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  • Writer's pictureMatthew 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.