Tag Archives: Purpose of Education

The Need For a Shared Vision

Destination matters.

What if you were a sailboat captain.

Let’s even say you’ve got a great boat and a wonderful crew. Together you’ve done a lot of sailing. Maybe you even work well together and know how to collaboratively operate the boat to maneuver well and go really fast, coaxing its peak performance.

But what does all this mean if you have no destination?

Or worse, what would happen if each of you had a different picture of where you were headed? What would the outcome be then?

In fact, you may only be able to judge how successful you are when you judge it against how well you did getting to a specific destination.

Perhaps a day sail out to the island is a different kind of work than a sail from Maine to the Keys. Maybe sailing to Antarctica is different than sailing to Spain (as Shackleton will tell you!). Maybe sailing the Intercoastal Waterway is different than sailing across the ocean. Destination matters and it defines the specifics of the work you need to do, despite the commonalities of the work. Doing the work isn’t the desired outcome. Getting to the destination is the desired outcome, and the work is how you get there.

Now, you might question my metaphor since sailing is just sometimes about heading out and enjoying the water, but I’d argue that that was a pretty specific destination. And think about how frustrated you would be, if the crew thought that was the destination and you thought you were headed to Vinalhaven Island!?

Schools also need to be on the same page about their destination. A fundamental and critical component for the success of any large-scale school change effort is the thoughtful creation and formal acceptance of a shared vision for that effort. Education for what? Why bother?

A shared vision in not only a description of what you want your desired outcome of school to be, but is one that is held in wide agreement with your administration, staff, students, families, and community.

In spite of the renewed interest in having a shared vision brought on by the Customized Learning work going on in some Maine districts, I believe this is a piece of work that is overlooked all too often. Sometimes I think schools, districts, and state Departments of Education think their destination (vision) is simply to “do school,” to go through the motions of schooling as we’ve been going through them. It is no wonder that some districts see no reason to change (after all, if the purpose of sailing is simply to see how well you work the rudder and sails, any port will do, won’t it?), or just believe that the purpose of school is obvious and get frustrated with people who don’t and want to spend time on “this touchy feely stuff!”

And thus is the problem with schools and shared visions. Districts, schools, or states can either assume that their existing mission or purpose statements (despite often being created as so much rhetoric) can simply be spread to cover any new effort, or they simply assume that everyone understands that school, or the initiative, “is important” (especially if someone else has said that you have do it, such as implementing the Common Core).

The trouble with the former is that traditional mission or purpose statements are not future-focused enough to be effectively used in support of an large-scale change effort, such as 1to1 tablets or laptops, or Customized Learning. In the latter case, a lack of a fully developed shared vision (because you all just assume “it is important”) will mean that the time will inevitably come when it becomes clear that individual beliefs about what the vision “is” (but remember they don’t know, because they assumed) compete and contradict each other, and disrupt any forward momentum, unraveling (or at least stalling) your initiative.

So what should we do about a shared vision?

There are certainly lots of approaches. Which ever approach you choose, it should meet a couple criteria:

  • The vision should be both realistic and creative
  • It should reflect the contexts of both your students and school
  • It should also reflect what you hope for your students and their futures
  • The process should involve a broad a group of stakeholders (administration, staff, students, parents, community members)

I’m getting ready to blog (in three parts) one of my favorite approaches to creating a shared vision. Like a lot of my favorite strategies, it is based on lessons learned from MLTI, the first and only state-wide 1to1 learning with laptop initiative, now over a decade old. This post, and the next two on building a shared vision, come from materials that were jointly written by Jim Moulton and me, and were distributed to educators in the early years of MLTI. (Note: Those portions of these posts that may have been originally penned by Jim are used with his kind permission. Any inaccuracies, errors, or erroneous information are certainly all mine.)

What is Our Purpose for Education?

As I have mentioned, there were recently some interesting conversations on the MiddleTalk listserve around each of the points in the Forbes article, “Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught In School.”

Number 9 is “The purpose of your education is your future career.”

Rick Wormeli reminded us that we are all more than just our job descriptions.

And Chris Toy thought that developing these would make for a noble educational purpose:

  • Curiosity
  • Wonder
  • Love of Learning
  • Finding Out
  • Imagination
  • Experimenting
  • Exploring

This listserve thread prompted me also to reflect on various expressed goals and purposes of education (both those expressed through words and those expressed through actions and practices)…

I think it’s great if one outcome for a young graduate is that they are work-ready and can find employment. Our Chamber of Commerce would certainly agree.

But I don’t think that’s the only purpose we have for an education. I think there are several other purposes, if we both think back to public cries for education, and if we watch what people’s behavior and actions seem to say about what they believe. Some I believe in and some I clearly don’t.

John Dewey suggested that education was both preparation for life and life itself.

Folks involved in customized learning (in all the many forms it exists and names it goes by) would say that education is for developing the talents and passions of each child.

Every time we get a new wave of immigrants, some suggest that the purpose of education is to acclimate the new arrivals to being Americans, while others suggest that it is to prepare us to understand and appreciate diversity.

Our founding fathers would say that it is to prepare citizens to live in (and contribute to) a democracy.

I think some folks are very concrete (perhaps they would say “practical”) and say the purpose is to learn math, science, social studies, English, and some other content.

Sometimes I think the US Department of Education believes the purpose of education is to teach students how to pass tests.

I heard on NPR recently, during a conversation about homework, a statement that would suggest that some believe education should teach young people the “life lesson” of doing things they don’t want to do (sorry, I just gagged a little…).

Sometimes I think some groups believe the purpose of education is to prove that some people (mostly their own kids) are better than other people (the whole sorting thing…).

I also believe (sadly) that in some small circles, the purpose of education is to preserve the institution of schools as they exist today.

Monte Selby pointed out that when he teaches various educational philosophies to college students wanting to be teachers, even undergraduates represent each of those different philosophies passionately! He wrapped up by saying:

It was very clear for them to see how I taught, and they could accurately “label” my philosophy. And they liked how that impacted them in the classroom. But, even though they thought my philosophy was ideal for them, many still thought that “their” philosophy was what other children needed.

To simplify – nearly all liked receiving a personalized, self-improvement, “differentiated” format to develop their own talents and passions – a good philosophy for them. Even when their own philosophy stated a different ideal approach to educating youth.

(I think, as ironic as it sounds, we sometimes forget that working in schools is about working with people, not widgets, and Monte’s anecdote is a reminder of what I have said here before: we need to use more psychology in our educational decision making, and less logic!)

I do believe that some of the ongoing trouble we face is that we don’t have any agreement on the purpose(s) of public education, beyond some agreement that kids should be in school to a certain age and learn something in agreed upon content areas (even if we can’t agree on specific content within those subject areas).

For me, I wish the purpose we agreed was our goal was developing the talents and passions of each child. I wonder how many other goals that would achieve at the same time. But I also think that would require that we make some substantial changes to our schools and how they operate….