Open Connections

  • grounds through the trees
Peter's Podium - Summer 2018

Start with the End in Mind


I was recently volunteered (sic) to serve on a new committee at my Quaker meeting after a remark I made in the midst of a discussion regarding the Meeting’s library, which is currently stored in boxes into which it was placed while the interior of the building was being repainted. Members were talking about the best way to cull the collection, which some believed held a number of books no longer of value to our Meeting. There were also questions about how much shelf space would be needed and where to place them. In other words, we were knee deep in the weeds.


It was at this point that I became concerned that we were doing the equivalent of planning a trip without first identifying our destination. That brought to mind the advice of Wharton Business School professor Russell Ackoff on the subject: “Start with the end in mind.”

In other words, if you don’t have some basic idea of what you want to create, it is unlikely that your efforts will produce the desired outcome. You don’t have to know every detail— just enough so that, when you get there, you’ll know you’ve come to the right place.


With regard to the Haverford Friends library, to me that translated to my suggestion that, before we started reducing the collection, and before we could decide how much shelf space was needed, etc., we might first answer the questions, “What is the purpose of our library?, What do we want it to accomplish?” Only by knowing our collective answers to these questions, I offered, would we have a basis for subsequent decision making on the more concrete Next Steps that were currently being discussed.


The next thing I knew, I was invited to lead that investigation in the new committee. Hmmm…


I bring this up because, on my walk home from Meeting, it occurred to me that it makes sense for parents to ask themselves the same questions with regard to the so-called education of their young people. Of course, there is a big difference between planning (controlling, actually) the destiny of a collection of books and the life of another individual. People have their own inalienable rights, for example—what we at Open Connections refer to as Clientship—whereas books do not, at least not in the same way. Still, within the Clientship role as parents, we do have a significant measure of responsibility and intention. It’s an inherent part of the “job,” something we take on as part of the decision to create a new life. Therefore, it seems important—nay, critical—to have a pretty clear sense of our goal with respect to parenthood.


Perhaps in the frontier days parenthood goals might have been limited to creating future laborers to help with the farm, or as grandiose as carrying on our legacy as family heirs. Then and now, we might be thinking ahead and preparing for the time in life when we shall need to be cared for ourselves, and who better to do that than the people for whom we cared when they were young? Or perhaps, thinking somewhat more compassionately from our offspring’s perspective, our goal might be to nurture a “life full of purpose and fulfillment,” as our organizational mission statements suggest.


Whatever are our goals—and I assume they are multiple— it seems to me that our day-to-day decision making would be best informed by having a pretty strong sense of ultimate purpose. Without such clarity to guide us, we risk chasing whatever ideas might be in fashion at the moment, just as I think the “school system,” such as it is, tends to do as it bounces from one flavor-of-the-month reform to another. (That list is endless: Even within my own lifetime as a student, I can recall the anticipated magic of films, programmed instruction, educational tv, team teaching, block scheduling, New Math, open classrooms, pass-fail, multi-age groupings, single sex schools, STEM [which was quickly changed to STEAM], collaborative learning…) The variety of reforms is exceeded only by the degree of contradiction in methods. Who’s in charge here, I wonder, and what in the world are they thinking?


My wish for us as a country is that we would convene a new version of the Continental Congress—the full spectrum of interests (minus people of color, unfortunately) who gathered in Philadelphia in the mid-1770s to decide what to do in response to the offenses of King George. The result was a super vision statement that became known as the Declaration of Independence. I would like to see the new group of collective 

wisdom and interests come up with a Declaration of Education Independence, starting with a statement of goals in the broadest sense and including a definition of the term education in the context of serving those goals.


In other words, for the country as a whole to come to agreement as to our destination—what we want life to be like for all of us, including recognition of the variation that naturally occurs within our species. How to have a system that serves such a goal and respects our needs for both autonomy and a sense of belonging—neither of which, I believe, is well served by the status quo of American schooling.


In the meantime—and more within our individual Clientships—there is the opportunity for each family to create its own version of the Declaration of Education Independence. And we can go even farther, to include our own Constitution, which I see as a blueprint of how, more precisely, we are going to achieve the goals set forth in the Declaration. Only then are we likely to have a map that will help guide us in our daily travels as we make decisions about which routes to take, what alterations we might make in the face of unexpected challenges or opportunities, and what to look for at each stop along the way that will nourish our overall journey. This is not to quash spontaneity, by the way; it is rather, to more likely benefit from such on-the-spot choices, rather than merely bounce off of one outside factor after another like a cork on the ocean, only hoping that the current will eventually get you to where you want to go (if, indeed, you even know where that is).


Within the activities of the library committee, then, I can imagine our picking up the books one at a time and testing each one against our agreed-upon criteria. Which of our purposes does this book serve, we’ll ask, ultimately culling those which better serve someone else’s agenda. For parents, I would like to encourage a similar process that similarly takes the long view first—to start with the end in mind—and continues by using this vision as a guide in future decision-making. To sign up for T-ball or not? To schedule nightly reading time? To join a particular group or go on a particular field trip or vacation? College or ..? Each journey will have hundreds of thousands of such opportunities to make choices, some more impactful than others. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have clarity on one’s ultimate purpose to help in decision making along the way?


It need not be a cumbersome process. At each juncture, like picking up a book, simply ask, “How does this serve our shared vision?” And, “Is it worth our time, energy and money?” In this way, we are more likely to avoid buyer’s remorse and instead experience increasing satisfaction with both the journey and the destination.