When 'Cultures' Clash

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One of the many innovations directed at improving teacher-preparation programs and schools involves university-school partnerships. Such partnerships have many names: professional-development schools, teacher-induction schools, and university-school collaborations. The basic idea is that quality improvements will occur when faculty members in colleges and schools of education work closely with students, teachers, and administrators in real-school settings. The benefits of these arrangements are thought to be mutual. Schools benefit by having additional resources brought to bear on the practical problems they face. Teachers learn new techniques or gain new ideas from novice teachers and faculty members working in their schools. Faculty from colleges of education benefit by testing theories in real schools. As a result, theories may be modified and teacher-preparation programs altered.

There appears to be a strong feeling among teachers and some others that it is "good'' for professors to spend time in real schools. It brings them down to earth. It makes them appreciate the complexity and demands placed upon teachers. This, in turn, will somehow manifest itself in more relevant and practical classes on campus.

I have been involved in a large number of such programs. In some cases, schools and colleges of education have benefited from the arrangements. In other cases, however, these programs failed. They sometimes failed miserably. Seymour Sarason, the Yale University scholar, once wrote of how schools and university preparation programs "misunderstand'' and "clash'' with each other. There are many reasons for these misunderstandings and clashes, but I am convinced that one important reason has to do with the cultures of institutions of higher education and those of schools. When these cultures clash, serious problems result.

I was recently part of a team of faculty members working with a team of elementary teachers on a new field-based teacher-preparation program. We hoped to institute a modest program whereby 20 or so of our undergraduate elementary-education majors would meet at an elementary school on a daily basis. They would complete their classes there, work in the school, and, the hope was, become meaningful and contributing members of the school community. There were many issues to be worked out: Where would we meet? Would there be a fee for the use of the space? What role would teachers at the school have in guiding the teacher-preparation program? A rather lengthy agenda had been prepared, and the day began with coffee and doughnuts. The group of teachers I was sitting near commented on how great it was to have a day away from their instructional responsibilities. There was extended talk of the doughnuts. Were they from the new bakery in town? I wanted to get down to what I thought were the real issues. What should be the guiding principles of a teacher-preparation program? What values should be embedded in such a program? We eventually did have these discussions, but I noted with some concern how many comments were made about irrelevant and totally unimportant matters. Who cared where the doughnuts came from! Who cared if the person sitting next to you wanted a diet or a nondiet soft drink.

Things came to a head for me when a person sitting at my table asked me if we could go out for lunch. I was being asked for permission to go out for lunch! I said that I thought we would (or could) do so, and the dam broke loose. Where would we eat? Chinese sounded good to some. Others voted for Mexican. More animation and energy were expressed about this topic than any other topic discussed that day. Teachers had lots to say about the development of a new field-based preparation program, but even more to say about lunch.

The daily lives of most teachers are very different from the lives of most university faculty members. University teachers often have a day or more each week free from instructional duties. For many faculty members, these days are filled with scholarly and service activities. Though some of my higher-education colleagues will undoubtedly be offended, I know that some of them do not engage in these activities. One of my present colleagues comes to mind. He speaks often of his "special Fridays.'' These days start with an hour of National Public Radio followed by a walk and a light breakfast. Afterwards, he reads a few journal articles and does some thinking and writing. No teacher I know starts any day quite this way. I have very vivid memories of what some Fridays in schools are like. Teachers eat hurried school or sack lunches. Sometimes they supervise children while they are eating. Some, but certainly not all, university faculty members dine at faculty clubs or have extended lunches away from campus. Teachers typically have little time to chat with colleagues over coffee and doughnuts. At some institutions, the morning regimen of coffee and doughnuts, often in the company of colleagues, approaches the status of ritual. The cultures of schools and colleges and universities differ in this rather small, but nonetheless important way. I am not intending to be critical of the professor with his "special day,'' nor of the teachers I sat next to who planned so carefully for a lunch away from their classrooms. Though these differences may seem small, they are not. They symbolize the cultural differences between professors and teachers. Not attending to this type of distinction is a good first step toward insuring the failure of school-university collaborations.

Several months ago, I was discussing another one of our field-based teacher-training programs with a highly experienced and accomplished teacher. This particular teacher had worked for many years with us and was regarded as a fine professional model by virtually everyone. She contended that more information and training about multi-age-classroom arrangements needed to be in our training program. She went on at some length about the advantages of multi-age classrooms and how our students seemed to know little or nothing about the concept. After her points had been made, I told her about the latest analysis (a meta-analysis, no less) of multi-age classrooms I had read in a respected journal. The basic point the authors of the manuscript made was that little proof existed that multi-age classes had any positive impact on student learning. The authors concluded that multi-age classes could be simply another fad which had come yet again, and would eventually fall out of favor.

My colleague's reaction was a strong one. She said that she did not believe what I told her. I must admit that I was a bit put off. Did she think I was lying? Did she think that the researchers had made up the data? After more talk, she admitted that she believed I had read such a paper and that the researchers had been honest. She simply chose not to believe the results. They were counterintuitive, she claimed. They were inconsistent with her personal experiences--experiences which were powerful and important to her. I saw this as a perfect segue into how teachers' perceptions sometimes differed from those of university professors. One must try to go beyond one's own biography, I suggested. Sometimes one's personal experiences are not consistent with what is known to be true. The idiosyncrasies of one's own life should not distract one from the truth. My colleague's response was a classic one. "You're wrong,'' she said.

Teachers' and professors' views of truth sometimes differ. Often, but certainly not always, great credence is given by teachers to that which they have lived or experienced themselves. Their lives are such that decisions must often be made very quickly and instincts and past experiences play important roles in making these decisions. Some, but again certainly not all, professors often attempt to use what they believe are more objective criteria in their searches for truth. Though this is laudable in many cases, it also may contribute to the stereotype of the professor who will not or is unable to act because the truth is not fully known. An old adage suggests that teachers use a "ready-fire-aim'' approach to problem-solving. Others have suggested that professors use a "ready-ready-still ready'' approach. Teachers are forced to make decisions quickly, often with incomplete information available to them. Given this, they do a wonderful job almost all of the time. Professors have the luxury of thinking about things, examining all aspects of an issue, reading about what others have done, and discussing the problem with colleagues. Sometimes this results in well-thought-out solutions to problems. Other times, it results in inaction. Again, I am not intending to criticize either group. Neither has a monopoly (or should have) on how to solve the many problems before us. The ways of making decisions and solving problems, however, and the credence given to various, sometimes competing, truths represent another difference between teachers and professors. This difference is a critical one to acknowledge when teachers and professors attempt to work together. To not consider this difference is another recipe for collaboration failures.

When cultures clash, one of two things can happen. Those involved in the clash can work hard at convincing the other parties that their approach to solving problems is wrong. This rarely results in progress, though one party may be more skilled at using arguments than the other. The second thing that can happen is almost always more productive. Parties listen to each other carefully. Everyone tries to understand the other person's position and point of view. Ideally, evaluative remarks are left out of discussions. This takes time and patience, but it is time well spent.

Meaningful collaborations between teachers and university faculty members can result in clashes, but they can also result in wonderful opportunities for all involved. The cultures of schools and institutions of higher education are different. The magnitude of these differences continues to surprise me and concern me. Still, a recognition of these differences and a commitment from all parties to try to work together can overcome them. The effort is worth it.

Vol. 13, Issue 29, Pages 24, 36

Published in Print: April 13, 1994, as When 'Cultures' Clash
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