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Hearing other views is vital first step for change

"Did anyone on the panel change their mind after listening to the other viewpoints?" That's what a friend, who had been in the audience, asked me at the end of an education forum.

The Sutherland Institute and Fred Friendly Seminars co-sponsored the forum, "Educating Utah's Youth: Rights, Responsibilities and Revenues." It brought together policymakers, educators and community leaders for the purpose of understanding better the challenges and complexities in educating Utah's children.

Each of us came to the panel with our own passion, knowledge and commitment to improving education or defending the status quo. We came with our own notion of the problem and our own solution: tuition tax credits, private schools, more money, home schooling, charter schools, parent involvement, state versus parent responsibilities, etc.

It was most reassuring to see the wealth of talent and deep sense of civic responsibility each member brought to the panel. Sutherland's intent was to bring people together to begin talking to each other about one of the most perplexing issues facing our state. It accomplished that purpose and becomes a very important first step in resolving the issues.

Bringing people together to talk about education highlighted how groups, and individuals, mostly talk among themselves but seldom talk to others who may have a different viewpoint. In the meantime, the world passes us by and we keep telling ourselves it's the other side that needs to change, because we have the right answer.

The forum helped to see how passionate people tend to view solutions by the way they see the problem. Each of us views the world with our own set of experiences.

If we see the problem of education as a lack of money, then the solution is more money. If we see public education as a bureaucracy unable to change, then the solution is to privatize to create competition.

Not only is our nation struggling to compete in a world economy, but our institutions — family, churches and schools — that we depend on to teach and perpetuate our values are also struggling to keep pace with problems brought about by change. Without them, our society will no longer be civil.

We glibly say government is the problem; however, there is a compelling state interest to have a way to teach the same democratic values to all citizens and to prepare our people to contribute toward meeting the basic needs of the members of our society. The stakes, now, are too high for us to continue to be divided. We need to pull together and renew our educational system so it can respond to the needs of a changing world.

To do that calls for us to first take the following steps:

We need to learn how the world around us has changed and to have an understanding of the accompanying problems brought about by change. We must create opportunities for people to contribute solutions and then create a vision of what we want our public education system to become. This, then, provides the basis for renewing the state's mission for education and a set of goals and programs with specific outcomes.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to go through a weeklong training program that IBM held for executives at its training facility in Glen Cove, N.Y. Part of the training was to work in teams to learn how to find common solutions. It called for each team to view a movie of a jury as it deliberated a murder case and come to a decision before they saw the end of the movie. The exercise was to demonstrate that when each person shares a perception of what was heard and seen, without first forming a conclusion, a clearer picture is created. The group that did not take a vote before hearing what all members had observed came to a verdict more quickly than the others, and it matched the verdict of the jury in the movie, "Twelve Angry Men."

Hearing and understanding different viewpoints, as provided by the forum, is a vital first step in improving education. And, it brings me back to the question: When was the last time any one of us changed our mind after listening to another viewpoint?

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: