How Bold is Your Vision?

shifting-conversations-logoIt’s hard to think of many words that are more misused or abused in our schools than “vision,” and even if we discount the number of times it’s confused for mission, its role as the North Star too often seems to be trivialized if not by definition, then certainly by execution. Certainly the article Will referred to in his column last week was a perfect example.

Yet the role of a vision is a simple one. What is the ‘optimal desired future state’ – the mental picture – of what a school wants to achieve over time?  It’s about communicating an image of the future that draws others in, that is shared, and ultimately one that can be effectively implemented at some time in the not too distant future. But though it may be simple, it is certainly not easy, especially when researchers who study leaders’ work activities estimate that only 3% of their time is actually spent envisioning. Yet a frail vision inevitably leads to an endorsement of the status quo and over time simply becomes a proxy for inaction.

Paradoxically I feel the toughest part comes from knowing the unknown, and in our technology-rich world today that task can at times appear simply overwhelming. What should our school look like in 3, 5 or 10 years time? How might it be different? How might the rapidly emerging new technologies impact our students learning, and what could and should that mean for how, when, where and what they learn?

14165575833_6a0252f9e3_bUndoubtedly the answers to such questions are often distracted by the very technologies themselves, and accordingly lead to a vision that is limited to the scope or capacity of a specific technology. The introduction of laptops is a prime example of this, and I could sadly relate too many stories of schools or Districts whose vision for their future was essentially to provide every student with a device.

Now as exciting as that might seem for some, particularly those in more economically challenged circumstances, it is operational rather than visionary, and has certainly become one of the key sources of disillusionment across far too many 1 to 1 or BYOD initiatives.

On the other hand its important to acknowledge that not all visions are ‘equal’, and it is therefore always good to reflect on the balance of breadth and depth in any school or district’s vision statement.

Whilst the more absurd “Our students will participate fully in a digital world” statements reflects a breadth that is frankly meaningless, it is important that a school’s vision does have a scope that embraces the potential of what might be possible…even if the roadmap to execution is still to be fully uncovered.

Additionally, a school’s vision must have depth to avoid the perception of shallow meaningless cliché’s that sound good but go nowhere..and haven’t we all seen too many 21st Century adventures in educational jargon that were in fact little more than a confirmation of existing practice.

While not every school vision is by default transformational, I would contend that in today’s rapidly changing world they should be. For the thousands of times we have heard or used the “T” word in recent years, surely it is time for bolder visions that genuinely reflect the transformation in schooling that so many of our students are longing for today.

Over time I’ve collected quite a range of school visions from across the globe, and as diverse as they are, they basically represent what might be thought of as three levels of transformation:

  • 1st Order Transformation is largely about a Shift of Medium & Purpose. This usually includes a focus on economics where they see emerging technologies as offering a foundation for future economic growth or improved employment prospects, or productivity which is facilitated by a move to digital books or online assessments.
  • 2nd Order Transformation is more about a Shift of Place & Delivery focused on improving traditional achievement. This includes flexible spaces and times… extending the place of learning beyond school walls, while maintaining legacy accountabilities by improving traditional academic outcomes for all students.
  • 3rd Order Transformation then is about Shift of Scope & Pedagogy …genuinely rethinking the possibilities, and is more about not only what students should be learning today, but more importantly exploring new pedagogies that reflect the way in which they learn best in a digitally rich world.

Which brings to what is possibly the biggest challenge faced by school leadership in defining a bold vision, and that is understanding the scope of possibility that is offered to staff and students in a genuine modern learning environment.

Should the focus be on the ‘business of school’, as a recent New Yorker article on AltSchool suggested.

 “Basically, what we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains, and anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it.”

Or should their priority be the extraordinary pedagogical potential a digital world offers, and if so how might you now be able to define professional freedom within the context of compliance and legacy assessment?

Random ideas such as personalised learning or ubiquitous technology might sound good but in reality change very little if they don’t have a guiding light or vision that is reference point for all the key decisions that are taken across a school community.

As much as I have concerns about many of the pedagogical assumptions made in designing ‘new school’ models such as AltSchool and Summit charter schools in Ca,  it is nonetheless important for leaders to stay abreast with these alternatives, and fully understand what they really represent. Over a number of years many such models have come and gone,  and it is just as valuable for leaders to understand the nature of the educational assumptions they may be based on, as it is to learn from the transformative impact of the innovations at schools such as High Tech High, Hawken School, Northern Beaches and their peers.

Bold visions don’t happen in a vacuum, and they require leaders who are well-informed about the choices they make for their students and their faculty. As a starter, think for a moment about how we should be teaching mathematics in a technology-rich school; who has the answers to this? Do we really know? Yes, we can start with Conrad Wolfram’s work but where do we go from there?

Such unknowns are an anathema to many educators, not least school leaders, but unless more are prepared to explore these new spaces, be agile, iterate and learn from their mistakes then timidity will become the norm for the visions our schools are guided by and they will be simply reflections of lost opportunity rather than powerful ideas that guide bold new directions in our schools.

Image Credit: Mike Lewinsky

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