Articulating Core Values? What’s the point?

1/ Values

I struggled with this exercise – in some unexpected ways. I’ve helped articulate values in very different contexts and scales (e.g. drafting values for an education startup, a university, a classroom); drafted my own values as part of workshops and trainings; and developed values in very different ways (individually, facilitated, collaboratively, and along different timescales – in a workshop, a week, or stretched out over a few weeks in a deliberate/consensus driven process).

So when I approached this exercise, a few questions came to mind:

  • What are the implications of articulating core values? In what ways might articulating values explicitly shape how I work – with myself? With others? How I approach a project? How might articulating values impact different kinds of projects and work (e.g. analytic work, design work, etc.)?
  • How have my “core values” changed over time? What has shaped my core values? Prompted changes or shifts, even in emphasis?
  • How might core values differ based on context – problem I’m working on, people I’m working with, context I’m working in?

I then reviewed notes from my most recent discussion about values- from a retreat held with the Lifelong Kindergarten Group and the Scratch team. LLK and Scratch have grown immensely in the last 10 years – from a team of graduate students to now a group of grad students and staff that reaches 30 people. And while LLK has some clear values (e.g. approach learning with a playful spirit), none of these values have been written down clearly anywhere – and the retreat provided a first opportunity for the group to begin the process of articulating and consolidating core values.

As I considered this, I realized that we do as a group talk about our values quite regularly – and refer to them in conversation. But we haven’t written them down anywhere. Or consolidated them. But there is a clear sense of a culture grounded in a common sense of values. Of respecting the potential of each person as a creative learner. Of approaching learning in a playful way. Of supporting empowered, non-hierarchical environments over top down conditions. Of being thoughtful and respectful in interactions. Of speaking simply and plainly. Of prototyping and giving ideas form instead of talking about abstractions.

And there are certain affordances that come with not articulating values. There is an emphasis on spending time with people to learn the culture – and that learning the culture takes time, happens through relationship building and working and playing together – and is not something that can happen in a few moments or a day. When I see a list of values, I tend to be like OK, I get it. Not seeing the values suggested to me that I needed to unearth, play with, and experience the values to really get them – which made them something else to me – and has already had an impact on how I work and interact. I find myself using simpler language. Asking shorter questions. Prototyping more.

So why articulate and “codify” values in this context? It’s become clear that as the team has grown – and as relationships become more difficult to maintain in the same ways that they were in a smaller group – articulating values will help us ground how we work, interact with one another, and how we engage external partners and collaborators.

All this said, a few ideas on core values that I’d like to bring to my work generally. These values would likely vary depending on the project or specific context.

Courage: The courage to see differently, to think 10x, and to push and prod those around you – even when it will make you uncomfortable. Courage underlies brave spaces (a more powerful form of safe spaces).

Systematic Rigor: I value work that approaches problems with a longer time horizon, seeks to address root causes, and that intentionally interacts with broader systems. Even efforts that might seem minor (e.g. designing a learning resource) can be made more robust by considering the systems in which it is located (e.g. how designing in particular ways might address inequity). Similarly, this implies also thinking about how an effort or initiative might scale.

Autonomy: people should be supported to be active agents – in their communities, learning, work, and lives.

Tinkering: Complex and simple problems require tinkering – playfully exploring different options and possibilities, testing the, and iterating based on feedback, experience, and data. I try to bring this value to my work in a range of contexts – as it brings together an iterative, experimental approach with a playful mindset.

Inclusive community: My most transformative work has involved bringing together diverse groups of people to create communities where the sum is greater than the parts- and where the parts are transformed to be greater than they were before they joined.

2/ Convening

I’m hoping to organize a convening of people working on education in Johannesburg and in Cairo this December.

Who: I’m inviting people who are doing things that are bold and courageous. Initiatives that don’t simply push for incremental changes to broken systems, but that strive for systematic change. Who am I to define bold initiatives? And who am I to convene a gathering in the first place? Even though this is the first informal step of an effort to start bringing together educators working on creative learning and on radical efforts to shift the education equilibrium, what are the implications of me convening people? How am I working with or layering on top of existing networks?

Where: I’ll likely host this in a space that is convenient for the different organizations – and that enables people from different groups/locales to come (both cities are sprawling disasters). I would also likely pick an organization I’d like to highlight as a particularly strong example of what a radically bold learning initiative might look like.

I would try and design the space to encourage people to be thoughtful in how they interact with others, how they share the strengths of the work and open up on the challenges that they’re facing. I would like them to build relationships and to form a strong sense of community, to be able to trust one another as peers – and to see each other as nodes in a decentralized network – nodes that can empower one another to do greater things.

I hope the space creates conversations that allow for depth – to really push into the texture and contours of a subject, issue, or problem – but to also provide room for exposure and breadth – because the dance between breadth and depth is what makes life interesting and fun. And in this dance, I hope that people can trust each other to be courageous, to challenge one another to rise higher and go deeper than they have before.

One thought on “Articulating Core Values? What’s the point?

  1. Of the stated values, I found the inclusion of ‘Systematic Rigor’ interesting. Rigor is not often thought of as a “value”. But having read this piece I am persuaded of the importance of instilling a sense of thoughtful consideration and robust thinking for any ethical attempt at problem solving.
    I also liked ‘Courage’ and the idea of brave spaces. Would love to learn more about this concept.

    For the convention I think it would make sense for there to be two distinct discussion groups or panels; one each for Johannesburg and Cairo. Ideally, it would also be located in areas close to affected communities. This would allow the maximum number of relevant stakeholders to be able to attend, especially voices that often go unheard.
    I personally have a strong interest in South Africa and its history. I have a number of local connections who work with communities in Durban and Cape Town, specifically on issues related to informal labor, that could be useful for gathering relevant resources and context for tackling other systemic issues such as education.

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