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A personal perspective on Xchange 2005

Learning from policy and practice in a time of change

Xchange 2005 was the elearning conference of the UK Presidency of the European Union. It was also the first of a series of Xchange events to be continued in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales with the next conference to take place in Belfast in June 2006. The conference, which was held in Birmingham in October 2005, was resolutely interactive. The conference hall was organised with some forty large round tables each equipped with a wireless access laptop and voting sets for each person. At various times during speeches and discussions the audience were asked to vote on an issue or to choose between various options. Results were often displayed immediately. And from time to time a brief synthesis of the results was given. Taking the lead from issues raised during speeches, structured group discussions took place at each table. Participants were asked to key in responses to specific questions into the laptop and some of these responses were then used in the subsequent plenary discussion. Participants could also participate in an online blog designed specially for the event, with strands about the different presentations as well as nine areas for action: vision and leadership; curriculum; teaching and learning; resources; professional development; assessment; impact; continuity of learning; and open extending school. Note that these areas are an extended version of those found in the UK Common evaluation framework .

Participants were also invited to identify a personal challenge for the period until the next Xchange event . This personal challenge was the subject of the final session of group work and participants were asked to enter their challenge into the system and to start a blog about how they worked towards meeting that challenge. As my own personal challenge I chose: Helping policy-makers to come to a better understanding of the relationship between policy and practice in processes of change.

In what follows, I am not going to give a detailed description of presentations and discussions, but rather pick out points that struck me personally as significant.

Best practice and peer learning

Right from the outset, the question raised at Xchange was: How do you bring about systemic change led by best practice? At the end of the conference, it was suggested that "accelerated change led by best practice" should be the theme for Xchange 2006 in Belfast. The expression "learning from best practice", as used by one of the speakers, seems more appropriate to me than "transfer" of best practice. It points to the essential learning aspects related to studying the practice of others rather than the commonly held notion that practice is like a product that can be readily transferred from one context to another. As practice is strongly contextual, any talk of the transfer of practice as if it were an object, could lead to considerable misunderstandings. Other speakers spoke of peer learning as a key strategy in encouraging innovation and change. Such peer learning is both appropriate to practice in schools but also to policy-making. Experience in the P2P project on peer exchange in policy and practice, however, has indicated the extent to which the actual learning process in peer exchange is taken for granted or neglected. There was also talk of peer learning between pupils. It would be interesting to imagine what a school that encouraged extensive peer learning between pupils would look like.

Change, values and evidence

If "systemic change" is to be at the centre of discussions, participants legitimately raised the question of the visions and goals behind that change. Although there was no explicit discussion of the type of society that education was preparing for and the relationship between that vision and the learning agenda, there were indications of social values in some of the statements made, like, for example, aiming to produce "self-directed, self-motivated students" or "shifting control of learning to pupils" or the "personalisation" but not the "individualisation" of education. A need was expressed to have "evidence" to help understand and guide innovation and change. Current research methods apparently have some difficulty "grasping" the richness of innovation in practice. Is it possible, as one person suggested, that we are asking the wrong questions (or coming from the wrong perspective)? Or is it possible, as another suggested, that research in education should be going on in schools rather than universities (with teachers receiving doctorates for that work)? Or should research be more like a detective activity, as was suggested?

Paths to visions

Some of the presentations like those of Alan November and Stephen Heppel were excitingly challenging. Take Stephen Heppel's provocative statement "We need an education system that gets in the way of learning as little as possible". By turning current logic on its head (school is traditionally supposed to be where you learn, not a barrier to that learning) it creatively jolts us into a different perspective (if we allow it to…). At the same time, I can't help wondering how we get to such possibly desirable futures. If there is no path to those futures (from the current situation) they will remain only stimulating fantasies. No doubt both November and Heppel will argue that examples of their "futures" already exist in the present, but that doesn't mean those present futures can be main-streamed, given the differing contexts in which they exist. André Gorz wrote of utopia that one of its main functions was to give direction and motivation. Maybe these futures point to possible directions and inspire us with the thought that they are possible. What we need to do is to understand what it is we want in those future visions and what paths we can take to get there.

Places of learning

One groundbreaking perspective, as suggested by a couple of speakers, is to cease thinking in terms of school as the privileged place of learning and to seek out those "places" that are hubs of densely intersecting networks of learning: communities of practice, families, associations, … and to see how "schools" could support and facilitate such "hubs". One speaker put the idea dramatically by pointing to a move away from education as a "broadcast" medium to a “podcast” medium… In one of the schools we visited (Shireland Language School) prior to the conference, the head teacher had greatly extended the reach of his school in a particularly difficult neighbourhood by working in the local community to provide access to the Internet and thereby to the school platform for pupil and parents. The school organises courses for parents, including in the local mosque, to help them follow the work of their children. Public access computers have been installed in libraries and community centres and are to be set up in the new shopping centre. He also loaned 1600 computers to parents on a medium term basis so that learning could go on at home.

At the same time, there was talk at Xchange of moving away from computers as the main interface for exchange, collaboration and learning to embrace mobile telephones, PDAs and digital television. Such radical predictions have the merit of encouraging us to rethink what we take for granted.

Optimism and resignation

At the end of his presentation, Stephen Heppel pleaded for optimism. In fact, some of the most forward-looking and challenging presentations were also the most optimistic. "Optimism" could be seen as meaning "strongly believing that our vision of the future can happen (no mater how hard it seems to get there)". This optimistic position contrasted with the resignation of a number of the conference participants who saw some aspects of education as unchangeable, like the National curriculum, which they felt powerless to influence. Their only solution was to make roads around it. This attitude seems to point to considerable disempowerment if not disenchantment. Yet history has often shown that the impossible can become possible, especially when people strongly want it. How can we bring the "enchantment" back into education? What contribution could a series of conferences like Xchange, seen as group learning experiences, make to empowering actors (whether they be teachers or pupils or decision-makers) in striving together for shared dreams? Then we will need to trace paths from where we are to that wished-for future in what we would call “policy” and to pave those paths with our shared experience in what we call "practice".

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

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Created: October 21st, 2005 - Last up-dated: N0vember 4th, 2005