Collective Aspiration:  What Does It Look Like and Sound Like?

                         Superintendent Davis Demonstrates

by Linda Henke

The Santa Fe Center’s Transforming School Triangle suggests three critical contributors to a transforming school. In the bottom left hand corner of the triangle is a set of characteristics we call Nested Patterns. These are the ways of doing and being that provide the muscle for the transforming work. These five patterns—which should be “nested” or present throughout the school organization–from the classroom to the boardroom–give coherence, agility, resilience, and strength to the work of change that is fundamental to transformation. The right hand corner of the triangle is dedicated to Leaders’ Learning Work—we refer to this as the mind of organizational transformation or our collective intelligence. These five characteristics support the organization in growing with an intense focus on collective learning and its application to the organization.

At the top of the Transforming School Triangle is Collective Aspiration, a characteristic those of us at the Santa Fe Center believe is the heart of transformation. But what exactly does “collective aspiration” look like?  In 1990 I picked up Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, and fell in love with the concept of a learning organization. I called the publisher, asked where this guy was doing workshops, and joined Peter in Santa Barbara for a week of intense learning.  I was the only educator there.  This was a business book, written for business people; but it spoke so clearly to me about what schools could be. Peter described a learning organization where  “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free.” As Senge’s paradigm shift was explored by educators and shared in educational journals, the label changed to learning communities, but the powerful possibilities remained in the concept.

 Peter describes the power of a learning organization as follows:

 When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It becomes quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit. (Senge 1990:13)

And there it is. Our work in transforming organizations begins with two fundamental questions:  How do we want to be together? What do we want to create together? The answers to these questions are generative, getting to the heart of what it means to be human…and what it means to be part of a powerful team. Collective aspiration emerges when we commit to something bigger than ourselves, participating with our hearts as well as our minds in creating something that is better than anything we could accomplish alone.

At the Santa Fe Center we have identified five major organizational characteristics that contribute to Collective Aspiration.  The first is strong moral focus: the clear and passionate focus on insuring all children participate in an education that lifts them up, prepares them to be remarkable human beings, world citizens, and contributors to a just and moral society. The moral focus on equity and justice cannot be overstated as a critical aspect of school transformation.

The second characteristic is closely related to moral focus but is not identical: that is a compelling purpose that engages the heart and mind. In appreciative inquiry work, we try to identify the organizational core—this can also be defined as a compelling purpose.  The compelling purpose of schooling is not about raising test scores or getting state accreditation; instead it is about how our work with children will change the world. It is about what in our work feeds our souls and our spirits. If we are engaged, for example, in nurturing our students so that each can serve as a dignified, thoughtful, resourceful, compassionate, inquiring citizen of the world…this is something we can embrace; this is something to which we can dedicate our lives. Transformational schools continually discuss, study, reflect, and intensify their compelling purpose.

The third characteristic of Collective Aspiration that drives a transforming school is shared images of success. It is not enough to be passionate about the work; we must also be clear about it. Thus in transforming schools we hear conversations about what success looks like and sounds like.  This question must be explored with all stakeholders including parents, and most especially students.  Only when our students have clear and shared understandings of where they are heading are we able to support them in getting there. We need to know what great work looks like; great classrooms; great student projects; great utility closets, great hallways; great teacher evaluations, great parent conferences. This is only accomplished through rich conversations and study.  One thing we know for sure: if we can’t describe what we are aiming for; the likelihood of getting there is truly problematical.

In transforming schools we see also a pervasive ethic of excellence.  This characteristic suggests that not only are we clear about what greatness looks like, we have the knowledge, tools, and processes to support us in getting there.  At every level of the school we apply processes such as critique and multiple iteration to improve the quality of what we do. Everyone is committed to excellence and the hard work it takes to get there.

And the final characteristic of transforming schools is the powerful sense of collective that is formed as a group of people dedicate themselves to the work. Transformational schools are born from relationships. We have learned that top down command and control does not work…instead we must focus on the power that comes when a group of educators links arms and hearts and shouts to the world, “We are creating something extraordinary here. We are not afraid of the risk involved. We are not afraid of occasional failure.  We know we can do this…because we have one another…and we have a dream.”

Below is a short speech given by Dr. Davis to the district instructional leadership teams last month in which he embodies the five characteristics of collective aspiration.  Listen to him carefully.  He points us to possibilities.