Looking for Answers, Finding the Questions

looking-for-answers-1By: Shira Solomon

This morning, I spent longer than I care to admit looking for matching black socks. I keep all of my black, brown and black-brown socks stuffed neatly in a dresser drawer where they belong. But when I wade into my sea of dark socks — looking for two that match — I’m sunk.

I’m sunk by the similarities — and sunk by the differences.

Many school districts are similarly sunk when we first start talking about surveys. District leaders want to conduct surveys to learn how to make their schools better and their communities happier. But when we sit down to design a survey, we wind up wading through the proverbial sock drawer looking for questions that will yield answers and answers that will tell us what to do.

While that process may help me find my socks, it’s an ineffective way for school districts to engage their communities. Superintendents have  a million questions — about district policy, educational philosophy, instructional programs and operational practices. Although these questions are meaningful to administrators, school board members and a small percentage of parents and community members,  no matter how carefully we decide what to ask the broader community, they remain our questions.

To truly engage the entire community, we must do more than ask them to answer our questions; we must discover theirs. Merely asking, “What should the school district do?” won’t encourage people to share concerns. And it won’t help the district learn anything useful about what its stakeholders think.

Surveys must build a common vocabulary and create a common set of concerns.

For example, a superintendent may want to know how the community feels about expanding early childhood education programs. We could design a survey that asks outright, “Do you think our district should expand early childhood education programs?” But it would be hard to interpret the responses without any context. Some respondents would answer “Yes” when they mean “Why not,”  while others would say“No” when they mean “Why?” And many wouldn’t care either way.

What if we developed surveys around the “What” and the “Why,” and provided contextual information that makes both the questions and the answers meaningful? Rather than wading through a muddy sea of blacks and browns, we should design surveys that clearly illuminate similarities and differences, while empowering us to act accordingly.

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