What is the Common Ground?

By James Herbert

Because collaboration is a way of doing things, talk about it is vulnerable to the vacuities and inanities that often characterize discussion of educational process. Because collaboration has been a theme in efforts to improve U.S. education for more than a decade, talk about it has accumulated a certain load of assumptions and routine declarations. For the opening of this new forum I thought it might be helpful­at the risk of earning my own characterizations­to recall just what teachers in schools and colleges can share.

Fields of Knowledge

Collaborating teachers can share knowledge. That all teachers teach something, and that for certain subsets of school and college teachers these things sometimes coincide, is the essential basis of collaboration, the clearest reason for the comparison to "common ground." These shared fields of knowledge are why all the school improvement programs of the National Endowment for the Humanities are collaborative programs. Teachers in higher education are often thought to have an advantage in this area because they also have a responsibility for cultivating new knowledge that their school colleagues seldom share. Nonetheless, school teachers bring their own advantages to this common ground. Large issues of pattern, integration, comparison and synthsis­the neglected domain of scholarship­are quite visible in the course of their broader teaching responsibilities. Moreover, they must answer to intellectually restless charges who expect to be able to use what they are learning. Using knowledge requires, as David Perkins points out, going beyond the acquisition of information to far richer kinds of understanding. In this sense, knowledge, education's common ground, deserves that title more than agriculture's common ground. The latter, as has been argued with great eloquence, is subject to the "tragedy of the commons." While it is in the interest of every individual to graze or cultivate the common ground as intensively as possible, this very intensity of use diminishes the value of the commons to all. Knowledge is not the same kind of good; it flourishes when it is used. I think this is why collaboration among school and college faculty members goes so well when content is the primary focus of their concern and procedure receives at most incidental attention.


Teachers in schools and colleges very often have students in common. This is true in a broad national sense: the successes and failures of the schools become the next generation of possibilities and problems for higher education. But it is even more true in a local sense: patterns of articulation especially within metropolitan areas and states mean that students with whom school teachers are working one year will be the responsibility of their higher education colleagues the next. The pertinent details of what and how and why those students learn are so specific and nuanced that they are best addressed in a rich, ongoing conversation among their teachers. Spanish teachers engaged in a continuing study of the language and literature they teach have far more sophisticated ways of thinking about the transition of their students from high school to college than achievement test scores or the equation of two years of high school study to one year of college study. Collaboration that has a particular group of students in common can mean that their effort and learning at the secondary level is not wasted or repeated at the college level. This possibility underlies much of the appeal of school-college collaboration in local settings.

New Teachers

The image of students moving from school to college suggests more a commercial metaphor than an agricultural one, and indeed the transition of students from high school to college is reciprocated by the passage of some of these college students back to the local schools as new teachers. Barry Bluestone has recently called attention to the strong return on public investment generated because graduates of urban colleges and universities tend to remain in a metropolitan area, contributing to its economic growth. In the case of teacher education, a mutually reinforcing cycle can develop. Because of collaboration in subject matter areas, teachers in the schools may be able to send better prepared students to the local colleges,which in turn may be able to send better prepared teachersback to the schools. The reciprocal, long-term benefits possible in this connection between student articulation and teacher placement offer a balanced, stable structure for collaboration, though one in which the common ground looks more like an agora than an agricultural field.


One might expect a great deal of school-college collaboration around issues of how to teach. After all, teaching is something that, by definition, teachers at all levels do. But such an expectation would be disappointed. Concern about and attention to teaching does tend to be explicit and well developed (if somewhat mechanically) among school teachers. In higher education, however, even wonderful teachers can be so diffident about how they teach as to appear almost speechless. This state of affairs is not inevitable. Discourse about teaching does not have to involve cookbook approaches, management by objective, "paradigms" and "findings." Ideally it would be rooted in some specific subject matter, since teaching ten Emily Dickenson poems requires somewhat different approaches than a survey of Chinese history. It could have less to do with trading tricks than with mutual efforts and encouragement to remain clear­through a kaleidoscope of different circumstances, students, and topics­about the essentials of effective teaching: providing clear information about what is expected, opportunities for thoughtful practice, informative feedback, and strong intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. David Perkins has summarized these principles under the general pedagogical starting point he calls Theory One: "People learn much of what they have a reasonable opportunity and motivation to learn."


If one can hope that ease and assurance in considering how to teach would spread from school teachers to college and university teachers, it can also be hoped that the latter's traditions of self-governance would be shared with the schools. It is true that academic governance in higher education is rooted in the research function of the professoriate­not in the teaching function­and ultimately (in the United States) in the Constitutional protections of freedom of speech. But increasingly a different case is being made that teachers in each school need to institute self-governance practices like those of their higher education colleagues. The case typically fuses arguments made under the rubrics of site-based management and teacher empowerment. In any school it is the group of teachers as a whole that must exercise responsibility for the education of that specific group of students. Further, because of the variety of students and learning situations, and the flexibility needed to respond constructively to them, teaching in today's diverse, rapidly changing society must be less like learning to follow an orchestral score and more like playing in a jazz ensemble. This felt imperative for faculty self governance in the school sometimes lies beneath a not-unusual sensitivity about the structure of school-college collaboration itself. One group ofteachers needs very much to exercise something like what the other group routinely carries out as "committee work."

A Certain Kind of Moral Relationship

Finally it seems to me that teachers have something in common that is seldom talked about but perhaps deserves more attention: a certain kind of relationship, not with each other, but with their students. It is, among other things, moral relationship whose logic has always terrified me. It is inherently unequal; it is transformed when anything like equality of knowledge is achieved. It can work well when the teacher makes use of strategies and observations that are not shared with the students. Unlike parents' relationship with their children, a teacher does not really have to face the consequences of his actions: children are around for twenty years, or even a lifetime; students generally disappear with the semester or at least graduation.

Teachers' relationship with students may be important to understand because it typically crosses a generational boundary, perhaps the next line of fissure in American society. But it may be even more important to understand because it involves proper conduct when a power differential between two parties will not be soon or easily overcome. We like to think of relationships as involving the agreement of freely consenting equals. It has not been easy for us to learn how to act in situations where another individual, group or nation is not necessarily going to have countervailing power.

I don't mean to suggest that being teachers together should involve surveying some new territory for ethical theorizing. But I would like to recall that, when taken seriously, teaching can be a morally disorienting situation. Manipulation seems almost a daily practice; power is exercised with no balance, few checks and mostly invisible consequences. To keep my bearings on this ground, I have found it useful to think of teaching as also being utterly subordinate to the knowledge, in all its demanding intricacy and complexity, that one is trying to share.

This is the moment in the life of school-college collaboration to move from ad hoc projects to reliable, institutionalized arrangements. This is the period of "systemic reform" directed at orchestrating the large interlocking organizations and structures that shape U. S. education. These are good reasons that it is also time for teachers at all levels to stand and cultivate their common ground.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1993 Issue of On Common Ground

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