By Michael Fullan, December 2021

Like many of us in that first year of Covid-19 (2020) I sensed that the extreme disruption might present a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about substantial system change in learning. Not in the midst of upheaval, but arising from it. I had the idea that I should do a paper on the 10th anniversary of my ‘wrong drivers’ policy paper that was published in 2010 with the Center for Strategic Education (CSE). 

For the anniversary paper I would focus on ‘the right drivers’. In October 2020 I deliberately slowed my writing because I wanted the paper to appear, in February 2021 when action could be taken ‘post-covid’. How naïve. We did release the report in February. Now 10 months later, given the nature of the report I think it is time to comment on the initial reception of the Drivers. My intent in this note is not to arrive at the conclusion, but rather to show how the ‘Drivers’ as a set can spark new insights about practical and essential system change. My intent is not to do a review of jurisdictions who are using the Drivers Framework, but rather to show an interest in what use they find it. For example, the Northern Alliance in Scotland (one of 6 Regional Improvement Collaboratives) prompted this note as I began to exchange some ideas with their leaders.

System change of the kind implied in the ‘drivers’ paper takes time and above all timing. Some have argued that nothing fundamental has changed in public education since its’ founding in the 19th century. For my purposes I think we can say that there have been various fits and starts but ‘system-wise’—deep down—the current system has pretty much anchored itself from the 1980s to the present day. As far as timing goes, my sense is that today—this decade—the timing for serious system change has never been better. We are experiencing a wicked attack on humanity (much of it self-induced), an undeniable mismatch of the current system in relation to what is required, and enough good ideas and change players including the very young to warrant (and require) a serious foray into changing the very system itself.

My contribution for starters is the ‘Right Drivers’. I did not say this in the report, but I realize it now that the drivers are best seen as a ‘treasure map’, not a blueprint. No system change worth its salt has ever come about via a blueprint. All system change combines planned and unplanned happenings – planned ideas which fail and succeed (hopefully retaining much of the latter); unplanned events and ideas being sorted to retain the most useful ones. You might say that this has never happened in the past (retaining only good ideas whether planned or unplanned), so why would it be different this time. My answer is twofold: i) because maybe we have a new period of ‘human evolution’ (genetics, culture and consciousness combining for breakthroughs) at work; and perhaps related to evolution ii) many of us, especially the very young—those 0 to 12 years of age for example, may just be in the mood for a treasure hunt to find a new future.

I venture to say that it is no accident that it has taken almost a year for this to occur — for some systems to spontaneously say: “I don’t know exactly why but many of us in this system are reading the ‘Drivers’ report and it is ‘clicking’ with us. They may not know exactly how or why it connects but they do know that these ideas and themes at this particular moment should not be ignored.

In this short note I want to reflect on a few specific things (treasures worth keeping and elaborating on) that I am picking up as practitioners (always learning from those applying the ideas). This is not a complete list but a few promising ideas of where the drivers might take us.

For reference here is the Driver core model:

I will address in this note what new is emerging or become clearer in these past 10 months.

I’ll make five observations: one about the overall framework, and one comment each about the four sets of drivers.

  1. The Integrated model. The report implies that the four factors in the bloodless paradigm are ‘wrong drivers’. This is a bit of hyperbole. It is more accurate to think of two overall messages. One is the idea that we need to strongly ‘strengthen’ the four right drivers, and dampen the four less than right ones (ie they can be valuable but not as ‘drivers’). The second idea, down the road is that the human and bloodless drivers need to the reconciled and indeed in some cases integrated (such as well-being/learning and academics). At the end of the day we need one integrated model.
  • Driver 1: Learning-Well-being/ Academics. With respect to the first pair several things have become clearer: We need to integrate well-being, learning, and academic learning. Well-being for example encompasses learning including academic learning. Sub items include: first, Well-being is a more powerful concept than Socio Emotional Learning (SEL); second, we need to sort out the qualities of Head, Hand , and Heart (Goodhart, 2020)—Head or cognitive learning must shed its limitations (the obsession part; and the fact that being strong cognitively does not means you are strong in other domains (social intelligence, imagination, moral purpose, ability to work with others, leadership, judgment, dealing with difficult people and situations (Goodhart pp. 145-146). On the other hand, those not strong academically, require critical thinking, reflection, communication, dealing with complexity. In short, cognitive and life skills must be combined. The head (cognitive), the hand (practical skills), and the heart (caring) must be combined and integrated. This is Driver pair no 1.

There are two other critical aspects for essential system change. Standardized tests must go and be replaced by new assessments which are already presenting themselves (performance based and pertaining to both academic and practical skills). If equity is to be addressed new pedagogies linking to a range of cultures will be essential. And direct support for non-educational well-being will be required (see my point with respect to Driver number 3 (equality investments).

In short, Well-being/Learning, and Cognitive Skills as a set is the driver.

  • Driver 2: Social-Machine Intelligence. With respect to the second set social and machine intelligence we need to move to a more integrated set. In the drivers report I deliberately short-changed machine intelligence because it had the advantage of big money and seem to have a built-in market position. By comparison social intelligence was not progressing (social trust for example is about half of what it was in the 1960s). If anything, Covid 19 has enabled the increased presence of machines. Perhaps a more balanced question is the one asked by Anthony Seldon et al (2020) – ‘will artificial intelligence enrich or diminish humanity’.
  • Driver 3: Equality-Investments—Austerity. All the drivers intersect to form an overall set. Investments obviously cross over. This driver set is quite complex but let’s consider the obvious. Equity (and eventual equality requires “targeted” investment. So far the money has been wasted (in the sense that equality has steadily lessened since the late 1970s. Early childhood is one obvious quality investment. But what about essential non-school factors:  health, safety, food, shelter. In California where we work school districts are combining non-school and school factors. I said this was complex: massive amounts of short-term money has become available with little capacity about how and where to spend it. More problems: equality investments, debt, inflation. Another reminder that the four sets of drivers must form an interrelated set. But for sure, money needs to be invested in equity and equality in order for the whole society to survive and prosper.
  • Driver 4 : Systemness-Fragmentation. Systemness is getting more and more intriguing to me. It is more and more clear that we should not seek, nor expect it from the top (The top may enable it with policy and investments but will never ‘cause’ the whole system to improve (for one thing system improvement is too complex; for another turnover of top leadership is endemic). I define systemness as the degree to which more and more people at each of the three levels (local, middle, and top) become aware of and interact with people within in and across their levels in relation to common goals of improving learning and well-being.  A good example if the state of Victoria’s recent action guideline called FISO (framework for improving student outcomes). In the center of the model is ‘Learning and Well-being); five elements (focusing on making it happen) surround it: Leadership, Assessment, Support and Resources, Engagement, and Teaching and Learning.  Note these enabling local development ideas are coming from the policy level. Similarly the Scotland example that I mentioned at the outset seems to be making headway on the number of people at all levels who are attempting to make lateral and vertical cross connection, i.e they are becoming ‘systemness players’.
This image shows the ‘Right Drivers’ revisited.

I intend this note to be an informal commentary 10 months into a new way of thinking about and going about system change—a model that attempts to combine, reconcile and integrate previously separate of missing factors. I look forward to more interaction with systems moving in the direction of a better set of drivers.


Fullan, M. (2021) The right drivers for whole system success. The right drivers for whole system success. Melbourne: Center for Strategic Education (CSE Leading Education series.

Goodhart, D. (2020) Head, hand & heart. New York: Free Press.

Seldon, A. et al. (2020). The fourth education revolution reconsidered: Will artificial intelligence enrich humanity. The University of Buckingham Press.

Victoria Government (2021) Student outcomes (FISO 2.0).

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