Roots and wings

Perhaps I am someone who identifies patterns even when they are not there, such as when I look up at a cloud in the sky but see the shape of a lion or a map of New Guinea.  In the same vein, when I think about the future of education, two broad parallel themes keep recurring in my mind.  For want of better labels, I call these two threads ‘roots’ and ‘wings’.

By ‘roots’, I mean the foundations from which the future will spring.  ‘Roots’ are the ways in which the past nourishes today’s experiences and attitudes, mostly for the better, but occasionally in ways that cause anxiety.

By ‘wings’, I am referring to the freedom we all have to look towards and shape the future.  ‘Wings’ involves creating an environment that is at the cutting edge of best practice which aims to give young people freedom, thus providing the school with the freedom to fly.

Image used with the kind permission of MTEI,

‘Roots and wings’.  To me, this seems like an ideal dual image to provide a framework for schools to plan for the future because it brings together the importance of linking a school’s founding principles with its future hopes, aspirations and strategic direction.  It reflects the wisdom of a Māori saying that I came to love when I worked in New Zealand some years ago: “You walk into the future looking backwards”.  In the context of a school’s strategic planning process, I might reimagine those words as “Our wings spring from our roots”.

What is the significance of this for the people who will develop a new strategic plan – usually the school’s senior management and the board?

At the risk of mutilating an old cliché, I sometimes think that the world consists of two kinds of people.  Some focus on roots, and others focus on wings.

Speaking personally, I am primarily a ‘wings’ person, because wings represent the future, and the future both excites and fascinates me.  After all, if you are playing football, you need to run to where the ball is going to be, not to where it has already passed.  Importantly, however, we must appreciate that unless they are nourished by the ‘roots’, the ‘wings’ will lack the strength and tenacity to fly.

In my mind, ‘roots and wings’ provides a powerful conceptual framework for strategic planning.  It is not the mechanism for planning; it is the inspiration that guides the thinking and direction of planning.

When most people plan for the future, they usually begin by examining current deficits or problems.  This deficit-centred approach may be intuitive, and it is explicitly advocated by many consultants – generally those who have never worked in a school.  Deficit-centred (or problem-focussed) planning has some merit, but it also contains a huge inherent shortcoming that is often overlooked.

The danger is that deficit-centred (or problem-focussed) planning tends to accept existing trend projections and strategic pathways uncritically before proceeding to focus on innovating better ways to accomplish the same outcomes – the very same outcomes that have been identified as today’s shortcomings, deficits or problems.  It is a recipe for replication, not transformation.

Doing old things in better ways merely creates a future approach to education that is less mediocre.  It is not strategic, nor does it envision authentic change.  This is where the ‘roots and wings approach’ offers a better solution.

To construct a magnificent system requires developing a vision of what constitutes a magnificent system.  Anyone who wants to create outstanding education must first imagine it.  Continuous improvement and marginal, incremental change - important as these are - are seldom enough.

It has been said that only a small proportion of people in the world actually make things happen.  There are significantly more people who watch things happen, and then there is the bulk of humanity who ask ‘what just happened?’.

In the same way that effective education shifts students into the first category, an effective process of strategic planning should shift school boards and leaders into the group that “actually makes things happen”.  Schools need leaders and board members who can initiate positive change.  It sounds like a simple goal, but as Leonardo da Vinci said (and Steve Jobs agreed), simplicity is the great sophistication.  

So, what is needed to create this powerful process of transformative strategic change?  First, a clear ‘vision’ is needed with a central focus on mission-focussed, student-centred, excellent education.  By ‘vision’, I mean a powerful statement of the priorities required to achieve achieve the school’s mission (enduring purpose) in the context of tomorrow’s challenges and expectations.  To miss this step is to allow the school to drift rudderless into an uncertain future.

Second, there needs to be a strong commitment to ‘sustainability’.  This includes more than environmental sustainability (which I discuss at length HERE).  It includes every form of sustainability including financial sustainability, institutional sustainability, demographic sustainability, curriculum sustainability, governance sustainability, staffing sustainability, technological sustainability, and even personal sustainability.  Without sustainability in all its forms, the school simply will not have an enduring future.

Third, there needs to be a firm set of underlying values, balanced with flexibility to change when external circumstances change.  This may sound self-contradictory at first, but this simply highlights the fine balance required.  Strategic planning requires a foundation (the “roots”) of a clear set of principles that articulates what the school believes is ‘right’ for it as an ethical learning community.  This typically includes the school’s philosophy, the quality of relationships expected, and key facets of its education, such as (for example) developing intercultural understanding, holistic learning, curriculum balance, global interaction, critical thinking, equipping students with the skills to discern reliable from unreliable information, truth from consensus, the various approaches to ethics, and so on.

The big challenge of strategic planning is that no-one can predict with certainty the skills that will be needed when today’s students have been in the workforce for a few decades.  We need to prepare students for the world they will enter as adults while being completely unable even to know which occupations have yet to be invented.  How could anyone have predicted 30 years ago what many then-students would be doing today, especially in jobs involving Information and Communication Technologies, Artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, and so on?  

What schools must do, therefore, is to help students grow “wings”.  In other words, schools must equip their students with the creativity, the flexibility, the confidence and the competence to initiate change in original ways by bringing together insights from disparate fields.  It is hard to see how a school might honestly claim that it is equipping its students with future-proof skills without including this as a central part of its educational armoury.  As PARC researcher Alan Kay famously said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”.  And yet, how many schools’ strategic plans emphasise these future-proof skills?

The famous story is told of a man visiting Michelangelo in his studio as he worked with his chisel on a huge block of rough-hewn marble.  It was apparently an uninspiring sight, as the work was dusty, messy, and hard.  When the man asked Michelangelo what he was doing, he replied: “I’m releasing the angel imprisoned in this marble.”

Strategic planning for schools is like that.  It is a task that seeks to free people and allow the school to achieve its potential to transform young lives.  It means digging deeply into the block of marble to find the roots as a means to unfold and release the angel’s wings.

-Dr Stephen Codrington 

Image used with the kind permission of MTEI,

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