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  • Matthew Woods

The Role of Dialogue in Professional Development Schools


On October 8th, 2016, I decided to propose to my fiancé. It is ironic that as I reflect on the concept of partnerships, I immediately think about this new endeavor that I am partaking in with Kate. Since that day, Kate has begun to think about tentative dates for the wedding, color schemes for her bridesmaids, and, in my opinion, expensive trinkets to give to her friends that signify the proposed date. Between the euphory of this monumental day, there have been a few moments of stressfulness as we plan everything in-between my doctoral studies and her work. For example, I was talking to Kate about the CUFA conference I attended recently, and I began to tell her about one of the sessions pertaining to race and equity. Immediately, she became agitated and started to yell at me and walked out of the living room. After repeated attempts by me to ask what made her mad, she finally replied: “Do you wish you were with a black woman?” I was surprised by the question and asked her where that came from, since my comments about the conference had never insinuated anything about a female. Kate told me she worried I would get frustrated with her. Although she could try to be empathetic about racial concerns, there would always be a level of understanding she could not reach because she is white and I am black. As I began to look into her eyes, I replied, “Well I am a man and you are a woman. Do you ever wish you were with a woman instead?” She laughed and said, “No.”


This personal example highlights one of the most important concepts behind partnerships: communication. Communication is the prevalent key to partnerships success or failure. In educational circles, Professional Development Schools (PDS’) have become the latest examples of partnerships between K-12 and higher education institutions to improve the preparation of teachers. This paper does not seek to promote nor degrade that assertion, but instead seeks to engage the reader in a conversation about how communication dictates assertions concerning PDS’. In many ways, how stakeholders communicate with one another prescribes the perception of PDS’ to the masses; since this arrangement does not lend itself to linear quantitative data pertaining to student achievement (Freeman, 1996; Knight, Wiseman, Cooper, 2000).


I have witnessed this firsthand during a PDS workshop examining the University of Georgia (UGA) partnership with the Clarke County School System. The workshop was attended by a variety of individuals (visiting professors, doctoral students, administrators, central office personnel, etc.), all eager to learn about the resources and successes attributed to this partnership. After a presentation was given by Dr. Janna Dresden (Director of the Office of School Engagement) and Dr. Mark Tavernier (Associate Superintendent for Instructional Services and School Performance) providing an overview of the partnership, we visited several schools: Cedar Shoals High School, J.J. Harris Elementary School, Hilsman Middle School, Howard B. Stroud Elementary School, and Clarke Middle School. Different activities were setup at the various schools for visitors to witness the multiple ways these partnerships take place. Examples of the activities included: tours of PDS facilities, meeting with professors-in residences, observation of instruction (involving student-teachers, interns and Clarke County staff), and panel discussions with UGA and Clarke County staff. During the panel discussions, one of the common themes asked by the visitors concerned the impact of PDS on student achievement. These questions were answered in different ways, based on the participant. As someone who has experience as a teacher, administrator and graduate assistant working in a PDS, I have had the opportunity to see it from a variety of perspectives. I would be lying if I said I do not harbor similar feelings like some of the participants towards PDS’, but also acknowledge the unique vision of what this work can do for preparing effective pre-service teachers. To respond to these critiques, the ways in which PDS’s are explained become critical to its sustained growth and inception within other educational communities. The premise of this paper attributes itself to tackling the following question:


What role does dialogue play in PDS’?


As I delve into this question, I will specifically focus on the following topics to provide clarity to the complexities that encompass this role: components of dialogue, history of PDS’s, and boundaries (people and objects).


Components of Dialogue

Dialogue is the exchanging of meanings from one person to another. Inside this exchange, individuals knowingly and unknowingly apply interpersonal context that conceptualize understanding. As we communicate with each other, we use language to define the meaning by which we categorize our thoughts, feelings and emotions (Wells, 1999, p. 8). Freire (2000) argued that when we use words, we must first surmise the elements that go into its composition.


“Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world. Hence, dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming—between those who deny others the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied to them. Those who have been denied their primordial right to speak their word must first reclaim this right and prevent the continuation of this dehumanizing aggression” (p. 88).


Dialogue becomes a mutual understanding between individuals to make since of their shared reality. In the case of PDS’, the individuals are represented as entities: K-12 school systems and higher educational institutions. The culture of schools and universities are inherently different, causing embedded discrepancies to arise (see specific examples articulated by Darling-Hammond & Robinson, 1994, p. 205-206). To avoid these discrepancies, dialogue should be examined to understand the components that institute verbal communication.


Although both sides fall under the umbrella of education, the language they use to describe their educational goals is vastly different. K-12 educators have been steered towards the concept of accountability and standardized testing, while universities relish in their free-thinking mindset (Darling-Hammond and Robinson, 1994; Pinar, 2008; Taubman, 2009). It is this discrepancy in language that serves as a crux towards mutual understanding pertaining to partnerships, like PDS’. While the terms dialogue and language are commonly referred to collectively, Swiss philosopher Saussure argued that the two components should be analyzed separately:


“In separating language from speaking we are at the same time separating: (1) what is social from what is individual; and (2) what is essential from what is accessory and more or less accidental. Language is not a function of the speaker; it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual. It never requires premeditation, and reflection enters in only for the purpose of classification... Speaking, on the contrary, is an individual act. It is willful and intellectual. Within the act, we should distinguish between: (1) the combinations by which the speaker uses the language code for expressing his own thought; and (2) the psychophysical mechanism that allows him to exteriorize those combinations” (Saussure, 2004, p. 59).


Speech in this terminology is a tool, one that is constantly manipulated by the speaker to convey meaning. The opposing sides seek to find common ground in the best interests of students and teachers, yet promote their interests. Conflict emerges as the prescription of power between the two parties gets pulled and compromised. According to Cherryholmes (1988), “Power operates visibly and invisibly through expectations and desires.”  Since many of the partnerships involve the universities serving as guests in the school, the power between these two is unequal and in favor of the dominant discourse: schools. Cherryholmes (1988) summarized the symbiotic relationship between power and discourse:

“Discourses dominant in a historical period and geographical location determine what counts as true, important, or relevant, what gets spoken, what remains unsaid. Discourses are generated and governed by rules and power” (p. 35).


Schools have an advantage of leveraging the structure of the partnership, which might compromise how the PDS can operate. To alleviate this fear, Foreman-Peck and Travers assert (2015, p. 348) that “the quality of dialogue should be open, respectful, inclusive, engaged and participants should be willing to participate, to share power and to change.” While understanding the dynamics of power are important, it becomes essential that all stakeholders comprehend the language that each one is using to describe their vision during this dialogue.


Language becomes a combination of goals (set forth by the organization) and internalized interpretation of what is conveyed during their conversation. Scholars (Martin, Snow, & Franklin Torrez, 2011) have consistently brought up the need to devise concessions on both sides, but I argue against that mode of thinking during these conversations. Why would we want to devalue each other’s premise just to collaborate? Since language is impulsive, both sides must shift their thought processes away from forcing the other to compromise their beliefs, and instead seek to examine where mutual intersections take place in these types of partnerships. Probing these intersections requires all stakeholders to listen attentively, while not letting their personal attitudes sway their conclusions. Nichols and Stevens (1999) argued that listening “is affected by our emotions.” As we hear ideas that conflict with our biases, norms and convictions, we become defensive in our responses. The authors use an example of a conversation between a firm accountant and general manager to prove their point. As the firm accountant began to tell the general manager that they had just heard from the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the general manager stated, “Can’t they leave me alone? Every year the government milks my profits to a point where…” Although the firm accountant never told the general manager what they said, he automatically concluded it was a negative connotation because it came from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (p. 12). Freeman and Hall (2012) shared similar examples from a PDS partnership:


-         when a community partner returning from observing a kindergarten classroom commented that he was impressed that the students could move from what looked like organized chaos to sudden quiet attention, the assistant principal explained that the ‘‘chaos’’ results from the state standards requiring unsupervised reading time during the day;


-         when a district partner commented that he was impressed with how all the students were on task and how rigorous the lesson seemed, the principal—anticipating his next question, ‘‘is this typical?’’—interjected that this was not a setup, she did not just pick top classrooms;


-         when a university partner commented that she appreciated watching a teacher use student input to develop a lesson rather than just follow a textbook lesson, a district partner stated that it is easy to assume that veteran teachers know how to do this but they need training (p. 489).


Although it can be difficult to not let these emotions influence how we listen (and ultimately) respond to each other, Nichols and Stevens offer two suggestions that can help guide these feelings. First, we should withhold an evaluation until we have comprehended every point the talker has made. Secondly, we must hunt for evidence that might prove us wrong. Generally, we only listen to prove someone wrong without acknowledging pieces of what people have to say (p. 12-13). This does not imply that emotion be ignored, but that it should be identified as a possible influencer of how we respond to each other.


Freire (2000) surmised that dialogue could not exist without the component of love, due to the nature of what it seeks to accomplish. As we interact within the world, we seek to capture these moments and relay them to others:


“The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself. It is thus necessarily the task of responsible Subjects and cannot exist in a relation of domination” (p. 89).


The importance of emotions that impact our actions cannot be (nor should be) ignored. PDS’ stem out of joint efforts to improve education. Both sides exhibit love in their conversations with one another, explicitly depicted as the goals they have set forth for their respected entities. This perspective places us back into an underlying issue that I referred to earlier in the paper: embedded differences based on culture. To investigate this difference further, I will probe the history of PDS’ and identify why its erratic design causes discrepancies among educators when giving it a definition.


History of a PDS

In the wake of the 1983 educational report, A Nation at Risk, several education deans met to discuss the growing concerns over the quality of K-12 teachers and the teacher education programs at universities. In addition to the concerns addressed in the report written by the Dr. Terrell Bell, Secretary of Education, two other factors played a key role. First, an article written by Henry Holmes, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in the 1920’s had raised similar concerns, but ultimately failed to grab people’s attention (Holmes Group, 2007). Second, Dr. Ed Mead, former education dean at Oxford University, was invited by the group to examine some of the leading graduate educational schools in the USA. After evaluating his findings, he concluded similar assertions the deans had uncovered during their self-reflections and dialogue about teacher education programs. The subsequent meetings to spawned three reports: Tomorrow’s Teachers, Tomorrow’s Schools, and Tomorrow’s Schools of Education. Collectively, they are referred to as the Holmes Trilogy, and they seek to answer many the concerns that had raised about education. Six goals were stated that needed to be enacted to usher in these changes:


1.     Learning in America needed to change;

2.     Teaching in America needed to change;

3.     Schooling must change;

4.     Universities must change some of their approaches to research;

5.     Teacher education needs to change; and

6.     A new institution is needed (Holmes Group, 2007, pp. xvii-xix).


Out of these goals grew the construction of PDS’.


What is interesting is that the Holmes Trilogy references the way a PDS can address the above goals, yet does not define a PDS. The closest thing in their report to a definition is on page 93:


“By ‘Professional Development School’ we do not mean just a laboratory school for university research, nor a demonstration school. Nor do we mean just a clinical setting for preparing student and intern teachers. Rather, we mean all of these together: a school for the development of novice professionals, for continuing development of experienced professionals, and for the research and development of the teaching profession” (Holmes Group, 2007).


Furthermore, they specifically state later in the report that, “this report is a challenge-a call to action-rather than a template for a single conception” (p. 97). In many ways, one can assert that the founders of PDS’ intentionally left it ambiguous on purpose to not force educators into a “one-size fit all’ mentality. Due to its unclear status however, attempts have been made by scholars to study and replicate successful PDS’. In 1997, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) instituted a project where they studied twenty-eight PDS’ and drafted a set of standards based off these findings. Although these standards were released in 2001, they are not mandatory for universities to use with their PDS’ (Teitel, 2004, p. 406). Nevertheless, these standards have influenced many articles and ensuing PDS’ (Darling-Hammond & Robinson, 1994; Teitel, 2004). When discussing the UGA PDS partnership with Clarke County schools, Dresden, Gilbertson, & Tavernier (2016) referenced another set of elements which guides their work: the National Association for Professional Development Schools (NAPDS) nine essentials. These nine essentials are viewed by some to be more guiding, and less definitive than the NCATE standards (Dresden J. , What is A PDS? Reframing the Conversation, 2016). Although scholars use various ways to initiate the conversation about PDS’, at their core they are still simply partnerships between schools and universities. The definition becomes an agreement of goals that takes precedent in the fluidity of these interactions. Since these agreements can vary widely, let’s look at ways these have been referenced in the literature.


In Change for collaboration and collaboration for change: Transforming teaching through school-university partnerships, Darling-Hammond and Robinson (1994) begin the book chapter by stating the definition of collaboration from the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary:


“(1) To labor together; to work jointly with others or together, esp. in an intellectual endeavor; (2) to cooperate with or willingly assist an enemy of one’s country and esp. occupying force; (3) to cooperate with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected” (Darling-Hammond & Robinson, 1994, p. 203).


While parallels can be made for items one and three above when discussing partnerships, number two is a stimulating proposal. Could the author’s intentionally chosen to define collaboration and not partnership on purpose? As much as the two terms get routinely substituted with one another in PDS literature, I argue that this was done intentionally to probe our thinking about the structure of a PDS and what it seeks to accomplish. Fascinatingly, when reviewing Webster’s Dictionary for the definition of partnership, this assertion becomes highlighted even more:


“(1) the state of being a partner : participation; (2) a: a legal relation existing between two or more persons contractually associated as joint principals in a business; b: the persons joined together in a partnership; (3) a relationship resembling a legal partnership and usually involving close cooperation between parties having specified and joint rights and responsibilities.”


While collaborations and partnerships do have similar alignments, there is a sharp difference based on the relationship between the two parties. In further analysis of scholar’s articulation of PDS’, the terms seemed to be interjected with one another, creating further misconceptions. The two examples below are pulled from several articles pertaining to the difficulties associated with PDS’:


Dresden et. al (2016) states in her findings, “our PDSD is always a work in progress-as with any partnership, we have ongoing challenges that result from the crossing boundaries and working in in each other’s spaces” (p. 6).


“I sort of define PDS as the larger umbrella and under the PDS you’ve got different compartments (not that these are compartmentalized) that sort of mix together; Although not too much, as they still retain their identity because there are different conventions and norms that apply to different degrees in different places. But PDS is the larger umbrella, and under the umbrella you’ve got the professional development of teachers in conjunction with the preservice teacher development and the synergy of the two” (Cary, 2007, p. 332).


Both examples refer to the complications within PDS’s based on the competition of identities and mindsets. These examples seemingly speak to PDS’ being a collaboration and not a partnership. Should scholars seek to eliminate the use of partnerships in the rhetoric when referring to PDS’, and strictly adopt collaboration? Does this mindset push us further towards the fear raised by others in defining something which its forefathers insinuated should not be categorized? As we dive deeper into this thought, let’s examine the boundaries that have created the problems between the two parties: schools and universities.


Boundaries in PDS’

Foreman-Peck and Travers stated (2015, p. 345) that “dialogue between different professionals,” in respect to cultural practices, “opens up a third space” in which conversations occur. Due to the lack of training educators have conducting these conversations with heterogeneous groups, Foreman-Peck and Travers argue that this kind of knowledge is needed for professional development of educators. Nevertheless, the authors point out that the ethical orientations used in conversations can differ based on the cultural perspectives of the participants, resulting in the very disagreements they seek to limit (2015, p. 345-346). Under this mindset, Foreman-Peck and Travers propose (2015, p. 355) that educators should utilize “open inquiry dialogue supported by well-chosen boundary objects” to make these conversations more productive. As Akkerman and Baker argued (as cited by Foreman-Peck, 2015, p. 346), “boundaries mark not only a ‘socio-cultural difference leading to a discontinuity in action or interaction’ but they also ‘simultaneously suggest a sameness and a continuity in the sense that within the discontinuity two or more sites are relevant to one another in a particular way’.” Foreman-Peck identified a boundary as a “relationship (that) has the potential both for active hostility and for active creativity.” Additionally, when different boundaries intersect, third spaces may open forcing a “negotiation of meaning” to take place (2015, p. 346). Under their definition, the boundaries are the arenas we operate in with other individuals. The authors surmise (2015, p. 349) that it is within these interactions that we bring our “prejudices and pre-understandings” that influence our discourses. Because of this assertion, Foreman-Peck proposes that we use boundary objects to navigate these areas. Boundary objects are artifacts that “bridge the gap between two intersecting practices,” allowing “productive dialogues” to take place (Foreman-Peck, 2015, p. 349-350). As alluded to by the authors, boundary objects are ethical, managing devices for these conversations in third spaces between participating parties (2015, p. 350).

In the context of the literature, Foreman-Peck (2015, p. 346) use the example of “the student teacher, the school-based mentor, and the university tutor” as all participating in the same experience, but viewing it through different lens. The multiple viewpoints of the same concept reiterate how the third space can manifest itself in many fashions depending on the makeup of the individuals in an area. To alleviate this issue, Foreman-Peck proposes (2015, p. 348-349) using “open inquiry questioning” to assist having these conversations in the third space. The authors (2015, p. 354) state that using this practice makes participants reflect on a “better way in their opinion” to interact with one another. Additionally, reflecting on these conversations “draw(s) attention to the fact that individuals are embedded in social practices, which are multi-layered and evolving” (Foreman-Peck, 2015, p. 349). These practices manifest as boundary situations that are subconsciously created during our conversations with others in the form of ethical quandaries (Foreman-Peck, 2015, p. 355). Open inquiry questioning removes these barriers that limit discourses that take place within third spaces. The example depicted by Foreman-Peck align with an effective practice to use when initiating dialogue pertaining to PDS’. Being able to identify with a common singularity, such as a boundary object, can help both sides navigate through these conversations. However, this does not minimize each institution main goals, nor seeks to eliminate them from the conversation. What I am asserting is that these boundaries be used to stimulate conversations pertaining to intertwined visions, not individualistic ones. Over time, the collaboration taking place will blend the separate goals, merging two opposing factions into a hybrid of shared responsibilities. Martin, Snow and Torrez (2011) found in their study that using and supporting educators that were engulfed in these third spaces appeared to promote this mindset. In their own words, “our findings revealed, bridging contexts of partner schools and universities places them in position to understand perspectives and gather information” (p. 309).


The promotion of these educators who navigate between both spectrums becomes highly important to promote the success of such partnerships. Mull (2015) referred to these individuals as boundary-spanners. “Boundary spanners,” he stated, “are individuals that engage in important activities between, among, across, and within organizations and communities” (p. 2). These people display four themes in their activities: communicator, protector, innovator, and relationship managers. One (of the three) research questions Mull uses, which I draw on for my argument, concerns the extent in which boundary-spanners behaviors are explained “jointly by personal or work/organizational characteristics in a population of community-based adult educators” (p. 2). Mull discovered that “the models that best jointly influenced boundary spanning behaviors” involved communication between all stakeholders involved in the community (p. 4). Additionally, Mull goes on to assert that “communications” is the “most important tool in their skillset” to bring both sides together. In Mull’s own words, “This study offered that communications is a predictor of boundary spanning activities and also a tool” (p. 4). Rec