Digital Learning: Why has Dr. Michael Fullan Gone into the Stratosphere?

Leading Canadian school change theorist Michael Fullan has, until recently, remained curiously silent on the 21st century digital learning movement.  His 1982 book, The Meaning of Educational Change, put him on the map as an expert on “school change management”, but his strategies tended to be “top-down” and focused inside the system.   After spending decades espousing educational change theory and promoting “teacher-driven, system-wide reform,” one would have expected him to be on the leading edge of technology innovation. The publication of Michael Fullan’s latest book, Stratosphere (June 2012), makes it abundantly clear that he and his followers are having a “Eureka moment” — and  finally awakening to the enormous potential of  digital learning and Social Media in the classroom.

Michael Fullan may be late on arrival, but his new book has been heralded as the 21st century  ‘New Testament ‘ by Toronto’s digital technology crowd.  In a June 2012 MindShareLearning promo video, Dr. Fullan was lauded for being “Canada’s leading school change expert ” and given free reign to explain his latest theory.  “System-wide reform” was now passe, and a little boring, he conceded, so he was turning his attention to the “Stratosphere” — that land beyond the clouds –where information was flowing freely and can now be accessed with our own portable devices.

Fullan’s “whole system change” initiative has, by his own admission, plateaued and the book signals his determination to get back “ahead of the curve.” What Stratosphere really signifies is his discovery of “connectivity” and an attempt to get back in the game of meaningful school reform. It’s clear that the “wild growth” of technology and online learning has shaken him to the core.  Dr. Fullan’s recent “Motion leadership” project was going nowhere on planet earth and he’s now awakened to the need for “change managers” to gain control of the powerful forces reshaping how we grow and learn outside of school.

Where have we gone wrong?  The latest Fullanite revelation is that the chasm between technology and educational change can be bridged by bringing pedagogy, change management, and technology together.  It forms a “triad,”, according to Fullan, and “change management” can bring technology under control, making it more palatable to educators and useable in his flagging schemes of “system-wide” reform.

Fullan’s Stratosphere is worth studying because it will likely be adopted in Ontario where Fullanites tend to command most of the educational resources and drive the school system.  Whatever his motives and agenda, the book does zero -in on some critically important criteria for embracing 21st century digital learning. It must be: 1) irresistably engaging for all stakeholders; 2) elegantly efficient and easy to use; 3) technologically ubiquitous 24/7; and 4) steeped in real-life problem solving.

Fullan is warming to the idea that children can and do learn a great deal from Social Media and free access to the Internet.  Though still a child of the print culture, he’s awakened to the excitement of Web 2.0 and its enormous potential to reshape the way we live, play, and learn.

Having said that, Canada’s renowned school change wizard  continues to inhabit what George Couros termed the “culture of fear.”  He’s plainly worried about the “weed-like growth of technology” and fears that “our brains” are being “distorted” into “a permanent state of hyper-distractionism.”  Recent ed-tech crazes have left a legacy of what he describes as “Digital Disappointments” and “Digital Dreaming.” Indeed, Fullan has, over the years, been known to dismiss Don Tapscott‘s surprisingly accurate digital learning forecasts.

For Fullan and his camp followers, the best defense of the existing Ontario “change management” system is to mount a good offense.  Technology will only improve learning if it can be reined-in and harnessed for “teacher-driven, system-wide” reform focusing on “improving learning outcomes for all.”  American public school reform, focusing on school choice, testing, and accountability, scares him to death and so does the rather vacuous pursuit of generic “21st century learning skills.”  He even takes a totally unwarranted pot shot at Alberta Education’s “Inspiring Action in Education” mandate, labelling it “inspiration with no perspiration.”

Fullan’s book Stratosphere signifies that he and his OISE entourage will be wading into the so-called “technology malaise” in public education. True to form, he’s trying to recapture the “leading edge” and to put his “system management” stamp on the “wild, irregular, spreading weed” of technology.  He’s even trying to apply his familiar systematic “change agent skills”: knowledge and skills; a plan to action; strategies to overcome setbacks; a high sense of confidence;  monitoring progress; a commitment to achieve; social and environmental support; and freedom, control and choice.(Fullan, 67)”

Sincere advocates of Social Media and digital learning will likely be skeptical about Dr. Fullan’s attempt to bring systematic change theory to the digital learning revolution. With Premier Dalton McGuinty’s “Education Miracle” on the rocks, it’s obvious that Fullan is casting around for the next Big Idea. It’s just hard to imagine the architect of “system-wide” and “system-bound” change management as a champion of 21st century digital learning.

About Paul W. Bennett

Founding Director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, NS


  1. Damn…now I have to read another book? I’ve been immersed in Egan all summer, and now you want me to move to Fullan?

    Ok…I’ll do it; and I will keep an open mind. Anyone want to join me?

    Thanks for the post, and the review.

    • John Steele /

      I have read the book and really like Paul’s review. His last statement resonates very well with me. You will enjoy the read Stephen as it will likely serve as a launching pad for some of your future blogs!

      John Steele

  2. I learned about George Couros and Don Tapscott on Twitter…so, there you go. I will read the book though. Thanks for the review.

  3. There are also so many video uploading websites, and these as well give facility for distribution their videos, however I think YouTube is the finest.

  4. Just when you think Dr. Michael Fullan is burning out like a booster rocket, he appears with Steve Paikin on TVO’s The Agenda:

    A fascinating case study in re-invention for a new century. Rather sadly, he’s flying solo, having lost his wingman.

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