Importance of Dialogue in School & Community

Conversations between multiple stakeholders that occur over time are a key component of the change process. Work to build the kinds of conversations detailed on this page.

Since the nation’s first public school was established in 1635, Americans have always recognized the vital connection between public education and a thriving democracy. But over the years, school administrators—like most leaders in 20th century organizations—have made decisions primarily in a top-down fashion, with little input or participation from students, teachers, or community stakeholders.  Today, the focus is on a “distributive” model of leadership, one that extends the responsibility for leadership and weaves it into the relationships and interactions of multiple stakeholders.

“Democracy begins in conversation.” – John Dewey

Toolkit_you_cant_do_it_alone_book_coverAs Jean Johnson says so clearly in You Can’t Do It Alone: A Communications & Engagement Manual For School Leaders Committed to Reform“In the most fundamental sense, genuine reform rests on the human factor—how teachers, students, parents, and the broader community think about and respond to change… In the end, it will be almost impossible for school leaders to spur long-lasting reform without an evolution in the attitudes, expectations, and habits of the human beings involved.”

It is important to note that the word “dialogue” has been used throughout this kit to describe productive conversations amongst stakeholders. However, in other contexts the work is referred to by many different names, including public conversations, town hall forums, community conversations, study circles, public dialogues, community forums, deliberation, and more.

Starting a Dialogue with Stakeholders: Why it is Important

How might dialogue within and across stakeholder groups begin to change attitudes, expectations and habits?  How might it advance the goals of school redesign and the shift to student-centered approaches to learning? To answer these questions, you must encourage the following kinds of conversations, which are critical for building public understanding, engagement, and support:

Conversations with and among Educators

Toolkit_teachers_at_the_tableTeachers often feel excluded from discussions about school redesign.  They experience it as something that’s happening to them, not as something in which they have a direct stake.  But when teachers have a chance to be at the table, to be a genuine part of the decision-making process, they are often receptive to changes and offer their own ideas for how best to implement them with fidelity.

Conversations with and among Students

Toolkit_student_dialogueThe work of improving public education often neglects to include the most vital and important members of every school community: the students. While our students benefit the most from strong schools, they have not historically played a significant or meaningful role in designing or leading school programs. When students are invited into dialogue with educators and have the opportunity to talk amongst their peers, they can be the single most powerful voices for change.

Conversations with and among Families

Many families are not adequately informed about what their children need to learn in order to succeed in a complex global society, so the sharing of information and a dedicated space for making meaning is essential. And while all families want their children to do well, many need guidance in how to amplify their voices on behalf of their own children and those in the community as a whole.

Conversations with the Community at Large

Americans consistently say they believe that education is fundamental to the strength of our communities and the future of our country, but there remains a huge gap between how school leaders think about improving schools and what the public understands.

As you work to build these conversations, you much remember even the mostly carefully crafted messages are never a substitute for the relationships that must be built over time. Student-centered learning requires a significant shift in mindset that can only happen through ongoing dialogue and deliberation.

“It is impossible to conceive of successful school reform without the active support of the community.  Knowing how to bring the stakeholders into the tent, rather than leaving them outside, is also best practice for democracy.”
– Daniel Yankelovich

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