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The Right Drivers for Whole System Success 

In 2011, Michael Fullan published a paper called “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Success.” 10 years later, after the high-magnitude disruption of COVID-19 in education, he has published a new paper with the Centre for Strategic Education: “The Right Drivers for Whole System Success.” Listen to Michael Fullan discuss the new paper with Peter DeWitt on the Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast: 

The following is an excerpt from the paper “The Right Drivers for Whole System Success. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has upended virtually every aspect of humanity as we know it, shaking current civilisation to its foundation. Amidst the death and destruction is a disruption so fundamental that it loosens and discombobulates the system in a way that creates openings for transforming the status quo. Most significantly, it generates conditions that are conducive to pursuing the very paradigm that I outline in this paper.  

I won’t focus in detail on the pandemic itself except to set the context for radical change. The immediate consequence is chaos, impressively captured by Nicholas Christakis (2020) in his analysis, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. Using past pandemics and current developments Christakis analyses what he labels as ‘the immediate pandemic period’, ‘the intermediate pandemic period’ and ‘the post-pandemic period’ – a time span covering 2020 to 2024. In practical terms, humans will grapple with chaos, survival, innovative breakthroughs, destructive elements, and more. The best stance we can take is to know that almost everything will be different. In short, this prolonged ambiguity creates a tangible opportunity to make positive change happen.  

A necessary immediate priority is to address the first order upheaval. Our deep learning team offered an early analysis and framework in a report we released in June 2020 called Education Re-imagined: The Future of Learning (Fullan et al). We are working on an update that will be available by mid-2021. These reports call for attending first to wellbeing; for addressing basic needs like food, safety, shelter, access to resources; for using the opportunity to move toward what I later call ‘global competencies’ (character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking). Above all, we recommend avoiding a ‘loss of learning’ mindset that would take us back to traditional learning – to a system that we know was not working for the vast majority of students. 

What then would the new model look like? I start back a decade ago. The current year, 2021, is the 10th anniversary of a popular policy article I published entitled Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform (Fullan, 2011). System reform is about the whole system – a state, province, national entity. A driver is a policy – a wrong driver is a policy that does not work or makes matters worse. Our team had been working actively on system reform since 1997 when we assessed the English National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, followed quickly by the Ontario reform (2003 onward), advice and capacity building in California, Victoria and other places. We had also spent a decade conducting hundreds of workshops across Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada and more. 

On one occasion, after a very productive workshop in Melbourne, the organisers (the Centre for Strategic Education) observed that our ideas were really hitting the mark, but that these proposals were not at all like the actual policies that were in place. They asked if I would do a paper on the subject. Because we had been grappling with these ideas we quickly came up with the title ‘Choosing the Wrong Drivers’ theme. The paper (Fullan, 2011) focused on four pairs of drivers, which were  

  • accountability (vs capacity building);  
  • individual (vs group quality);  
  • technology (vs pedagogy); and  
  • fragmented (vs systemic).  

The focus of the 2011 paper was very much on how policies and strategic actions seem to be dominated by assumptions akin to the wrong drivers. It was not that they had no merit, but rather that they did not serve to ‘lead’ system change. The paper was a big hit, particularly in Australia, the US and the UK. Practitioners instantly recognised that they were on the wrong end of the policy stick (and I think many policy makers did as well, but they did not have an alternative). At the time, I was not paying much attention to the new Asian front runners in the OECD’s PISA assessment of literacy, numeracy and science results: Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and South Korea (more about them later). 

Over the past decade the ‘wrong drivers’ paper was received favourably in many local jurisdictions (schools and local authorities) and even garnered some interest at the policy level (in California, and Victoria for example). However, the analysis never carried the day in reformulating system change. One reason was that the spotlight was mostly on what was ‘wrong’; second, the so-called right drivers did not represent a coherent theory; third, the right drivers were never complete enough to influence the rapidly growing complexity of society in the 21st century – they were never strong enough to affect inequality, which is endemic to the system we have come to have. Joanne Quinn and I got a start on the solution in our book, Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems, but the ideas did not go widely or deeply enough for system change (Fullan and Quinn, 2016).  

The question now is whether 2021 might be the best time for getting the ‘right drivers right’ and, of course, what would the drivers be? There are several reasons why the time is now: global society is rapidly worsening and has been for some time; there is climate collapse, galloping inequality, deepening mistrust and increased stress for adults and the young alike; all of this prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (see Fullan and Gallagher, 2020). The pandemic phenomenon itself may serve to accelerate the solutions as we find silver linings and golden pockets, precisely because of ever-growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the new openings that COVID-19 dissolution unveils. The timing is also propitious because we have gained an understanding of so much more in the past five years about learning, technology, people and the most powerful levers for positive transformation. The pandemic has caused us to take two or more steps backwards and, indeed, has exposed fundamental flaws in our learning systems. COVID-19 could turn out to be the catalyst needed to leap forward, but only if we act forcefully on what I call the ‘right drivers’.   

The model for education currently in place is badly out of date. Correspondingly, a new and better education system would be one of the very few avenues for surviving in the short run, let alone thriving in the longer future. Thomas Kuhn (1962), in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, made the case that scientific models, or paradigms as he called them, sometimes run their course. He said that two conditions are necessary for change to happen: one is that the current system becomes ‘catastrophically ineffective’ (which, I would argue, is now the case); the other requirement is the presence of an alternative paradigm to take its place. 

The four right drivers, in combination – what I have called ‘the human paradigm’, constitute the proposed new model for governing the future of education (see Figure 1). My conception of a driver is a force that attracts power and generates motion on a continuous basis. The four drivers in question are not travelling down a divided highway. Instead, they form a constellation of stars that give each other energy and purpose. They represent a single, integrated model that generates continuous development.  

The four new wrong drivers are not completely wrong. It is just that if left alone they take us in a negative direction. Let’s name them and give them nicknames (in parentheses).  

  1. Academics Obsession (selfish) 
  2. Machine Intelligence (careless) 
  3. Austerity (ruthless), and 
  4. Fragmentation (inertia). 

They have been operating for 40 years, and with ever-growing intensity. Together they are the ‘bloodless paradigm’, lacking care, empathy, and civic awareness – the things that make us humans. The new right drivers, by contrast, capture and propel the human spirit. Again these are offered with nicknames. 

  1. Wellbeing and Learning (essence) 
  2. Social Intelligence (limitless) 
  3. Equality Investments (dignity), and 
  4. Systemness (wholeness).  

They are the human paradigm and presently constitute a work in progress. We have barely begun to tap their potential.  


The right drivers’ paper is a call for action—essentially to help the right drivers ‘rise,’ and to ‘dampen’ the effect of the wrong drivers. This paper presents a framework to transform the system but does not provide a step-by-step implementation plan. Rather, it invites the reader to take action in her or his situation guided by the right drivers. 

Read the rest of the paper here. 

Written by

Michael Fullan, OC, is the former Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto. He is co-leader of the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning global initiative. Recognized as a worldwide authority on educational reform, he advises policymakers and local leaders in helping to achieve the moral purpose of all children learning. Michael Fullan received the Order of Canada in December 2012. He holds honorary doctorates from several universities around the world.

Fullan is a prolific, award-winning author whose books have been published in many languages. His book Leading in a Culture of Change received the 2002 Book of the Year Award by Learning Forward. Breakthrough (with Peter Hill and Carmel Crévola) won the 2006 Book of the Year Award from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), and Turnaround Leadership in Higher Education (with Geoff Scott) won the Bellwether Book Award in 2009. Change Wars (with Andy Hargreaves) was named the 2009 Book of the Year by Learning Forward, and Professional Capital (with Andy Hargreaves) won the AACTE 2013 Book of the Year and the Grawemeyer Award in Education in 2015.

Michael Fullan’s latest books are The Principal: Three Keys for Maximizing Impact ; Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems (with Joanne Quinn); Deep Learning: Engage the Change the World (with Joanne Quinn and Joanne McEachen); Surreal Change: The Real Life of Transforming Public Education (autobiography); and Nuance: Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail.

For more information on books, articles, and videos, please go to www.michaelfullan.ca. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelFullan1.

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