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How to Make Mission Matter at Your School

Considerations from a global study
Arrows pointing to center

School mission statements today are pervasive. Effective school missions can communicate a vision and unify people around common goals, especially when systematically implemented. However, some missions may not even be known or observed by school stakeholders and become mere slogans. Therefore, while most schools have a mission statement, only some schools may be categorized as “mission-driven” institutions that specifically endorse and intentionally organize pedagogy to focus on specific philanthropic, civic, and/or community-based values and involvement.

Over the past several years, our team at The Good Project investigated the educational practices and outcomes of a set of mission-driven, diverse, and globally located international schools. Our primary partners in this research were the United World Colleges (UWC), a network of 18 schools that foreground student diversity and social impact. UWC’s mission is “to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” We set out to learn whether these schools and 13 others (which remain anonymous) around the world were actually achieving their aims.

We collected thousands of student and alumni surveys, conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews, and carried out observations at more than a dozen UWC schools. When we analyzed our data, summarized in a report available here, we discovered trends relevant not only to the participating schools, but also for anyone interested in creating a school or a curriculum that is mission based, including parents and teachers

Below are implications from our work regarding how to make a mission a powerful force for teaching, learning, and change.

1) Does your school have a unified idea of your mission? When school mission statements are clearly stated, focused, and understood by school stakeholders, they have the power to unify people around a common idea. We saw in our study of UWC that the mission statement was interpreted in a variety of manners: different elements of the mission (such as sustainability or peace) were foregrounded to different degrees depending on school context and personal preferences. For mission-driven schools that seek to effect social change, it is important for people to share a unified understanding of the meaning of the mission; what it looks like in practice; and the steps that can lead to its fulfillment.  

For example, if your school’s mission is “A cleaner world for all,” some questions to ask would include: What does this mean to the different stakeholders in your institution? Does it mean simply recycling every day, or does it mean protesting for climate change (or neither)? Could “cleaner” mean cleaner morals or character to some people? A common understanding of an institutional mission and how it can be embodied can have a trickle-down effect throughout an organization by uniting people at all levels in common purpose. 

Consider as well: 

  • How are conversations about the mission happening at your school? 
  • What messages are students receiving about the mission explicitly and implicitly? 
  • What parallel visions of the missions might exist? 
  • What steps are you taking to align all the stakeholders at your school around the mission? What can you to bring about better alignment?

2) What type of citizen do you hope your school is fostering? Once you’ve agreed on what your mission statement means for your school, ask yourself: What type of message does your school’s mission send about how students are meant to be as citizens in the world? Throughout our study, we asked participants questions like, “What does making an impact mean to you?” and “What does it mean to make a difference in the world?” Interviewees were asked to rank four different profiles regarding who was making the “most” impact keeping the UWC mission in mind.

What did we find? Overall, there was not a singular aligned vision across the UWC movement, or even within particular schools, about what it means to “make a difference.” Many participants in our study were relativistic in their thinking about impact, wanting to reserve judgment about whether any one type of action or type of career or action was right or wrong, or impactful or not impactful in positive ways for the world. For example, is an investment banker making a difference in positive or negative ways? What about compared to a nonprofit worker or parent? 

There is nothing inherently wrong with people having different ideas about how to make a difference in the world. One might argue that we need these divergent means of impact to tackle real-world problems. However, if educational institutions are dedicated to having their students make social impact, it is necessary that they have a defined understanding of their desired impact.

Alternatively, as Walden University did when confronted with the fact that they did not know how to define the idea of “positive social change” in their mission, schools might create functional models of changemaking that students should embody in order to be agents of social change, such as cognitive and practical skills as well as values and ethics.

In thinking about these questions, consider: 

  • How large of an effect do you expect your students’ impact to have? Should they affect society as a whole? Or maybe just their local community? Or perhaps just their family? 
  • Are there certain topics they should focus their changemaking efforts on? Take the school above with their environmental mission– perhaps the students should focus their efforts solely on sustainability. 
  • What methods of change should your students use? Maybe your school focuses entirely on social entrepreneurship. Or instead, you’d rather your students learned how to advocate through protesting and political change. 
  • How should your students' changemaking efforts address issues of justice? Do you think that your students should focus on the root causes of issues, or that they should address more pressing or symptomatic issues? 

3)  How does the mission translate to pedagogical practice? Our research displayed that, once a strong mission and associated conception of how the mission is shaping students has been established, it’s crucial to embed these ideas into the pedagogy and educational practices being offered by the school. In the schools we worked with, many of which were focused on developing intercultural understanding and fostering social impact, mission-aligned activities included:

  • Volunteer and community service programs in which students got to experience collaborating with community stakeholders.
  • At UWC schools, project weeks, in which students designed a week-long learning experience away from the school that required problem-solving, often involving travel to a new location.
  • Extra-academic activities, including student-run conferences and clubs focused on mission-aligned topics like sustainability and peace building.
  • Academic environments, most often courses like global politics, history, economics, and literature, that permitted conversations about school mission.

Throughout these activities, we saw that when students were afforded opportunities to bring their perspectives to the fore, and to feel autonomy and agency in the learning process, students learned more and developed skills and dispositions such as open-mindedness and greater confidence.

At your school, consider questions like:

  • Where in the day are students most likely to experience the mission in action?
  • How can the mission be embedded into environments that give students the chance to exercise autonomy?
  • To what degree are our educational programs aligned with the mission we want to achieve?

While many schools today have mission statements, we hope that the themes and questions we have explored here can help to bring about greater mission clarity and implementation for institutions of learning.

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