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From peer reviewing to transformation of policy and practice

Much valuable change and improvement springs from things learnt from and with our peers. Such learning is a natural part of the way we live in society. To what extent can peer learning be extended and accelerated with the aid of information and communication technologies? The following text draws from experience in policy peer-reviewing in the European P2P project.

Peer exchange

Peer exchange is about learning from our peers, both by example and by the sharing of ideas and experience. Such learning is essentially about developing new ways of doing things although not exclusively in the "work" context.

Peer reviewing is an organised way of developing peer exchange involving, amongst other things, mutual visits and thematic discussions. The word "review" potentially embodies the notion of judgement, but judgement fits badly with peer exchange, which is built on mutual trust.

Peer exchange is rooted in existing relationships and a certain degree of mutual trust.

Successful peer exchange necessitates a minimum shared knowledge of the context so as to make sense of what peers have to say about their work.

If these conditions are not fulfilled, time has to be spent developing relationships, mutual trust and shared knowledge of each other's context before satisfactory peer-learning can take place. If the need for these prerequisites is ignored, misunderstandings, frustration and tension result.

Peer exchange requires a will to learn on the part of the participants. That will to learn implies that participants need to be able to admit that they don't know all the answers, which, in turn, requires there to be mutual confidence and a relatively non-threatening atmosphere within the group.

There needs to be some form of "feedback loop" to enable rapid clarification of understanding and the dissipation of misunderstandings.


Practice is the organised way in which an individual or a group carries out a particular activity. The notion of practice implies that the activity has probably happened more than once in a similar way and is likely to happen again.

Practice is largely tacit knowledge rooted in the experience of individuals and groups.

Some practice relies on formalised ways of doing things held in such repositories as cookbooks and guides, but people invariably adjust those ways of doing things to local circumstances.

Practice is deemed "good" if it serves as an example for others, helping them to improve ways of working, making them more appropriate or more efficient or more satisfying.

The major difficulty with practice is its relative resistance to change.


Policy is a set of statements about how a particular goal is to be reached. Although some policy measures may be repeatedly used, the notion of “policy”, unlike practice, does not necessarily require repeated use for it to become policy.

Policy seeks to structure and shape specific areas of practice of a large number of people. However only a small amount of practice is dictated by policy.

Policy is generally formalised in writing, whereas much practice resides in experience. Although policy may be the fruit of wide-scale discussion, it is not based on tacit understanding of a group like with practice, but is rather a decision of a person or body invested with authority. The major difficulty of policy is putting it into practice.


A number of beliefs are behind current drives to use Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to enhance peer exchange:

  • If we can accelerate change, society will be more competitive, people will be more able to respond to the challenges of the complex modern world and the well-being of all will be enhanced.
  • The spread of change in ways of working can be extended and accelerated by recording exemplary policy and practice in writing and making that information widely available.
  • Practice and policy can be isolated from their context, transferred elsewhere and re-used.

Why those beliefs are misleading

The above beliefs don't take into consideration the conditions necessary for successful peer exchange by seeking to extend exchange between people who have no relationship with each other and who are not necessarily aware of each other's context.

Practice is process-based and context-bound, so it can't be treated like a discrete object that can be moved for one place to another. Fragments of policy or practice don't exist separated from each other or from the context. Trying to put them in another context can fundamentally change their nature, their impact and the context in which they are put. Transferring policy and practice requires a holistic, systemic approach. Failure to look at all the pertinent factors could lead to unexpected if not undesirable results.

More profoundly, the assumption that accelerating change necessarily produces long-term well-being needs to be looked at very closely.

Transformation rather than transfer

Depending on your cultural background, the word “transfer” might suggest that policy and practice may be treated like objects that can be moved around without making any impact on them or the context. Experience shows that the process of taking policy or practice form one context to another induces a transformation of both the context and the practice or policy. "Transformation* might be a more appropriate word.

A method for transformation

This "method" - as elaborated in the policy strand of the P2P project - is built around successive mutual exchange visits between three partners in different countries followed by work at a distance on transformation. The following are the steps suggested:

  • Define a focus issue for the exchange visit. The focus issue needs to go beyond a general area of activity like “teacher training” or e-content” to converge attention on a practical issue such as how to organise the integration of ICT across the whole spectrum of educational activities. The focus issue needs to cover an area that is wide enough for it to be approached in terms of most of the component parts of the educational context: curriculum, assessment, school inspection, teacher training, learning resources, infrastructure, school buildings, administration, …
  • Distribute appropriate documents to peers, knowing that peers generally don't have a great deal of time to read lengthy documents. You need to help them get a good grasp of the overall context including who does what and what the relationship is between the players. They also need to understand the policy or practice(s) that are the subject of the focus issue.
  • Design the programme of people to meet during the visit. To do so, you need to think about organising visits to representatives of all those institutions that are involved in the focus issue or related areas. You also need to leave quite a lot of free time for discussion within the reviewing peer group.
  • Carry out a series of peer visits using a holistic approach to the practical focus issue.
  • After the visits, write about the striking aspects of the ways of doing things in the form of a short two-page document. The aim is to constrain participants to write about aspects of the policies or practices discovered whether they be similar or radically different from their own. This can also be done for perceived strengths and weaknesses. In addition, it is an opportunity to outline those policies or practices that might be used in transforming aspects of the home system.
  • Work on the words and concepts used. On one level, words mean different things to different people. For example, the notion of head teacher is quite different in France compared with the UK. As a result, these different starting points will skew any discussion of leadership, for example. At the same time, we are often so sure of the meaning that it is difficult to imagine the word could mean something quite different for others. As a precaution, you almost have to assume that such key notions have to be thoroughly tested before you can be sure that you understand what everybody is talking about when they use the same word. On another level, words often work as smoke screens for seductive but nebulous concepts. You could call them “power words” that bowl over all that gets in their way, without anyone really knowing exactly what is meant. In the field of education such words include: “elearning”, econtent”, “ambient learning”, “personalisation”. Then there are the assumptions. Whole “edifices” are build on unchallenged assumptions, locking discussion into singular perspectives and blocking possible change in a way that is difficult to challenge. Work on words can most constructively be carried out by asking questions about their use in the texts that the peers write about the countries visited. This can be done via email or using a “chat” programme. In P2P we used the messaging programme from Skype.
  • Analyse a “practice” or policy and its initial context. Then analyse the home context in the light of that practice. And finally work on designing the transformation the home context with things learnt from that analysis.
  • Guide the whole process via the ongoing use of formative evaluation and coaching (see below).


One designated person, who is not from the participating groups, needs to play the role of coach. The following are some of the roles of the coach or mentor:

  • Guide and reassure participants throughout the process, paying particular attention to developing openness and mutual trust but also to clarifying understanding in a multilingual, multicultural context. Experience shows that reassurance is important if participants are to feel confident and motivated to participate fully.
  • Suggest methods of working, including time and means for in-depth exchange between all participants in the exchange process amongst themselves.
  • Ensure the ongoing formative evaluation (see below).
  • Question the self-evident. Often the richest parts of the context being reviewed lie in the assumptions and the self-evident. Cultivate the habit of asking “naïve” questions that can open the way to deeper learning on the part of all. The question above about the supposed self-evidence of improvement based on accelerating change is one such example. Note that caution is needed when asking such naïve questions, because some impatient people can get quite irate at those who question the self-evident.
  • Question the use of words and concepts so as to lead to a deeper understanding of what is meant, as mentioned above.
  • Train others to do this coaching so as to contribute to the sustainability of such action.


Clarify the underlying goals of participants in taking part in the peer-exchange process.

Help participants to fix objectives (or at least expectations) for the peer visits and the transformation process.

Examine the process at each stage in terms of goals and objectives but also the experience acquired so as to clarify understanding of what is happening and to adjust the process where necessary.

Alan McCluskey, Brussels

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Created: October 11th, 2005 - Last up-dated: November 4th, 2005