Finishing a strategy workshop today for a school where one of the topics was about identity—what are we as a school—prompts a reflection on the overlooked importance of an animating idea for all organizations. An animating idea causes the school to exist; it is why the school does what it does to students (sometimes called its theory of change).
The “school people” at this particular place tend to describe its animating idea in terms of what the school does—IB, progressive, Montessori, whatever—rather than what it exists to accomplish in the world. This is almost universal in education and makes a sort of sense, even if it is ultimately a distraction. The deeper a person is immersed in a field, the stronger the tendency to conflate technique with impact. For educational technocrats, pedagogy supplants purpose as a reason to exist.
This would be fine, except that in the private, independent and international school world, “customers” buy purpose not pedagogy. How your school does what it does matters to those “inside baseball” (sorry for the Americanism, but “inside rugby” lacks the same tone), but it is the effect that the school has on students’ lives that keeps them enrolled. They (or, rather, their parents) are not connoisseurs for the most part; instead, they are after the impact the school aspires to have on graduates and thereby the world. This is why so much independent school marketing seems wasted: it simply focuses on the wrong stuff.
Almost every school begins with an animating idea or purpose. Sometimes, it is about social good or maybe elite university admission, while in other instances, it is about “sticking it to the man” by being counter-cultural. Regardless, the founding purpose inevitably seems to fade as the school grows and ages, and how-we-teach becomes the new raison d’être. This is a shame because it puts the cart before the horse. Pedagogies should not be ends in and of themselves; rather, they are the means whereby the school achieves its animating idea.
The irony is that teachers may gravitate to a school because of how it teaches (educational technocracy), but they stay and thrive because they align with a purpose that gives it life. The reverse is true of parents and students: they come for purpose and then become fans of how you educate.