It might seem odd to begin a blog post with this title but hopefully you will find that the analogy is quite apt.
We all live in houses. However, the style, the quality, the fittings, the size, and the neighbourhoods that our houses are in are all different. It seems to be a trend in most countries that many people aspire to the larger house, the higher quality fittings, the expensive neighbourhoods, the more impressive styles, and so on. It would be a rare person that aspires to a small hovel.
The aspiration of living in one of the grander houses drives many people to act to raise the money, work hard, and commit to mortgages so they can live in one. Certainly in Australia we have seen the rise of larger and larger houses on smaller blocks of land.
What’s the point of this conversation?
Well, consider that all of our conversations are housed in contexts and the size, quality, style and conversational neighbourhoods of these contexts are what drive actions and motivates people.
If an organisation or a school or a class is living within a large context then what you would find are actions that are consistent with an inspiring compelling context. The context automatically creates an environment where people want to take action – they are compelled to live a bigger life, taking large actions, produce higher quality efforts and products – stretching themselves.
If you are living in a hovel of a context then the actions are similarly small.
This blog arises because I have been working with a range of schools over the past few months that I have begun to notice the variations in contexts that different teachers and schools are housing.
It is crystal clear which schools and teachers have created large mansion-sized contexts for themselves and which are operating inside of small outhouse contexts.
Schools that are creating and building large contexts and aiming for being world-class educational institutions (regardless of the current status of facilities, funding, teacher experience, government or corporate support) have staff who are inspired, creative, working collaboratively, experience being valued. Their classes, while rarely perfect, demonstrate students who are thinking and acting big. Both staff and students have a purpose and they are working together in a disciplined and structured manner to accomplish that purpose.
The schools that struggle quite often lack the larger context. The senior management have not clearly articulated the large vision that their school stakeholders can aspire to – they are living inside a contextual hovel. Sometimes they have a large vision but that vision lies in a filing cabinet somewhere – the vision is a merely an architectural plan. Sometimes the vision is on display on posters and various signages around the building but the systems and practices from which the school operates (the curriculum, the staff interactions, the stakeholder relationships, the classroom activities, etc) do not reflect that vision – the builders are not following the architectural drawing. Sometimes you have an environment where some teachers and administrators are operating from the vision and some are not – your house will be inconsistently built with some great parts and in other parts it is apparently shoddy work. In fact, what one will find is that trying to build a fabulous house on top of shoddy or inconsistent work is virtually impossible.
If you are going to build a cathedral it is a long term goal. You have to have quality architectural plans. The vision must be articulated clearly. You have to refer to them all the time as you build it. You have to have quality builders working together, communicating and collaborating together, people with different strengths and skills in a team – all of them valued. You will need a group that leads the process who is clear about the vision and the plans, everyone aligned on the plan and the steps that will lead to the finished product. You need to have a team that confronts and overcomes obstacles together – sometimes working out solutions that no one else has thought of because the challenges that this group faces are profoundly different from others. There has to be a high level of trust and everyone being collectively responsible for the journey.
If you look at any major undertaking, any architectural construction that has a lasting impact and survived over large swathes of time, this has been what has driven the process. In fact, if you look at any major undertaking in any field you will find it is the same.
Why not operate this way in schools?
In fact, to build a high-performance educational environment you would automatically follow this approach. Just look at Finland. Just look at Singapore. Just look at those schools, school systems, and teachers that you admire.
My questions to you are … what house do you live in? What are you building – a cathedral or a hovel?