The Six Secrets of Change by Michael Fullan – A Book Synthesis

The Six Secrets of Change Cover

The Six Secrets of Change presents a road map explaining how to increase engagement and mobilize action in any organization.  Written by Michael Fullan, the ideas put forward directly relate to the Ontario Public School System.  The book greets the reader with a phrase that carries them through the entire text: “Learning is not doing; it is reflecting on doing” (5).

Understanding that “[t]he job of leaders is to provide direction while pursuing its implementation through purposeful peer interaction and learning in relation to results” (12) and that learning must be “in the setting [where one] work[s]” (14), The Six Secrets of Change demonstrates an understanding of the needs of both teachers and management.

Teacher Training

Teachers are on-the-job learners.  While they must complete a two-year university program, on top of their initial undergrad, it is no secret that the theoretical lectures, and in-class assignments demonstrating no connection to the workings of the profession, have little impact on a teacher’s training or ability.  Throughout Ontario’s Bachelor of Education program, future-teachers claim their most valuable experience is in the classroom with their mentor teachers.

Once teachers graduate, and are offered their first classroom, training continues under the dutiful and caring eyes of their colleagues.  No teacher graduates with an understanding of how to run a classroom, or how to fully meet the needs of all their unique students. There is a steep learning curve over the first three to five years of teaching. 

It is for this reason that “higher wages and benefits [are] transmuted into lower operating costs” (31) for the system as a whole. Rather than watching as teachers are trained to a level of excellence, only to leave the profession due to a lack of managerial respect, money spent on providing strong contracts for educators is actually money saved through the retention of strong, trained teachers. 

Keeping strong employees in education to continue the cycle of training is a key component of the education industry. Once broken, there will be no teachers to train the new staff coming into each building, leading to a devastating impact on student success and achievement.

Group Dynamics

The Six Secrets of Change also presents an understanding of group dynamics, and the dangers of direct competition.  Through a farm-yard anecdote, Michael Fullan explains that selecting the seemingly best-of-the-best, ignoring the importance of the group as a whole, quickly leads to ruin. 

In the provided example when the most productive egg laying hens were grouped together, their total production decreased over the group of egg laying hens that worked well together, even though some members were less productive than others.  The reason? In the best-of-the-best group, of the initial nine hens, “six had been murdered [and t]he three survivors had plucked each other during their … attacks [becoming] nearly featherless” (44). Groups need to work together, rather than engage in in-fighting to demonstrate who the strongest member is.

How does one prevent teachers from losing all their feathers?  By ensuring they have access to groups that work. What makes a group work?  “[W]hen the … values of the organization and … individuals … mesh” (45), “when … knowledge [is] widely … shared” (45) and, “when monitoring mechanisms are in place to … address ineffective actions while … consolidating effective practice” (45).

For teachers, this means that they can not be left to their own devices, while at the same time they can not be put into direct competition with one another.  Teachers must be granted the opportunities to work with their peers towards a goal they feel a personal connection to. Within the school system, this should not only be limited to the local school level.  Results are best achieved by forming “hundred[s of] groups of … schools [so they can] learn from each other” (47).

Meaningful Motivation

Individuals do not thrive from top-down leadership instructing them how they must perform.  Sweeping statements calling for a 10% local increase, or a 15% improvement on a system-wide level do nothing to motivate employees.  Instead, those statements create an anchor around which employees pivot, complaining about the lack of managerial understanding. 

Rather than forcing employees to meet goals set from the outside, they are best encouraged, not to outperform an abstract number, but rather to “outperform themselves relative to their own past performance” (48). Through this intrinsic motivation, and grouping of schools together, educators quickly find themselves invested “in the success of … the system as a whole” (50), rather than just their classroom, or their building. 

Rather than presenting a leadership structure that requires the micromanagement of each employee, a system that provides an opportunity for “peers [to] interact with purpose [leads to] built-in accountability” (52) where members seek to best support each other.

The Destructive Impact of Merit-Based Pay

Just as it has on all things, fear has a negative impact on employee productivity.  The Six Secrets of Change demonstrates that “when people fear for their jobs [they are not likely] to do anything but what they have done in the past” (61).  Educators need to be presented with an environment in which “[r]isk taking based on knowledge and insight is [rewarded, understanding that] by definition [it] will fail now and then” (61).

The idea of merit-based pay is presented as a dangerous ideology that, aside from resulting in chickens roaming around without any feathers, simply works to gamify employment in the worst of ways.  The technique leads to employees “[m]anipulating figures, getting people to cut corners to achieve an all-important short-term goal, and [committing] fraud” (61).

Merit-based pay also creates an environment where “[m]anagers become more concerned with taking credit for their own good performance and blaming others for poor performance” (62) rather than fostering an environment in which all are working for the good of the organization.

Teaching is an on-the-job training profession, with the strongest techniques passed down by experienced teachers. An environment in which raising the levels of new staff will create a higher bar for experienced staff to cross over on their journey for their merit-based reward, disincentives helping new staff – and by extension, new students, new schools, and the system as a whole.

Ultimately, for schools to succeed there must be a willingness to look, not only at past accomplishments, but at future potential.  An important goal for all organizations, regardless of if they are a private corporation, public education system, or professional baseball team is that they must ensure they are “hiring for purpose and hiring for potential” (71) and rewarding all equally, rather than pitting them against one another.

Creating a Stronger Future

Just as with nurses in hospitals who required changes to improve the rates of hand-washing within hospitals, teachers also require changes to the system in order to create a lasting and effective impact.  Change requires “consistent education, convenience … and frequent … checks to monitor and improve performance” (77).

For the effective rollout of new initiatives, educators must be asked to self-identify what progress they feel is being made. They must be asked if “they have a better understanding” (85) of the task and process in order to chart the effectiveness of the current plans.  Only through this process can one “verify understanding[,] … correct errors[,] … [assess] capability, [and gain] responsibility” (88).

The Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test

The Six Secrets of Change highlights the original intent of the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. It shares a key mandate for the successful implementation of the province-wide test, stating that they “do not condone starting by displaying the results of every school from lowest to highest without regard to context” (97).  It continues by explaining that the test’s results were meant to be used to “[h]elp schools compare themselves with their statistical neighbours, comparing apples with apples” (97) with a “focus on capacity building, helping districts identifying use effective instructional practices” (97).

Modern educators will applaud this intent, implementing the test to determine what schools needs the most help, then providing resources for support.  They will also find themselves dismayed by how far that intent has fallen behind the current reality, some twelve years later.

Today, the OSSLT primarily serves to populate the Fraser Institute’s School Performance List – the very first thing that was stated to be detrimental in the creation of the standardized testing.  As Full data sets are not made easily available to administrators, teachers, students, or parents, the comparison of similar schools becomes all but an impossibility. And, there is seemingly little additional funding connected to test results to provide support for those schools in need.

Rather than using the OSSLT to benefit the entire system, teachers are often presented with target numbers for improvement, devoid of the much-needed context. They are asked to make consistent changes with constantly-changing variables, rather than simply trying to “outperform themselves” (48) as they chart new ways to engage and support the unique student population, year after year.

Effective Leadership

Effective change can not occur without “clear transparency” (103), where educators and management openly share data with one another. Though full transparency may initially present as a concern, when one “knows that transparency is both inevitable and desirable… It becomes far less threatening” (104) especially when grounded in an organization that values the taking of risks.

Paradoxically, “leaders [must] combine humility and confidence” (109) when planning for the future.  They must also understand that success in the future is a combination of both “good preparation and luck” (116).  While leaders “shouldn’t be too sure” (117 of themselves, as it is impossible to know what the future holds, they still “need to convey confidence even though they are not fully certain” (117).

A strong leader must “act as if they are in control, project confidence, and talk about the future, even while recognizing and acknowledging the organizational realities of their own limitations” (118), all well learning “when and how to get out of the way, and let others make contributions” (118).  

A leader must “help build systems where a few powerful and magnificently skilled people matter the least” (118); they must establish “the conditions and preconditions for others to succeed” (118). It is through this process that an organization will “ultimately discover how [all] can … do better” (121).

Antarctic Bound

Finally, The Six Secrets of Change uses the tale of Antarctic exploration to explain how management and employees must all work together to achieve success. It tells the story of two Antarctic explorers: Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott.

Trapped “in the crushing Antarctic Ice” (132), Shackleton did his best “to help  create an upbeat environment” (133) and found “a way to turn setbacks and failures to [his] own advantage” (133) while refusing to reach his “goal at any cost” (133), understanding that “it must [only] be achieved without undue hardship for [his] staff” (133).  Thanks to his leadership, “all of Shackleton’s men survived the wreck of their ship” (132).

And what happened to Scott’s men who faced similar peril under a different leadership structure?   Much like the chickens placed together in a foolhardy attempt to maximize egg laying, “Scott’s men died” (132).

The Six Secrets of Change Cover

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