Sunday, September 05, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Part II): Problems With Mission Control

One of the more iconic man-machine SF movies of my time was 1987's Robocop, directed by Paul Verhoeven. In that movie, an unjustly slain policeman is brought back from death as a cyborg with three key aims:

"What are your Prime Directives?"

"To serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law."

And that, in a nutshell, was Robocop's mission. It would be great if institutions could make mission statements as sweeping and elegant in conception and content, but as simple and direct in structure and style.

This was the problem with the Integrated Programmes of Atlantis. The mission, in general, was defined as preparing students to take terminal examinations at Grade 12 without an intervening high-stakes examination at Grade 10. The exact form of preparation was left to the schools, but the High Priest of Learning (at that time, the Thaumaturge) was rather specific about what the kind of preparation should lead to:

These new programmes are not just a matter of setting up new structures or pathways. Diversity only goes so far if it is just about different curricula or specializations, or taking one less set of examinations, without changes in how we teach and learn. The real shifts have to be in how teachers interact with students, and in the breadth of experiences we open up for our students. At the end of the day, nothing we are doing with respect to new structures and pathways matters as much as the student's experiences and encounters in the classroom, playing field and auditorium. It is the quality of these experiences, in every school, that will determine if we nurture future generations with the boldness to question, the desire to keep learning through their lives, the compassion for their fellow citizens, and the capacity to lead.

The IP schools themselves are seeking to provide students with an educational experience that goes beyond preparing them for their final examinations when they reach [Grade 12]. They will seek to use the time freed up in through the Integrated Programme to provide students with a more broad-based education that develops their capacities for critical thinking and experimentation, and build teamworking and leadership skills.

A similar endeavour is taking shape across the school system, which each school looking at new ways of developing these skills, taking into account the needs of its own pupils. Every school has to continuously reexamine its current pratices and norms, provide its pupils with more broad-based experiences, and think of more innovative and effective ways of delivering the desired outcomes of education. Every school has to look long term, and develop its pupils holistically.

Centres of learning without much imagination (which was, to be honest, almost all of them) merely selected their favourite buzzwords from the proclamation of the Thaumaturge and crafted a new mission statement. The evidence of this is readily apparent; just walk into any of those schools and look at the walls.

The problem really was that all those schools already had their own mission statements. In the Citadel of the Wyverns, that mission was to provide an education for life in a way that served the greater glory of God. In the Temple of the Flaming Book, it was to create a resilient and enduring scholar. And at the Hall of the Gryphons, it was to reign supreme in every sphere.

What happened next, as these great old schools bowed to serve the new directives, was what we moderns call 'mission creep'. The old ideas were still there, but they were like the faint marking left after scraping a palimpsest. The old marks would always remain, accusatory guidelines in the deeper matrix, but the new words would hold sway, no matter how much less meaningful they were compared to the old ones.

Don't get me wrong. The new words of the Thaumaturge were far from meaningless themselves. They would provide valuable service in directing the ways of newer schools and schools yet to be built. But they had not the visceral and spiritual power of the ancient runes by which the souls of men had been shaped in decades past, the fire of grand endeavour which drove the older schools.

As many generations of explorers and men of action have learnt, if you fail to control the mission, the mission will succeed in controlling you. To clarify, if the mission is not clearly outlined with terms embedded firmly in culture and history, the mission will take over and define a new culture—one that may well be at odds with what an institution used to stand for.

So, in at least one school, the mission of turning a red ocean into a sea of faith has become the mission of seeking blue oceans where there are none to be had. It is no longer the work of redemption, but the work of novelty-seeking, that is the mission of that place; it is no longer saving souls and steadying lives, but developing voluntary trumpets and waltzing emperors. How sad.

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