Simplifying Core Values So They Actually Work

Can you recite the core values of your school? Up until this year, I couldn’t, and I’m guessing that most teachers — and even administrators — can’t do it either. Most students definitely can’t do that. Why not? And does it even matter?

According to the example that some of the most successful businesses set, knowing your organization’s core values does matter. Here’s why…

Companies that Keep it Simple

One of the hallmarks of Steve Jobs’ approach to product design was that of simplicity. If you’ve ever purchased an Apple product, you may have been struck by its simplicity right from the start — from the ease of functionality when you ordered the product on the Apple website right down to the sleekness of that sturdy, white box that opens with a slight “woosh.” Or maybe you purchased your product in the store, which is as equally refined and simple in its appearance with white tables holding evenly-spaced gadgets. 

Apple products are sleek and provide a streamlined experience. There’s no mess, and little fuss, and because of that, Apple products are easy for the general public to recognize.

Zappos is another company with a dedication to simplicity. Widely known for its company culture, Zappos strives to uphold core values that apply both to work and to life. Their ten core values are simple, and because they are simple and applicable to life, its easy for all employees to remember them and follow them. Values such as “Do More with Less,” “Embrace and Drive Change,” and “Pursue Growth and Learning” mean something to employees. Frankly, they can mean something to anybody; you don’t have to work at Zappos to believe in your own personal development.

According to Zappos itself, the Zappos core values “are more than just words. They are a way of life.”  And this is why they stick. This is why they survive. 

Schools that Keep it Complex

Education has heard words like this itself from one of its own pioneers. As John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life: Education is life itself.” Yet, to what extent do teachers, administrators or students explicitly hold what they do every day in school as “life itself”? And to what extent do the school’s core values function as well as Zappos’ values do, helping all parties involved recognize the work done every day as “life”?

How familiar does the following scenario sound? An accreditation visit looms about two to three years in the distance and suddenly that laminated paper hanging on your classroom or office wall that you’ve seen a thousand times but couldn’t quote one sentence from if your life depended on it  starts to matter to “the higher ups” a whole lot. Committee meetings form to revise the core value statements on that piece of paper. Squabbles break out between departments because each discipline wants what they do reflected adequately in the statements, and before long the core values are a collection of statements that attempt to capture everything, so they end up capturing nothing.

There’s a rush to get students and teachers to be able to know something — anything — about these statements in case a member of the accreditation team asks about them. The accreditation visit ends, with a sigh of relief the school passes inspection, and the revised statements hang on the wall because it’s school policy for them to be there, but nobody — especially not a student — ever reads them or pays them much mind. Why not?

Two reasons. 1) They are not simple. 2) They do not feel like real life.

Take the following core value statement as an example:

XXXX High School is committed to preparing all students to meet the challenges of living in an increasingly global and diverse society. We believe that students learn best in an environment that fosters respect for themselves and others. This allows students to be active participants in their learning, to identify and solve authentic problems and to effectively share their learning with the appropriate audiences. In partnership with parents and the community, we strive to inspire students to the habits of mind and character that will make them lifelong learners. 

Nothing about this is simple, and because it is not simple, it is not memorable. If it’s not memorable — if it’s forgettable — then it will not be applied or adopted by any teacher or student as “life itself.”

Simple Does Not Equal Stupid

This is not an argument for dumbing down school expectations or the method for which they are communicated. In fact, it’s the opposite.

While Apple’s design may be about simplicity, Jobs’ vision for Apple and what the company is known for are far from simplistic: Apple is about helping people fulfill their dreams; it’s about people who want to “Think Different,” and “put a dent in the Universe.” It’s clearing out the extra — the distractions — so that the essential can be heard. Clearly, Apple’s “simple” does not equate to “superficial.” Instead, Apple is about making sure that the most important features of a product are “right there” and readily accessible.

While the sample school’s core values statement may be complex and forgettable, it’s not wrong; however, it’s definitely not “readily accessible.” Still, broken down part by part, any educator would be hard pressed to disagree with any of it:

  1. The world is increasingly global and diverse and this presents unique challenges that students need to be prepared for.
  2. Students need to learn to be respectful of themselves and of others.
  3. Students need to be active participants in their learning.
  4. Students need to identify and solve authentic problems.
  5. Students need to communicate their findings with an appropriate audience.
  6. Parents and community members must be inspiration for students so they adopt the habits of mind and character to become lifelong learners.

Can’t argue with that! …but I bet you can forget it.

Making It Memorable

For core values truly to drive life, they need to be memorable. We know what this looks like at Zappos. If you want to, you can also see what it looks like at Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Google.

What, then, could it look like at schools?

What are the chances of teachers and students, instead, connecting to a rewritten version that goes something like…

  1. The world can be tough; be prepared for that.
  2. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself.
  3. Get involved, and care a lot.
  4. Use what you learn to solve a problem and make a difference.
  5. Tell others, and get them to care a lot.
  6. Learning never stops; be a learner all your life.

Simple statements? Yes. Simple ideas? Definitely not.

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