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Dialoguing Our Way to the Future(s)

By Elizabeth City

Education is long on talk and short on dialogue. At the risk of adding to the "talk" din, I want to put in a few words for dialogue. In our commentary this week, Richard Elmore and I offered some thoughts about what we might discuss and why it matters for shaping our schooling futures. Now I want to say a little about the how and who of that dialogue.

On the how front, it helps to have juicy, hard questions that you actually don't know the answer to yourself. It's okay if no one knows the answer, or if there is more than one answer, or even if the questions are unanswerable. The key is that the questions are authentic--you are really asking something and care about the answer. The questions are worth discussing. You are not just asking so that you can say what you think. You might have an answer, but you're quite open to other answers. In fact, you're more interested in other people's answers than your own. We modeled this by asking questions like, "Who decides what and how to learn? What is society's role in that decision making? How do we ensure that the students who have the most to gain and lose in any fundamental transformation of "school"--the very students least well served by the current institution of school--are best supported to thrive and succeed?" Asking questions you don't know the answer to can be a bit terrifying at first, but is actually quite freeing and opens the door to real conversations--and usually much better answers than any of us is walking around with on our own.

Another key element of real, rich dialogue is listening. We suggested that you start exploring those questions and shaping the futures by talking. To be clear, however, when we said "talk with students, teachers, and other educators," we really meant listen to them. Ask them a question and then listen to their answers. The questions don't need to be as abstract and unwieldy as the ones we offered. They could be as simple as: "What are your favorite parts of your day/job? What are your least favorite parts? When you feel challenged, what does that look like? What is something you learned recently? How did you learn it? If you could wave a magic wand and transform one part of your daily experience, what would you change and why?" Remember, the key criteria are that you care about the answer and you're interested in other people's answers.

Just as critical as the how is the who. Who should be in these conversations? We suggested that questions like "Which of these environments makes sense, given the future of learning in our society?" and "Is 'school' a brick and mortar building, or a way of organizing and providing access and support for learning?" are questions that society will need to discuss, explore, and answer together. But who is "society"? Too often the decision-makers are the only ones asking and answering the questions. School surely needs to look different than it looked when the decision-makers went to school, and it's not clear that decision-makers always have the best ideas about how school could and should look different. After all, school worked well enough for these folks that they are now decision-makers. What works for some may not work for all.

Fortunately, in my experience, decision-makers are not the only people capable of engaging in critical conversations. In fact, sometimes they're the worst at it. The ability and willingness to listen--fundamental to real conversation--too often seems inversely proportional to how "smart" someone thinks or has been told they are. This holds true for students and adults alike. In other words, the "smartest" people are often the worst listeners, which of course, greatly diminishes their smarts . . .

One of the most amazing conversations I have ever participated in was a discussion of a text Booker T. Washington wrote about building a school (the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute). A hundred or so middle school students, parents, and teachers sat in small groups discussing what school could and should look like, using Washington's text as a starting point. The group included a range of education and income levels as well as skin tones and cultural heritages. The conversation was both grounded and inspiring, and it helped weave the community around a common language and purpose, even as many questions were left asked and unanswered.

If we're serious about shaping futures that best support high performance and equitable outcomes for all students, we will need to have conversations like the one I just described that include the people I just described. This undoubtedly means hard conversations about race and class and privilege. We will need to discuss current assumptions, like, for example, assumptions about the degree to which high-poverty students of color need schools to serve a more custodial function in order to succeed, or about the promise and the limits of school as a cure for American society's core challenges.

How about we use this as a guiding principle--any time we're talking about someone (especially if it involves "fixing" them in some way, as we so often talk about teachers these days and poor children, urban children, brown children, resistant children, etc., often with their families and communities thrown into the "fix mix")--we need to invite them into the conversation, ask them an authentic question, and really listen to their answer.

We need to learn together over time about what combinations of learning opportunities and supports are needed to help all children thrive, and to do this, we need a much more diverse who in the conversation than we currently have, and we need to have real conversations.


Elizabeth A. City is the executive director of the Doctor of Education Leadership Program and lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her recent publications include Strategy in Action: How School Systems Can Support Powerful Learning and Teaching, co-authored with Rachel E. Curtis (Harvard Education Press, 2009) and Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning, co-authored with Richard F. Elmore, Sarah E. Fiarman, and Lee Teitel (Harvard Education Press, 2009).

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