I just returned from the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) in Malmo Sweden. I attended this conference to present my work on the impact of professional culture and professional learning communities on an Ontario policy initiative. I have attended many conferences around the world, but this one really left me feeling energized.
ICSEI is a conference of approximately 450 people with around fifty countries represented. Each of these individuals brings to this conference a unique perspective about teaching and learning, yet we all share the same passion for improving student achievement. Over the course of the four days, I engaged with educators from as far away as Borneo, Australia, New Zealand, China, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well as Canada and many European countries. Their unique perspectives gave me many ideas about the steps needed in the United States for meaningful educational reform to occur.
What was notable was the tiny representation from the United States at this conference. This raised questions in my mind. Are Americans not interested in what other countries are doing? Don’t they want to learn from some of the countries that have consistently been high performing? Despite the fact that US policies are not bringing about successful change, we don’t try the strategies of other countries that have experienced success. Many say that countries such as Finland are homogeneous and therefore cannot be an example for the U.S – though many US states have far smaller immigration levels than Finland. And there are other very successful and well-represented countries like Canada and Singapore that are very diverse indeed. Their contexts may be different, but there are many strategies we could learn from them to improve student learning such as building strong school cultures for teachers and students. They stay ahead by learning from other countries all the time. Why don’t we?
Pasi Sahlberg, a world renowned Finnish researcher, spoke about the Global Educational Reform movement (GERM). He describes GERM as “an unofficial educational agenda that relies on a certain set of assumptions to improve education systems”. It has become accepted as “a new educational orthodoxy within many recent education reforms throughout the world including the United States. Sahlberg compares GERM with the Finnish Education Policies. While GERM focuses on Standardizing teaching and learning specifically literacy and numeracy, Finland customizes teaching and learning and focuses on creative learning. GERM prescribes curriculum while Finland encourages risk-taking. Borrowing market-oriented reform ideas have become the norm for GERM. Finland learns from the past and owns innovations. Lastly, test-based accountability and control are central to GERM. Finland builds a culture of responsibility and trust. As one of the world leaders in education, isn’t it time that we consider learning from their reform strategies.
Andy Hargreaves’s keynote address was of particular interest to me because it focused on and tried to get behind the clichés within the ideas of pressure and support. It’s hard to disagree with people who say there should be some pressure he says (as well as support). But the opposite of pressure is not support, he continued – as in massage therapy, it is release. Positive pressure might sound like an unarguably good thing, but what is the right amount of pressure? When does a worthwhile nudge become a bullying shove? When does good pressure become bad pressure?
Sweden, though cold in dark in January, could not have been a more welcoming place during the conference. Swedish schools benefit from a strong equitable system, like most Nordic countries. Equitable funding provides leadership opportunities within schools for teachers. One workshop I attended focused on internal change agents for school improvement. This three year action research project focused on how three municipalities in Sweden used the research knowledge of internal change agents in school. Teachers, who have taken courses in organizational development strategies, act as change agents. In their positions as teachers, they spend part of their day working as change agents to foster teacher learning with the aim to improve student learning. They work closely with principals in their school and exercise distributed leadership. This project identified three challenges: learning about the change agent role, building a community of practice, and handling the emotional reactions from their colleagues. Change agent opportunities continue to allow teachers to share best practice.
This directly related to my dissertation which looks at what combinations of pressure and support explain the implications and effects of a whole system reform strategy. Andy questions whether we should push or pull people towards educational change. Perhaps a balance of pushing and pulling and pushing a bit but not to hard is his recommendation. People stay in their jobs not because you push them but because you’re pulling them in to what you’re doing all the time. He believes that’s mainly how you get staff retention.
Many of the conferences I have attended, both nationally and internationally, have provided opportunities to engage in discussions, meet other researchers, and learn about exciting research. But none have been as intellectually stimulating nor had such an international representation as ICSEI. This conference provides many opportunities to begin professional relationships with colleagues around the world and when I returned back home full of energy to inspire and impact the U.S. education system. I will, as the Finnish say, do this with Sisu-persistence despite all obstacles.
ICSEI is an opportunity to engage with people from other countries, fields, and disciplines and for young scholars to showcase their own work and infuse it, through networks offered by ICSEI, with the new ideas from around the world.
ICSEI 2013 will be in Santiago Chile from January 3rd-6th. Hope to see you there.