What is “This?”

shifting-conversations-logoA few months ago I found myself in a room full of administrators having a conversation about how to change their schools. These were principals, assistant superintendents, and other leaders from a number of rural districts in the Midwest.

“What I really need,” said one of those in attendance, “is for you to help my teachers understand why and how they should do this.”

I  sat quietly for a second. “Well,” I said, “What is ‘this?’ I mean what exactly is it that you want me to help them do?”

“All the things we been talking about,” he said. “How to use technology to teach and to get the kids more engaged in the classroom.” I could see others nodding in assent.

“But you know,” I replied, “that ‘this’ isn’t really about technology. ‘This’ is about what kind of learning you want kids to be doing in your classrooms. I mean, what’s your vision for teaching and learning in your school?”

He looked at me blankly.

The Basic Struggle

This was not the first time a conversation had gone like this. In fact, more often than not when I get a group of leaders in the room, we struggle to get past the very basic, foundational stuff that’s necessary for real, sustainable change to happen in schools. The mission, vision, beliefs about learning stuff. And to be honest, while I’m no longer surprised at most people’s inability to coherently speak to those themes, it still shocks me. How do we expect to move to a different place in our schools if we don’t have some clearly stated goal that defines what it is we’re trying to achieve?

16102551998_7bc94116ab_bI recently picked up Schooling by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in which they situate the entire work of schools in the mission and vision that they articulate. They wonder, as I do, how we can do the best work we can for kids if we don’t have a communal sense of not only the direction we want to go in but also the way we want to move in that direction. Mission, according to the authors, is the articulation of the educational purposes the school should seek to attain.

We are claiming that what any valid mission statement should do is summarize what an education is meant to help the learner achieve over the long haul, in and beyond school. It should summarize the worthy student accomplishments we are dedicated to causing over time outside our individual classrooms above all else. A mission is a commitment to a few priority results, from which some concrete pedagogical implications logically follow (12).


Without a commitment to mission, we don’t really have a school; we just have a home for freelance tutors of subjects.  Without a shared commitment to a clear and worthy mission framed as desired accomplishments, we lack not only a common target but also a set of criteria for (1) evaluating how schoolwide learning should best occur, given our goals; (2) prioritizing content, instead of just indiscriminately marching through it; and (3) judging which of our practices as (isolated!) teachers and teams are most and least effective, and what must be changed in order to honor mission (25).

If we don’t have a mission, then we don’t have a clear “north star” that guides our work. Our day to day work has no collective direction, which is something that many in education don’t seem to mind:

A key reason why so many schools and colleges are unwittingly less effective than they might be is that day-to-day teacher planning and instruction are rarely scrutinized against long-term organizational aims. In almost all schools, no effective feedback mechanism or validation process is available for comparing individual short-term actions with long-term institutional goals. In fact, many educators like it that way: we rarely have to justify what we teach, how we teach, or what we assess in the absence of an external set of objective criteria (28).

The Commitment

Which is a big part of the reason that what we personally believe about learning does not show up very much in our practice. It’s not enough for us to individually believe that kids learn best by doing, that the most powerful and deep learning they will do happens when they have agency over the process, when they are pursuing answers to questions they care about, and when they are solving real problems in the world with real people in the world. That’s a great start, but as we see over and over again, unless there is an institutional commitment to that, kids learning experiences are random and haphazard. The powerful ways they learn in their Year 1 class probably won’t be repeated in the Year 2, only to show up again in Year 5, but gone again in Year 6.

So, if we really want to figure out what “this” is, we have to start with what we want the “learner to achieve over the long haul, in and beyond school.” That’s a great place to start the conversation, but it may be the easiest part of the process. Committing to actually carrying out that vision is another beast altogether. More on that later.

Would love to hear your thoughts.





Image credit: haru__q

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4 thoughts on “What is “This?””

  1. Barry D

    Starting with something as “simple” as asking, “How would you define learning?” is a difficult task. The current structures and metrics of education are rarely seen as artificial constructs as everyone has grown up with them. The practices are so woven into our social narratives that the disruptors of the narratives become the villains. Now, sometimes we like the bad guys and cheer them on when they make our life easier. They can do the dirty work for us., but that is of no use if we don’t know what we want done.

    It’s easy to talk about personalized and self-directed learning. It’s easy to talk about agency and choice. But when you do it, and the social hierarchies flatten, when the school dumb/life smart kid turns out more creative and entrepreneurial than the school smart/life dumb kid (exaggerated binaries understood), the impact ripples way beyond the school walls. Imagine no grades, no academic awards–who are the “smart” kids then? Surely not some kid who builds his own electronic clock.

    Is the mission to keep the privileged on top? Is the mission to create a more equal society? Is the mission to teach people to be critical thinkers so that they can create their own learning environments?

    As Bertrand Russell said, agitators are not appreciated in their time. People want change but don’t want to change.

    Keep up the good work, Will.

  2. Terry D

    If a school community does have a mission statement, but does not believe in the statement, then you just have pretty words.

  3. Melissa L

    This post really resonates with me. We don;t have nearly enough conversations about what learning looks like.

    I’d like to share this with a group of administrators in a future workshop. Could I have your permission to copy the content so the group does not have to create free accounts to EML. I’m happy to plug the site and encourage folks to sign up for accounts to receive relevant content. Let me know. Thanks.

  4. Ross

    Funny/sad thing that I have been thinking about the last few years….

    One of the first and most boring classes in college was about learning. Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, Montessori, etc.

    We blew past it to other classes where we made lesson plans, discussed classroom management techniques, and social study learning stations. Nothing wrong with that…but did we ever leave with a personal belief/conviction of how people learn things? No. Heck, if I asked my colleagues “How do people learn?” there would be 100 different answers. Not one common held belief on the best way we should all be going about it together.

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