Enter the education dialogue emboldened by ideas and experience

If educators want a voice in policy, they must be prepared to be heard
By: | Issue: January, 2015
December 19, 2014

In his groundbreaking work, Magic of Dialogue, social scientist Daniel Yankelovich observed that public judgment is not information stripped of feeling, but dialogue rich in feelings and values.

Furthermore, he notes that we believe we make sound decisions in American society but we are ill-informed in large part because these decisions are based on protracted dialogue rather than factual analysis. What flows from this is that if educators want a voice in public policy they have no alternative but to enter the dialogue.

Taking that step into what is often hostile, confusing, noisy and disruptive territory requires a strong mind focused on ideas.

Risking irrelevance

The current conversation about public education has been going on for some time, and much of the expressed values and feelings are critical. The voice of experienced practitioners is faint or missing, and many individuals are tentative to engage without being invited.

The public’s values and feelings are being expressed, and decisions are formed with or without educators’ participation. Therefore, educators are not missed if they are not there, and the public has grown weary of defensive reactions by educators who remain outside the dialogue and who simply reject public observations without offering alternatives.

If the last observation is accurateÑif educators are not missedÑthen they run the risk of becoming irrelevant. That makes it imperative for experienced practitioners to assert their voice in shaping the public’s values and feelings about education. Participating in this public dialogue requires a strong mind focused more on ideas than on events and people.

The focus on ideas will provide the courage for educators to raise the questionsÑrather than be controlled by the critics’ questions, which often results in a defensive posture.

Participating in meaningful dialogue requires a willingness to break the habits of speaking only to supporters. Those who wait to be invited will be waiting a long time because there is no invitation coming and, as already suggested, the public doesn’t miss educators from the discussion about education.

The voice of experience

Simply deciding to engage in dialogue is not enough. Being heard will require preparation based on a foundation that supports positive results. As educators think about their incursion into the dialogue, they avoid echoing the calls for change, reform and rigor, and rather characterize the system as inherently incomplete and in a constant state of improvement.

If that is done, as John Tanner points out in his book The Pitfalls of Reform, the thinking will not focus on good or bad as much as on what can be done to make things better. No one has to be convinced that what went before was bad; they just need to enumerate the value and merits of an improved state.

This change in approach is supported by philosopher Richard Rorty’s notion that “a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change … It is the vocabulary itself which must be addressed.” The method is to redescribe “things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it.” The experienced practitioner is a legitimate voice in shaping this new vocabulary.

In an effort to amplify the voice of experienceÑand challenge the notion that truth is in the bias of the beholderÑhere are some tips:

Lead with values. Some in the public dialogue believe that they have a lock on what American society should value, and too often they overlook the importance of values such as equity.
Use precise information. Present information that is jargon-free and uncluttered by too many examples and viewpoints. This is not an exercise in volume, but rather one of precision.
Leave false information alone. Provide just the facts and avoid giving credibility to the myths.
Talk about solutions. Avoid creating or fueling a crisis, and require those around you to follow the 1-2-4 rule. That is, one sentence to describe the issue, two sentences to define the problem and four sentences to offer the various solutions.
Have vision. Be able to see beyond what is in front of you.
Metaphors reinforce facts. Create a metaphor that represents your work. The Frame Works Institute (frameworksinstitute.org) is a group of talented individuals who assist organizations in developing powerful metaphors that engage stakeholders and community members with success in reshaping the dialogue.
Draw on experience. Recognize those critical moments that draw on experienceÑin other words, trust your instincts, because they are more often correct than not.
Avoid being consumed by the discourse of powerlessness. There are those who are always stymied because they never have enough money or can’t consider options because they feel permanently blocked. The things that are considered blocks are real, but leaders tend to move around them and do not allow the blocks to dictate progress.
Fend off the urge to normalize deviance. The chorus of “we have always done it that way” is not a recipe for success.

Strong leaders discuss ideasÑnot events or people. They don’t just argue betterÑthey speak differently. They lead with values and talk about solutions. They state facts clearly and draw on their experience with confidence. They avoid the discourse of powerlessness, and are courageous in asking the questions.

Many state administrator associations have supported educators in shaping a vision for the future of public education. These efforts are providing experienced practitioners with a platform to enter the public dialogue with the confidence that they are changing the way we speak about what we do in public education.

These efforts are beginning to reshape the dialogue locally, and what we need now is to unite these voices to build a strong refrain that both encourages others to join in the discussion and at the same time informs the public’s values and feelings.

This is hard and exhausting work because it never ends, but, thankfully, we have emboldened individuals to step forward.

Joseph Scherer is executive director of Superintendents’ National Dialogue. He can be reached at joseph.scherer@nwea.org.

District Administration welcomes the insights and opinions of educators and administrators on all topics. If you would like to contribute a guest column, please contact Tim Goral at tgoral@promediagrp.com.