Help with the impossible

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Collaboration helps schools pierce their insular cosiness so that co-operating when learning makes sense. Charles Desforges looks at the advantages of the network option

Schools are working hard to transform pupils' learning experience and hence to raise standards of achievement in a broadly conceived way. Some institutions are ploughing a solitary, if not lonely, furrow in their development, while others have formed networks to co-operate in this endeavour. Given the immensity of what is at stake, it is perhaps timely to rehearse the advantages of the network option.

Common knowledge, often expressed in aphorisms such as "two heads are better than one", speaks to the value of co-operation in the common good.

Schools facing the challenges of providing on "personalised education" do have more in common than not, so collaboration looks attractive.

For those who are sceptical about the sagacity of proverbs, there are more pragmatic reasons for co-operation. We will need to be innovative to create the new knowledge and practices needed. The greater the diversity of minds around the table, the greater the likelihood of new ideas being aired and disseminated.

Diversity is also a challenge to cosiness. I have frequently observed that what is impossible in one school is common practice in the school across the street. Networks of schools can provide a diverse forum of experience in which a wide range of ideas can be created, debated and challenged. The schools in a network also provide a broader test bed for the quicker and more thorough testing of ideas.

Networks also provide a direct mechanism for the transfer of knowledge. It is difficult to learn from others when we are cloistered in our own classrooms or staffrooms. Reading about the practice of others is no substitute for direct and practical collaboration in professional development. If our collaborators are from a different parish, so much the better for progress. We learn more about practice through shared development than through reading.

If these pragmatic arguments in favour of collaboration across networks are not persuasive, then there are more fundamental epistemological reasons that necessitate such co-operation. Teaching calls on a broad body of knowledge about curriculum, children, classrooms, communities and cultures (at least). It is unlikely that we will transform educational experience without a correlated transformation of our knowledge base. The knowledge base in question has been characterised as distributed, socially constructed and situated.

Knowledge is distributed in the sense that no one person can educate a child in the modern context. The pedagogic knowledge necessary is spread across a number of minds, including those of teachers, ancillaries, parents, educational managers and so on. Transformation of this distributed knowledge base cannot occur through acts of learning of individuals. If it is to be coherent, transformation of a distributed knowledge base entails collaboration.

Pedagogic knowledge is socially constructed in the sense that it is invented and validated in the common social practices of participants. We cannot possibly teach algebra to pupils under the age of 11. Ex-Soviet bloc countries taught algebra to six-year-olds.

There is nothing objective about either stance. Each is socially constructed. Changing social constructions, which run very deep, entails widespread collaboration in the challenge to common knowledge and the invention and validation of new ideas. Parochial forces are far too conservative to promote this. Our professional knowledge base is situated in the sense that it is embedded in our practices and is inseparable from those practices. Teaching is what teachers do. Much of what we know and do is beyond our immediate consciousness. Embedded in the taken-for-granted social constructions of particular classrooms and schools, our professional knowledge is almost beyond our description, let alone open to serious internal challenge. But thorough examination of our knowledge base is essential to transformation.

We need the informed help of professionals beyond our parish to achieve this transformation effectively because they share our goal, understand our context, but are not blinkered by our assumptions about our immediate settings.

In summary, we are all committed to an agenda for the transformation of educational practice. I have argued that this requires a transformation of the knowledge base underlying practice. There are common sense and pragmatic reasons for schools' collaboration in learning networks to achieve such a transformation. A proper understanding of our knowledge base reveals it to be distributed, constructed and situated in our working practices. This means that collaboration across schools is a necessity rather than an optional extra in the transformation project.

Professor Charles Desforges is emeritus professor at University of Exeter

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