The Sweet Dangers of Setting Vision


As much as I love to cook, one ingredient fills me with a sense of foreboding. In cakes and cookies, sugar is easy enough to handle. Whisk it with soft butter and the crystals puncture the fat cells, giving you the rich creaminess that’s going to glom on to everything else in your batter. In its resting state, sugar is attractive to everything in the bowl. Who doesn’t want a little low-risk sweetness.

It’s when working with sugar specifically, in confectionary work, that the stakes are raised. Temperatures become precisely important. Depending on what you are trying to make – a taffy for instance – you’re going to need to watch the sugar closely. While the end result will be delicious, in the process of cooking with sugar, touching it will blister the skin. Once sugar has moved to a liquid state, too much is in flux to be able to take hold of it. You’ve got to wait until it’s found its final form to grasp it.

So too is it with vision. In its solid state, everyone can take a piece of vision. It can be a part of everything an organization does. Again, who doesn’t want a little low-risk sweetness. Vision that’s been set somewhere off-site or prior to a team’s formation seems easy enough to handle.

When vision needs to be something more, when an organization needs to head a different direction, that’s when it can become too hot to hold for some members of a team. While they were fine to pass around the standard refined message of the organization, they may not have the tools, the patience, or the know how for transforming a pretty standard statement of vision into something in flux and then returning it to a solid state.

Maybe you’ve been in meetings with these folks. You’re talking about the new vision for a school or a interdisciplinary team, maybe it’s a cross-classroom unit plan. Whatever the stakes, you’re likely to find one or two people who tap out. They’re fine to support whatever vision is crafted by the rest of the team, just let them know when you’re done.

Moving a vision from a solid, graspable statement to something in flux can create heat between colleagues and peers. While that heat and friction are exactly wha are needed to mold a new vision, they can and will become uncomfortable for some team members. Blisters will result in relationships, between offices, on teams; if care isn’t taken in how creation of this new vision is handled.

Similarly, you won’t know if you’ve crafted the vision you were setting out to create until it cools and sets to a point where you can put that vision to practice. Many batches of candies have ended up in the garbage after hours of work because I’d rather throw them out than eat them or serve them to others.

This is exactly what any vision-setting team must be prepared to do. A vision that doesn’t serve the organization, that is a mismatch for the passion of its people, is a vision that should be tossed. Even if you need to throw it out, I can attest to the fact you’ll have learned enough from the process to move you closer to success in the next batch.

From Theory to Practice:

  • When starting the process to refine or redefine the vision for your organization, identify a coalition of the willing. This doesn’t have to be limited to folks who think it’s time for the vision to change, in fact it shouldn’t. Make sure you ask people who like the vision just fine the way it is to come on board. Having the loyal opposition as part of the process will help to make sure you’re building something everyone can own.
  • Make sure you get it where you want to go. Sometimes, when working with sugar, it can be tempting to ignore the temperature and say, “This hot is good enough.” In the end, it won’t be. Ending the vision-setting process prematurely can mean you’ve got a vision that won’t hold together or will be too brittle to stand up to external pressures. It can be tempting to stop the process when you want it to be done. Stick with it until you’re entire team is sure.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

How Not to Build the Systems You Hate

framing hammer collection 2007

Quite a bit, I get to work with schools and districts as they work to think through their strategic plans. Visions and mission statements are set. They are quickly complemented by action items and assignments of responsibility. An excitement, a fervor start to pass over those assembled. This is it! They are finally moving!

And then I stop things.

Anyone who has begun this work has done so because the status quo is no longer acceptable. They have become frustrated because so much of what is being done is justified by the way the system has operated in the past. They’ve always done it that way. Over and over again, folks are upset by the sturdiness of the system. Banging and clawing at it, they’ve gotten me in the room after a prolonged fight.

So, I ask, “Where is the timeline for review?”


We are in the room because of frustration over a lack of reconsideration of priorities. There has been no institutional process for reflecting on whether things are going well. More often than not, the newly proposed system (no matter how forward-thinking) is equally devoid of review.

As much as they may recognize the need for student reflection, for professional pause to consider their practice, they have not thought to include it in their new plans for their schools and districts.

It’s possible they see their new mission, vision, and the lot as perfect. I don’t think that’s it. More likely, they are excited by he possibility of change. The immediate future overrides the later possible.

And that’s why I stop things.

Without planning a process for review, they have doomed themselves to repeat the past. They have cemented the status quo. Without intending to, they have built a structure against which future members of the community will hit their heads.

They have made the arbitrary.

That’s the key for anyone building something new. You are creating something of value to you with deep theoretical roots planted in the soil of today.

This is how the systems you’re fighting against were begun.

Build something better.

This doesn’t mean anticipating the future. As anyone with a platform and technological megaphone will tell you, we can’t anticipate the future. Instead, it means anticipating the future will need something else – something specific to the time.

In any system, the arbitrary is the most unfair. It is the thing to which people point and say, “Well, it’s always been that way.” It is the immovable that most needs moving.

So, we stop things and look at the system they have designed and start asking where it makes sense for future community members to be called upon to examine the status quo for cracks in the foundation.

What makes sense today will be the status quo of tomorrow. It will come replete with the seemingly arbitrary trapping of “we’ve always done it this way”, and that is reason enough to guard against it.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

134/365 What Keeps our Ideal from becoming Real in Education

The ideal is not necessarily ideal if we want to get things done.

Digging through the files I’ve been squirreling away to read “one day” I finished Laura Valentini’s article “On the Apparent Paradox of Ideal Theory” yesterday.

While much of it invited re-reading a time or two to really dig into the intense philosophical text, I got enough practical understanding to move the furniture in my brain around a little bit.

I’ll outline the basics as I understand them here, and let others who understand these things better than I chime in with clarifications.

The paradox Valentini describes is akin to letting the great be the enemy of the good. The problem of basing our goals or understandings of the world on the ideal comes in the application to the real world. The ideal is not the real world.

The imagining ignore the reality.

Then, as I understand Valentini, the application of plans to move toward the ideal runs the risk of nullifying the ideal because we didn’t think about the real world in our imagining.

The good, becomes the enemy of the great.

Another way to think about this.

A. I have a plan for an ideal school.
B. I build the structure necessary for the school.
C. The people who populate the school are not ideal.
D. I treat those people as though they are ideal and have ideal abilities.
E. Frustration sets in because people are not who I imagined them to be.
F. The school fails because we did not take into account the non-ideal nature of people, thereby nullifying my image of the ideal school.

While Valentini is talking about ideals of social justice, the argument travels nicely to systems like schools.

If we imagine the ideal school and take into account that people and extant systems are not perfect and ideal, then we can move the pieces of practice necessary to help all actors increase their ability to create the ideal.

In social justice terms, Valentini refers to the application of affirmative action toward the ideal of social justice as a recognition that people do not act without prejudice even after discrimination has been outlawed. The ideal vision holds while the system is adjusted in recognition of the unideal actors.

In the school scenario, the example would be the teachers and other school leaders who imagine all that needs to be done is working harder and longer hours to make up for their shortcomings in making their school the ideal.

This amounts to working much harder to fall short and not build the envisioned school.

Instead, other steps must be taken. Practically, this could include adjusting the school’s schedule, teacher course loads, course materials, training in new practices, etc. Whatever it takes to adjust for the unideal reality can keep the ideal vision from fading away. It might also include things like focusing first on whether or not all students have access to proper medical care, questioning the dietary needs of students and what the school can do to help, connecting students to adult mentors, etc.

The ideal need not die in education because the system isn’t build to bridge the gap between the ideal and reality. It can remain a viable possibility if we realize the needs of the system and move them toward the capacity of the ideal.

30/365 Vision Must Live in Practice

Many schools have mission and vision statements. Some of those schools also have a listing of core values. Within this subset, we might even find a collection of schools who have drafted essential questions.

What is painfully, distressingly and alarmingly true about many of these schools is the proportion of them that draft these well-meaning documents, file them, and never ever return to them again – until it’s time to craft some sort of improvement plan. This is only slightly better than those who print these driving statements on banners for all who visit to take note as the actions they observe are in stark contrast with the values literally hanging over their heads.

Vision must live in practice.

The same is true of mission, values, and driving questions.

At SLA, we worked to constantly ask how the school’s core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection can be seen in the learning experiences designed for our students. While not every piece of work the students complete speaks to each of the core values, asking the question over and over again helps to ensure we are constantly practicing those things we proport to value most.

The vision of a school can only live in practice if it is shared by all within the community. We have seen many schools where teachers arrive for their first professional development day of the new school year, sip coffee from industrial-sized mugs and listen as the school’s principal stands before them and explains the vision for the new school year. Often, too often, this is a vision devoid of any remanants of the vision of the previous school year.

While it is understandable for a principal to endevour to energize his or her faculty at the start of the new year, shifting course dramatically and often will only lead teachers to pay lip service to the “new” vision while resorting to those goals and values they find most comfortable when they return to their classrooms.

Any principal would be better off to find a vision in which he or she can truly root the desired practice of a school and then seek ways to embody that vision in every action of every individual on the campus. Then, when that has happened, the next step is not to find a new way of saying what you believe, but to deepen the expressions of those beliefs and values key to your institution’s identity.

It is easy to attempt to be what we repeatedly say, but it is always better to do than to merely say.

Coming to terms with what a school believes and is about as a learning organization is a strong first step. As with so many journeys, it is the steps that follow that determine what you will become.

When vision is put to practice, when who we want to be is a constant reflection in practice, then we are able to move closer to the better versions of ourselves and our institutions.