“The Vision Thing”

It was George H.W. Bush (the father of George W. Bush) who in 1987 responded to the suggestion that he turn his attention from short-term campaign objectives and look to the longer term by saying, “Oh, the vision thing”. I wonder sometimes if many of us in Scottish education suffer from Bush’s same discomfort with the “vision thing”?

At risk of stereotyping the Scottish psyche we are often more comfortable when faced with practical problems, which require “fixing”. Over the last twenty years this “fixing” mentality has been at the core of school development planning, i.e. identify what’s not working; work out a solution; implement solution; check if it’s fixed the problem. What happened in such an environment was that we ended up with lots of discrete tasks that “fixed” individual things but did not necessarily combine to move the system forwards.

Yet such an approach has much to commend it:

  1. Change can be represented as a technical enterprise, which can be controlled and managed.
  2. It gives the impression of productive activity (a prerequisite for the Scottish educator); and
  3.  It often results in a concrete product, which can be admired and shared – often to the credit of the person responsible for the action.

Perhaps our proud engineering and scientific heritage has positively reinforced our belief that the solution to a problem can be found through reliance upon technical mastery and hard work? The technical model has much to commend it for many discrete tasks that suit a linear, logical and controlled environment. Such an approach is sometimes referred to a “waterfall model” of development that maintains that one should move to a phase only when its preceding phase is completed and perfected. Phases of development in the waterfall model are discrete, and there is no jumping back and forth or overlap between them. In many ways educational change strategies in Scotland have depended upon this “waterfall” approach  which have been bureaucratic, slow and inflexible.

Yet there exists an alternative strategy that exists in practice in many Scottish educational contexts which promotes a more flexible, creative and effective approach to change, which can be used in conjunction with the waterfall model. As the waterfall approach takes its example from the scientific world, so the alternative takes its example from the artistic world. The model I have in mind is that of the sculptor. A sculptor will often start with a vision in mind about the final outcome. But as they commence their work and interact with the media with which they are working they begin to modify and change the original vision they had in mind.

This form of thinking is sometimes known as an “iterative” process where progress towards the eventual vision takes place over a series of versions where the creator reflects upon the original purpose but takes account of the shifting perception of what is actually required – which might be quite different from what was originally envisaged. This contrasts significantly from the dominant approach in education we often remain locked into “plan-driven” model where no allowance can be made for any change in the environment, or the needs that originally informed the need for change.

So where does the “vision thing” sit between two such contrasting approaches to change? As I suggested earlier many educational leaders are more comfortable when focusing upon technical problems that lend themselves to a linear and sequential problem solving approach. The very complexity of education sometimes means that it can only be conceptualised by breaking it down into manageable chunks – each of which can be managed, considered and improved in isolation, in the belief that they can then reconstituted into a “better” whole.

In many ways I agree that many of the elements of education can be considered and effectively changed in such an isolated manner. However, I would argue that the overview, or gestalt perspective, should be seen through the eyes of the sculptor as opposed to the eyes of the technician. For the educational leader must have a vision of what it is they are seeking to create in partnership with their colleagues. That vision should be clear but it should not be so “locked in” that it shuts out the emerging reality of the situation. It has been my privilege to work with a number of educational leaders who have adopted such a creative perspective – the results have to be seen to be believed!

4 thoughts on ““The Vision Thing”

  1. Don,
    As you describe the process above, I am reminded of something I was told a long time ago. The difference can also be compared to the male and female approaches to problem solving rather than a specific ‘Scottish’ approach. Men are generally looking for solutions where women are better at long-term action. I apologise for not being able to give a link, but I remember that this was given as the reason for around 80% of Microsoft’s employees being female. Apparently (as I was told it), the 20% of male staff are very good at ‘problem-solving’ but not so good at finishing things off… so they bodge together a solution of sorts — the temptation to make a Vista joke is immense — and then leave it to the female staff to take care of the actual fixing and long term care of the project…

    I am NOT suggesting that men or women are in any way better than the other (as I hope you realise), but I wonder whether it have been men or women who have been the driving force in Scottish Education over the past twenty or so years… I suspect the XY’s have a lot to answer for! ;0)

  2. You talk of the tradition of Engineering but they had a bigger picuture of what they want to achieve. Where as the single step ahead appraoch which seems prevailent in Scottish Education means that we keep walking but not a clue about the direction.
    I think it goes back to your article for the TESS, “Revolution, not evolution”.
    So who is to provide this vision? What will happen if only some agree with the vision provided? These really are difficult and challenging times

  3. I suppose you could also compare this model with medicine; why try to fix an ingrowing toenail when the patient has a complex psychological and physiological make-up which require a holistic approach? I appreciate you have to fix the toe as well, but what if you spend so much time looking at the fixable short-term items, that you have no energy left to pursue the ‘vision’ stuff? I think there are going to be quite a few social changes over the next few years which will impact on education, and we’re going to need the big picture more than ever.

Comments are closed.