The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision. ~ Helen Keller
A key theme in literature about school change is the need for compelling, coherent, and shared vision. See, for instance, Hargreaves and Shirley’s 2009 The fourth way, Senge’s 2012 The fifth discipline, Fullan’s 2001 Leading in a culture of change or Fullan and Quinn’s 2016 Coherence. For Peter Senge, shared vision is one part of nurturing a ‘fearless and open community inquiry’. For Michael Fullan, not only is shared understanding and purpose of members of an organisation important, but any new initiative must be coherently connected with the culture, mission, and moral imperative of the school in order for the change to be sustained over time.
So vision is important, but in order to propel a school forward it must be shared. While the individual teacher is sometimes the focus of school reform (improve the quality of each teacher’s teaching!), it is collective expertise–in teams, schools and the profession–that can shift beliefs, practices and narratives in education.
We need to constantly consider the symbiosis between individual and group, teacher and school, person and system.
Personal vision, that of the individual, is sometimes overlooked in the conceptualisation of vision in education. Yet educators’ identities, emotions, lived experiences and visions (for the kind teachers and leaders we aspire to be, for the influences we aspire to have on our students and school communities) are an important ingredient in the educational landscape. In her 2006 book Seeing through teachers’ eyes, Karen Hammerness longitudinally explored four teachers’ visions, and how these evolved and were enacted over time. She found that teachers were continually searching for a place that aligned with their visions for their students and their classrooms; they were always looking for a match between their identity and their context.
So schools seek to develop commonality of vision and purpose, while individuals seek to align with their contexts in terms of their own beliefs, identities and the purpose that propels them in their work.
Schools are more than workplaces; they are organismic settings for learning, collaboration and transformation. At worst, they can be ill-fitting contexts or pits of anxiety. How we feel and fit in our context influences our work and our community, and the experiences of our students.
I’ve written before about Costa and Garmston’s notion of holonomy (see Cognitive Coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools), which draws together the individual and the larger system, whether that be team, organisation, profession or system. Costa and Garmston base their conception of holonomy on Arthur Koestler’s work around the word “holon” as something which operates simultaneously as a part and a whole. The holon is independent and interdependent, disparate and united. Koestler combines the Greek word “holos” meaning whole, and the suffix “on,” which indicates a particle or part, in order to conceive of the holon as a part-whole.
Each person is both independent agent and interdependent part of the group, responsive to the larger system. Holonomous individuals, according to Costa and Garmston, possess the capabilities to maintain self-directedness while acting independently and interdependently; they are simultaneously self-regulating, responsive to the organisation and able to influence those around them. They are flexible and efficacious, simultaneously part and whole.
As I work in my own school in the arenas of professional growth and performance review, we are working towards, not just a shared vision, but also processes, practices and structures that are connected with the through-lines of our personal and organisational visioning, our shared beliefs, values and purpose.
Aligning what schools do with shared vision and purpose can be challenging work, requiring constant focus and attention to the relationship between intent and enaction. There are tensions to navigate if a school’s vision is at odds with external measures and expectations. Or if a school’s vision is at odds with those of its individuals.
How might schools find ways to address tensions between their contextual purpose, and an educational system that might rub against their grain? How might schools draw individuals into personal and organisational visioning? How might we each continue to kindle our internal purpose, that of our colleagues and that of our profession? I have some answers for my own context, but am continually asking these kinds of questions.