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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Taking the mission seriously

Earlier this year I tried to figure out whether I had a common mission in all the math classes that I teach. Here’s what I eventually came up with:
To empower all students to represent the world quantitatively and to reason about it logically in order to solve problems.
I’m not 100% satisfied with this, as it short-changes the important theoretical abstractions of mathematics, but I think it’s a good first cut. Comments are welcome.

But my immediate issue isn’t the necessary fine-tuning of the statement; it’s the problem of how to take it seriously. Like all mission statements, it suffers from an overload of buzzwords and seems destined to be put away on the shelf. Do you recall George Orwell’s comments in his seminal essay, “Politics and the English Language”? (If you haven’t read it, do so ASAP! If you have read it, read it again when you get the chance.) Orwell makes this observation:
...modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy... If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.
The abstract writing of most mission statements leads them to be ignored. This is the problem that we have with Weston High School’s Statement of Purpose; almost everyone likes it, but nobody does anything about it. Here’s what it says:
The mission of Weston High School is to challenge all students to excellence, promote a climate of respect and support, and encourage and facilitate the growth, abilities, and talents of students, so they will live healthy lives characterized by reflection, responsibility, wonder, daring, and enthusiasm for life-long learning.
And then there are the twelve “Expectations for Student Learning”:
All Weston High School students will...
  1. Think critically
  2. Communicate effectively
  3. Respect themselves and the school community
  4. Act responsibly
  5. Work collaboratively
  6. Use current technologies
  7. Maintain a global perspective
  8. Contribute positively
  9. Accept challenges
  10. Value learning
  11. Strive for excellence
  12. Discover joy
It’s hard to argue with all of that (although it’s surprising how controversial #12 turned out to be). But have we done anything systematic to try to implement the purpose statement and the twelve expectations? Not that I can see.

So that’s the real problem that I have with my own mission. How do I take it seriously? Not in the abstract, but in my actions. In the press of every day’s immediate demands, how do I keep my eyes on the point of the whole thing?

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