The How to Your Why

September 11, 2017 by

So much has been said about the importance of an organization having a purpose for the work they do. Schools have crafted purpose statements often containing phrases like “life-long learners,” “productive citizens,” and “successful members of society.” This is best done following a series of meetings with all stakeholders to capture their thoughts on what the experience of school should be for the community. At RSU 2, our purpose statement is “Cultivating Hope in All Learners.” We wanted a lofty commitment that falls just short of saying, “We want to make the world a better place.” All decisions we make, from allocating our resources to scheduling our learners, must be done in a way that shows we support our purpose.

But how do we know we are supporting the purpose? That question has been on my mind lately, causing me to ponder the middle ring in Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, the “How”: how we do the things we do in support of our why. If your actions do not reflect your why, you should either change your actions or change your why. Left as is, people will begin to see hypocrisy in your organization. And once they believe you are not being true to the work, they will find evidence to support their doubt, even if it is falsely interpreted. Leaders will find themselves in a constant mode of management.

What I have come to notice is to get at the “how we will work together to meet our purpose” requires agreement on common language and common approaches. The stakeholders responsible for the implementation of the plan must spend time to truly understand it so the purpose can be realized. These understandings must include agreed upon definitions and tenets.

Recently, I watched a five minute New York Times Magazine interview with comedian Jerry Seinfeld in which he described his process for writing a joke. When you listen, his rules of thumb of joke creating and telling come out loud and clear. They are:

  1. Write about nothing
  2. Think of something you think is funny
  3. Be funny right away
  4. Write on yellow pads with a Bic pen
  5. Look for connective tissue to link the story
  6. Biggest joke at the end
  7. The wronger something feels the righter it is

While some of these might be typical for all comedians, some may be true for Seinfeld alone.

The same can be said for how a school realizes being a personalized, competency-based system of education. Our rules of thumb, lets call them tenets, the principle or belief held as true by the members of a group, will be both similar and special to the district who defines them. Said in another way, what are those things that we agree need to happen to reach our vision? No system is exactly like another. Whether it is demographics, geography, or traditions and superstitions (like writing every episode of Seinfeld with a yellow pad and a Bic pen), schools have personalities. That is what we mean when we talk about school culture.  That is why every school and system needs to invest the time and energy, in productive struggle, to build understanding of how they will put the learners and their learning at the center of everything they do.

At RSU 2, we refer to how we Cultivate Hope in All Learners as W2Al. This refers to us having two workshops, numeracy and literacy, and one Applied Learning, where students are asked to apply the knowledge gained in a learning experience and not simply be tested that the knowledge exists. We have five tenets:

  1. Clear learning targets in a good progression
  2. Assessment for the purpose of gathering evidence to provide feedback to the learner on what they can do to improve their chance of hitting the target
  3. Students engaged in learning that is in their Zone of Proximal Development and interest
  4. Knowledge is applied and not simply tested
  5. Classroom culture that creates the conditions for learners to develop agency

These are very similar to the tenets shared by iNACOL, Competency Works, Ed Reimagined, Knowledge Works, and Reinventing Schools, among others. We did use their work to inform our work. The difference is, we struggled and created the meaning behind the words and did not simply adopt someone’s plan. It was in the productive struggle that we truly learned. Now, when we want to improve instruction for our learners, we do so using the tenets as a lens. Everything we do must pass through these lenses.

I have also found that having agreed upon definitions for important words is critical to the success of transforming the school system. While we can do research and studies around Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, the same cannot be said for common words like proficiency, assessment, and learner agency. Those are important words to define as a system. Recently I shared RSU 2’s definition of proficiency with a group of administrators from another district. We say proficiency is “Having sufficient skill or knowledge for some purpose.” One administrator did not like our definition as she felt the word sufficient was not strong enough. As I described how it relates to our idea of Applied Learning, specifically, that the sufficient knowledge is used to answer a driving question or solve a problem through an application of the knowledge, she was able to see the depth behind our definition. She then understood why it is important for her team to not simply take a dictionary approach to defining words, but instead build the understanding within her organization.

If a school system decides to adopt an already agreed upon definition, like one from the dictionary, or they decide to use tenets that are part of another organization or neighboring district, they need to still research, think, debate, and finally chose the wording of both the tenets and definition. They need to develop a shared purpose – that is something that can’t be borrowed from another district. That is what drives success in an organization especially one looking to transform the status quo.

Without deeper learning that can only happen with productive struggle, the organization will not come to fully understand how to meet its vision. So, once they have the “Why,” the driving purpose for being in existence as an organization, the leaders need to determine the “How.” Luckily, this can be accomplished by reading the thoughts of others, distilling it down to the components, and then applying the knowledge to the context of their organizations. The knowledge that should be inputted into the system comes from the research-based ideas of the organizations already moving forward with transforming the system of public education. I listed several above that I have long trusted for my work. Then, just like Jerry Seinfeld, your tenets will look similar to others but will be more meaningful to you.

See also:

About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at zimaw (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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