Fantastic voyage

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
When an assistant head in the Shetlands set up a learning exchange scheme with a Czech school, he had no idea it would grow into a major piece of global research. Michael Duffy reports

If, like Chris Woodhead, you still believe learning is really pretty straightforward, read no further. "Teachers teach," the former chief inspector recently opined, "and students learn. It's as simple as that."

But if you think it might be a bit less simple, and that learning can stem from students themselves, then read on. Certainly, Mr Woodhead's strangely dated thesis has been persuasively contradicted by a group of young men and women from all over the world who, during their final year of secondary education, have travelled the world studying each other's schools, observing and recording the learning process, reflecting on it and, above all, learning themselves.

Karolina is one such student (see box). She is 17 and comes from a small town in central Sweden. She spent a year travelling between six very different schools across the globe, moving first from Sweden to Scotland, then to Germany and the Czech Republic, and later to South Africa and Japan, as part of a group studying pupil motivation. When she addressed the education department in Hong Kong about the experience, she said:

"Motivation was something I never thought of. Suddenly, I had to find out what made other students want to learn - before I knew what made me learn. It opened the doors in my mind."

Karolina's story, and a dozen others like it, is told in John MacBeath and Hidenori Sugimine's book Self-Evaluation in the Global Classroom. It's not the snappiest of titles, but it is an extraordinary and uplifting read none the less. It tells the story of how one school's ambition to broaden and extend its pupils' horizons grew into a global classroom project - and how that project developed further into a unique and persuasive piece of academic research. This is an intriguing and many-sided tale, told partly by the students, partly by the teachers and the students they observed, and partly by the two educationists who defied academic caution and took the participants under their wing.

The students all volunteer for the project. They are interviewed by their respective heads, then get final approval from Cambridge and Nara universities. The number interested in the project rises each year - for 2003, there are more applications than places.

It all began in the Shetland Islands in 1988, when Stewart Hay, then - as now - assistant headteacher of Anderson high school in Lerwick, asked the Scottish Education Department and the British Council to help him set up a school-to-school exchange that would broaden the horizons of his pupils. The initial link was with a selective school in Czechoslovakia, but within five years Karolina's school, Bobergsskolan, had also become involved, and was followed by another school in northern Germany. The exchange network was growing.

And in 1995 it grew wider still. That was the year that one Anderson school-leaver won a gap-year scholarship from Encounter Japan, run by the Japanese embassy, to teach at a secondary school in Nara, near Osaka. Then an approach to the South African embassy identified a school in the townships of Cape Town that was anxious to join. By now the project was no longer simply an exchange scheme. Partner schools set up email curriculum and learning links, and took turns to host an annual conference attended by all the participating students. The global classroom was taking shape.

But the crucial development was still to come, says Mr Hay. "In 1998 to 1999 there were students from five countries at Anderson," he says. "We were fascinated by their different attitudes and skills, but it was what they said that moved us forward - the student from Cape Town, for example, who constantly told us what a luxury it was to study at Anderson, and the young Czech man who asked,'Why do your students go in for exams they know they're going to fail?' We realised we could use these perceptions to improve everybody's learning."

Nara secondary school in Japan was closely linked with that city's women's university, and principal Mr Sugimine was already keen to use the global classroom as a research instrument whereby students could evaluate each other's teaching and learning. Meanwhile, the search was on for a UK educational researcher to support and develop the project. Professor John MacBeath, then at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, was approached, and agreed to a meeting - which took place at a motorway service station. "It's a crazy, wonderful idea," he said. "I'll back it."

Initially, partner schools had expressed reservations, but they began to sign up; education departments gave their blessing; funds were raised (major costs are met by local hospitality. Travel costs for the Scottish students are met through their own fund-raising with grants from the Scottish Executive and Shetland oil industry); round-the-world tickets booked; host families enrolled to provide accommodation. Graduate researchers, the product of the first exchanges, drafted an outline of the tools to be used by the students: questionnaires, interviews, student-shadowing, structured observation, "spot-checks" on class and student engagement. And soon after that, the first Learning School was on its travels.

That was in August 1999. In the following months, eight young students, all aged 16 to 18, from the partner schools travelled with their two undergraduate co-ordinators from Scotland to Sweden and the Czech Republic, back to Scotland (to make a presentation to the Scottish Executive) and then on to Cape Town. After a break for some rest and recovery in Australia and New Zealand, the group moved on to Japan. Students spent six weeks in each partner school. Their research topic focused on school ethos and its effects on learning.

In August 2000, it was the turn of Learning School 2. This group, charged with researching "motivation", took in the German school as well - and found time to visit a prospective partner school in South Korea before doing presentations to the government of Hong Kong and at Cambridge university.

The third Learning School (August 2001 to July 2002) chose "student self-evaluation" as its research topic. This time there were 19 members. They travelled as two groups with separate itineraries, taking in the new partner in South Korea and giving three high-level presentations.

The work was by no means easy for the students; indeed, the candour with which they describe their experiences is one of the most engaging aspects of the study. They lived among strangers, far from home and with limited common language. And they had all packed far too much. "We grew to hate our suitcases," said one. But participants were moved and excited by what they discovered about each other, about themselves and about their learning.

There are some strikingly constant themes in the research findings. For one, context - everything from parental expectations to classroom layout, even to the time of day - is always important. For another, teachers'

enthusiasm seems to matter as much as their competence. Motivation is the key ingredient, and over and over, a teacher's view of how well a student was learning bore little relation to the student's perception. But perhaps the most important finding was that learners' self-evaluation actually helps learning to take place. "It gives you ownership and control," the authors conclude. "It helps you to understand the reasons for your learning I It leads to greater learning responsibility."

John MacBeath, now professor of education at Cambridge, says that is the foremost message of the work. "There is global pressure now to make education more instrumental, more competitive - competence-led, assessment driven, inspection controlled. Real learning isn't like that. These students have looked at schools around the world. If we would only listen, they have told us so."

And Karolina agrees. "I've learned as much in these 10 months as I did in 13 years of school. Thank you Learning School 2 - it has been a privilege to have travelled, researched and grown with you."

'Self-Evaluation in the Global Classroom' by John MacBeath and Hidenori Sugimine, with Gregor Sutherland, Miki Nishimura and the students of the Learning School, RoutledgeFalmer, pound;17.99

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