Marilyn Johnston's 1999 Contradictions in Collaboration: New Thinking on School University Partnerships

Johnston, M. (1997). Contradictions in collaboration: New thinking on school/university partnerships. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Summary: This book describes issues and tensions that the author and her colleagues experienced while building a professional development school. While Johnston is the primary author, she includes several voices from teachers and doctoral students who were also involved in the project. She also uses the pronoun “we” throughout the book, even though she is the single author. Even though this book was published nearly 20 years ago, the issues and tensions she describes feel as relevant as ever to anyone who is engaging in school-university partnership work. In a way, this book is somewhat therapeutic for any individual who works across the boundaries of schools and universities.

Defining terms:

  • Clinical educator: “A classroom teacher who is released from classroom teaching responsibilities to work with the PDS. One CE is full-time at the university, a second is release half-time to co-coordinate the PDS, and several teachers are released one day a week to work in their school buildings” (p. 3).
  • Graduate associate: “Doctoral-level student at the university who has an assistantship to work in the PDS. GAS roles are varied but include working collaboratively with school clinical educators to supervise Med interns, co-teaching methods courses, writing grant proposals, conducting inquiry and action research projects, and participating in conference presentations and writing projects” (p. 3).
  • Intern: “MEdstudent. A post-baccalaureate student seeking elementary and middle school certification in a five-quarter master’s of education program in our PDS” (p. 3).
  • PDS: “Professional Development School. A school or group of teachers and administrators from several schools who come together to do PDS work. At Ohio State University, there are presently 11 PDSs. Ours, the Educators for Collaborative Change, has four primary goals: reform in teacher education, professional development, inquiry and urban education” (p. 3).



  • “Collaboration is dependent on relationships and communication. It has ups and down, misunderstandings, and challenges, like any person-to-person endeavor” (p. 5).


Part 1: Issues and Challenges of Collaboration

  • “We initially thought about our differences as a source of conflict and later came to understand who these differences were a firm foundation for our continued learning” (p. 7).


Chapter 1: Keeping Differences in Tensions Through Dialogue

By Marilyn Johnson and J. Michael Thomas


  • Dialogue was the key mediating factor in turning issues into productive tensions. Tensions arise from struggling to deal with differences.
  • “Most traditional organizational arrangements keep professionals in their separate institutional cultures, where they seldom experience tensions firsthand. Lamper’s point is that restructuring puts some of these people, the “boundary spanners,” in positions where they are directly confronted with differences and their inherent tensions” (p. 11).
  • “Rather than understanding differences as potential sites of conflict, we look for their interrelatedness. Like the north and south Poles of a magnet, the differences interact in ways that make them interdependent. Both are necessary if things are going to hold together. In teacher education, for example, theory and practice are often separate and in conflict. Theory is seen as the bastion of the university (for example, in teacher education coursework) and practice is considered the purview of schools (as with student teaching)” (p. 13).
  • “Coursework and student teaching are done by different sets of people, who often arrive with different orientations. This obscures the necessary relationship of theory and practice” (p. 13).
  • “We live in institutional and conceptual hierarchies. When we make choices, we do so in relation to moral, intellectual, social, and other kinds of hierarchies. Our charge in these instances is not to abandon hierarch. Rather, we look for ways to use hierarchical power while simultaneously searching for its abuses and the ways we may ourselves be complicit in sustaining them” (p. 14).
  • “A real tension must be one that is not so simply resolved” (p. 15). They include :

    • Relationship Tensions

      • Challenge çè support
      • Individuality çècommunity
      • Confrontation çè agreement
    • Structural Tensions

      • Process çè product
      • Openness supports innovation çè structure supports continuity
      • Time to reflect çè time to act
      • Openness çè focus
    • Developmental Tensions

      • Being çè becoming
      • Risk taking çè comfort
      • Difference promotes learning çè Sameness promotes comfort
  • “Dialogue for us is a conversation where your convictions are on display for all to see. It is a ‘growth’ environment where you never know exactly what will happen, except that ideas will be shared in a spirit of learning and understandings will develop beyond your individual capacity. Dialogue is a social negotiation of ideas – ideas shared freely, critically, and in ways that nurture rather than destroy. Dialogue is dependent on differences. If we all had the same opinions, or kept our ideas to ourselves, dialogue could not occur. It is because of differences that dialogue is possible, and this promotes our learning. The productivity of tensions is thus sustained through dialogue” (p. 16).
  • The authors draw upon Peter Senge’s (1990) work to distinguish between dialogue and discussion. They claim, “Discussion is helpful for getting business done. It is goal oriented, and aimed at making decisions. In a discussion participants argue their positions in order to convince others and have their views accepted by the group. Learning may happen in the process, but the goals are pragmatic” (p. 16). Dialogue is about learning. Discussion is about outcome.
  • “Dialogue stirs up the pot more often than it makes a perfect soup” (p. 18).
  • Love this metaphor by J. Michael Thomas – so true in my experience, “My metaphor for our PDS is that of a huge egg produced by the uncomfortable, and some say ill-advised, union of a cocky, overcommitted rooster with a frazzled, suspicious, and underappreciated hen. Both parents are surprised at the size of what they have produced and a little frightened of the prospects of what might ultimately emerge from it. These feelings only intensify as they listen to the discordant and often grating noises that emerge from the egg” (p. 20).

Chapter 2: One Telling of Our History

Marilyn Johnston


  • Marilyn often writes in this chapter about the struggle she had as a faculty member, being positioned as the authority because of her position at the university. She writes, “We had tried to be collaborative and nonhierarchical in our discussion/planning group. I continually raised questions about issues of our relationships and working processes. I also tried to ask questions more than provide answers. This was not particularly difficult because we were struggling with complicated issues, and I frankly did not have ready solutions for many of the problems we faced. Yet I was often positioned as an authority. Several of the students confessed later that they thought I really did know ‘the answers’ but was trying not to impose them” (p. 23). I had a very similar experience.
  • “Collaborative endeavors depend on individuals who are willing to talk across their different horizons and are open to an increased awareness of their own prejudices” (p. 26).
  • “First, we had not anticipated how unusual it was for teachers to meet in an ongoing way with their counterparts from others schools and districts” (p. 28).
  • Expectations of a syllabus for “college” – “Many of the teaches signed up for university credit and expected a syllabus.” This is definitely a tension I have run into with the work I am currently doing, and it’s not only coming from teachers. It’s also coming from faculty.
  • “As we spend less time as a whole group, we lose a sense of this connectedness, yet we profit from the dialogue which more often happens in these smaller groups” (p. 30).
  • “In a traditional supervisory role, the university supervisor seldom got to know the cooperating teachers well and was usually working with students in several schools. In our case, they were assigned to a school for the year. We decided that they should individually work out their roles collaboratively with the teachers and student teachers in their schools. Rather than taking a traditional supervising role, they searched for ways to integrate themselves into the life of the school as they worked with teachers and student teachers” (p. 31). Defining supervision in a PDS.
  • “Integrating oneself into the life of the school was difficult to do as a non-staff person who was on site only 10 to 15 hours a week” (p. 31).
  • “They have been the primary university link in the schools. Many, especially those who have been with the project for more than a year (average tenure is two years; the range is one to four years), established strong relationships with teachers, worked on initiatives in the schools, helped to write grants, collaborated on action research, substitute taught (in emergency situations), did demonstration teaching, and worked closely with the interns. Many have also co-taught methods courses” (p. 31).
  • Helpful questions: “How could we set up schedules, courses, and experiences to solve problems with school placements in the traditional model? How could we make better connections between methods courses and field placements – between theory and practice? What kinds of things should the field experience provide for Med students? How could university participants be more connected to schools and school participants more connected to the university?” (p. 32).
  • Other helpful questions: “What should students get out of field experiences? What do future teachers need to learn? What kind of teachers do we want them to be? These questions were about the program, but they pushed at the edges of our own development as well. The discussions exposed our individual beliefs and interests; we talked explicitly about our ideals and aspirations for the profession” (p. 35).
  • “Talking across our differences, learning from the, and planning for the future has been both fruitful and difficult. The tensions created by our differences, by new roles and responsibilities, and by learning to rethink some of our beginning assumptions have led to a great deal of learning. Bu t this learning has come at a price. It has pushed us to be self-critical risk-takers, and we have had to deal with the discomfort this sometimes creates. We have had to learn to talk to teach other in new ways and to understand each other’s professional contexts differently. We sometimes wonder if it is worth it; at other times we are convinced that it takes all this to support sustained professional growth” (pp. 46-47).


Interlude with a Metaphor: A Changing Forest by Mary Christenson

  • “There are many levels in a mature forest, from microscopic organisms in the subsoil to majestic tress in the upper canopy. Similarly, there are many levels in the PDS. All levels are important to the continued viability of the whole ecosystem. At the same time, the makeup of the forest and the PDS is constantly changing, both in large and small way that can profoundly affect the natural balance. Some seeds land and flourish, while others grow quickly, then die or never sprout at all because they land among weeds or in rocky soil” (p. 48).


Chapter 3: Our First Presentation: An Exhilarating Success and a Lingering Tension

Marilyn Johnston with PDS Participants


In this chapter, the author describes the powerful experience of co-presenting with PDS participants at a national conference. The experience was wrought with tension but was very valuable in learning for all stakeholders. The most important vehicle of learning and of maintaining relationships was the conversations. She shared, “Our only salvation is constant conversation of the sort we had about our presentation. These kinds of dialogues help us learn about ourselves as we participate in a community that requires both our support and our willingness to challenge it” (p. 61).


Chapter 4: Rethinking Our Roles

Richard M. Kerper and Marilyn Johnston


In this chapter, the authors describe their beliefs about hierarchy and PDS and their struggles to disempower the power associated with university roles.

  • “We began with romanticized views about ignoring our university roles and giving up the power ascribed to them in order to promote collaboration and empower the teachers. We have to rethink our roles as we find that trying to give up power does not empower teachers as much as it limits our ability to participate collaboratively” (p. 64).
  • Marilyn identified her role in terms of jobs. She shared that her role contained elements of being an advertiser, a reporter, and an editor.

    • Advertiser:

      • “My initial role in this project was like being in the advertising department. Advertising is the economic lifeblood of a news publication, to sustain both its budget and its readership. Similarly, I played two kinds of advertising roles in our project. I solicited funding to get the project started (I wrote for grant monies to support the project) and then recruited help in advertising our collaborative project” (p. 66).
      • “As with most well-designed advertisements, it had its fine print, which stated that the process to develop these projects would involve collaborative work between schools, and between the schools and the university. For some, this fine print was probably interpreted much like the health warnings on many products. As with most health hazards, potential users did not really know or care much about collaboration, but it probably was something best done without. Given such warnings, one has to decide whether the benefits (school projects) are worth the risks (time and the unknown challenges of working collaboratively)” (p. 67).
      • “Advertisements also have hidden assumptions and values…The packaging looked conventional; the underlying values were critical of those conventions” (p. 67).
      • “If an advertisement for collaboration was on shaky ground, an advertisement for a research project was analogous to selling something no one felt they needed” (p. 67).
      • “My role in these respects was continually under scrutiny. This was partly because I kept raising the topic; I was often uncomfortable with the ways I got positioned and maybe also with the ways I positioned myself…Teachers rarely get a voice in whether they will adopt these programs because most programs are mandated by administrators. Teachers, however, decide whether or not to use them I their classrooms, which gives them the ultimate power in determining their success. I was convinced that the typical hierarchical mandates of these types were antithetical to collaboration” (p. 68).
      • “Part of my distress was fueled by a rather romanticized view of collaboration. I thought that in order to address the power inequities, I should ‘give up’ or ‘give over’ the authority associated with my institutional role. My goal was group power and shared collaborative norms. I was unclear about how this might be accomplished, but I felt certain that exercising too much authority would be detrimental” (p. 68).
      • “I was not then making a distinction between authority and leadership which might have helped me sort thorugh some of the other positional choices I could have taken. Defining my role primarily in terms of negative power issues clouded an understanding of the positive potential that a leadership role has – it can be used to support a collaborative process. At the time, leadership and authority were both seen as negative and in opposition to more collaborative norms of collegiality and equity” (pp. 68-69).
      • “It was hard to trust relations that countered institutional norms and expectations” (p. 69).
      • “My approach to de-positioning myself was to avoid answering questions or making decisions as often as I could. This caused much frustration in the beginning because it countered teachers’ expectations and created ambiguity about where we were going. Nevertheless, the issues about my role meant that we began talking about how to do things differently” (p. 69).
    • Reporter:

      • “By the end of the first eighteen months, my role as reporter had had some unanticipated outcomes. As I went from one discussion to another, I was changing my mind about many things. What I was learning was gradually influencing how I participated and how I thought about my participation” (p. 71).
      • “I found that I could say things that the teachers wanted said without negative repercussions because I was not subject to his authority in the same way. In addition, because of my university role, my comments seemed to carry more authority than when the teachers said the same thing. It was my voice telling the story, but it was their message” (p. 71).
    • Editor:

      • “How do I deal with the criticism that writing a book is tugging teachers into university territory rather than supporting their concerns and voices within the norms and expectations of school cultures? These are not questions for which I expect to find answers. They are tensions that keep me alert to issues of power, and as such, feed the questioning that keeps my present role as editor a lively intellectual endeavor” (p. 73).
  • Rick identified his role as doctoral student as being analogous to a broadcast journalism student, a new staff writer, an on-camera roving reporter, a news anchor, and a new position at a new station.

    • Broadcast Journalism Student

      • “Within the university environment I felt vulnerable. Although Marilyn tried to deal with me as an equal partner in the project, the hierarch of the institution reminded me of the power differential between student and professor. As the professor of courses in which I enrolled, Marilyn evaluated my thinking. As project director she controlled opportunities for employment. As a member of my general examination committee, she could affect the completion of my degree. And after my graduation, her recommendation could influence my marketability within higher education” (p. 74).
    • New Staff Writer

      • “I was grateful to be on the team, but I was uncertain about my role. I had jumped at the opportunity to participate in the project and once more to be linked to a school community. I thought this project provided more, though. I believed it would enable me to become bicultural; it afforded met he opportunity to link my past experience in school cultures with the new culture that I had moved into – academia. But straddling two worlds turned out to be difficult” (p. 75).
    • On-Camera Roving Reporter

      • “I had positioned myself as a research coordinator who was available to support school efforts at the same time that the school groups positioned me as a user from the ivory tower of the academy. My role was not entirely of my own making. The participants of the project defined my role as much as I did” (p. 76).
    • News Anchor

      • “I could only monitor my voice and my actions in order to provide opportunity for objective reality. It was not something that I could give to other participants. Instead, I found that it was constructed in the social transactions that I had with others. Together we created the conditions in which power could emerge for individuals and for groups in varying contexts” (p. 77).
    • New Position at a New Station

      • “As I began to work with the group in the school to which I had been assigned, I idealistically looked forward to becoming a member o the school cutlre. The unique nature of my institutional role, however, created an obstacle in achieving this goal. As a graduate assistant, I was a ‘minor’ within the university. I had some rights and responsibilities, but I did not have the authority to speak on behalf of the university as I met with teachers in the project. I could only carry messages to others in positions of authority, such as Marilyn. Within the school culture I had no voice because I was an outsider. My entrée to the school was under the auspices of the collaborative project” (p. 77).
      • “After one and a half academic quarters, a change occurred as an outgrowth of my weekly meeting with the preservice teachers. Through these meetings, I became involved in curriculum development. The interns were trying to develop instructional units and lessons for the classrooms in which they worked. As I assisted them, I indirectly assisted the classroom teachers in the school” (p. 78).
  • Reflections:

    • “At all times I had to be true to myself. There could be no collaboration through self-imposed silence or inactivity” (p. 79).
    • “Another assumption that I brought to the experience involved my participation in the school. Having been a teacher and a teacher advocate in the recent past, I expected that I would be embraced by the school group as a member of their culture. I thought that I would be included in information discussions, scheduled meetings, and work sessions as an equal partner” (p. 79).
    • “Our intention to give up our power as a means to establish parity did not lead us easily to collaborative modes of working together. Out of our frustrations, we were provoked into rethinking our roles in ways that allowed for more flexibility, ambiguity, and shared responsibilities. Our school colleagues helped us to understand that they did not want to be ‘given’ power; they wanted colleagues, support, and respect. As they learned to retrospect their expertise, we learned the limited usefulness of our own” (pp. 79-80).


Interlude with a Metaphor: My House is on Fire by Cynthia Tyson

  • “Moving from concern to action is a necessary part of collaborative effort for African American educators. We cannot afford to sit and talk about an issue for weeks, months, and years because our educational house is on fire. The children in our neighborhoods are dropping out of school in record numbers. Collaborative talk is a beginning, but not the end. We want collaboration that leads to action and change. There is an urgency to walk the talk, not just sit and talk about the damage being done to someone else’s house. It’s our house that is on fire, and we want both the collaboration and the action necessary to put it out” (p. 82).


African American Perspectives on Collaboration

Daa’iyah Saleem and Cynthia Tyson


  • “Cynthia: There are ethical requirements for collaboration, but there are also practical ones. It’s like planning a wedding and being stuck with the constraints of your finances, traditionally the finances of the bride’s father. If you bring the groom’s family into the finances, then the same constraints are no longer there” (p. 90).



Interlude with a Metaphor: Making Muffins from Scratch by Marilyn Johnston

  • “Using this metaphor has forced me to think harder about the extent to which the development of innovative practices is truly open-ended, as well as about the inescapable influence of our experience on our understandings” (p. 91).
  • “My husband’s comments went in the same direction. He does not see his muffins as unique. Muffins always require flour, shortening, eggs, and liquid in somewhat regular proportions. For him, the added ingredients make them a little unusual, but not unique. You may not often see zucchini-and-raspberry or rhubarb-and-rice muffins in the store, yet they are not that different in basic ways from ‘regular’ muffins, if the basic ingredients are considered” (p. 92). This analogy raises really interesting questions for me – What are the healthy ingredients of a PDS? The NAPDS 9 Essentials? What about of hybrid educators?
  • “The question whether good muffins depend on the taste or healthiness is provocative. At first I tried to pull these two apart: there are reasons to choose taste, and reasons to choose healthiness. Mike’s response was to ask why these were choices. From his perspective, his muffins both taste good and are healthy. From my perspective, they sometimes taste good and sometimes not. Maybe taste is an aspect of personal preference, while healthiness I s amore objective criterion. How much do PDSs depend on personal taste? Clearly, some people have not stayed with us because collaboration was not attractive. They found the process too ambiguous, the commitment too time consuming, or the critical reflection too threatening. The healthiness ofa muffin seems less controversial. Ingredients can be identified and their health potential calculated. Can we argue for the healthiness of a PDS in the same way? Do we have professional agreement that collaboration between schools and universities is the best way to reform teacher education and promote professional development, inquiry, and change/ If my own college is a reasonable sample, I would have to say no. Many of my colleagues think that collaboration is not worth the time and money it requires and that it detracts from the scholarly agenda of the university” (pp. 92-93).


Chapter 6: School-Based Voices and Stories

  • “The teacher who is an artist taps into freedom and finds the joy of creating. It has an unforgettable taste” (p. 97). This quote was written by Sue Wightman who wrote this mini section in this chapter.
  • Conversing with a principal –

    • “Don: I think that most teachers are interested in professional development. By and large, they’ve not been given many real opportunities. They do summer workshops or things after school. Most teachers, however, feel like they’ve been pounded into the ground with after school staff development that doesn’t come to much. Collaboration with the university has allowed us to talk differently.
    • Marilyn: What do you mean?
    • Don: School districts are notorious for telling teachers what they need, whether they want it or not. Some teachers like that. Collaboration is a way of talking more openly about what we can do in our own school settings to make it better. The collaborative part of the discussion gives people license to talk freely, for everyone to be an equal part of the conversation” (pp. 98-99). This conversation reminded me of the work that has been going on at Mort Elementary.
    • In this conversation, the principal shares that collaborating with the university can put principal’s positions in jeopardy. I would argue that the same is true for university. The principal goes on to say, “You have to dig up the ground to make something grow. When you dig up the ground, it gets dirty and muddy” (p. 101). He adds, “It takes a lot of skill to handle school/university partnerships” (p. 103).
  • This chapter articulates that the collaborative work has influenced both the university and the school district. The specifics of that influence are less clear.


Chapter 7: Theorizing Collaboration: Some Theoretical and Methodological Issues

Marilyn Johnston


In this chapter, the author describes the issues and tensions of researching in PDS. I found her section called Feminist Research Methodologies most intriguing.

  • “I continued to find myself having conflicting viewpoints in different contexts. This is not to say that I do not have some consistent commitments to some things, particularly some political and educational perspectives. Nevertheless, I often feel chameleonlike in other ways. I find new ideas exhilarating and like to play with these ideas even when they are in conflict with other beliefs of mine” (p. 117).
  • “Feminist epistemologies gave me a theoretical frame for looking at these conflicts and variations in other ways” (p. 117).
  • “I initially tried to fix the well-documented differences between school-based and university-based participants; now I see them as ways to create ambiguity and points of view that push at our ideas and practices. It is a way to give myself and others permission to explore and taste new ideas rather than aiming to create a coordinated set of beliefs or a coherent identity: (p. 117).
  • “The idea of ‘silence as agency’ suggests a question that I did not originally consider. I was aware of silences, of teachers who did not speak, did not assert their ideas. I interpreted these silences as shyness, lack of trust, the norms of school cultures to stifle disagreements, or unassertiveness related to gender socialization. These may be other viable interpretations as well, but I have become intrigued with the possibility that teachers willfully choose not to say things, willfully choose not to reveal. Chosen silence in these cases may feel empowering to them because they are withholding their ideas and support and thus hold some sway over outcomes they do not support. My interest is both the possible empowerment from chosen silences and the institutional constraints and structures that create/support them” (pp. 118-119).
  • “I have tried to be sensitive to the idea that many kinds of silences undergird our collaborative work, but then understanding why they are there is possible only in the abstract. It is possible that such investigations will do as much to disguise as enlighten” (p. 119).
  • “Seen from an historical context, the silence of teachers, a large percentage of whom are women, is supported by a common socialization process in society. Women are socialized to be silent in authoritarian situations where they feel powerless. At the extreme, battered women rarely speak in resistance to, or speak poorly of, their battering partners; in less extreme cases, passive-aggressive patterns – silences that mask aggression—are stereotypically ascribed to women. Similarly in schools, many norms support teacher silence. “Just close your door and do it anyway,’ a seasoned teacher told me my first year of teaching, when I wanted to try something of which the principal had vaguely disapproved” (p. 119).
  • “How does one capture, or pay attention to, the silences in a collaborative project? One of the outcomes of the PDS for many teachers has been to move out of patterns of silence. Working one’s way through the silences, however, is disruptive and difficult. In the disruption of these silences there is much to be learned form a research point of view. Often, however, what is revealed cannot be publicly told, and probably more often, what is behind the silences does not get revealed at all” (p. 119).
  • “We explained the goals of reform, professional development, and inquiry as part of PDS work, but there were no warnings on the label. Caution: asking questions about one’s basic beliefs may disrupt the rest of your life. Warning: questions about teaching beliefs may also be connected to beliefs about life more generally; reflect on these questions at the risk of disrupting dearly held beliefs and lifestyles” (p. 120).
  • Research relationships in PDS:

    • “What is the responsibility of a researcher who knows full well that research questions can provoke these kinds of reflections and openings and the consequent pains of growth and change? One teacher asked me in the midst of some distress over dealing with all the changes that were mushrooming in her teaching practice, ‘Did you know this was going to happen?’ What responsibility is there to remain in a nurturing and supportive role if you wedge into the silences of teachers’ professional and personal lives? Is there institutional support for the time and energy it takes to nurture these kinds of relationships, for the time to care and support, for acknowledging and respondigin to the confluence of people’s personal and professional lives? Is there institutional support for time is not there, is a researcher nevertheless morally obliged to take the time, probably from his or her own personal life, to be available to the needs of people changing their lives? Wedging into silences, like opening Pandora’s box, means it is difficult to know ahead of time what needs and moral claims will be made of you, the researcher. Further, the moral claims are reciprocal” (p. 120).