An Emerging Alternative

Researchers continue to examine the complex blending of motivation, competencies, organizational conditions and culture, and infrastructure of support as a critical factor in bringing about meaningful and lasting improvement in student learning (Lena, 2011; Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace, & Thomas, 2006).

An emerging body of work referred to as “capacity-building approaches” applies its findings to looking inside schools and school districts for solutions to the problems of student learning. Capacity-building approaches foster collaborative work cultures in which teachers and those in roles supporting instruction work on their practice together, thereby building “collective capacity” (Fullan, 2010) for changing education practice and improving student learning. Through his advocacy for capacity-building approaches, Fullan (2011) calls for a shift in the goals, approach, and metrics of change. He makes the case that policymakers are using what he refers to as “the wrong drivers” for change.

According to Fullan, legislation and policy directed at improving student achievement through external accountability approaches rest on the assumption that educators know more effective practices but require sanctions or rewards to enact them. Capacity-building approaches, however, assume that educators want to work more effectively but do not know how to work collectively to achieve improved results for all students.

Fullan also speaks to the limitations of approaches that focus on individual educators and piecemeal or fragmented solutions that ignore the need for collective and coherent approaches to systemwide learning and change that foster intrinsic motivation in teachers and students, engage educators and students in continual improvement of instruction and learning, inspire collective or team work, and affect all teachers and students.

In essence, capacity-building approaches look inside the school district for solutions centered on providing and supporting high-quality instruction that meets the needs of all students.


Fullan, M. (2010). All systems go: The change imperative for whole systems reform. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Fullan, M. (2011, October). Choosing the wrong drivers. Paper presented at the 15th Annual
Conference of the Grantmakers for Education, Los Angeles, CA.
Leana, C. R. (2011). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review,
9(4), 30–35.
Stoll, L., Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Wallace, M., & Thomas, S. (2006). Professional learning
communities: A review of the literature. Journal of Educational Change, 7(4), 221–58.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Michael Palmisano's Taking Inquiry to Scale:  An Alternative to Traditional Approaches to Education Reform (NCLE & NCTE, 2013).

What are your thoughts on the shifts needed to bring about real improvement in student learning? Do you have ideas on how we can make sure the "right drivers" are in place? Share your input via the Comments box below.