Tag Archives: democracy

My Missionary Position – Why I dislike school mission statements

Back in January I took part in the first few weeks of a University of Alaska MOOC about Digital Citizenship. Here are some of my thoughts on the experience

Towards the beginning of the course there was an exercise related to either crafting a school mission statement, or evaluating that of your institutions.Also there was something to do with formulating a personal mantra. I can’t fully remember now, but in any case it lead to a lot of discussion. Personally I felt too much time was spent on something which is, if I’m being cynical about it, a glib public relations exercise. Perhaps a discussion on the merits of creating a school constitution would have been more substantial. It isn’t a ludicrous idea. I know small scale cooperatives for whom their primary and secondary constitution are of huge importance. Perhaps an elected student body, an elected faculty body and administration member could construct the constitution, which would be duly debated on a school wide basis, before being voted on in a school wide referendum. Then, if any student, or faculty, felt that their constitutional rights were being infringed upon they could make a case before some appointed body (be it the school assembly or some elected body). I’m sure there are plenty of examples of such endeavours in democratic schools all over the world. Something like a constitution, which actually forms a kind of a mandate from the students to the faculty/administration, merits a great deal of thought. Given the authoritarian structure of most primary and scondary level educational institutions presently, mission statements smack of propaganda. Below are my responses to arguments made by various participants in the course.

I can see how organisational mission statements might be useful as an exercise, but personally I think the implied support they lend to hierarchical structures make them more damaging than they are worth. Even if the heads of organisations do make a genuine effort to craft a mission statement which vaguely reflects the values of the members, the final call is ultimately up to them. And I suspect in most cases a genuine effort is not made. When I am part of an organisation the goals I am pursuing are entirely my own. If they overlap with the goals of other members all the better, but it is not a necessity.  I will cooperate with other members to the extent that our goals overlap, which hopefully is significantly.  Of course, often I would choose to cooperate out of feelings of mutuality or simple solidarity.

Mission statements are a way to enforce conformity. For those with executive powers to create a reductive statements, reflecting their values, which they can later point to and say, you must focus on these goals because these are the values we agreed on collectively. I don’t know if it’s consciously used that way, but in practice it reinforces top-down structures. If not taken too seriously they can a useful guideline. If I was to suggest an organisational mission statement for a school it would be something along the lines of “To support autonomous members to reach their full potential (as defined by themselves)”. A personal mantra might be “Demonstrate, encourage, share, respect” but then mantra’s are only useful if they can adapt, or else they just unhelpfully lock your focus in and restrict your growth. And maybe it’s not a mantra if it frequently morphs. Again, as a guideline it could be useful.

We might consider as an alternative to an organisational mission statement you could have something like a tag cloud. Let each member of staff pick five or ten adjectives, collect them all together and represent them as a tag cloud (with the more frequently occurring words being displayed in larger font). You could expand it to the student members too if you wanted.

One of the MOOC’s participants made the following point:
“I don’t know how many administrators out there use mantras and mission statements on a daily basis, but. If people took the time to craft them, with the support and input of the affected populations, I would expect them to be front and center when crafting new policies. I also think that these statements could provide a good baseline for students and teachers to begin discussing digital citizenship and expected behaviors. Individuals may not agree with them but if students know about what’s expected of them they at least shouldn’t be surprised if crossing the line results in some sort of disciplinary action.”

Using a mission statement as a guide for formulating policy faces a number of problems:
It’s brevity makes it ambiguous. For example, many mission statements refer to supporting students reach their full potential, but who defines potential? Students ‘reach their potential’ in any number of ways, academically, athletically, spiritually. I think of reaching one’s potential (with regards to education), as developing a rich inner life. Many school administrations (and the bodies that direct them) prioritise narrow academic achievement, and have something very different in mind when the use the term potential. Not only are terms not sufficiently defined, but also it not often clear how different stated goals will be weighted up. One participant cited a mission statement that advocated “holistic education” and “high academic standards”, which I wouldn’t go so far as to say is self-contradictory, but certainly raises the question of how the two goals will be balanced. ‘Academic achievement’ and ‘Human development’ are very different goals, and motivate very different discourses. Another participant’s school’s mission statement includes ‘Students choose healthy/safe activities’. Who could disagree. But what is healthy/safe? Personally I consider experimentation a very healthy part of growing up. My point is that unless these things are well defined they are open to interpretation by who ever is dictating the direction of policy-making. Presumably the purpose of mission statements is to investigate and express in a concise way, to the public, which the values and goals are broadly shared by the teaching staff, administration and regulatory system above it. If one were serious about this goal a more appropriate approach might be to have the staff fill out a survey (one which is robust enough to cover the full spectrum of pedagogical approaches) and perform a cluster analysis on it, and plot the results visually (perhaps on a multi-axis model like the political compass.) Then policy can be more easily examined to see if it does in fact reflect the goals and values of the staff. More than that, if the results of a cluster analysis was clearly presented next to state education policy I suspect the difference between the grassroots values and the top-down values would become more apparent.

As to it being a useful baseline from which to start conversation about expected behaviour and digital citizenship, it is if your goal is to create a group. Personally I would prefer that conversation to begin with everyone coming from their own unique position. Start by encouraging a diversity of ideas, then converge through a process of negotiation on a shared set of standards. The utility of mission statements depends largely on if you are trying to create a group or a network. If you are making a group it generally makes sense to suppress difference and accentuate shared values. A group is hierarchical and collaborative, like a business corporation seeking market dominance, or an army seeking to overpower an enemy. But what about for a liberal democratic State. A state is much framework which maintains conditions which make network conditions possible internally. Should a school be more like a business or like a State? A constitution is essential for a state, but a constitution is not a statement of intention or direction, but a safeguard for the citizen against the state. When setting up conditions for an effective network you want to accentuate difference and transparency. A network is flat and cooperative

. downes groups vs networks
My problem with students knowing what’s expected of them, as a result of being familiar with their schools mission statement, is that it gives the false impression that what’s expected of them is singular and coherent. The administrators in a school may have very different expectations of a student than me as a teacher. I would expect students to stand by their convictions, voice their disagreement with pedagogical methodology, discipline policies, etc. Sure fire ways to get you in trouble when I was in high school. Rules should be presented as such is what I am trying to say, and ethical judgements, or proclamations of values, should be expressed as such. Rules, or laws, are boundaries to an individuals actions. They are external. They are prescriptive. Values are personal (internal). They are inspirational, in the sense something we strive to uphold. When I was a student in remember having to deal with lots of stupid rules. Occasionally I would decide it was worth breaking one, and while I was quite happy to accept the punishment, I hated when a teacher would take the opportunity to moralise. It is frustrating to be made to live under someone elses rules, it’s intolerable to be expected to internalise their morality.