No New Ideas


Eye by Abe Garcia from the Noun Project

Early on in my teaching career, I learned that there were no truly new ideas. Pretty much every pedagogical thought or lesson is based on something that came before it in some way. Which meant that I was free to take anyone else’s good ideas and use/modify them for my purpose. This open ethic became pretty central to my teaching work, and I think, more than anything else, it’s probably the root of all of the “success” that I had, most of which centered around my development of things that other people could take and use for t.... This open use of other people’s ideas is a practice that I’ve tried to keep in mind as an administrator, and I think it’s similarly effective here as it was in the classroom. The free exchange of ideas just seems to be central to the process of figuring out what works best.

Open use worked well in the crafting of the mission and vision statements for my Departments. Or maybe it was a revision. I did inherit a mission statement for the Science Department:

The Deer Park School District supports a progressive science program designed to enhance the scientific literacy of our community, and ensure our students encounter authentic science as a vehicle for learning. The Secondary Science Departments seek to provide all students with an understanding of the science around us through innovation, engaging courses, and enrichment opportunities. Our courses are aligned to current NYS Standards and reflect our commitment to research-proven instructional strategies. We encourage all students to challenge themselves and embrace the wonders of the world of science and scientific reasoning. Through a variety of experiences, both guided and independent, our students will become citizens prepared to understand today’s problems and discover tomorrow’s solutions.

Apologies to whoever wrote it, but I don’t like this Mission statement. It’s jargony, and it seems to use a lot of words to say very little. Isn’t it self-evident that our NYS public school is adhering to NYS educational standards? Why is it talking about “secondary science departments”? Also, notice how it doesn’t link the Science & Technology Departments at all? It’s all very odd to me. I figure one of my former bosses dashed it off because they thought the department needed a Mission statement. It’s not beyond the pale with terribleness, but no one working in Deer Park at this point has any ownership over it, and that seems like a pretty significant deal for a Mission statement. I thought we could do better.

Fortunately, I participated in a group mission-building process once before. When our erstwhile high school Principal started the job, he invited anyone who was interested to join him after school for a group mission-statement creation session. Having seen that process in action, I pretty much just stole it to use in a Department Meeting. Here’s how it works:

  1. I framed things for my staff. After pointing out that we had a Science Department Mission statement that no one in the Department was aware of, I explained why I thought it was a good thing to revise it. I framed the Mission statement as a statement of “what we do,” and our Vision as being “what a successful science/tech student does.” Teachers were given a few minutes to write down some of their thoughts.
  2. Teachers shared out their thoughts, and I captured them. Unsurprisingly, there were many similarities among different people’s thinking, so we binned them into common piles.
  3. Teachers then worked in small groups (2–3 people) to refine and restate the sentiments from one of the common piles.
  4. I collected these and organized them into cohesive statements a few days later. I then shared the finished statements with my teachers and asked them for more feedback. The feedback was minor but useful.
  5. I incorporated the feedback into a revision of the statements, shared the final product with everyone, and put it prominently on the district webpages for Science & Technology.

Here’s the revised result:

Mission:
The Deer Park Science & Technology Department seeks to engage all students in the process of investigating and interacting with the world around them to learn about the natural and designed worlds and their connections to everyday life. We teach students the tools, skills, and understandings they need to ask questions, to solve problems, to make informed claims based on data and supported by evidence. We prepare students for life, by providing them with meaningful hands-on experiences, and by fostering excitement & enthusiasm about the world, and their place in it, while preparing them to consider careers in the fields of science & technology. Above all, we strive to help students become engaged, productive members of society, and to remember and apply what they learn in our classes to their lives, long after they leave Deer Park.
Vision:
Our students are:
- Scientifically and technologically literate: Able to use the tools and skills they learn in our classes to excel in their studies, to better their lives, and to engage with the larger world.
- Inquisitive, engaged, and resilient in their pursuit of knowledge: They question the world around them, and use evidence to form explanations and to solve problems.
- Able to consume media related to science & technology and be able to make sense of it.
- Individuals who actively wonder; who seek to answer the questions they have about the world around them, and their place in it.

I won’t suggest that the result is perfect, but I do think it’s a lot better. I don’t have the same reflexive jargon alarm when I read it, and I think each statement has a purpose other than just making it sound fancy. It’s also entirely the work of the teachers in the Departments. I didn’t do anything with what they came up with except to organize it into a final presentation. That’s crucial to me. The only way I’m ever going to be able to get staff to buy into something like a Mission or a Vision is if it comes from them directly. It’s also a solid example of the point of this piece: There are no new ideas, and the best ones are available for all of us to use as we need.

Drop me a note if you want to share any experiences of using someone else’s good ideas, or if you’ve had other experiences in Mission-building. I’d love to know about them, and I imagine I’ll probably share them onward.


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