From Signals to Seas of Change

Promising Practices

From Signals to Seas of Change

Public education transforms itself

A signal is a ping that connotes that something interesting and unknown is in the vicinity. Chances are it is deep and will require some uncovering. Maybe it will lead to new discoveries and even new systems—a sea change if you will. This is how I feel about technology and learning. In this article I want to report on recent developments in both Ontario and Quebec. I hasten to add that these are only a few examples from a much larger array in our own deep learning initiative, New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, which involves over 1,000 schools in seven countries, and that of many others across the country – multiple pings at work. The point is that there are deeper changes underway, that these represent the beginnings of a sea change, and that many of these changes will be led by those within the public education system (although forces external to the system will also be required for transformation). In any case deep system change in public education is inevitable over the next decade, and Canada is in a position to help lead the way.

The twin pings that have different sounds – although both can be rambunctious – are boredom and excitement. Conventional schooling is unequivocally disengaging as you move up the grade levels. To put it most dramatically, let’s ask the rhetorical question: Is it possible for a student to get good grades at school and at graduation, and still not be good at life? Not to mention all those who drop out or tune out? The other ping – the one with most potential – is the sound of deep learning when technology, pedagogy and new cultures interact to produce individual and collective learning that goes beyond the limits of anything we have ever seen on scale. This is the sea change that I write about here.

This change is at the early stage but predictably will take off at rate never before seen. It changes outcomes (namely toward global competencies); it changes pedagogy (by focusing on personally and collectively meaningful matters); and it alters context (where people pursue learning, and with whom). In fact, it changes the very foundation and epistemology of learning. The sea change in question is making Brazilian educator Paulo Freire look like a prophet: the role of education, he proposed some 50 years ago, “is to act upon and transform the world [in order] to move towards ever new possibilities of a fuller and richer life individually and collectively.”

This potentially radical change in education can be characterized as a “social movement of grand proportions.” We have captured the early stages (the first three years) of this movement in a book just published: Deep Learning: Engage the world change the world. In a more informal sense I want to talk about these developments using four quick vignettes: three from different districts in Ottawa, and then a province-wide example from Quebec. Not all of these examples are highly advanced, but they are on the way. One reminder: deep learning is quality learning that “sticks” much beyond the time it was learned.


Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB)

The OCSB has 84 schools and about 41,000 students. They joined our Deep Learning initiative three years ago, immediately developing a plan for system-wide change. They moved from seven schools to 21 to all 83 schools. I don’t have the space to describe the multiple strands of communication and involvement that characterized the change, but let’s just say it was systematic and two-way within the district in its deliberations. The essence of the model is displayed in Figure 1, which is essentially our model from Deep Learning, but I use OCSB’s version here.

Figure 1

Here is an example of the strategy: “Each month the board has a common focus that is shared across all 83 schools at the monthly staff meetings. Over the ten-month school year, all four learning elements and all six global competencies will be explored in every school” (interview with district leaders). Multiple overlapping ideas are used and reinforced through interaction and digital devices. The district continues to perform above provincial levels (although it should be noted that good outcome measures of the global competencies are not yet available).

Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE)

The CECCE has 55 schools and has been a highly performing district in Ontario for several years. The district has used multiple reinforcing elements to move deep learning forward, including the development of teacher leaders, renewal of vision and mission to engage students and transform learning, and student exit outcomes that integrate the six global competencies. In one subset, the CECCE has focused on developing and measuring critical thinking and its ramifications. Notably through the growth mindset of leaders and teachers, CECCE shared the following:

What we’ve learned along the way:

  • increased evidence of students thinking critically and of transformed instructional practice
  • teams are more aligned and mobilized when the principal is on board and champions the initiative
  • increase in students creating knowledge (e.g. Grade 2 student inquiring about pollution levels in the winter because there are no leaves on trees without being prompted by their teacher)
  • increased student ability in problem solving when collaborating with peers
  • increased collaboration and communication skills amongst students
  • shared planning and problem solving amongst teachers
  • improvement of teaching quality at scale
  • increased creativity levels for students with learning disabilities (peer problem solving)
  • easier implementation of technological shifts: critical thinking is the basis for change, thus avoiding superficial implementation of technology.

In its efforts to create deep learning contexts, the CECCE also supports professional practice that transforms learning through peer coaching strategies of well defined “look fors” in the fields of new emerging pedagogies, technology, learning spaces and environments, student leadership and well-being.

Ottawa Carleton District School Board (Glashan Public School)

Glashan is a Grade 7-8 senior public school. Starting in 2014, the school began to explore the 6Cs and quickly embraced the idea of calling themselves a 6C school. Jim Tayler, school principal, talked about early developments in the following way:

“As the project progressed in the first two years, many teachers began to look at the 6Cs as a framework that could be incorporated into their instructional practice. But it became more than that. A number of teachers believed in the importance of their role in modelling the 6Cs to their students. The 6Cs came to be seen by some teachers as a powerful lens in which to consider curriculum and content. For example, students and teachers alike explored ideas around how certain characters in a novel or a short story demonstrated (or didn’t demonstrate) the 6Cs. Teachers also began to ask questions such as how did historical figures demonstrate the 6CS. Many also began to make reference to the 6Cs in the provincial report card Learning Skills section.

The use of the 6Cs took a giant leap when they were used as the basis of the submission requirements for Glashan’s first international Grade 8 student trip to China. Using a format of their choice, the students were asked to provide evidence of how they use the 6Cs in school, at home, and in the community. With student creativity unleashed, remarkable submissions have been received for each of the subsequent international trips.”


Francophone school boards and boards in other provinces have not worked much together in the past due to cultural language differences. Apparently the ping of sea change travels well these days, as the General Directorate of school boards, with support from the Chagnon Foundation, approached me in 2014 to help them develop the role of what we call “leadership from the middle.” This approach essentially places school districts at the center of a system change strategy. The idea is that they develop individually and together as agents of system-wide improvement. This represents a big change and so far 56 of the 70 or so boards have joined.

The CAR “Collaborer Apprendre Réussir” project is founded on the following principles:

  1. Pedagogical leadership by districts
  2. Collaborative practices
  3. Reflective practices in action
  4. Network learning
  5. Monitoring success on three levels (province, district, school)
  6. Utilization of effective and emergent practices.

The Chagnon Foundation has committed to funding the initiative at least until 2022. Some school boards are now moving into the 6Cs and related deep learning. CAR is a very strong system-wide movement that will only get deeper in the next four years. With the support of the Foundation they have translated our books Motion Leadership and Coherence into French, and are about to start translating Deep Learning.


There is much, much more happening across Canada than I am able to capture in this brief article. There are also indicators that First Nations, Métis, and Inuit values and cultures are especially congruent with understanding learning as a seamless interaction with the universe and the people who inhabit it.

The “push forces” – the weak attraction of traditional schooling—are no longer the main point. Now that the new movement is underway it is the “pull factors” – ever younger, immersed change agents; relentless technology; radically different pedagogy, ubiquitous kindred spirits – that will represent the sea change. The promising point is that the examples I portrayed are coming from within the system. For me this represents a golden opportunity to help lead transformation of public schools from within!

It is best to join in as a learner and creator, than to be swept away by the good and bad of sea change. Mind the ping!


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Photo: Max Pixel

First published in Education Canada, March 2018

Meet the Expert(s)

Michael Fullan Author Education Canada magazine

Michael Fullan

Advisor to the Premier and Minister of Education in Ontario

Michael Fullan, Order of Canada, is the former Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto and currently serves as an Advisor to the Premier and Minister of Education in Ontario.

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