Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School

fullen20drawingMichael Fullan delivered a memorable keynote at uLearn16, discussing the new pedagogies for deep learning. He was persuasive in claiming the role of the middle in education transformation is most important. He proposed that the role of leadership was to:

  • Respect and reject the status quo
  • Be an expert and an apprentice at the same time
  • Experiment and commit

During this presentation he talked about professional capital. I had little prior understanding to hang this on, but having now spent some delightful time in Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves’ book Professional Capital things are a lot clearer.

51d5demgijl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Professional capital – the systematic development and integration of three kinds of capital – human, social, and decisional – into the teaching profession (xv)

In exploring these three areas – human, social and decisional capital – the overwhelming trend I read was the need for autonomy and trust in order to build knowledge, understanding and capability. The five C’s of professional capital that enable the teaching force to become highly effective are a good start:

  1. Capability (or expertise)
  2. Committment
  3. Career
  4. Culture
  5. Contexts/Conditions of teaching

There was a step that Fullan and Hargreaves addressed first which was around attracting the right people to the teaching profession. They unpacked systematic differences between countries and looked at reasons for capable teachers leaving the profession after only a few years.

If you want a high performing school system, a competitive economy, and a cohesive society… we need the best, most highly qualified teachers who have a deep and broad repertoire of knowledge and skill in the schools that don’t have the luxury of screening out children (79).

Effectively, this acts as a contradiction to the current direction of the NZ government. When it came time to talk about the culture of schools, there were some fascinating insights:

The arbitrariness of culture is a curse and a blessing. As soon as you grasp that, you realise that it’s just when things are completely fixed that they are actually most open to change. (103)

This non-committal way of defining culture makes a lot of sense in practice. Efforts to create a culture, often bring voice to the opposition, but naturally developing culture shifts are – for better or for worse – are often achieved without significant interference. Understanding the different types of work cultures in educational setting helps to flesh this out. They presented the two main categories of professional cultures and four subgroups:

#1: Individualism

Individualism is created by architecture (isolated classrooms), evaluation and self-preservation (associating help with evaluation and “collaboration with supervision and control” [108]), guilt and perfectionism (high expectations in environments with poorly defined limits), pressure and time (closing the door to collaboration in order to successfully meet obligations).

In the best professional learning communities, we will see, strong collaboration and distinctive individuality go together in vibrant communities of innovation and growth (111).

Individualism is not ideal for a culture of learning. Individualism “undercuts the possibilities of developing and circulating professional capital” (106). But individuals are essential to any workplace ecology.

#2: Collaborative Cultures

“Collaborative cultures not only can be informal but they also must always be informal” because for collaboration to occur in an authentic way it must be embedded and not forced. This powerful idea challenged my understanding of leading collaborative change. To unpack it, the authors describe and unpack four different types of collaboration:

  • balkanisation (clusters of collaboration, usually departmentalised; often there develops conflicts between clusters and poor continuity across departments)
  • contrived collegiality (danger of forcing cooperation, needs to be a patient development journey, authentic collaboration is doubtful when based on external agendas)
  • Professional learning communities (space for inquiry and learning together; challenges emerge and self-direction evident through ownership of the problems and the solutions)
  • Clusters, networks, and federations (school to school networks; systemic connection opportunities, co-operation – friendly rivalry, support)

Within effective collaboration there is a clear understanding of collective responsibility. “Collective responsibility is not just a commitment; it is the exercise of capabilities on a deep and wide scale. It encompasses positive competition: challenging the limits of what is humanly and professionally possible” (142)

Thoughts I am left with:

  • Collaborative cultures are based on trust and relationships and are not forced or contrived. Informal work is the basis of a collective culture. However, this needs to be balanced with arrangements that allow the emergence of this kind of social capital that are deliberate and structured.
  • A balance is needed as well between the pushing of new ideas and change and pulling: “by the excitement of the process, the inspirational feeling of the engagement, the connection to people’s passions and purposes” (130).
  • Change leadership is a series of balances: “confident and humble, resolute and empathetic, collaborative and competitive” (136).
  • The fundamental goal “is to do things that bridge the chasm, reach for partnership, and replace polarization with integration – in ways that make every effort to respect each other’s positions without capitulating to them” (154).
  • I am reminded of the opinion economy – a concept introduced to me by David Buckingham. Finding the space, the balance, the commonalities, between two opposing ideas or concepts is important to navigating forward effectively. This connects to the principles of change which require professional capital.

We can treat teaching as just a short-term investment of business capital, and finance the present by mortgaging our children’s future. Or we can make teaching a sustainable investment for professional capital, and give birth to a world of many happy returns to come (186).


Fullan, M. & Hargreaves, A. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers College Press.

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