Systems thinkers in action: Moving beyond the standards plateau

by Michael Fullan


Michael Fullan’s argument is simple and profound: If a system is striving for both “high equity and excellence”, then policy and practice have to focus on system improvement. This means that school leaders have to be almost as concerned about the success of other schools as they are about their own school. Sustained improvement of schools is not possible unless the whole system is moving forward. And even more than that, they need to make sense not just of their own reality and work, but to re-conceive the system at the same time.

In "Systems Thinkers in Action", Michael Fullan makes a futuristic statement that moves beyond the arid polarity between 'top down' and 'bottom up'. Here, he argues that the future of educational reform lies not only in co-production – the working together of policy makers and consumers towards a common goal – but also that the actors are involved not just in making sense of the action but in leading it as well.

Fullan argues that this is the nature of the leadership that will be needed as we move into a phase of reform characterised by continuous improvement and capacity building. His argument echoes Hargreaves (2003) that new approaches and practices are constantly needed in order to maintain quality teaching to meet the needs of diverse learners.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this article:

  • In relation to the "plateau of improvements", what new thinking does Fullan suggest would be useful, especially system-wide in New Zealand?
  • In developing a "culture of deep learning", what should be the focus of the principal and senior leaders?
  • Can you think of "deliberate strategies where peers learn from each other"? In your own context, what is recently developed strategy that should be more widely practised in your school? How could transfer of the idea be achieved in your setting?
  • Discuss how this article might be applicable to leading implementation of the New Zealand Curriculum. For example, think about how personalising learning could be part of implementation; the development of effective pedagogy.

Further reading

Hargreaves, D. (2003). Working laterally: How innovation networks make an education epidemic.

England: Department of Education and Skills, Innovation Unit, in partnership with NCSL.


Fullan, M. (2004). Systems thinkers in action: Moving beyond the standards plateau.

England: Department for Education and Skills, Innovation Unit, in partnership with NCSL.

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