Partnerships Between Schools and Universities

By Deborah Meier

The basis of the partnership needed by all manner of adults working on behalf of the rearing of our young is the recognition of our shared task. The phrase is "mutual respect." The relationship historically between the various adult communities that bear upon pre-collegiate public schooling has been one of profound disrespect. Collegiate faculty disrespect secondary school faculties who in turn disrespect the teachers of the young who in turn disrespect the children's first teachers their families. Children, of course, are at the very bottom of this ladder of disrespect.

If schools are to become powerful communities for the teaching of those habits of heart and mind central to a strong and vigorous democratic society we must break this chain and invent a very different way of imagining the relationships between novices and experts that does not speak to any form of superiority over one another. We need, in short a seachange in the way we see teaching and learning taking place regardless of the level we work on.

It is by being members of a common community of different and unequal expertise that we learn most efficiently. In school or out. That's the natural way of learning. We learn because we imagine ourselves as future experts, and take notice often quite unconsciously of what such competence looks and feels like. Just as I learned to drive long before I was behind the wheel, as a "back seat driver" in the car driven by my mother, whom I imagined myself growing up to be like, so do children learn all manner of things before we get around to teaching them. The next step seemed far easier than it would be to one who learned to drive as an adult, without such prior vicarious experience. So it is with almost everything we learn to do well. So it is too that the absence of such experience handicaps us forever. Of course it's not enough to be in the presence of expertise. One needs to be able to imagine being a member of the club that such experts belong to; and we must want to join their club. And finally, the experts must be willing to make what they do visible and accessible. In the end you have to be able to try it out.

If the adults can agree on some of the goals they want for their "shared" children, what they want them to "try out," then they need to be sure that the children have opportunities to witness experts at play. We wouldn't expect many ballplayers to emerge from a culture in which no one ever saw a ball game played. But oddly enough we expect lots of children to develop "academic excellence" in the complete absence of ever seeing it played at all, much less well. In fact, they have virtually no idea what it is.

To create schools in which intellectual work is part of the norm being played out by adults as well as kids, on many different levels, and in ways that might make kids want to imitate it that's our common task. We need environments in which teachers are themselves engaged in thoughtful intellectual effort, in which their students thus witness such play of ideas, and in which they have reason to want to join in such play. That's true for a good university, a good high school, nursery school and family dinner table.

For this to happen our teachers must themselves enjoy intellectual life. They must be good at it. They must enjoy odeling it. In short, they must have experienced it too.

Our universities' first task, on behalf of school reform, is to reform themselves. They need to be models for the adults who pass through them of what it is like to join a learned community, a place that takes the life of the mind seriously, that engages in respectful reflective public activity, that debates ideas seriously and civilly, that ponders evidence carefully, that treats all ideas with respect including naive ideas. Teachers who have been part of such adult communities will have an easier time passing such traditions on to the young, as well as demanding schools that permit both teachers and students to exercise their intelligent judgment.

Then the partnership would be a natural one. Historians, whether they were teaching 6-year-olds or 16- or 30-year-olds would share a common discourse. Faculties would read each other's papers, join in common discussions as a matter of course.

Then the expertise of those who can devote more time to their specific academic subject matter, and less to teaching it to others, would be welcomed as allies, not seen as patronizing saviors. Then the teachers of 14-year-olds would be less likely to put-down the teachers of 6-year-olds, but enjoy their common wonderment at the ways young people think.

Until we have created such respectfulness, the partnerships we need to build must make the schools for the young the centers of power, not vice versa. We need to create school communities in which the faculties have sufficient time and control to set the terms for working together thoughtfully and respectfully. We need to reverse the structure of power and status, so that we can, over time, reconstruct the kind of equality the task really deserves.

In the meantime, universities must do some learning themselves to reinvent university life along the same lines as we need to do in our secondary and primary schools. There's no task that isn't proper and fitting for one that isn't on the agenda for the other. As we discover how much we face common concerns, we'll better work out how to do the job together. When college teachers no longer think it's a compliment to say that a first grade teacher is smart enough to teach on a college level, but take it as one when a teacher of the young says, "you know, you'd make a good kindergarten teacher!" then we will be able to talk partnership on better terms. Meanwhile, there's no harm in lending a helping hand. We all need it.


Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

© 1997 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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