Can a democracy exist if its citizens do not know how to engage in public discourse over ideas? If they are going to learn to do so, would not public schools be the place to learn this? I argue here that in order for this to happen, teachers must be able to do so, and that the vehicle for this is in the professional community of teachers.
The idea of teacher professional communities and learning communities has been popular in recent years. Mainly it has been argued that such communities are a useful form of professional development—that it is through the practice of collaboration and working together and learning together that teachers can hone their craft. In this view the value of such communities are therefore measured by an increase in teacher and student learning.
Another somewhat similar topic and perspective is looking at the governance side of this. This perspective looks at how through collaboration and consensus teachers make better decisions. Here it is argued that groups can be used to make better decisions than individuals—that when structured appropriately groups do in fact make better decisions. This has been found to be true in educational as well as business settings. It is also true that when teachers are involved in making the decisions they are more likely to effectively carry out those decisions—that is they either have ownership or at least buy-in to the decisions. Better decisions by teachers over teaching and learning should lead to better student achievement, especially when the teachers are motivated to carry out those decisions faithfully.
Teacher collaboration can also be seen as a form of accountability. Policy-makers have often complained about the lack of accountability teachers have had. This has been described by the term loose-coupling that has historically existed in teaching between policy mandates and classroom practice. An alternative form of accountability to the current top-down model could be seen in teacher professional communities, where the community of teachers holds each other accountable for maintaining standards and adhering to acceptable practices. The research in all of the above areas have all generally supported the use of teacher professional communities for these instrumental ends.
However, here I want to address the topic from a fourth perspective. I argue here that such communities should be valued and fostered just for being an example and a place where democracy and democratic values are practiced. This position is based on the idea that the American democratic experiment was not made as an empirical test of whether democracy would lead to better decisions, but out of a philosophical belief in the “unalienable” rights of human beings. In this I am arguing that the purpose of school is more than achieving better test results, or having students leave school smarter and more knowledgeable or even more skilled. Another, at least as important, aim of schools in a democratic society is for students to be equipped to be active participants of a democratic society.
As one who subscribes to Vygotsky’s learning theory, that, a la Piaget, we construct our knowledge and selves based on our experiences, I believe those experiences are socially and culturally mediated. We learn through the cultures and communities we live in. More recent research on learning has reinforced and refined these views of learning. We learn by being in a community of people who are engaging in the skills we need to learn. The theory of situated learning has also reinforced this notion—learning of complex authentic skills are often best learned incidentally when engaged with, and in the community of, those authentically carrying out the tasks and practices to be learned. This may be especially true in terms of learning habits of mind. While much of this socialization takes place in the home through the family—and more and more though mass media as well—it is our public schools—where our young spend upwards of twelve years, that as a society we have designated for the education of the next generation. This schooling should educate them as to how to be members of a democratic society.
If we accept that it is the job of public schools to prepare students to be active members of a democracy, and we accept that knowledge is mediated through the cultural context, then the schools need to reflect and practice the culture we want students to learn to be a part of. Therefore public schools, the community where these students spend a significant portion of their lives, should reflect and be a microcosm of the type of community that we want our students to learn to live and act in.
A particular aspect of such communities in a democratic society is that the members must not only know how to come to consensus, but also must know how to disagree—how to argue and discuss ideas—even, or especially when, they have strong ideas and opinions that differ from the majority. How to hold on to and argue for ideas passionately while doing so in a civil and respectful way—and at the same time being able to listen to and understand the views of someone who is just as passionate but disagree—is not something that most people in our culture are comfortable with or know how to do. In a heterogeneous society such as ours this is even more difficult, given the many different cultural assumptions and perspectives that each member brings to the table. These different assumptions, perspectives and even norms of conversation can easily lead to misunderstandings if not outright disagreement. Yet, if educators—those serving as models and teachers for our students—cannot learn to do this, and do not engage in such debate, how and where will these students learn to do so?
Schools can be organized for these things to happen. There are many examples of public schools that are trying to be such places—Mission Hill in Boston, Sherman Oaks in San Jose, California, New City School in Long Beach, California, June Jordan School for Social Justice in San Francisco, to name just a few. However to create and sustain such communities is not easy. Each of these schools has gone through and continue to go through many struggles in enacting such communities. It is never easy or a job that is done. It takes a strong culture of trust. Teachers cannot express strong disagreement if they do not trust that they will be heard, that their ideas will be taken seriously, that they will not suffer reprisals. They must also trust those they are listening to—that the other is not bad or evil for disagreeing, but has a different way of seeing the issue. The group must trust (or at least act as if) the other members all want the best, even if they disagree on how to get there—or even at times disagree about where “there” is! There must be structures in place that allow teachers to make decisions together, and clear guidelines for how they are to be made and discussed. At least as important is the time needed to carry on the discussions. The once a week staff meetings that are mostly taken up with administrivia is not nearly enough. It probably takes hours a week—the discussions need to be able to be deep and sustained. This is time that is rare in schools in this country. Maybe most importantly, teachers need the autonomy to make important decisions. All the discussion in the world, no matter how well carried out, may be meaningless if the teachers cannot act on the decisions. Students cannot learn to be empowered from powerless teachers. Yet, this ability to make meaningful decisions is becoming more difficult under the rules of No Child Left Behind which defines school success solely in terms of dong well on standardized tests.
If we want our children to become empowered adults who use their minds well, who can stand behind their own ideas, while simultaneously being willing to listen and be influenced by the ideas of others, they must be surrounded by adults who engage in and model such behavior.
(This article was adapted from a presentation given at the AERA conference in San Francisco, April 8, 2006)