Realizing the Promise of Public Education

By Larry Peterson

In early June, I facilitated an Open Space for 320 participants from across Ontario with some able assistance from Judy Gast and Audrey Coward.  For the past 10 years Public Education has been under substantial threat in Ontario, like in many places.  What was touted as one of the best systems in the world has been cut to the bone and teachers have been taken on buy a government with a strong leaning toward private education.  During that time the Teacher’s Federations have fought among themselves and the umbrella Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF) has had to substantially downsize.

There has been a poisoned, confrontational climate among the stakeholders.  In early focus groups, OTF saw that teachers were usually liked by parents, but federations were not.  Many had real concerns about the quality and effectiveness of public education for their children in addition to concerns for the costs.  To begin to address this, the Ontario Teachers Federation initiated a series of 2.5 hour community forums in 1999.  I was asked to design them and to train teacher-facilitators to use a process of small group discussions where teachers listened.  The 38 communities that have held the forums across the province recruited a diversity of participants to the dialogue – and dialogue was the focus.  Those local forums have generated conversations and networking in those communities that have led to both new learning and new initiatives. To find out more about those Community Forums go to .


The Provincial Forum was seen as a way to take the community dialogues to provincial level.  The participants were from across Ontario: parents, teachers, administrators, trustees, provincial activists, federation politicians, food banks, healthy schools, small business people, aboriginal education leaders, a few Ministry of Education folks, black activists and many others.  A real diversity of people and opinions was achieved by some excellent organizing.


The sponsors believed that some high profile presenters would give the event more political credibility and stir the pot for the following discussions in Open Space.  A former Premier, an academic and the Minister of Education all gave short presentations that first morning.  The last presenter was a clergyman who had attended the first Community Forum and extolled its impact and the virtues of engaging the diversity of the community in the conversation on public education.


I usually recommend against “experts” presenting right before Opening the Space.  Lunch in between helps.  In this case, the desire of participants to move forward on Public Education issues was still strong at the Opening.  Even though we had some sound problems in the room, participants jumped up to be sure their topics were on the agenda.


At the end of the first afternoon in Open Space, we held “Evening News”.  People were already enthusiastic about what they had experienced and learned.  I asked for both what was working and then what people wished for given that we had a day left.  I find those “appreciative” questions a marvelous way to surface stories and to engage people in thinking about what topics they might want to pursue the next day.  I asked people to pay attention to their dreams.


At Morning News, there were some dreams to be shared.  One about saving a baby became a topic “Oh Baby” about the loss of student enthusiasm for education.  Many other topics were posted that took the discussions to some clearer, deeper and more strategic levels.  The day concluded with another Evening News to mark the transition to convergence with again many energized and excited statements about the learning and about Open Space.  There was also a speaker at dinner, which was of some concern to me, but many believed she made a positive contribution.  (She had originally been scheduled for the first morning.)


The convergence process in the morning was twofold.  The 69 reports had been printed overnight and people were given copies with convergence instructions as they arrived for breakfast at 7:30.  The sponsors did want some indication of the top priorities for the attention of Provincial organizations.  The meeting was convened at 9:00 and the TASC Ranking software was used to allow all to state their top 10 for provincial attention.  The results were projected on the wall by 10:15


Individuals then used a guide to identify their personal goals and next steps.  They were encouraged to network with those at the event with whom they might work with to accomplish their goals.  Personal networking, truly chaotic with no posting of topics and I think it worked well.  A couple of folks used the mike to say that a parents group would meet in one part of the room or that a community would be meeting in another.  Press releases were requested from the OTF and they were distributed to those who wanted them.  In the closing, a number talked about the concrete next steps that they had planned.


There was some attrition by the closing on Saturday morning, as expected, but those who stayed told of life affirming and changing experiences: healing conversations between parents and teachers, between those working from different perspectives, between local union leaders and business people.  One woman was moved by her Community Forum a couple of years ago to run for trustee, and won.  She described how she was moved by the Open Space to stand up for her community in ways she could not have imagined.  Students loved it.


For most it was their first experience of Open Space.  I do believe that the participatory approach used in the Community Forums did help to establish the value and develop some skills for real dialogue.  A recent change in Provincial leadership that gives more hope for positive developments in education was also a factor in the high energy and openness. 


More community forums are planned in areas that have not held them or to take the conversations to a new level where they have been held.  The next Provincial Forum in Open Space will be held in a year with a hope to double the size and it will be right before Provincial Elections.


Larry Peterson

Associates in Transformation

Toronto, ON, Canada