Guinness, Scandinavian noir and getting out more

Reaching the parts that others don’t reach

SIOE has a global presence engaging with governments, universities, schools, students and lecturers across the planet. In the last year the Centre for Development and Research in Education (CDARE) led teacher professional and curriculum development in the EU (Chain Reaction, Engage, TEMI), Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador, Ghana, the Philippines and India. But other than passports, visa forms, cheap flights and airport food what’s involved?

Guinness – love it or hate it?

I hate it. I tried it but someone had swapped the beer for a sample of second-hand sump oil with a smear of fabric conditioner (Acacia flower and walnut) on top. When I complained to my drinking partner he explained that ‘Guinness doesn’t travel’ and that if I wanted to enjoy it I’d have to go to Dublin.

So, while the UK has a reputation for an innovative approach to education and inquiry and practical work in particular does what works in Rotherham work in Rajasthan (with a few culturally-respectful modifications)? Unlike Guinness?

Many of the issues are similar: stuff to cover (the curriculum) in a learning environment (the classroom or lab) moderated by adults (the teachers) to youngsters (the students). I regularly have conversations along the lines of ‘everyone is obsessed about examination results’ (India, Thailand, Malaysia) and ‘our curriculum contains too much content’ (everywhere!) or ‘we don’t have enough lab space’ (The Philippines, India). But this masks deeper differences. In India, there is no reference in their science curricula to inquiry skills. In the Philippines, I had a conversation where even the academic that had insisted that x (something about calculating the electric field around a point charge) should be in the curriculum could not give us a reason for this decision. So, too much ‘stuff’ is common but the exact type of ‘stuff’ and why it’s ‘too much’ varies everywhere.

What about the learning environment, the teachers and the students? We were told by a professor at the University of Tezpur in India that the biggest problem facing Indian education was teachers in rural schools who did not turn up for work. But we met teachers who were working hours that would shame the most committed of professionals anywhere. The Philippine Ministry of Education told us that, by the age of 11, 60% of students were routinely absent. Our suggestion of more ‘small group work’ in classes with an average size of 90 seemed a little misplaced! A teacher in Kuching, Malaysia told me that the school day for his students was 7:00am to 5pm. He then explained that they would also do 2 to 3 hours homework and that in 5 years no-one had ever failed to hand it in on time. I could have shared an extensive catalogue of homework non-compliance over many years teaching in Leicestershire where the school day was substantially shorter. Whether homework is useful is another issue but clearly students are very different in different parts of the world!

Scandi noir and international work … the connection is clear? Absolut! It’s the subtitles. You’re exploring the nature of inquiry with teachers in Bangkok and notice that the look of weary resignation you normally see has been replaced by complete bafflement. No, this isn’t bad preparation, it’s because they don’t speak English – or rather that you don’t speak Thai. It can make for a difficult session – and when they are poking at their laptops during your presentation believe that they are updating their Facebook status not looking up the Thai for ‘constructivism’ in Google translate.

You need to get out more

So, overseas work? A nightmare! Everywhere is different. You cannot even speak the local language.

Yet, while we don’t always understand what’s going on in the rural schools of Maharashtra, the slums of Manila or the international schools of Brussels, sometimes that activity from Pontefract sings beautifully in Pattaya and Pune. And the people you are working with are committed, patient with your fumbling explanations and possessed of an inexhaustible wealth of smiles for ‘One more photo!’ as you’re escaping to the airport! It’s exhausting, frustrating, exciting and good fun.

More importantly, it is only when I step out of the comfort zone of my own culture that I see it for the first time. Perspective is the wonderful, and unexpected, gift.

So … get out more! Look for projects with a global dimension, move your teaching/research commitments (if you can!), hang out with people who still have Euros/dollars/ringitts/baht etc. from previous trips (they’re the first to hear of opportunities). You may need your passport before you get chance to have second thoughts! Expect irritations, passport dramas, terrifying power sockets (I’m not plugging my iPad into that!), welcoming hosts, happy educational accidents (wow! we do that as well!), interesting conversations, intellectual stimulation, good fun and a collection of receipts in a variety of languages.

You will learn at least as much as the people you work with.

Guaranteed.

Or your money back.

Gareth Price is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Development and Research in Education (CDARE) at Sheffield Institute of Education