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Educational vision is not enough

[This draft has been superseded following thought provoking feedback from Will Richardson. Check out the second draft ...]

We know that having a shared educational vision is important because it enables us all to travel in the same direction. “Vision is a key part of ending up someplace on purpose” (Hill 2010 p.28). However, that begs the question, what should the purpose of schools be and what is the relationship between purpose and vision?

There are many purposes of schooling, many of which are nothing to do with learning. For example, schools provide custodial care for children, freeing up parents to do other things (e.g. earn a living). This was brought home to me when I was a primary school teacher back in the early 1990s during a period of industrial action: if the head kept the children in the hall watching videos then the parents were supportive of the strike action, but if the school was closed the parents became hostile to the striking teachers.

Schools also provide a socially acceptable mechanism for categorising children and signalling to employers which candidates are most likely to be good employees: “Education is now the way the adult world measures the promise of youth. Scholastic failure doesn’t merely reveal a lack of talent and drive; it signals deviance” (Caplan 2018 p.288).

Historically, schooling in ‘developed countries’ was “created to prepare mass numbers of citizens to engage in basic industrial work (or, later, basic office work) – in other words, for the exact jobs that are now declining in number at precipitous rates” (McLeod & Shareski 2018 p.13). The focus was on providing “a standardized, predictable, and reliable, product” (Smith 1998 p.47) to meet the needs of the industrial age.

Today, most would agree that the educational purpose of schools should reflect both the needs of the individual and society, now and in the future. An important aspect of this is preparing young people to lead fulfilling lives, which historically has meant equipping them for future employment. This educational purpose should be succinctly encapsulated in your educational vision.

I have been lucky enough to carry out research in a wide range of schools – and with one notable exception, the head teachers enthusiastically explained the school’s vision. I categorised these visions along the following dimension:

Category Explanation
None The head/principal couldn’t articulate the school’s vision.
Technology The vision was clearly technology driven,

e.g. To have a computer lab in every classroom; For every student to have their own mobile device.

Apple pie The vision was aspirational but so fluffy as to be unhelpful in knowing what the school strategies should be.

e.g. Every child will reach their full potential.

21st Century The vision was about preparing students to be 21st Century citizens and/or developing 21st Century skills.
Educational A clearly educational vision, that was sufficiently specific to provide some guidance re appropriate educational strategies.

e.g. Developing literate, creative, culturally aware and socially conscious young adults and ready global citizens

The last category (Educational) aligned with the view that your vision should “be a roadmap to help guide us in making decisions, promoting us to think through things” (Hill 2010 p.29).

However, when it came to thinking about my own vision for education I ended up with ‘Individual fulfilment and Universal wellbeing’. This fits in the category of Apple pie visions, which fall short of providing much in the way of guidance about what you might do to implement them.

The problem, which seems a common one in education, was that my categorisation of educational visions was confusing vision, mission, strategies and intended outcomes (goals). The diagram below tries to unravel their relationships to each other and to key underpinning theories, beliefs and assumptions.

Mission, strategy, vision

Thus, your vision is a statement of where you want to get to. It needs to be complemented by a mission and strategies, and supplemented by goals that enable you to see how well you are doing at achieving your vision. All of which are underpinned by your theoretical understandings (e.g. of learning), beliefs (e.g. about what is important) and assumptions (e.g. about what the future might be like).

This begs the questions ‘what are your underlying theories, beliefs and assumptions?’, and ‘how do these translate into a mission and strategies?’. Those are questions for other blog posts!

2 thoughts on “Educational vision is not enough

  1. Will Richardson

    Hey Peter,

    Mission and vision language is always interesting to me. Wiggins defines mission as the big goal down the road, what we want kids to be and be able to do when they leave school and beyond. It's our reason for being. Vision is what it actually looks like on the ground in terms of achieving our mission. I've always found that to make more sense.

    Regardless, in my work, I find mission, then, to be built on our current understanding of the world. What are the current contexts that inform our reason for being. Obviously, our raison d'etre today is much different from the industrialized world of the past. We need to think about technology's impact, literacy, climate, political shifts, precarity of work, changes in the way we think about "education," etc. Vision, then, is built on our core beliefs and values (are we doing what we believe? are we keeping our commitments to kids?) and understanding the full potential of children and classrooms given the moment we're in. There's no question that "what's possible" in terms of classroom practice (assuming our vision includes classrooms) is far greater today than it was even a few years ago. Our capacity to understand and embrace that is what makes our vision productive in a school setting.

    Finally, neither mission or vision matters if it isn't lived by the culture that surrounds it.

    Just some thoughts.

    1. PeterT

      Thanks for chipping in Will.

      There is a danger that we get distracted by and tied up in definitions of terms - though having shared understandings is also important so that we don't talk at cross purposes.

      If I have understood you correctly, Wiggins is using Mission as I have used Vision, and is using Vision as I have used Goals. Is that correct? (Trying to drop a revised image in here without success so tweeting it instead -

      I think we are then agreed that mission and vision are critically dependent upon there being shared underpinning beliefs, theories, and assumptions which are embedded in practice. Sadly there is often a mismatch between what people say and what they do (between what is espoused, and tacit beliefs/theories/assumptions which underpin practice).


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