Navigating the swamp with Michael Fullan

Fullan and Donnelly describe two powerful forces that are combining to create what they call the “swamp”:

“One is a relentless ‘push’ factor; the other is a prodigious and exponential ‘pull’ phenomenon. The push factor is how incredibly boring school has become…The counterforce is the ‘pull’ of rapidly expanding digital innovations that are the result of lean and not so lean startups, as small–scale entrepreneurs and behemoth businesses and financiers populate the digital swamp. The result is an exciting but undisciplined explosion of innovations and opportunities.”

“Alive in the Swamp,” a new report published this week by UK-based Nesta and U.S.-based NewSchools Venture Fund, outlines the Innovation Index developed by change guru Michael Fullan & Pearson’s Katelyn Donnelly. The report offers practical advice for policymakers, education leaders, education innovators and edtech companies to help us all navigate the murky waters of education innovation.

After spending the better part of four years as a grad student reading and highlighting Michael Fullan’s books, it was a pretty big honor to spend a half hour chatting with him about his latest projects.

The swamp may be muddy, but it was clear during our conversation that Fullan is optimistic about the future of education. He explains, with the digital innovation explosion and no real criteria to size it all up, the swamp can be scary, but it’s populated by a lot of life.

The diversity of thriving organisms in the swamp is reason for excitement, but Fullan is most excited since this wave of educational technology adoption “has an organic flavor that’s attracting educators for intrinsic reasons.”  On this trend of bottom-up adoption by teachers, Fullan explains that the shift is happening naturally. There’s a “collective uprising” happening that is giving school and district leaders the opportunity to become enablers and not enforcers.   He explains what he’s seeing in the schools where he works: “When the change is natural and organic, there’s more excitement and engagement.  Students ‘come to life.’ It’s not just the ubiquitous use of technology. It’s more about what’s happening with the relationships between and among teachers and students when these innovations are well-implemented.”   For more on this topic, check out the recently-released “Towards A New End: New Pedagogies for Deep Learning” co-authored by Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy.

Fullan’s observations of changing roles for students, teachers and leaders characterize what he’d like to see more of when it comes to the implementation of digital innovations–innovations that succeed in three key areas – pedagogy, technology and system change. Building on Fullan’s Stratosphere, it was the observation by Fullan and his colleagues that so many innovations are unbalanced in these three areas that revealed the vulnerability of technology and led to the creation of the Innovation Index.

In creating and testing the Index, Fullan and Donnelly weren’t surprised to learn that innovations scored well in technology strands such as ease of use and quality of user experience, but were weak in pedagogical areas.  Fullan explains this is troubling, because “system change is automatically weak if pedagogy is weak, regardless of the strength of the technology.”

The Index is necessary, because, as Fullan and Donnelly assert, “Up to this point, technology has not impacted schools,” and, “Billions have been invested with little thought to altering the learning system.”  Even though the digital swamp is teeming with innovations that are delivering outcomes in limited environments, the authors note we’ve yet to see true transformation at scale and point to our own “How Digital Learning Contributes to Deeper Learning” as an effort to highlight promising examples that revealed more small-scale exceptions rather than mainstream disruptions of traditional systems. Creating the Innovation Index is an effort to change this.

With The Innovation Index, users can rate digital products or services against three key criteria, using a four-point scale. The scores assigned to each criterion are then combined to build to an overall assessment of the innovation.

  • GREEN: Good – likely to succeed and produce transformative outcomes

  • AMBER GREEN: Mixed – some aspects are solid; a few aspects are lacking full potential

  • AMBER RED: Problematic – requires substantial attention; some portions are gaps and need improvement

  • RED: Off track – unlikely to succeed

The Index will serve a variety of users since it provides a method to evaluate learning innovations, companies, products and school models. Fullan explains, however, that the Index is truly “more of a heuristic device than a literal one.” The report’s goal is to get people thinking beyond the technology itself.  “We had to find a way to give people a wider lens,” says Fullan. “Spelling it all out forces everyone to also take account of pedagogy and system change, improving the chances of successful implementation.”

As Sir Michael Barber explains in the paper’s foreword, “The future will belong not to those who focus on the technology alone, but to those who place it in the wider context of what we know about maximizing learning and realizing system impact.”

Not surprisingly, it was evident during our chat that Fullan is thinking about his recent projects as preliminary steps toward the long-term goal of  whole-system change across districts, states, and entire countries.  Fullan and his partners hope that readers will test the index, offer suggestions and join the conversation to help advance the field. You can share your comments by X (Fullan sending this by email, if I don’t fwd it tonight we can just remove this sentence.

For additional resources related to The Innovation Index head to the Alive in the Swamp webpage and download the full report.  The following video features Sir Michael Barber, Michael Fullan and Katelyn Donnelly discussing education reform, the impact of learning technologies and the practical advice offered in the report.

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