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March 24, 2004 » 8:45 pm

Million Dollar Dialog

I was at a party this past weekend, and a group of us started discussing the following question: If you had a million dollars to spend on saving the world, what would you do with it?    (196)

Not surprisingly, there was quick consensus on investing that money into improving education for kids. Then we got into the details. Where do you invest that money? How do you maximize the effectiveness of that investment? How do you measure effectiveness?    (197)

I’ve played this game several times before, and although it’s never boring, I’m rarely surprised by what I hear. What surprised me this time was how much my own answers have changed from the last time I’ve played. It’s indicative of how much The Blue Oxen Way has infiltrated my thinking.    (198)

How would I spend that million dollars? I would use it to start a nationwide dialog on improving education. I would involve parents, teachers, administrators, and especially the students. It seems like students are often left out of these dialogs, when in fact their insights are as profound and as important as those of adults.    (199)

The dialog would consist of facilitated face-to-face townhall meetings with an emphasis on capturing stories. I would use collaborative online tools to augment the dialog, allowing participants to continue their conversations and making those conversations accessible to a wider audience.    (19A)

Most of the topics would center around education-specific topics, but a portion of them would be about sustaining the dialog and facilitating emergent collaboration. In other words, the participants — not I — would be actively shaping the movement.    (19B)

What would this accomplish? First, it would help build Shared Understanding between stakeholders. Education is a collaborative process. There is a tremendous amount of mistrust among the different parties involved with education, but I find that there is often a strong commonality as well. People care about the kids. If people were to focus on this commonality, a lot of the mistrust would disappear.    (19C)

Second, it would build self-awareness among community members. I know a lot of people who are doing wonderful things in education, be they local teachers or concerned parents. Many of them are doing them on a very small scale and are mostly unaware of similar efforts. Simply knowing that others share your goals and ideas can be tremendously self-assuring. On a more pragmatic level, self-awareness creates the opportunity for the sharing of best practices.    (19D)

Third, it would augment all projects involving education, be they evangelizing parental participation, purchasing textbooks, or lobbying for better laws. There are so many ways we can improve education. Who can place a value judgement on which of these efforts are more worthwhile? If we want to maximize effectiveness, it’s best to invest in areas that will help all of these efforts, not just one of them.    (19E)

Fourth, it would be a sustainable movement. The sustainability comes from involving the participants in the shaping of the movement itself.    (19F)

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One Response to “Million Dollar Dialog”

  1. The problem with dialogue is that talk is cheap. The participants in the dialogue would normally be largely self-selected. Problems I’ve seen in the past (my school district held town meetings across the county that both students and parents attended):
    1) It is very unusual for those without a stake (either as a parent, student, or educator) to attend. Yet those people (businesses, future parents, retirees) are vital to strategic alignment.
    2) Many popular ideas are financially unfeasible. Right now, 70% of my property taxes go to schools which are nearly the worst in the state. There’s no more money. Even so, it is extremely difficult to receive popular support for a cut in a town hall environment (except suspiciously vague attacks on bureaucracy).

    The town hall meetings turned out to be a PR gimmick and no significant change resulted. Perhaps modern collaboration tools would have helped — I doubt it.

    If it were my million, I’d develop an open courseware site that linked curriculum with the state guidelines and testing standards and allowed collaborative development and improvement (probably wiki style). The site would be useful to teachers, students, and home schoolers. I would rely on freely available ebooks for the english literature used, allowing schools to standardize on pocket ebook readers. With the remainder I would commission textbooks under a open source license. While most school systems would use a commercial printer to create copies with a traditional look and feel, future versions could be created collaboratively. With freely available and collaboratively developed curriculum and textbooks, students and teachers could together work to improve education rather than reinventing the wheel.

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