooms” (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001, p. 3). They were expecting student-directed classrooms where they could have greater control, ownership, and accountability over their own education. Fullan stated that students needed to be treated seriously. They must not only be part of the solution, but in many cases, they may even have better ideas for solutions. Therefore, it is of great significance to consider students as change agents during the change process.

The District Administrator[edit | edit source]

It is quite a normal phenomenon that some districts in certain years always achieve better results on standardized tests than other districts. In these cases, the district administrators must have done some essential work in supporting schools and re-culturing instructions. However, it is not at all positive to expect the “successful” examples in any districts to happen immediately or to be sustained forever. One reason is that it takes a couple of years for accomplishments to be fully dissolved in the districts and the other reason lies in the fact that superintendents who lead the reform and then left make the implementation hard to continue. Fullan gave suggestions to the district administrators by citing Bryk and colleagues’ four critical functions (Bryk et al., 1998, p. 279-282), which have been listed as follows:

  1. Policy Making to Support Decentralization;
  2. A Focus on Local Capacity-building;
  3. A Commitment to Rigorous Accountability;
  4. Stimulation of Innovation.

The Consultant[edit | edit source]

In Fullan’s view, consultants are not able to provide solutions for the schools that are experiencing a problem because good ideas need to be combined with the local context to get better results. However, they are able to help the schools and school districts that “have been working diligently on a problem and ask for helping them go further”. To be an outside and excellent consultant requires having good ideas and being very sophisticated about the complexities of relationships and motivations (Fullan, 2002, p. 195). While for those consultants who work inside of the organizations, probably the foremost for them is to become the experts in the implementation.

The Parent and the Community[edit | edit source]

It is widely accepted that parents involved in the life of the school are a positive influence upon students’ progress and development. To guarantee parents’ participation is effective, teachers are supposed to establish goals for any participation and add parents as a part of solutions (Fullan, 2002, p. 201). Hargreaves and Fullan suggested four guidelines for parents:

  1. Press governments to create the kind of teachers you want;
  2. Leave nostalgia behind you;
  3. Ask what you can do for your school as well as what your school can do for you;
  4. Put praise before blame.

Change at the Regional and National Level[edit | edit source]

Governments[edit | edit source]

It is recorded that only small-scale, non-lasting improvement can occur if the system is not helping. Five guidelines for principals in the book What’s Worth Fighting for Out There are listed as follows (Fullan, 2002, p.232-234):

  1. Invest in the Long Term;
  2. Go Beyond Left and Right;
  3. Use Data for Improvement, not Embarrassment;
  4. Put Capacity-Building Before Compliance;
  5. Deal with the Demographics.

In addition, Fullan forwarded new viewpoints. He wrote a two-phased process that started with accountability and incentives as the first phase. Capacity-building, which essentially needs to be done and supported by the government, was added as the second phase. These phase strategies figured out how to attract, prepare, and nurture the education force, who could work in a new way. Besides, ensuring sufficient and steady resources for schools, generating the public to pay the taxes necessary for high quality public education and providing direction is what the government could do for educational changes.

Professional Preparation and Development of Educators[edit | edit source]

To teach effectively takes time, and the way in which a teacher gets started on the job dramatically affects the rest of one’s career, including driving out potentially good teachers in the early years (Fullan, 2002, p. 249). Fullan addressed the necessity of professional preparation for teachers by citing examples in which teachers were positively influenced by the advanced programs provided.

As to the teachers’ professional development, it is demonstrated that actively developing the habit of learning is far more powerful than being forced to passively join workshops or attend courses. In addition, the new professionalism demands teachers’ own learning in a collaborative culture, where leadership such as leader peers or mentors are required. Besides, it is believed that teacher-leaders, along with administrators, who are backed by a strong framework of policy and practice stands, will help the development of teachers to become possibly effective (Fullan, 2002, p. 266).

The Future of Educational Change[edit | edit source]

The future of educational change is very much a matter of whether accountability and professional learning community will be developed and draw on each others' essential resources. Fullan summarized six overall lessons arising from the new ideas of educational change discussed in his book, The New Meaning of Educational Change (2002, p. 268-271):

  • Lesson One – "Meaning has More Meaning Than We Thought," which means that learning is meaning-making that requires a radically new way of approaching learning.
  • Lesson Two – "You Can’t Get There From Here." Lesson two is a warning that existing strategies will not get us to where we need to go if we want large-scale, lasting reform.
  • Lesson Three – "Understand the Sequence of Large-Scale Reform."
  • Lesson Four – “'Learning Organization” is More than a Cliché."
  • Lesson Five – "Outward Identity and the Convergence of the Personal and Social."
  • Lesson Six – "Learn to live with Change."

At the end, Fullan (2002, p. 272) summarized the book by stating that the ultimate goal of change was when people envision themselves as shareholders with a stake in the success of the system as a whole, with the pursuit of meaning as the elusive key.

Zhou's Contributions[edit | edit source]

Story: Zhou's Experience as a Middle School Teacher in China[edit | edit source]

After graduation, I worked as an English teacher and the head-teacher of 60 students of Grade 7 at High School Attached to Hunan Normal University and Bocai Experimental School. It is a renowned middle school with experts in several disciplines, generations of outstanding schoolmates, such as the former Prime Minister of China – Zhu Rongji, and modernized instructional equipments. Some educators in the school are so well-known in the field of education that they also serve as the consultants or the district administrators of the province. Working at this school, I was able to acknowledge the most advanced educational theories and learn how to put them into practice under the guide of leaders in the discipline.

An interesting phenomenon I found is that teachers in different districts of China are experiencing the same struggles, i.e., working a long time and having different kinds of duties. What’s more interesting, teachers in China are confronting almost the same difficult situations as those in North America. Besides teaching tasks, teachers all over the world have lunch duty, dormitory room duty, curriculum meetings, department meetings, school board meetings, parents’ meetings, sports festivals, art festivals and etc. It is unrealistic for teachers to merely focus on the teaching and preparation for lessons. And in China, I should say, the situation for teachers is even worse due to the larger class with as many as 60 students and the pressure from parents who spoil the one child with all their love.

With such a large population of teachers in the world and great demand for educational changes, teachers are feeling the changes, but not dramatically and completely. I am going to talk about educational changes taking place in the change agents at the international level, mainly focusing in China. And limitations will be also addressed.

Change at the International Level[edit | edit source]

Teachers and Schools[edit | edit source]

The schools in China are eager to provide good learning-enriched environments for teachers where everyone could share goals and collaborate. For example, weekly meetings are held where teachers from the same grade or discipline are gathered to discuss uncertain issues, such as the difficulties of the lessons for the following week or student affairs. Besides, those teachers who have worked a couple of years become experts and are arranged by the school to guide young teachers during the weekly meetings, which makes learning-enriched environments possible and virtual. In addition, every teacher’s class is required to be open to all other teachers in the school. In the school where I used to work, teachers were required to attend at least 20 classes in different disciplines every semester. Thus, teachers could learn from each other and have pressure to prepare every class well. Last but not least, in the learning-enriched environment educational changes could spread rapidly once accepted by school experts. In these cases, an experienced educator usually gives an open demonstration class and all teachers in this discipline would attend and then discuss how to put the new style of class into daily practice. In addition, schools provide opportunity for teachers to visit and learn from renowned and advanced schools.

The reason why schools and teachers positively adopt educational changes is mostly due to the benefits and achievements they could gain from the changes, such as a higher enrollment rate and higher reputation.

The Principals[edit | edit source]

Principals in China are experts in one or more disciplines. They may be skilled in social relations as well. Whether a principal positively promotes educational changes varies from one to another, but one fact that most educators agree on is that educational changes in the long run could benefit schools, teachers and themselves. To be close with the innovative teaching methodology, principals in some advanced middle schools are required to teach at least one class no matter how busy they are. This policy embodies advantage in keeping principals' expertise in teaching.

Principals, compared with teachers, have much more freedom because they don’t have so many routines and structured duties. Therefore, they are easier to feel certain.

The Students[edit | edit source]

Leading student-directed classrooms is the goal that teachers are pursuing. However, opinions vary among schools and disciplines in what methods to use to lead student-directed classes. For instance, English teachers are required by the discipline leader to talk less than twenty minutes in a forty-minutes class. Also, activities, such as group work, chain work, and serious games and presentations, are viewed as necessity in every period of the advanced English classes. In Chinese classrooms, teachers try to let students involved act as “teacher” to give the lesson. This idea is at present very popular because one rural school in Hunan Province in China tested the new method for three years and got satisfactory results for standardized tests. However, in most cases, teachers collect indirect feedback from the reaction of students during the class and their homework instead of direct conversation with students.

The Parents[edit | edit source]

It is widely accepted that parent involvement in the life of the school has a positive influence upon students’ progress and development. Ways that could positively involve parents are listed as examples below. First, parent committees and parent meetings are good forms where parents are able to communicate with teachers and principals and make parents’ voices be heard. Second, “parents open day” are adopted by schools where parents are free to attend any teacher’s class without informing them. Besides, schools create opportunities for parents and students to compete and win the game during the yearly sports meeting. In addition, some class teachers invite parents to organize activities and give advice.

Professional Preparation of Teachers[edit | edit source]

The university where I attended provided students with many teaching opportunities, such as tutoring, part-time training during holidays and educational internships. I think this is a good way to cultivate qualified teachers before they graduate and universities should take a part of responsibility in training qualified teachers. Also, middle schools are supposed to provide training for new teachers. Many middle schools recruit new teachers in spring and then train them for several months before they work in fall semester. During my three month internship in the school where I worked, I was assigned two advisors, who were both experienced teachers and had taught for more than eight years. From the English teacher, I learned how to plan lessons and give classes; and from the class teacher, I observed how to organize the class and student activities. The two advisors supported me extensively during my first year of teaching.

Limitations of Fullan’s Theory[edit | edit source]

More than ten years have passed since the publication of the New Meaning of Educational Change (2001), and great educational changes have already taken place in schools all over the world. It is for sure that education stakeholders could gain abundantly by reading this book. However, could the unsatisfied working conditions of educational stakeholders greatly be improved even if all the educational changes mentioned by Fullan (2001) have already occurred? The answer may not be that positive. In fact, many teachers and principals all over the world today still overwork because they are occupied by the same duties as those ten years ago, though the former are more certain and collaborative.

How could teachers be really emancipated? One possible way is to maximize educational technology in daily teaching and management. For example, instead of handing out papers, giving remarks, inputting grades into computers and finally analyzing and evaluating the grade, teachers could input questions on computers and then release to students. The computer will then grade and evaluate the results! Therefore, teachers’ tasks could be reduced. Besides, students could also benefit from modern technology. With the help of educational technology, they could have courses online at their own paces, and thus student-directed change can be achieved. As a matter of fact, educational revolution has already taken place in some schools where all courses are taught online and where teachers mainly focus on teaching instead of “controlling students and organizing classes”. Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is a public school, as you can probably tell, where all courses are taught online. And the online courses are just as real as the dedicated, certified teachers who teach them. FLVS is where students go to learn on their time and on their schedule and once students have completed the course, the credits they earn with FLVS are then simply transferred onto the student transcript.

In The New Meaning of Educational Changepreface, Fullan wrote that “In short, the book is intended for professionals (policymakers and practitioners) at all levels of the system, as well as for professors and university students seeking a textbook on theories and practices of educational change." It is for sure that this book is an extraordinary masterpiece in the field of educational change. Fullan cited hundreds of useful examples, many of which are new, to demonstrate the situations and the future of educational changes. However, only guidelines instead of definitive lists of steps are provided in Chapter 8 and Chapter 10, which may add difficulties for stakeholders to put the theories into practice. It is usually believed by teachers that clear and multiple solutions for specific situations are more helpful in practice, which could readily be applied. Based on this point, The New Meaning of Educational Change tends to be a textbook on theories rather than practices.

References[edit | edit source]

Bryk, A., Sebring, P., Kerbow, D., Rollow, S., & Easton, J. (1998). Charting Chicago school reform. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Florida Virtual School. Retrieved from

Fullan’s Educational Change. Retrieved from

Fullan, M. (1997). What’s worth fighting for in the principalship? (2nd ed). New York: Teachers College Press.

Fullan, M. (2002). The New Meaning of Educational Change (3rd ed). New York: Teachers College Press.

Fullan, M. (2009). The challenge of change (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (1998). What’s worth fighting for out there. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Lortie, D. (1975). School teacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J. (2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Michael Fullan. Retrieved from