Sharing a Vision

The importance of shared vision

At its simplest level, a shared vision is the answer to the question,
“What do we want to create?”
Peter Senge, 1990, The Fifth Discipline, p206.

A shared vision is a mutual agreement as to the desired future state key stakeholders are working together to create. It helps to align effort, optimise contribution, and to maximise organisational performance and improvement.

Many organisation improvement models recognise the importance of establishing a shared vision. The National School Improvement Tool (ACER 2012) describes the need for; ‘an explicit improvement agenda’. The Australia Business Excellence Framework (SAI Global 2011) defines an excellent organisation as one that; ‘defines its purpose, vision and values for organisational success and ensures it is understood and applied across the organisation’.

How to create shared vision

So, if stakeholder commitment to a shared vision of excellence is critical to organisational wellbeing, how do we make it happen?

Christie Downs Primary School in South Australia has done so – to great effect! The school, of 270 students, includes 90 learners with special needs supported by an integrated Disability Unit. The current school was established four years ago through the merging of two sites, an existing primary and special school. Two different cultures and organisations needed to come together to work as one. The school engaged key stakeholders in creating a shared school vision. The vision would also inform the new school’s four-year strategic plan.

Every student and staff member took part in at least one of a series of workshops to provide their ideas. Parents, families and other community members were invited to attend either a student or after hours workshop to have their say. Students with special needs were interviewed using creative one-on-one techniques that gave them a ‘voice’. Stakeholder input was then collated and a vision drafted by a team comprising students, parents and staff. Students were allowed to lead the team to ensure the crafting of a simple, jargon-free, to-the-point guiding statement. The resulting draft was communicated to all stakeholders, agreed, and used to inform the school strategic plan.

The vision has guided improvement activity and decision-making across the school for the last four years. Leadership and staff attribute the positive culture the school enjoys today to the ownership and commitment generated through this visioning process.

Earlier this year, the fourth in the school’s planning cycle, stakeholders were invited to reflect on achievements and again have input to the school vision to inform the next strategic plan. A refined school purpose, values and behaviours, and graduate profile were also agreed. The process was very similar to that used four years previously with all students, staff and families inputting their ideas. However, this time the school team (again comprising students, parents and staff) chose to summarise and communicate the revised school direction by way of an image: that of a tree (pictured below).

Christie Downs Primary School Vision
Christie Downs Primary School Vision

All stakeholders are really excited about their tree metaphor!  The tree roots are the school’s purpose. The supporting trunk of the tree are the key elements of the school vision – ‘learning, innovation, diversity, and environment’, these underpin the strategies of the school plan. The values of the school are in the hands of the stakeholder who stands beneath the tree branches and leaves – the graduate profile – the skills and capacities, attitudes and behaviours developed by the students of the school.

Congratulations Christie Downs!

So what is different about this approach?

This collaborative process:

  • involves all key stakeholders of the school community – everyone has a ‘voice’
  • celebrates diversity, allowing for a richness of ideas to flourish (this is not possible when only a few in the organisation are involved)
  • builds shared understanding, ownership and commitment.

To learn more about creating shared vision…

Watch a video

Purchase a QLA System Mapping Guide

Read our forthcoming book ‘Improving Learning: A how to guide for school improvement’.

Human Motivation 4. From Rewards to Collaboration for Improvement

This is the final of a series of four posts to explore human motivation, and how we can encourage learners’ intrinsic motivation and engagement. These posts are edited extracts from our forthcoming book: Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.

In the previous posts we introduced the concepts of motivation, rewards, punishment, compliance and engagement. We explored a framework of factors to enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement, namely: Purpose, Choice, Mastery and Belonging.

Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement: Purpose, Choice, Mastery and Belonging
Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement: Purpose, Choice, Mastery and Belonging

In this post we conclude with an examination of the use of rewards in classrooms and how these can be substituted for working with students to identify and remove barriers to motivation and engagement.

Rewards in schools

The use of extrinsic rewards in schools and school systems is very deeply ingrained.

Many classroom teachers offer extrinsic rewards regularly as part of their behaviour management approach. From a very early age, students learn to please the teacher in order to be rewarded. Gold stars, lolly jars, student of the week, bonus points and free choice activities are offered as incentives. Teachers have been taught to do this; rewards are common practice. This diminishes the important intrinsic reward that comes from learning. Learning soon becomes more about work to please the teacher than personal growth and achievement.

When teachers are asked why they use extrinsic rewards, such as stickers, lollies, bonus points, or classroom parties, the answer is always the same. ‘The kids like them and they work!’

Questionable assumptions

There are several assumptions that can be questioned here, assumptions about efficacy and motivation.

  1.  ‘The kids like rewards!’ Just because someone likes something does not mean it is good for them, or that it helps them to learn. The more important question is whether rewards aid learning, and whether they offer a superior approach when compared to alternatives.
  2. Which kids like rewards? Obviously, the kids getting the rewards like it. There are very few people who don’t enjoy recognition, acknowledgement and being treated as a bit special. But what of those students who miss out? What of those students who are just as deserving but are not rewarded? How do they feel? Teachers are very busy watching the faces of the rewarded students and rarely notice the faces of the disappointed. Being disappointed repeatedly can be very demotivating.
  3. When teachers say the kids like rewards, one could ask ‘compared to what?’ Certainly, they could be expected to like getting rewards when compared to the option of not getting rewards. Who wouldn’t? But what about the option of getting rewards when compared to the option of discovering and experiencing the true joy of learning? Do the students have that reference point for comparison?
  4. What does it mean to say that the ‘rewards work’? Does this mean that student learning is enhanced by rewards? Or, does it mean that rewards encourage compliance? Most importantly, how do rewards improve learning compared to other approaches? As John Hattie is at pains to point out, nearly everything works in education; the real question is how well particular approaches enhance learning when compared to their alternatives.
  5. Rewards create energy for … more rewards. In an environment where rewards are common, so is the question ‘What do we get for doing this?’ In some cases, rewards can actually lower achievement, as students who are motivated by extrinsic rewards will do enough to get a reward, but no more, thereby artificially limiting their potential and motivation to achieve.
  6. Why are rewards necessary anyway? Do we really need to bribe people to do the right thing? Do people deliberately withhold best efforts and better methods waiting for the offer of a reward? Do students or teacher not try because they are hanging out for the reward to be offered? The answer to each of these questions is: ‘of course not!’
  7. An implicit assumption behind the offer of rewards is that people need rewards because they won’t do their best without them.

Myron Tribus makes explicit reference to the damage done by extrinsic motivators in his paper When Quality Goes to School.

Quality is what makes learning a pleasure and a joy.

You can increase some measures of performance by using strong external motivators, such as grades, prizes, threats and punishments, but the attachment to learning will be unhealthy.

It takes a joyful experience with learning to attach a student to education for life. Where there is joy in learning, the effort required does not seem like work.

Myron Tribus, When Quality Goes to School.


Intrinsic motivation in the classroom

Traditional didactic approaches to teaching do not promote intrinsic motivation. Some teachers churn through endless programs of plan-teach-assess in the hope that students will learn. If educators truly take to heart the need and moral obligation to unlock intrinsic motivation in learners, then a different approach is required. A more collaborative approach is needed.

Every learner is different, which adds enormously to both the joy and the complexity of teaching. The breadth and depth of prior knowledge varies, interests vary from student to student, as does the sense of belonging within a class or school. The home environment varies enormously too. Some families support and strongly encourage learning; others are less committed. How are teachers supposed to manage this variation? It can be extremely difficult to teach a class where the variation in knowledge and skills is measured in years of development.

The factors discussed in the previous two posts on motivation may be seen as requiring teachers to do even more than they do currently. How can teachers be expected to assess each factor on the model for each student for each learning activity and then respond to the findings? They cannot, it is too much to ask, even with small class sizes. This is not what we are advocating.

However, if teachers equip students to take responsibility for their learning and if teachers work with the students to adapt classroom processes, motivation and engagement can be continually improved.

Collaborating to remove barriers

Teachers and students can learn to work together in a more interdependent manner than the traditional student-teacher dependent relationship. This has been shown not to be additional work for teachers, just a different way of approaching their role. The key is to work with the students, which requires different relationships and the use of tools to support the collaboration.

As we pointed out in an earlier blog post, What the school improvement gurus are not yet talking about, students have an enormous contribution to make to school improvement.

This begins in the classroom, where students can work with the teacher to identify and remove barriers to motivation, engagement and learning. Students and teacher together explore the factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement, and the degree to which they are evident in the school’s systems of learning. Together they develop and trial new tools and methods, make changes and observe the impact. In this way, they collaborate to study and improve the systems of learning that so profoundly affect them.

A Capacity Matrix is an example of a very useful tool. It helps learners understand what is to be learned and allows them to set goals and track progress.

Working with students to improve the system of learning opens new possibilities. Learning plans are routinely developed for students exhibiting special needs, but more recently there have been calls for all students to have individualised learning plans. Requiring teachers to develop the traditional individual learning plan for each of their students and then managing each plan is a practical impossibility. In the current system, teachers simply do not have the time to do this well for large numbers of students. But, there is nothing stopping students from learning how to develop and monitor their own individual learning plans.

Capacity Matrices can be used as the basis for individual learning plans for all students. Not only do the matrices make explicit what the students are expected to know, understand and be able to do, they significantly enhance intrinsic motivation.  By design, their use is consistent with the factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and improvement. Capacity matrices make the aim or Purpose clear, students are given Choice in how they go about their learning, the matrices are explicitly designed to develop and demonstrate Mastery, and students’ sense of Belonging in enhanced through collaboration, feedback and support.

Our website includes several Capacity Matrix templates and many Capacity Matrix examples.



How are you locking in your improvement gains?

We have worked with many schools over the last 15 years, each one committed and working really hard to continually improve. Yet our experience shows few have established an effective process to capture the many improvements they make. Organisational improvement is quickly lost where there is not a process in place to hold the gains made.

So what is your approach to capture organisational learning?

Ours is system documentation.

System documentation

System documentation is the term we use to describe a structured and disciplined approach to capture organisational knowledge, learning and improvement. It relates to a collection of key documents that reflect the way in which an organisation conducts its business.

Excellent system documentation:

  • provides a central repository of documents critical to the running of the organisation that are readily accessed and understood by everyone
  • has an easy-to-use format and structure that facilitates documentation, stakeholder involvement, and the capturing of organisation innovation and improvement
  • is regularly reviewed for effectiveness and efficiency
  • is easily maintained, updated and distributed
  • has one person assigned to oversee its ongoing review, consistency and improvement.

PDSA Cycle Ver1 28Jul10

System documentation: ‘the chuck under the continuous improvement wheel’

How to…

We have found the following structure for system documentation to be effective and efficient.

Page 22 - System Documentation Structure Ver3 23Jan14

Suggested components of system documentation

Usually in electronic form, the documentation comprises:

  • school directional and planning documents
  • processes (procedures) describing methods, sequencing and responsibilities
  • policies describing what the organisation will do with respect to a particular endeavour and why (policies relate to processes and supporting documents)
  • supporting documents – standard documents pertaining to a specific process or policy, including: templates, letters, forms, presentations, etc.
  • records – documents containing data, facts, information and/or evidence relating to the organisation’s operations
  • document control which facilitates the identification and locating of documents and ensures people have the latest version of the right document.

We believe there are several key steps to getting started with system documentation:

  1. Assign one person to oversee the design, implementation and improvement of the system documentation process.
  2. Agree a structure and index and establish folders.
  3. Place all existing processes, policies and supporting documents into the folders (they will quickly accumulate and can reviewed later on).
  4. Agree a format for processes, policies and supporting documents
  5. Agree and document a document control policy and associated processes (how will documents be uniquely identified?).
  6. Begin by documenting a new process, related policy and supporting document that will immediately add value or reduce risk. Involve key stakeholders to build ownership and understanding.
  7. Encourage people to document processes, policies and supporting documents as they engage with them to build the system over time.

The benefits

There are many benefits to having effective system documentation. These include:

  • Increased accessibility to important documents. (Often in schools, these documents are scattered across different people’s computers, or worse still; are to be found only in the heads of those who left the school last year!)
  • Openness, transparency and accountability
  • Effective communication
  • The basis for inducting, training and mentoring staff and other stakeholders
  • Consistency of approach (agreement as to ‘our best known way’)
  • Providing the foundation necessary for ongoing reflection, review, continual improvement and innovation.

Learn more…

View a video clip on system documentation.

Purchase a System Documentation Guide

Register to receive updates on other Quality Learning resources

Register to receive updates on the forthcoming Quality Learning book – Improving Learning: learning a guide to school improvement