The Future of Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Building Vision and Action Through Large-Scale Conferencing Processes

John VanDeusen, Work Systems Associates, Inc.,
Nancy Aronson, Arsht/Aronson
Thomas Sexton, Centennial School District
Tammy Blossom


This article provides an overview of the use of large-scale conferencing methodologies as tools to facilitate rapid, high-quality planning and development in education. A brief review of several conferencing approaches is followed by a detailed account of future search, one model that has been used in dozens of applications in elementary, secondary, and higher education throughout the US over the past several years. Future search is particularly useful in efforts to comply with state and federal mandates for broadened community involvement in strategic planning processes. Two case studies from the authors' own work are used to describe potential applications and impacts.

In response to crisis, seemingly a permanent fixture in public education, educators, administrators, researchers, and other concerned parties are searching for new and better solutions. Because no voice is willing to be excluded from the discussion, educators need to learn large-scale planning methodologies as a means to orchestrate productive dialogue. A number of states now require broad-based community involvement in strategic planning by public school districts.

Tony Wagner (1993) describes five basic steps needed to cope with the requirements of systemic change in schools. The first step is to gain perspective on the current landscape of forces impacting on education, including purposes and resources. Second, schools must take stock of their own strengths and weaknesses relative to this landscape. Third, it is essential to create a shared vision among the school's various constituencies, eliciting core values, guiding principles, and priorities that all stakeholders can stand behind. Fourth, the vision must be translated into action via task force activities. Fifth, all of these change efforts must receive appropriate support in the form of authority, resources, and the creation of strategic partnerships.

There are dilemmas in each of these steps: Who should be included? How do we know what we don't know but need to know? How much alignment is needed? How do we allocate less than adequate resources? What is the appropriate interface between planning and school board activities? Concerning whom to include, for instance, it is by no means clear just who are the customers in public schooling today.

Largescale conferencing methodologies can be especially helpful in addressing these thorny questions, in as much as they provide a means to work iteratively on the articulation of vision and action, rather than making risky "all or none" decisions too early along in the planning process.

Examples of Largescale Methodologies

Three Basic Dimensions

The growing variety of conferencing methodologies for schools can be characterized in terms of three basic dimensions: scope, scale, and structure. Scope concerns the span of discretion that the planners are willing to allocate to a largescale intervention process. In some conferences, participants are given carte blanche to address any and all aspects of the organization, including mission, structure, values, operations, and finances. On the opposite end of the continuum are conferences where the participants are asked to focus on closely defined aspects of the topic, such as the development of a new product design.

Second, the scale of the conference refers to the numbers of persons to be involved. Some conferencing methodologies work best within a narrow range, whereas others seem to be widely adaptable. In general, we are including as largescale, any methodologies that include groups of at least 24 persons. The upper end of this range can extend to several hundred, or over a thousand participants.

Third, the degree of structure imposed upon the conference event can vary. The most flexible approaches will merely define when and where the event will be held and for what general purpose, imposing minimal constraints on what the participants will actually discuss or how they will do it. Other approaches develop a finely tuned schedule of tasks, complete with worksheets, tightly organizing every minute of participants' time.

Each of these dimensions should be carefully considered in selecting a particular type of approach, in order to assure that it accords well with the planners' intent and capabilities. Experience shows that neither end of any of these three continua is intrinsically better than its opposite. Successful application depends upon such things as context, intent, culture, and resources of the user.

A Sampler of Conferencing Approaches

One of the oldest and most widely used conferencing approaches, the "Search Conference," was originated by Tavistock Institute members Eric Trist and Fred Emery, in 1959 (Emery, 1994). The key starting point for this process is the development of shared understanding of the larger context encompassing the organization. This is achieved by bringing a diverse set of stakeholders together to consider how the preferred future might differ from futures implicit in the present circumstances; identifying what can be done to make the shift; and what the participants are themselves willing to do. The conference is structured to maximize self-management by the participants (e.g., of how long to work on each of these tasks, what end product is desired, and how to acheive the desired outcome). A typical conference is low in scale, including no more than 24 to 30 persons. The scope is broad and the structure is loose, as participants work on several tasks over several days, without tight time frames. The preferred environment is a "social island" setting, away from the normal workplace.

"Open Space Technology" is a minimalist approach, in that it requires almost no advance planning or operating structure. A variety of between 20 and several hundred persons with an active interest in a general theme are invited to attend either a 1, 2, or 3-day event. During the first hour of the event, a facilitator helps people to rapidly decide what they want to discuss in relation to the theme, and where and when they want to hold their discussions. Anyone with a passion for a discussion topic is invited to take responsibility for hosting a work session. Harrison Owen, the originator of OST, reports that a group of 80 persons can easily generate 20 to 30 topics in this manner. Once the discussion topics are posted, all participants sign up for any session they want to attend. People then break directly into discussion groups, typically between 2 and 20 each. At the end of the day, people reconvene to sum up their learnings. Owen recommends getting the data into computer files, which enable the conference managers to prepare proceedings overnight, for immediate distribution the next morning. This approach has been used by Rockport shoes to help redesign use of its warehouse space (Owen, 1993).

As described by Robert Jacob (1994), "Real Time Strategic Change" typically engages several hundred participants in a three-day collaborative planning process hosted by the organization's leadership team. It requires extensive pre-conference planning, including logistics and the creation of a straw-man strategy or design for presentation in the event. Participants focus first on the current reality, and then address the straw-man document. Leadership then develops a response to participants' feedback and presents this back to the conference, establishing the basis for further dialogue, commitments, and action planning. Ford Motor Company used RTSC to manage a group of 2,200 employees' involvement in developing a gameplan for production of its new Mustang model.

The "Dialogue Process" has been developed by Peter Senge (1990) and his colleagues to address the need for any organized group to develop more effective ways of communicating. The scale of this approach is small, as groups of between 20 and 40 persons typically meet in a series of meetings. Each dialogue session generally lasts for two to three hours and is facilitated by a consultant, who offers simple guidelines (e.g., the need to balance advocacy and inquiry). Dialogue principles have been used by one company to facilitate meetings between management and union representatives.

Future Search Methodology

Future search is a mid-scale conferencing approach, developed by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff as a synthesis and enhancement upon the earlier search conference approach of Emery and Trist, and a community-wide conference approach developed by Schindler-Rainman and Lippitt (1977). Future search conferences are midscale, high-structure events, bringing a group of 40 to 80 diverse stakeholders together in an intensive, outcome-focused effort to achieve breakthrough thinking and action on difficult issues. The process usually includes pre-planning, a summit-type conference, and follow-through sessions. A typical conference runs for 16 to 20 hours over three days. Between 25% and 40% of these participants are usually external (i.e., from outside the unit or organization sponsoring the conference).

Future search can be a methodology of choice when the organizational opportunity or problem is likely to mandate a significant shift in the nature/mission of the organization, in the way activities are performed, or in the numbers or types of people involved in an activity. Conferences have been used, for instance, as a vehicle to

  • articulate mission and core values
  • expand the breadth of communication and involvement (e.g., interactive focus groups)
  • achieve better definition of a complex issue
  • construct a means of rapid,coordinated response
  • build strategic alliances across teams or organizations
  • address and resolve major crises
  • explore deeper implications of a certain issue or trend
  • iterate operating plans
  • cultivate renewal of commitment

There are several unique advantages to using this mode. First, it gets the whole system in one room. While numerous approaches gather input from a variety of stakeholders, future search constitutes a realtime process: because participants offer their ideas and feedback directly to each other, online, there is a high likelihood that essential information about the inter-relations between perspectives will be elicited. During the conference, participants will meet in several configurations-mixed groups, stakeholder groups, and task force groups-for task-focused dialogues. The mutual learning is substantial. None of this synergy is possible, of course, when stakeholder data is acquired via survey, focus group, or other offline methods, to be analyzed and interpreted by a single source.

Second, because the whole system is present, a future search can be used to build action plans concurrently with commitments to enact them. If the right people are in the room, key decisions can be made on the spot, rather than waiting until after the conference. The output of the conference is shaped by commitments that the participants are willing to make to each other, rather than as recommendations for others. There will usually be a need to expand involvement further, but this is included as a part of the strategy and commitment taken on by the participants, themselves.

Third, a future search process aims to elicit the common ground of beliefs, ideas, and values that every participant can buy in to, rather than attempting to take the longer path of building commitment by solving a long list of problems. The tasks used in this conference enable people to identify the unifying threads that usually get lost in the midst of trying to deal with everyday, transactional issues. Once the common ground has been agreed upon, participants are able to sustain a collaborative spirit even as they take action in different parts of the system.

Fourth, this approach achieves high quality results very quickly. It is not unusual to hear participants saying that they have achieved in 16 hours what they could not previously accomplish in months or years of less integrated committee work. The cost savings associated with this rapid cycling of action can be quite substantial.

Fifth, future searches can be used in combination with other, more extensive developmental processes (e.g., as a lead-in to a total quality or process reengineering initiative). Some organizations have adapted the approach into a series of linked conferences to develop socio-technical redesigns.

Structure and Process

How should future search be structured to meet the needs of schools? The future search approach works best when the planning sessions and conference are managed by one or two persons who are well-versed in the methodology. Because managers do not attempt to influence the actual content or results of the conference, they are typically outsiders, without a direct, ongoing stake or role in the school.

The actual conference event, while highly visible, actually constitutes just one element in a more extensive set of activities that collectively help the conference planning team to embark on this approach, execute it properly, and see that its results are effectively integrated into the organization. Below is a flow of several elements in a future search approach, from start to finish, as it would pertain to a sponsoring school or schools:

  1. Should We/Shouldn't We: Representatives of the sponsoring school(s) meet with a potential conference manager for one halfday to discuss opportunities, benefits and costs of a future search. Benefits include rapid alignment of thinking and action among the necessary players and, often, the emergence of unprecedented solutions and alliances.

  2. Planning: If the school(s) favor going ahead, a planning committee is formed. Twelve to 20 people representing a cross-section of all interests in the future of the school(s)/theme should be included. At least 25% of this group should consist of external stakeholders. Two fullday work sessions will be needed to define the intent of the conference, identify and invite participants, and address logistics (time, place, meals, supplies, materials). The planning group also defines how the outcomes from the conference will be used and publicized.

  3. Conference sixteen to 20 hours, over three days: The participants work in small, self-managed groups for most of this time. No lectures; all expertise is shared within the work groups. Several tasks are performed:

    • Past: Working in mixed groups, significant milestones from the past several decades are defined, at several levels (personal, organizational, and larger system). This is done in a way that quickly builds a shared appreciation and context for the issues (everyone contributes data; a learning community is forged).

    • Present: Significant trends impacting on the school(s)/theme are charted. A baseline scenario may be elicited ("What will happen if we simply do nothing?") Interest (stakeholder) groups then identify how they are currently responding to selected trends, and how they want to respond in the future. This task helps people to own responsibility for both strengths and weaknesses of the present system. Disagreements are noted but not worked.

    • Future: Mixed groups develop and present scenarios of preferred futures for the school(s)/theme. The target date is set far enough forward (10-20 years) that it can shift people out of everyday mindsets about the system. This task is usually highly energizing.

    • Common Ground: The common themes and values that crosscut all scenarios are elicited as a basic framework for unified planning and development. This is where a future search departs from other strategic planning approaches. Broad commitment is generated concurrently with intellectual work on the plan content.

    • Action Planning: Elements of the common ground scenario are transformed into areas for action planning. Participants split into task forces to give shape to the plans. Initial drafts are shared and feedback is obtained from other groups. Next steps in development are discussed, including publicity; outreach; and steering and coordination of efforts. Since task forces are usually self-directed, some sort of hub will be needed to steer the overall direction of the work emerging from the conference. If no group or school has been designated beforehand, this is done before leaving the conference.

  4. Review: Task forces usually get into action immediately after the conference and typically double in size as additional members are recruited. In order to sustain momentum and coordination, it is advisable to hold a half- to full-day review meeting for all participants 1 to 3 months after the conference event. Annual review meetings are also common.

In all of the above, the typical work cycle for a conference task involves a sequence of three levels of activity: individual, small group, and large group. As a preliminary to each discussion, a few minutes are set aside for personal reflection and preparation. The individual work is usually guided by a worksheet containing a few trigger questions, and space for written notes.

The personal work is followed by a small group dialogue (8 persons per group, seated at round tables). At the outset of each conversation the group is asked to divide up several leadership roles: discussion leader, recorder, timekeeper, reporter, and data manager.

Conference Managers initially describe these roles at the start of the first round of small group discussion and help the groups establish a norm of allocating the leadership roles within the first minute of their task. They also encourage the groups to rotate assignments during subsequent conversations.

Each round of small-group dialogue ends with brief summary reports from each group. The summaries are followed by a large group discussion among all participants, noting commonalties, differences, and additional points not covered.

During the first half of the future search conference, these sequences of individual, small group, and large group activity establish a context for dialogue. In the second half, this context will serve as the foundation for additional conversations in which the participants conjointly elaborate shared values, hopes, ideas, and commitments. This process enables every participant to emerge from the conference with conscious choices about future actions at both the personal and collective level.

Examples: Applications of Future Search

Based on recent inventories by the present authors and others (DuPre, 1995), it is apparent that future search conferences are being used for a variety of purposes in public education. In a recent sample, for instance, 15 of 32 conferences addressed concerns at the school district level; 7 at the county or state level; and 10 at the individual school level. At the individual school level, 5 of the 10 conferences were at the elementary level, 2 at the middle school level, and 3 at the high school level. (Conferences have also been conducted recently with graduate schools of education and other postsecondary institutions).

The titles and themes of conferences included a wide array of application, ranging from developing consensus on ways to work cooperatively while maintaining local control of schools to long-range planning in preparation for writing a state-mandated strategic plan for reform.

The authors have personally conducted several conferences; below is an overview of our experiences in two high schools; the first case is a vocational-technical school serving a large rural community, and the second, a comprehensive high school in a suburb of a major city.

A Vocational-Technical School

The County Area Vocational-Technical School is a vocational hub for eight area school districts, each of which funds some portion of the school's annual budget. The school's board comprises representatives from each of the eight districts, with leadership rotating among them. The high school also operates an adult education component, which serves a large clientele. The local area contains a mix of farming, retail, service, light and heavy industrial concerns.

County Area Vo-Tech decided to conduct a future search to launch its strategic planning (required by the state Department of Education). The conference was not a requirement of the planning process, but the administration strongly supported the idea of involving various stakeholders in planning the future of the school. The focus of the planning committee in this process was "to assure that we are offering a first class program that provides for the success of each student." The leaders agreed that it was very important for all students to be able to look to the future with optimism and a sense of in their preparation. In addition, the school was interested in opening communication and strengthening partnerships with local industry. Accordingly, the committee defined the purpose of this conference as being to "collaboratively design a plan for the future of the County Area Vocational-Technical School and its students, in order to contribute effectively to the economic/educational success of the county community."

The planners sought involvement such stakeholders of the school as administrators, teachers, students, parents, graduates, community members, representatives of labor and management, business and government leaders, and other secondary and post-secondary educators; 80 persons were invited.

Before the event, the planners envisioned a list of results that they for as a result of the conference:

  • ideas about new programs
  • help doing the budget
  • concrete actions at committee level
  • programming ways to move ahead
  • enthusiastic Board understanding and input
  • action plans that tie to State objectives
  • 50% of stakeholders knowing what happened and able to articulate what the conference was about
  • better publicity, good headlines,
  • job related courses
  • more exchange between school and business and industry

As participants scanned the conditions presently affecting the school's viability, several concerns emerged as most crucial:

  • violence, especially racial tension
  • work ethic
  • computer technologies
  • technical preparatory programs
  • the shifting job climate: rising hours, downswing
  • the need for generalists who are multi-skilled, and team skilled
  • resistance to funding education via taxes; need to find other revenues,family support
  • an increase of adults enrolled in retraining programs.

These concerns were later interwoven into seven core themes emerging from the conference's search for common ground, which were then translated into the following goals:

  • to measurably improve the image of the school
  • to develop a system that will provide comprehensive K-12 career counseling and planning for all students throughout the County
  • to help students become a continuing source of strength for the community and themselves to prepare people for the workplace and independent living with good citizenship qualities through work experience, academic and social skills, with a lifelong passion for learning
  • to identify all suppliers and customers, in order to expand access to the County's resources and broker programs to and from the Vo-Tech in the most economical way
  • use the total community as a resource for development by having all students and staff annually plan for their own basic competencies and specific skills/needs for the attainment of their personal and professional goals
  • to seek and encourage partnerships involving students, teachers, parents, and the home districts, with business, labor, higher education and other interested entities in the community
  • to pursue additional and alternative methods of funding for new initiatives and improvement of existing programs

All participants committed to take a personal part in follow-through work on these areas. As a result, much progress has been made in the months following the conference. Much of what the school has been able to develop and launch may have taken years if they had not been able to involve the right people from the start. Although the board and administration are still in the process of finalizing this six-year strategic plan at this writing, programs have already been launched in the school. A great deal of momentum has been created around the development of an advisor/advisee program, getting off the ground in the fall of 1995. Each student will be matched with an advisor who will provide a strengthened base of support within the system. The advisor will help the student set and attain personal goals, work on personal as well as schoolwide concerns and ensure a sense of "belonging" to the school. This program will provide a teacher/student ratio that is appropriate for faculty to get to know each student, so the student feels comfortable asking for help. Although this program is completely voluntary for the teachers, most have already volunteered to sign on as advisors.

A second program already getting off the ground is the Education and Industry Partnership Program, which will build a relationship between interested teachers and industry representatives, to make lessons more relevant to the work world. New opportunities will also be provided for learning at various job sites. This new partnership will enhance the school's ability to fulfill its overall mission to provide a high quality vocational/technical and academic education serving the needs of the local community.

A Comprehensive High School

In this second future search program conducted by the authors, the conference was held as part of a larger, yearlong study to plan for the future of a suburban high school. The study itself was being used by the school district to spearhead its state-required strategic planning process. This effort was a unique undertaking for the district. Although some staff and parents had previously been involved in various projects, task forces, and studies, this was the first initiative to involve large numbers of diverse stakeholders conjointly in a study this complex. In addition, this was also the first time that there had been such visible and active endorsement of a study through the presence and participation of a superintendent and board members. In all, the steering committee for the project included 22 members.

As the study began, the superintendent set the following goal-parameters: cost-neutrality, one-year time limit, wide stakeholder involvement, and congruence with the district's mission statement, philosophy, and existing strategic plan. Taking these parameters into account, the steering committee crafted the following.

Purpose statement for the study: create a high school environment that expects and makes possible that all children learn to their fullest potential. The goal is to create structures and procedures which are responsive to our unique needs and in which all voices are heard, all stakeholders take pride, and everyone shares responsibility for achieving this purpose. We envision a school all want to attend.

The steering committee also agreed to expand participation in the study to all interested students, staff, parents, and community members. A halfday stakeholder's event was conducted, engaging 300 members of the district community in a discussion about the future of the high school, and to take stock of its current strengths and weaknesses. In this event, participants also nominated individuals to take part in a second, more intense planning event, a future search conference.

Seventy-eight stakeholders attended the future search conference: 20 students, 7 administrators, 21 teachers, 4 support staff, 4 members of the school board, 12 parents, and 10 community representatives (e.g., business, government, taxpayers). Faculty participation included representation from the faculty senate and local education association.

During the future search, key trends emerging during the scan of present conditions impacting on the school included: rising violence in schools, advancements in technology, lack of meaningful challenges for students at all levels, decline in personal responsibility, disagreement on the purpose of schools, redirection in funding away from public education, breakdown in the family unit, lack of understanding of diverse cultures, diminishing work ethic, changes in curriculum delivery (outcome based education), and lack of teacher-student communication.

The main themes emerging from the future scenarios were: mentoring, flexible scheduling, technology, career-based education, student-centered approach, learning beyond the classroom, community partnerships (business support), stakeholders partnerships with ownership in the education process, improved student-teacher relations, safe environment, improved school image, and diversified instructional methods. There is an obvious overlap between these themes and the conditions identified as most impactful upon the school in the previous exercise.

Action planning in this conference required that the common ground themes be consolidated with two additional sets of similar data, one that had been synthesized from several months of data collection by the planning committee prior to the conference, and the other emerging from brief planning around immediate actions (short-term plans) just before the future scenarios were developed on the second day of the future search conference. These two databases were incorporated via a large-group mapping exercise, resulting in a final list of nine areas for action planning. A voluntary common-ground group was charged with developing plans for meeting the following short and long term objectives of the study to deal with these topics: interpersonal relationships and discipline, student-centered approach, student/parent/eeacher ownership, mentoring, career-based education, communications, flexible scheduling, diversified instructional methods, graduation requirements.

The first task of the common ground groups was to use the information emerging from the future search and stakeholder events to develop action plans for implementing cost-neutral, short term objectives in the next school year (commencing just 7 months later). The second task was to develop similar action plans for implementation in the subsequent two school-years.

Three months after commencing work, representatives form the common ground groups reported their short-term recommendations back to the study's steering committee. The overall recommendations for change emerging from their work were to establish vehicles for improved communications in order to promote parental awareness and involvement, as well as a clearer understanding of expectations among all stakeholders. Some concrete changes in this area have been: to broaden the existing faculty senate to include student representation; to implement a program of career awareness and education; to include diverse activities enabling students to learn about career options from high school alumni and other members of the community; to begin a process of retraining teachers so as to expand their skills in providing for more student centered learning activities and experiences, to afford teachers additional professional development opportunities, to expand their repertoire of techniques and strategies in delivering instruction, (e.g., moving away form lecture methods); to initiate a mentoring program, involving juniors and seniors in efforts to ease the transition of freshmen into the high school; to conduct an annual survey of graduates of the high school, to determine the degree to which they feel they were prepared for further education and the world of work; to start an in-school suspension program, to help improve the learning environment of the school while decreasing the need to exclude students for less serious offenses; to revise the existing schedule at the high school, to provide some aspects of intensive scheduling while also providing flexibility for the use of other time configurations. The new model provides for several options for the number of class minutes per day and the number of class meetings per semester. Different courses would be able to be scheduled, taking into account elements of intensive scheduling as well as shorter blocks of time for those subjects/activities not needing an intensive approach.

Overall, school leadership felt that this study enabled them to involve more people than ever before in efforts to restructure the school, in record-setting time, and at virtually no increased costs.

Summing Up: Some Lessons Learned

Each time we work to help a school create opportunities for meaningful change, we as consultants learn something new. This is largely a result of the openness of the process and the complexity of the task. To sum up several of the most important lessons we have learned to date from these experiences:

First, the traditional scope of planning in schools is too narrow to obtain an effective grasp of the conditions truly impacting on the quality of public education. Across all of the conferences we have conducted with schools, we have found broad alignment among participants on the need for educational futures to be shaped in concert with community economic and social development.

Second, committed leadership is essential to the success of any change effort. Commitment involves the provision of information, support, and resources. More importantly, commitment means direct involvement in the planning and execution of planning processes, modeling the kind of behavior that is sought from other participants.

Third, the involvement of school leadership must be complemented with a core of energized people to steer the planning process. Planners must demonstrate great commitment and energy toward improving the educational process for our children. They must be open to working collaboratively across traditional lines, and taking a forward view of what's needed for the future, and findings ways to get there. They must also be looking for opportunities to take personal responsibility, and to engage others in the change process.

Fourth, there must be multiple opportunities for input, involvement, discovery, and shared learning. No single largescale methodology is sufficient to involve all stakeholders in a single effort; thus, it is important to achieve a dynamic between breadth and depth, via several related activities. At the comprehensive high school discussed above, we started with an open-invitation initial event. This was followed by an 80-person future search conference, which in turn generated a number of smaller action planning groups. Teachers at this school commented on how wonderful it was to work together with board members, administrators, parents, and community members. The students' contribution as real partners in the process added to the learning for everyone.

Fifth, to be a truly open process, all views must be legitimized, although not necessarily agreed upon. People must believe they can tell their truth about how they see things, without fear of repercussion. This forms the basis for the discovery of common ground upon which real changes can be built.

Sixth, building (or in some cases rebuilding) trust in each other, in our public institutions, and in the organization's ability to make changes and continuously improve the educational process for students, is a crucial component in this kind of work. As communication channels are opened across traditional lines, possibilities are created for new linkages and understandings. The building of these relationships not only influences what can happen today, but also sets the foundation for future cooperative action as new realities and opportunities present themselves.


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Jacobs, R. (1994). Real time strategic change: How to involve an entire organization in fast and far-reaching change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

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