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In June 2004, the European Commission published a call for tender for the provision of central support services for the implementation and promotion of the action line “e-twinning of schools and promotion of teachers’ training” of the eLearning Programme. The four general objectives stated in the call include supporting the networking of schools, encouraging the development of pedagogical partnerships, promoting innovative cooperation and participation and, finally, fostering improvements in teachers’ training and knowledge, in particular through the exchange of best practices. Given the ambitions of the action and the relatively limited means available, the call for tender raises major questions about how decision-makers understand and handle change in education. The following article seeks to identify some of the challenges and offers some possible paths forward. However none of this will happen if the European Commission does not provide the means for a more holistic approach to change.

Exciting challenges of a holistic approach to e-twinning

The e-twinning action is about change and innovation. It is about learning as an organisation. It is about integrating ICT as a tool for exchange and learning. It is about improving performance. It is also about improving mutual understanding across Europe. It is about citizenship.

Any attempt at changing a complex system like that of education necessarily requires a holistic, system-wide approach. That is to say, all major factors need to be considered in designing change strategies. You cannot adopt a whole-school approach if you don’t address the question of leadership. You cannot develop wide-scale exchange of best practice if you don’t address the question of the criteria for best practice and ways and means of writing and exchanging that practice. You cannot advocate a multidisciplinary, project-based approach if you don’t address the place of that work in the curriculum and assessment. You cannot address teaching practice with teachers alone, you have to involve other actors like policy-makers, parents and industry as each has an influence on what teachers can and cannot do. You cannot incite schools to twin uniquely by setting up an interactive web portal or by offering recognition by granting a label to participating schools. It is important, but not enough. At the same time, the means will never be available to fully address all the aspects that require action. To avoid being victims of an unsatisfactory and possibly unsuccessful “local fix”, each of the other threads needs to be woven into the project. In the case of leadership, for example, an e-twinning service should work closely with those institutions training leaders for schools.

1. Whole school approach

The e-twining action is about twinning between schools and not individual teachers. As a “whole-school” approach it may not correspond to the logic of many schools that do not have a whole-school approach. Ways and means need to be developed to help schools participate as a school rather than as a small group of enthusiastic teachers. School heads and teachers need to be made aware of this whole-school dimension. They need to have advice available on how best to adopt such an approach in their school. Particular attention needs to be paid to leadership and its role in the whole-school approach. This could be done through partnerships with training organisations working on leadership in education.

2. Best practices

One of the main aims of the e-twinning action is to encourage the sharing of best practice. Although many teachers have personal examples of best practice, they may not be in a position to share those with others. This may be due to the fact that their experience is not adequately formulated. It may be that teachers don’t have channels through which to share practice. It may also be that identifying and sharing practice is not part of teachers’ culture. It might not be seen as part of their job. In a number of countries where the exchange of best practice is given a high profile, best practice is not formulated by teachers themselves, but by external experts who subsequently make it available in the form of case studies or recommendations. Although this way of working has a number of advantages, it also has considerable inconveniences. One such inconvenience is that, ideally, teachers should be involved in identifying, formulating and sharing good practice. Developing best practice is an on-going learning process in which learners - in this case, teachers - continually need to be involved. The e-twinning action needs to provide ways and means for teachers to identify, formulate and share best practice. These means need to be scalable. One such way would be to use the interview as a technique, training teachers to do mutual interviews about experience and ways of working. Another way would be to develop the use of BLOGS as records of good experience.

3. Building trust

Any exchange of practice between teachers needs to be built on mutual trust and respect for diversity. School is often a very judgemental “milieu” that tends to work against sharing personal experience between teachers. The e-twinning action needs to create a framework in which trust is a key ingredient alongside evaluation as a powerful form of accountability. Building trust requires a clear statement of what e-twinning is about and what the underlying values are. Those values need to be embedded in the way the project is run and the technology that is used. Often project activities and the technology used belie the original aims and driving values behind a project.

4. A project-based approach

It is not sufficient to set up a framework to assist school twinning, careful attention needs to be given to what happens in that twinning. The “content” of the twinning is not some magical substance that will appear spontaneously, it requires work and guidance. The e-twinning action calls for a multidisciplinary project-based approach. Such an approach is foreign to the way many schools work. It often runs up against constraints embedded in the curriculum, the daily timetable, the school architecture, teachers’ training and their individual professional identity. Although the e-twinning action cannot intervene to directly change these variables, it can at least make the interplay between them and a project-based approach clear not just to teachers, but to all actors involved including decision-makers and parents. A project-based approach requires specific competences. The e-twinning action can contribute to developing these competences by working in collaboration with organisations familiar with training for innovation processes and project management. It can also provide simple project management tools as well as mechanisms to share noteworthy experience in running multidisciplinary projects.

5. Exchange between schools

The e-twinning action is about exchange between schools. It is about sharing and learning. Although there may be a certain tradition for school exchanges in Europe, there is much less of a culture for learning across and between institutions. This aspect has to be made clear and successful experience needs to be widely announced and celebrated. One of the major difficulties for schools is going to be finding suitable partners and subsequently developing sustainable relationships. This implies both providing the necessary tools, but also developing a culture for sharing experience about how such relationships can be sustained and improved.

6. The role of staff

Much of what is written here requires a change in the role of teachers, shifting attention to include such activities as working with colleagues on interdisciplinary projects, formulating and sharing knowledge between teachers, developing leadership skills, being able to run projects and developing sustainable learning relationships between institutions. Such a shift cannot be carried out by the e-twinning action, but the action can favourably influence the evolution through dialogue with decision-makers and trade unions in the different countries. The first step is to make explicit the interrelationship between these factors. There is also a need to demonstrate how the successful holistic handling of such factors can lead to improved performance, not just in terms of academic skills of pupils but also in improved soft-skills including collaboration, learning strategies, social responsibility…

Taking a whole-school approach necessarily implies involving all staff in schools, not just teachers. The e-twinning action needs to make a point of involving non-teaching staff and catering for their needs in the context of twinning.

7. Assessment

One of the central aspects of twinning resides in being able to identify what is good practice and finding effective means of exchanging that good practice. Assessment is at the heart of such a process. What are the criteria for determining what experience is worth sharing? And how can these criteria be applied? What criteria can be used to evaluate and improve the ways and means used to share good practice? What working mechanisms would make such an evaluation of the process feasible? At the same time, as mentioned above, a judgemental culture can be counterproductive in building the trust necessary for exchange and collaboration. How can the e-twinning action find a right balance between summative and formative evaluation? There is a need to be very clear and explicit about the role of evaluation in the project and to get the message across to all involved. At the same time, the e-twinning action could work with institutions specialised in different forms of evaluation in education to provide advice and help to participants.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

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Created: July 17th, 2004 - Last up-dated: July 17th, 2004