Friday, January 27, 2012

The 25th International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement

Niall MacKinnon is headteacher of Plockton Primary School, Highland, Scotland and attended ICSEI 2012, Malmö, Sweden.

by Niall MacKinnon

A new phase of education change awaits the world, for those who embrace it. This was the key message of linked keynotes at the 2012 International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) in Malmö, Sweden. 

Pasi Sahlberg outlined how Finland set its own course for education, termed The Finnish Way, whose success offers profound lessons for the world. For Andy Hargreaves the Finnish phenomenon is part of a wider shift of approach, The Fourth Way, one necessary for school education to engage with the vast global economic, social and technological changes underway.

Both agree that most countries have been locked into models of education practice, management and evaluation not suiting today’s needs. 

Sahlberg urges new participatory, learner-led approaches, away from standardized testing and the privatisation of education. He views the conventional notion of a lesson as a ‘dead horse’. Though it cannot be revived, education policy makers are driven to try. This forms part of the GERM, or Global Education Reform Movement, a virus of prescription and control infecting and reinfecting national education systems, outlined in his recent book Finnish Lessons.

Certainly new policy shifts in England – no notice ‘morning raid’ OFSTED inspections, one term teacher competency dismissals, grading of teachers and teaching, lambasting ‘coasting’ schools – echo this view, spreading distrust and despondency. But unattainable perfectionism also contains its own danger. From the Scottish angle there was barely trace of talk of ‘excellence’, and certainly not as central imperative. Indeed the term was not mentioned in the congress review report. That gives global perspective from a key international congress on educational change held by a near neighbor. Perhaps the challenges to be grasped and the responses needed are more profound than mere exhortation.

A central message of the 25th ICSEI conference was that change brings challenge but also opportunity, with the need to find new means of collaboration, participation and networking to reshape education for the shifting demands ahead. A whole range of papers and presentations from 450 delegates from over 50 countries set an optimistic tone, with strong commonality in themes of respect, trust, new power relations and moving to evaluation as joint enterprise. In presentations from Iceland to Malaysia there were common threads of renewing teacher professionalism, establishing change via collaborative networks, and emphasizing systems perspectives through linkage and understanding, rather than prescription and grading.

The official theme of ICSEI 2012 was the interplay between policy, research and practice in education. Each annual congress presents a ‘State of the Art’ review, and this year’s was entitled ‘Lost in Translation’, noting that policy makers and the educational research community have drifted apart, with those responsible for policy taking insufficient heed of the accumulated findings of international research.

As a headteacher – and a class committed one – it was refreshing to find many present were practitioners, or liasing directly with them. A group of teachers from Vancouver Island, Canada gave an interesting presentation Walking along the Difficult Path of Education Change, displaying approaches of inquiry-based learning, away from overly fixed pre-determined learning progression. From the other end of the telescope, the Brunei School Inspectorate were keen to bridge gulfs of understanding, searching out commonalities and differences of meaning, seeking to penetrate them in discourse, through stronger working relationships with schools.

The means to establish and enable effective collaboration through professional learning communities was covered by many presentations. The need to grasp new concepts and let go of old ones was a theme throughout. Hargreaves spoke of the fallacies of educational reform, warning against those of speed, substitution (seeing people as the problem), standardization, competition and a ‘fallacy of extremes’ achieved “by remedying or removing defects at the bottom and replicating excellence at the top”.
The pervading themes of the conference stood very much against the prevailing orthodoxies of educational administration, encapsulated in Sahlberg’s GERM. A need for new approaches, methods, concepts and a new participatory bridge between all those involved in education was perhaps the dominant message of the conference.

Next year’s ICSEI will be held in Santiago, Chile, with the theme Educational Systems for School Effectiveness and Improvement: Exploring the Alternatives. Will policy, discourse, research and practice move closer together this coming year? Which countries will embrace and explore genuine alternative approaches, as Finland’s case study was celebrated at this year’s ICSEI? Or will education policy continue to wield the ‘wrong drivers of change’ identified by Michael Fullan, a keynote speaker for ICSEI 2013? Certainly much hangs on the outcome. There was common agreement that through effective educational change the economy, society and culture necessary to establish a new benign internationalism may work in partnership to meet the global challenges of this century, already very different to the last.

This was not a national agenda, but an international one. The central message of ICSEI 2012 was of strong common issues facing schools and their communities in far separated contexts, with global similarities in connecting responses. A few countries stood out in stark contrast, chastising schools and denigrating teachers, seeing change not as opportunity for partners in prospect, refashioning and renewing learning, but as a threat to be sanctioned in audit prescription. But whilst those systems are shrill and close at hand, a more pervasive and positive way forward was signposted in Malmö to a new responsible professionalism, embracing complexity and change, more loosely configured in uncertainty yet promise.

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