A strong vision is well-articulated. It is widely inclusive. It conveys urgency and optimism. It is organic in the sense that it can evolve to meet new demands of the environment. In a perfect world.
Two years ago, when I made the move from an international school in Mexico back to the United States, part of my job search entailed visiting the website of every public high school in San Diego to get a sense of culture and climate on each campus. This was after I had scoured international school websites for months before making the determination to return to the U.S. for this phase of my career. In short, I read a lot of vision statements, and the three terms discussed below were the most commonly occurring. After a while, they actually began to turn me off from schools where I sensed nothing more in the vision statement than a meaningless buzz.
Student-centered: A well-intentioned term that once implied that students are responsible for the heavy lifting in a learning environment. The catch is that under disconnected, politically motivated leadership, the term student-centered becomes a tenet of customer service rather than of social, emotional, and intellectual growth. Dangerous. It can lead stakeholders to become dissatisfied, even antagonistic toward the education system. This is inevitable when imprecise language in the school vision implies the customer is always right. As leaders in education, we should consider moving away from the term student-centered and focus on being learning-centered. I know. It sounds obvious if we are talking about a school. But a learning-centered approach suggests we are all here for something bigger than ourselves. We are articulating the hope that an education produces an informed, cohesive society rather than a disparate throng of individuals.
Life-long learner: As noted above, I value learning. I understand the importance of keeping my brain spry as I age. However, experience tells me some of our colleagues striving to make students into life-long learners are confusing education with entertainment. Often learning is fun. But the most rewarding moments of life also require some serious gut-checks, whether it be finishing Ulysses by James Joyce or kissing a romantic interest for the first time. If we hope to propel our students toward noble endeavors, we must understand the quest of a life-long learner is to navigate risk and ambiguity, not to pursue comfort and self-satisfaction. Teachers should make no promises of a happy ending. We offer an interminable series of questions, some of which will remain unanswered in our lifetimes.
Differentiation: By far the most over-used word in all of education. Uttered with alarming frequency by administrators and policy makers who then turn this monumental task over to a public school teacher equipped with a few tables, a whiteboard, and a grade book designed to calculate numbers but not necessarily the growth those numbers represent. Here’s what classroom teachers can and should be doing to make content as relevant and as engaging as possible: Present content in a variety of ways. Promote a safe and reasonable degree of student choice, autonomy, and movement in the classroom culture. Reframe a question or concept when a student’s response is a zombie-like stare. But at the end of the day, a classroom teacher in a traditional public school cannot provide an individualized lesson plan and one-on-one instruction for each of 160 students. This is not the purpose of a classroom anyway. Nor can a teacher catch stragglers up by moving them forward at a slower pace than everyone else. This defies the laws of physics. However, we have all received emails from confused or angry parents who were led to believe the impossible is possible. If we use the word differentiation in our vision, we must have a strategy for addressing learning factors beyond a teacher’s control. Scheduling. Transportation. Technology infrastructure. These peripheral systems are the key to real differentiation. They are what facilitate the exploration of passions beyond the classroom walls and outside the time boundaries a classroom teacher is working within. Unless we imbue these systems with the same flexibility we expect of teachers, we are promising the impossible, or at least, the unsustainable.
Teachers, students, administrators, parents. Check your school’s vision statement. Does it contain any or all of the three terms identified above? Perhaps it is time to recalibrate to make sure we all know what they mean. Or if these terms lack a meaning we all share, it might be time to get rid of them altogether and come up with something we understand and believe in.