Dialogue dilemmas and practical wisdom
In December 2019 a number of participants of the EU Promise Project engaged in a study visit to Tilburg in the Netherlands.
This is year two of our project, and you can read earlier blog posts from previous project meetings in Lubliana, Tübingen and Aberdeen to gain a sense of our learning journey. The project ‘Promoting Inclusion in Society through Education: Professional Dilemmas in Practice’ involves partners from The Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, England, Scotland and Hungary. It is an example of the way universities like Leeds Beckett University work collaboratively with European partners over extended periods of time, with potential impacts both in the partner countries and beyond for the benefit of all European society.
Our study visit to the Netherlands was hosted by Quinta Kools and Chantal de Koster from the Teacher Education Institute at the Fontys University of Applied Science. Over the three days delegates from England, Scotland, Germany and Hungary were able to learn about, and to learn from, the national education system and approaches to teacher education in the Netherlands. The study visits in each of the seven participant countries which feature as part of the EU Promise Project are individually designed to support our experiences and the development of ideas and the materials for the necessary project outputs. The visits offer the project participants opportunities to extend their own discussions as well as to meet and learn from wider networks of colleagues, students and pupils at each location.
Our three days in Tilburg included a school visit to Odulphus Lyceum. This is one secondary school with two different education pathways which map on to the national education system. Some of the students are in HAVO which is a senior general secondary education which takes 5 years and some students follow VWO which is a more academic route over 6 years. Our visit to the school was an opportunity to meet with school leaders, teachers and pupils, all of whom gave us time to make sense of, to learn from and most importantly to discuss their educational decisions, practices and dilemmas. Most significantly we learned about the decisions that had been taken to transform the HAVO section of the school, involving pedagogic and curriculum changes which have been implemented since 2012 when there was genuine dilemma about pupil motivation and results.
Here it is useful to introduce the Greek term phronesis, which we translate as practical wisdom used wisely in context, ‘the ability to see the right thing to do in the circumstances’ (Thomas, 2011, p.23). The dialogue during the visit gave us insight into how the HAVO staff are developing such phronesis and this is demonstrated through their evident disposition to act truly and justly according to their values and moral stance. It began with the introduction from HAVO Principal Jan Beesems who highlighted the values underpinning the philosophy and work of Odulphus School over the last 120 years and which had guided their approach to the dilemma they found themselves in. The school values are illustrated in their logo ‘trust and confidence’ and on the stained-glass windows found in the older school building; ‘personal development, social development, spiritual development, intellectual and cultural development and true wisdom’.
These are the core values on which the decisions leading to change in the HAVO school have been based and led to the leadership team prioritising trust, transparency, activity, responsibility and acting together as working principles for both staff and pupils An ‘aha’ moment was felt almost immediately. These principles made sense of our first impression of the school which was gained from the street through a huge window giving a view of a communal learning and social space of the school. It was also experienced in the architecture of teachers’ room which had windows on all four sides, one to the outside, one to the corridor and two onto teaching spaces. Through these windows teachers and pupils can see each active in their work and can gain a sense of belonging to a shared institution.
Dialogue framed the rest of the school visit. We were invited to talk to some of the older pupils in the HAVO about school life and to let them to take us on a tour of the school. As they practiced their English communication skills with us, we learned from them. Through our dialogue we gained an understanding of the strength of the relationships between staff and students and the way that much of the curriculum is framed around active projects and opportunities for collaborative and independent learning. Both teachers and pupils are expected to take ownership and responsibility with the aim to create a supportive and motivational atmosphere. The school leaders were clear that teachers were expected to make autonomous decisions, that there were no set routines to individual lessons (although there is a timetable) and that best practices should be shared. Change was happening organically and had gained momentum through the redevelopment of the HAVO building which had created new learning and social spaces. The school also employs an Educational Developer who acts as a coach for conversations around teaching and learning practice, supporting teachers to work through dilemmas emerging in practice and their ideas for innovation.
The opportunity to visit Odulphus School provided EU Promise project participants a chance to experience how a school is addressing their professional educational dilemmas through re-imaging and shaping their practices in line with their underpinning values. For our project this visit was a source of ‘exemplary knowledge’ not because the school is taken to be representative, but because as visitors we gained an authentic experience of how professionals were working through their dilemmas. Rooting ourselves within the practice of teachers has allowed us to further develop the project thinking and to recognise the significance of being ambitious for teachers’ professional learning.
Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.