Educational-Relational Thinking & the Future of Public-Private Partnerships

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I am grateful to Michael Brosnan for his invitation to contribute to the Fall 2014 issue of Independent School magazine. The following is a repost of my article as it recently appeared in print, with fantastic illustrations by Kelly Schykulski. You can find a print-friendly .pdf version here.

Citation: Thinnes, C. (2014). Educational-relational thinking and the future of public-private partnerships. Independent School, 74 (1), pp. 96-102.


Educational-Relational Thinking

and the Future of Public-Private Partnerships


Chris Thinnes

We must not forget how closely the school is connected
to the society in which it is situated.
— Carla Rinaldi

For several years, our independent schools have been exploring their “public purpose” through a variety of initiatives, many of which focus on what independent schools can provide to underfunded public schools. Some schools organize tutoring services, in which their students visit public school sites to provide academic assistance. Others hold fund-raisers to rally their communities and leverage resources to satisfy the material needs of public schools. A number host summer academic camps for public school students to support their learning. Several bring groups of public school students onto their campuses to experience arts or athletics programming their districts are unable to fund.

Certainly these philanthropic outreach programs have a meaningful impact on the lives of the public school students they support, and on the independent school constituents who are provided an opportunity to give. But we should be concerned by the frequency with which philanthropy and service learning are confused with “partnership” in its most authentic sense, reinforcing the notions that independent schools have much to give but little to learn, and that public schools have much to want but little to offer. Given that the public imagination about American schools is already misguided by at least two prevailing and corrosive myths — that public schools should be held accountable for failures of public policy, and that independent schools merely protect the privilege of the entitled 1 percent — we inadvertently fan the flames of divisive public discourse when we limit our notion of “partnership” to something akin to “charitable giving.”

Pushing our thinking about public purpose might help us participate more meaningfully in a broader dialogue about quality education in all our nation’s schools and about the intersections of schooling and social justice in our country. Pushing our thinking about public purpose might help us explore our own limitations as private schools in a democratic society, and the limitations of the learning that takes place within them as a direct result. Pushing our thinking about public purpose might help us identify what we might learn in authentic partnership with public schools.

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Two years ago, my son was reflecting on his second week of high school as a ninth grader. Following his elementary and middle school years in independent schools, a local public high school’s humanities magnet program offered the twin promises of a deeper learning model and a more diverse community than any independent school options known to us at the time. So my son made what many in our circles consider the unthinkable transition to public school. As he and I were driving to the market on a September afternoon, in one of those fabulously unscripted, forward-facing conversations in cars in which men and boys sometimes reveal their deepest truths, my son paused for a moment and then said, with an expression of gentle joy and immense relief, “I feel like I finally go to school in the world.”

I feel like I finally go to school in the world. What he meant, as an early high school student who, like every high school student, assesses his satisfaction with his schooling on the basis of the quality and complexity of his relationships with peers, was as much a commentary on his new experience of public school as a reflection on his past in private schools. As a young, white, able-bodied man with two wage-earning parents, it was the composition and the cultural norms of the community that were most striking to him. Of the 3,300 students in his public high school, 64 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch; 82 percent are children of color; 13 percent are English language learners; and 11 percent demonstrate characteristics identified by policy as “disabilities.”[1]

The web of relationships my son has developed these last two years — in a learning community whose composition more closely reflects the demographics of the city, state, and country in which we all want him to thrive — has taught him much about himself and about his world. Daily triggers invite him to explore and to refine his understanding of individual, cultural, and institutional identity—developing not only an appreciation of other students’ cultural perspectives, but also an understanding of the privilege from which he benefits and which sometimes distorts his thinking. These have been challenged, as much as a result of his curiosity as by his sense of discomfort, in ways he readily acknowledges as having been transformative to his senses of self, opportunity, and possibility. He has become a more honest and humble thinker, a braver ally, and a better friend to the young people in his circle. These, our family believes, are essential goals of his school experience.

I’m not trying to romanticize public schools here, but to press a question about the opportunities for learning they provide, and from which we might stand to learn. Too often the independent school is construed as a place of refuge from the “perils” of a system to which, ironically, our elective isolation has contributed, and we fail to recognize the pitfalls of such a posture. Regardless of the value of an independent school education, it is often limited by the exclusion and isolation of our schools from the communities in which we are situated — owing both to the relative remove at which we hold ourselves from engagement with the broader community and to the systems of selection and finance that restrict our cultural and socioeconomic diversity. The consequence is not only a limitation of students’ cultural, social, and emotional experiences, but a shallowing of students’ deeper learning to which these are inexorably tied.

Unfortunately, these pressing connections between education, community engagement, and diversity are those we tend, in independent schools, to elide. In many of our schools, dynamic conversations on the topics of teaching and learning, and authentic conversations on the subjects of diversity and inclusion, have increasingly become the norm. But it is no less typical — because of the extent to which we sometimes distance ourselves from public culture — that we consider these conversations essentially unrelated. We may mean it when we say we want to have more diverse communities of students, teachers, and families, but our school-wide programs and practices do not fully leverage the impact such community dynamics might have on the relevance or rigor of the learning we support. In other words, our institutional and systemic commitments to educational excellence do not reflect the inextricability of cultural competencies from the many other dimensions of core teaching and learning that we value — creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking often foremost among them. I am not talking about the “sensitivity” or “awareness” many of our missions highlight, or the people in our communities who demonstrate such dispositions: I am talking about the skills we promise to help students develop, and the requisite diversity of the communities in which those skills can be developed.

To suggest what I mean by this, I invite you to imagine the experience of my son learning about American history with students who are not predominantly the inheritors and beneficiaries of class- and race-based privilege. Imagine PE classes alongside students who have explicit physical challenges. Imagine learning Spanish alongside students who are learning English; imagine learning math alongside children who are learning both. And in its fullest expression, imagine the richness and complexity of learning when members of such a community debate their points of view on, and design collaborative solutions to, real-world problems that affect us all.

As a result of these kinds of experiences of relational learning, my son has become more honest, humble, brave, and friendly in his relationships, as I said before. But he has also become a prolific creator, a compelling communicator, an independent critical thinker, and a conscientious collaborator. The aggregate of these dispositions and these skills are what we sometimes characterize as “a good citizen.” And this, beyond the narrow scope of “college and career readiness” — as we sometimes reductively define it — is the purpose of education in a democracy.

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This is less an abstract appeal to the value of a child’s education in a truly diverse community than a practical response to what we’ve come to know about children’s learning, and what we have seen our world become. Carla Rinaldi, president of Reggio Children and director of the Loris Malaguzzi Centre in Reggio Emilia, Italy, presses related questions in her seminal introduction to Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners, introducing the work of Project Zero in collaboration with Reggio Emilia. Rinaldi speaks to the crucial shifts in recent decades, both in domestic society and global culture, that urge us to consider the role of schools in a changed and changing climate: “We are inundated with information and kept abreast of events across the entire planet in real time. We are spectators, more than authors, of an extraordinary technical-scientific revolution that is changing the quality of human relationships, the definition of personal identity, and the construction of cognitive processes.”

Recognizing that children are always and already adept at identifying their emergent interests, responding to nascent challenges, and exploring complex boundaries — even in such complex times as these — Rinaldi notes that in learning, as in life, “We will find the new and the future in those places where new forms of human coexistence, participation, and co-participation are tried out, along with the hybridization of codes and emotions.” She reminds us that “young people are the great precursors and authors of these hybridizations” and that they are “extremely capable and sensitive in finding these common roots in different universes of thought.” To leverage the most of young people’s capacity to create the world they will inherit, we must acknowledge that “we need the involvement of each diversity in the ‘pluriverse’ of our planet: a cultural and linguistic pluriverse.”

If it is true, as John Dewey suggested nearly a century ago, that “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,” then as educators we must focus on the purposeful exploration of these dynamics. “More and more, the individual will express an intercultural, intersubjective identity,” Rinaldi writes. “So the quantity and quality of his or her encounters and experiences will become increasingly important…. The interaction between cultures is not only a political issue, but above all a cultural and cognitive issue. Cultural education is not a separate discipline…. It is more than this: it is primarily a style of educational-relational thinking” [italics mine].

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For many independent schools whose admissions and finance systems restrict the diversity of their communities, the question emerges how best to realize the potential of such dynamic learning. While we wrestle with strategies to create and sustain more authentically diverse communities to ensure the sustainability of our own schools — not only in a marketplace, but also and more urgently in a democracy — a new wave of partnership initiatives in the spirit of educational-relational thinking is creating collaborative spaces in which to explore both our public purpose and our institutional identities in more reciprocal and, thus, more authentic partnership with public school constituents. These models promise the opportunity to deepen students’ learning in the near term, and to push our thinking about the identity of independent schools in the future.

Among the most promising of these partnerships are those that provide the opportunity for students from each sector to engage in shared learning experiences with, and about, each other. A highly visible profile of one such program — pairing high school students from University Heights High School (a public high school) and Ethical Culture Fieldston School (a private school) in New York City in “an exercise in ‘radical empathy’” — was documented in the New York Times Magazine last spring.[2] Protocols to hear, and tell, each other’s stories found students “shattering stereotypes by walking in each other’s shoes.” Similar partnership initiatives in Southern California have paired elementary school students from Curtis School (private) and Parthenia Street Elementary School (public) to make “Day in the Life” videos about their lives at school; students then convened to screen, contrast, and compare their experiences in an effort to identify their common bonds as children and as learners. In Colorado last spring, in a similar spirit, sixth-grade students from Curtis and from Cortez Middle School explored their collective impacts on their neighborhoods and school communities. In the context of such engagements, I have watched children as young as 10 years old openly explore the relative inequities of their opportunity and resources, examining with fresh eyes the unexamined privilege, festering resentment, and rampant confusion that corrupt so much of American discourse about “the education system.” Indeed, friendships are borne of these exchanges between children in communities that might not otherwise mix — but learning also takes place that substantially transforms their schools and the students’ worldviews.

These exchanges aren’t the exclusive preserve of students. Professional learning organizations, as well as conference and online learning events, are more regularly convening private and public school teachers to enrich each other’s ongoing professional learning. A highlight of my professional experience was supporting one such organization’s facilitation of a crowdsourced “covenant” of shared principles for the future of all our schools.[3] Prior to a planned gathering, educators and parents from 125 public and private schools were invited, over a period of weeks, to reflect on their deepest aspirations for our children’s future and to anchor these hopes to statements of educational principle. Eight educational thought leaders then helped to consolidate that input into a document that can be used by school constituents to reflect on the continuing evolution of their public and private schools in the years to come (see sidebar).

The experience of collaborating with members of EdLeader21, the national professional learning community for education leaders committed to 21st century learning, has been no less extraordinary or transformative for me than the student exchanges I have witnessed.[4] Together with public school and district leaders in joint work groups, leaders from 20 independent schools have participated in the creation of rubrics for the 4Cs (creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking), protocols for school and district evaluation, and proposals for dynamic assessment projects that will transform the learning of more than two million students in members’ public and private schools. These initiatives have been championed primarily by the dynamic contributions of extraordinary innovators in public school and district leadership positions — whose expertise, savvy, and insight are otherwise so woefully misrepresented in the national discourse on education reform as utterly to defy belief. At the same time, independent school participants have made indelible contributions to these projects by bringing, among other things, the best of what they know from independent school thought about design and systems thinking, as well as cultural competency skills, to the framework of indicators for the “creativity” and “collaboration” rubrics, and by sharing what they know about alternative models of accountability and accreditation. Building shared aspirations for deeper learning for all American students, across the troubled waters of national education policy, these independent school and public school leaders have realized a model of authentic, reciprocal partnership in which educational leadership, professional collaboration, and shared learning are essentially inseparable.

EdCamps throughout the country have regularly welcomed public and private school teachers to share with and learn from each other — no more so, perhaps, than when EdCamp sessions turn their attention to the very subject of partnership. One such session last year resulted in the creation of a twice-monthly Twitter chat (#PubPriBridge) that welcomes public and private school teachers to share their experience, strength, and hope regarding issues in education that affect us all. In a recent exchange, teachers from public and private schools have explored the “voice” they have to leverage decision making in schools and acknowledged their shared concerns about leadership strategies that are less inclusive than they could be. In another conversation, teachers explored the value of ‘place-based learning” to unite public and private schools in joint opportunities to contribute to the identity and the sustainability of their shared communities.

These examples, and many more, of a new wave of public-private partnerships are deeply tied to Rinaldi’s concept of “educational-relational thinking” — conspicuously reframing the notion of public-private partnership as service learning or philanthropy.

This new wave of partnerships is rooted in relationships, rather than resources; on regular recurrence, rather than singular events; on shared voice in the identification and resolution of common concerns; on the purposeful exploration of misconceptions each sector harbors about the other; and on the central obligations and opportunities to learn, together, from each other. They emerge from — and they are intentionally designed to foster — shared experiences of learning across the boundaries of our sectors.

In the years to come, it will be less an opportunity than an imperative to reconceive the role of private schools in public culture, to recognize the inseparability of diversity and educational excellence in our programs, and to reshape the public imagination of the private school. This may require a willingness to reimagine our systems of selection, tuition, and finance to foster not only educational excellence, as it has been traditionally defined, but also diversity, equity, and inclusion as they must be. We will see, as a direct result, a stronger independent school of the future that honors both sets of imperatives and explores their intersections, to deepen learning for all the children in our care.

In the interim, riding this new wave of public-private partnership initiatives can help us actively examine not only what learning could look like in independent schools, but what learning should look like in all of them. This requires a willingness to push our thinking beyond the “value added” of private schools in a marketplace, to the purpose of education in a democratic society.

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Chris Thinnes is an independent school educator and public school parent in Los Angeles. For more information, see


  1. Consider these statistics in contrast to NAIS-member day school averages: 28 percent students of color; 8 percent full, need-based financial aid.
  2. Joel Lovell, “The Tale of Two Schools,” New York Times Magazine, May 4, 2014.
  3. For more information on the CFED (formerly CFEE) initiative, visit
  4. For more information, see

You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes