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"Parity of Esteem" and "Integrated Learning" - Reflections on the Work of the Two Linked Leonardo Projects `Post-16 Strategies` and `Intequal`

Pekka Kämäräinen


Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999


The following text is essentially based on a discussion paper that has been prepared for a workshop in the VET-conference under the auspices of the Austrian EU-presidency. In the original context some examples of Leonardo ‘research partnerships’ were used as an illustration of the idea of mutual learning as a ‘European dimension’ within the development of VET policies.

In this context some parts of the original document have been adjusted to make a closer look on the experiences and outcomes of two research partnerships (Post-16 Strategies and Intequal). The aim is to prepare a bridge from the work of these two initial projects to the multiplication projects that continue their work (SPES-NET and Duoqual).

However, the primary aim of this document is not to present reflections of the previous projects and on their outcomes as such. The aim is to draw attention on the complementary relations between the respective issues, modes of work and experiences on collaboration and mutual learning. Thus, the focus is not on the individual ‘project histories’ as such but on the development of a ‘project family’ a common intellectual milieu that can support capitalisation of the outcomes.

Moreover, the intention of the document is to draw attention to the difficulties of individual projects (even successful ones) to respond adequately to underlying challenges for policy development. The document tries to give strategic hints on the importance of ‘project families’ and of ‘connective reflection’ in the processes of knowledge accumulation and valorisation of (linked) results.

Reflections on the Two Project Histories

The Partnership "Post-16 Strategies"

The partnership "Post-16 Strategies" was launched to study strategic frameworks (reform models, experimental reforms or particular initiatives) that promote parity of esteem between general and vocational options of upper secondary education. The main differences to the theme of the parallel partnership "Intequal" are the following:

the primary focus has been on "strategies" and "policy frameworks" (whereas Intequal focused on "schemes" and their pedagogic and curricular aspects);

the study covers a broader range of approaches from weaker linkages towards stronger integrative tendencies (whereas Intequal was focusing on explicitly integrative concepts);

the members were recruited primarily from projects that were analysing new initiatives on policy level and (if possible) on the level of curricular macro-development (whereas Intequal was primarily addressing the pedagogic and curricular micro-development);

the project idea included a manifest aim to promote transnational exchanges between the research partnership and representatives of practitioners that were involved in implementing the concepts that were studied (whereas Intequal was in this respect more purely a research partnership).

The project design was developed as two cycles of work. The first cycle was based on descriptive-analytical ´national reports´ that were produced separately and confronted to each other in a processing discussion. As a result of the discussion the partnership developed a framework for relating the national models to each others as examples of four main types of strategies (´unification´, ´mutual enrichment´, ´linkages´, ´enhancement of vocational learning´). In the second phase the project reworked and updated the national reports to presentations of ´strategy clusters´ within which the national developments were interpreted as variants of the said strategy. Parallel to this the research partnership organised a small scale ´study visits programme´ for practitioners that were involved in the national reforms or initiatives that were analysed.

Concerning the relation of work of the partnership to the ´working agendas´, it has already been indicated that the focus of the partnership was primarily on the level of ´structural modernisation´ and insights in conceptual modernisation of VET were discussed to the extent they were present in the respective strategies. Due to the existence of the parallel partnership, the pedagogic and (micro) curricular aspects were not elaborated to a greater extent.

Concerning the degree of mutual learning, the partnership put a special emphasis on developing a pattern for learning from each other – both within the ´strategy clusters´ as between the ´strategy clusters´. In this respect the partnership progressed towards developing the common issues to ´transversal themes´ and towards reporting from this kind of learning process. Concerning the elaboration of the issues to ´generative themes´ the partnership had come to the end of its work at the very point when this kind of work could have been started (in particular as a cross-fertilisation between the results of the partnership and the parallel partnership Intequal).

Concerning the achieved results, the partnership has provided a basis for relating a variety of strategies (with different degree of consolidation and implementation) to each other. This serves as an interpretative framework for other results of a more detailed character and provides a basis for further ´multiplication activities´ (in particular within the multiplication project SPES-NET which also can profit of the parallel multiplication project of the Intequal partnership – Duoqual).

The Partnership "Intequal"

The Intequal partnership was launched to analyse the pedagogic and curricular foundations of 'schemes' that are designed to integrate 'general education' (that prepares for higher education) and 'vocational education and training' (that provides skilled worker's qualifications). The partnership was essentially based on national projects that studied the implementation of national reforms or model/pilot schemes (accompanying research) or on projects that provided empirical follow-up data on the outcomes of recently implemented models.

The research design of the partnership was essentially based on two phases of work. The first phase of the work provided descriptive-analytical characterisations of the schemes that each of the members (or member teams) was analysing. The second phase of the work was completed in subgroups that focused on particular themes that were essential for understanding the nature and/or impact of the schemes ('integrated learning', 'synoptic assessment', 'preparation for higher education', 'tracing the careers of graduates'). Originally the partnership had also foreseen a transfer-promoting third phase in the participating countries but this was not included in the funded work programme of the project. Instead, the project will be immediately continued by a multiplication project (Duoqual).

The partnership focused particularly on the conceptual and pedagogic-curricular levels of modernisation of VET. The partnership distanced itself deliberately from the level of 'systems' or 'policies' in order to make different innovative schemes transparent to each other as pedagogic and curricular constructs (whatever their systemic status may be in the respective countries).

The partnership took several measures to develop itself as a comparative project with a collaborative working style and as an integrative project environment of several sub-projects. The project developed in both phases two kinds of platforms for mutual learning (the plenary sessions and the subgroups that were formed between the closely matching schemes and according to thematic interests). Within these frameworks the project made steps to develop the common issues to 'transversal themes'. However, since the transfer-promoting phase was given up, the project was deprived of the phase that would have been elaborating the common issues to generative themes. In this respect only the treatment of 'synoptic assessment' was developed towards that direction (however, as a limited reflection of alternative futures for one national scheme without a real comparative setting).

Concerning the main outcomes of the project, it has obviously created a new awareness of different degrees of integration between general and vocational education. Moreover, it has made developed some of the aspects that have been studied in the sub-groups to transversal themes. This effect has been supported by a joint reflection on 'learning from each other' and by a summarising report on the statements of individual members (or member teams).

However, for the purpose of developing generative themes the partnership would have needed a further working phase (in which it would have needed to confronted itself with the systemic and policy-related preconditions for transfer of innovations in the respective countries). This kind of confrontation could also have been give another form - an in-depth cross-fertilisation with the parallel partnership ("Post-16 Strategies"). Now these options are available in a minor scale for the parallel multiplication projects of the two said partnerships.

Reflections on ‘Conceptual Gaps’ Between the Outcomes and Underlying Challenges for Policy Development

In view of the quick examination of the projects (from the perspective of the ‘key qualification debates’) it seems that there is a structural gap between

the underlying structural problems and related challenges for policy-development (as determinants for policy-related research needs) and

the conceptual and methodological frameworks within which research can be carried out (as determinants for manageable research questions and for consistent research work).

This kind of structural gap has consequences for any further attempts to ‘capitalise the outcomes’ of the projects.

In principle there are two opposite strategies to deal with this kind of structural gap:

A ‘minimalist’ approach tries to reduce the gap by limiting expectations on ‘research contributions’ to providing information to pre-given questions. In such cases in which has not been possible because of the complexity of underlying issue, the approach would then suggest a dissemination phase that tries to reduce the complexity and to ‘translate’ the results into more simple formats.

A ‘bridging’ approach tries to bridge the gap by recognising the limited possibilities of individual projects to respond to interrelated sets of structural problems and respectively interrelated policy-challenges. Instead of trying to find ‘matching’ answers from individual research results, the approach tries to link the joint results and the accumulated experience of several projects to the underlying needs. Thus, the approach tries to link processes of knowledge accumulation (contextual interpretation, cross-fertilisation and mutual validation of results) to processes of valorisation of knowledge (as inputs for policy-development).

The brief ‘project histories’ of the ‘research partnerships’ are clear examples of cases that have grown beyond the reductionist approach on ‘capitalisation’. It is obvious that the ‘added value’ of this kind of projects can at best be ‘capitalised’ by further efforts to link the learning processes and the results to complementary themes. However, these new linkages should not be arbitrary linkages. Instead, research-based inputs need to be related to a conceptual prototyping and pre-testing of emerging ‘strategy packages’. Obviously this requires a new kind of reflection phase (after the actual project work) which also includes a particular kind of cross-fertilisation between research work and policy-development.

This kind of interaction can be facilitated by tools that help to make a situation assessment that combines the aspect of knowledge accumulation (integration of results to knowledge structures) with the aspect of valorisation (relevance for policy-development).

In the following an attempt is made to use a catalogue of ‘central themes’ as a tool for such a situation assessment. The ‘central themes’ provide the structure of situation assessment and the outcomes of the projects are taken as contributions to the situation assessment. The main aim is to illustrate the use of the catalogue as a tool and to demonstrate how a limited sample of projects can provide a starting point for a capitalisation process. The purpose is not to ‘evaluate’ the particular projects but to explore to what extent they have covered the aspects of the ‘working agendas’ and the themes of the ‘catalogue’. And vice versa - the examination gives indications to what extent the working agendas and the catalogue can link the results and the remaining open questions to planning of further measures.

Reflection on ‘Conversion Principles’ Between ‘Bodies of Knowledge’ and ‘Work Process Knowledge’

This kind of reflection has not been an explicit research issue for the said partnerships. Each of them provides some information on the topic but none of them has taken the task to open an in-depth reflection. In the work of the partnership Intequal this issue was approached in the exploration of the issue ‘integrated learning’. In the work of the partnership Post-16 Strategies this theme was approached inasmuch as it has been raised in the development of the particular strategies.

Thus, the results of the partnerships (either taken as such or compiled together) are not giving immediate answers to questions concerning the role of ‘conversion principles’ within future-oriented curriculum development. This level of reflection has to be elaborated with further questions. However such questions can draw upon the preparatory work of the projects and be formulated as questions that continue the reflection from the immediate results (either ‘back’ to the national issues or forward to possible ‘extension areas’).

Reflection on Different Uses of ‘Core Curriculum’ and ‘Open Structures’

Also this them is only partially covered by the said partnerships. In the partnerships Intequal and Post-16 Strategies the issues on ‘core curriculum’ and ‘open structures’ primarily linked to the systemic and curricular frameworks of ‘unified’ upper secondary education. In these contexts the notion ‘core curriculum’ is primarily related to general ‘core subjects’. Thus, the specific issue of shaping ‘core structures’ for vocational learning was not elaborated as a parallel approach on ‘core curricula’. In this respect the reflections on the interplay between ‘core curriculum’ and ‘open structures’ had an ‘educationalist’ accent.

In order to make proper use of the ‘key qualification debates’ in curriculum development for VET, there is a need to develop also the issue ‘core curricula for VET’ and to have explore different alternative options for providing ‘core structures’ or ‘core shapes’ for vocational learning processes. Moreover, it is necessary to study how such constructs could be combined with the contrastive principle of developing ‘open structures’ (to promote mobility and flexibility within vocational learning). Also in this respect, the partnerships have clarified some of the starting points but not elaborated the theme to the extent that the spectrum of essential options would be covered more completely.

Reflections on Uses of Complex/Teaching Learning Arrangements (or Similar Designs) as Integrative Constructs

This theme has not been a crucial issue for the said partnerships but some indications of its relevance are also given by the said partnerships. In the work of the partnership Post-16 education it is touched within the strategy cluster ‘enhancement of vocational learning’. In the work of Intequal it is touched in the discussion on diverse approaches towards ‘integrated learning’. However, none of the partnerships entered an in-depth discussion on this topic on European level. On national level some of the national counterparts have been involved in conceptual debates and pedagogic-curricular development initiatives that are linked to this topic.

The importance of this theme is linked to the two others that have been explored above. If progress is made on the ‘conversion principles’ and in the reflection on ‘core curricula for VET’, it is evident that there is a need to discuss the potential of complex teaching/learning arrangements (or of integrative working and learning assignments) for promoting ‘key qualifications’.

However, such reflections can also start from a direct confrontation of current policy priorities (e.g. promoting flexibility, transferability and mobility within vocational education) and particular ‘vehicular designs’ (e.g. complex teaching/learning arrangements). This kind of approach (as has been launched by the COST-initiative on "Flexibility, transferability and mobility as targets of VET") contrasts ‘educational megatrends’ and particular pedagogic and curricular constructs. The potential of this initiative to provide a broad and comprehensive platform for the said theme has to be explored when the action is in full operation. At present it is appropriate to note that the contextual mapping that has been done by the partnerships (that have been discussed above) provides some complementary information on the systemic and curricular frameworks which the new vehicular designs try to penetrate.

Reflection on Uses of ‘Synoptic Assessment’ to Measure Cumulative Learning Effects Throughout the Curriculum

This theme is more specific than the ones mentioned above (however, for the ‘key qualification debates’ it is equally central). Thus, it appears as a specific issue only in the work of the Intequal partnership. However, the assessment issues can be traced as essential elements of some of the strategy clusters that were analysed by the partnership Post-16 Strategies. Yet, the partnership did not enter a debate on alternative prospects for assessment in view of the identified strategies for promoting parity of esteem.

In view of the previous remarks it is worthwhile to note the specific way that the theme ‘synoptic assessment’ is dealt with in the partnership Intequal. Although the issue is discussed only in the context of one country (UK) and one particular scheme (the GNVQ models), the analysis opens the issue for European debate and invites the European audience to reflect possible alternative applications of synoptic assessment. In this respect the section can be considered as a prototype of a comparative study without the actual possibility to work in a comparative context. Moreover, it merits to be noted as a prototype of a concluding step immediately launches a ‘capitalisation debate’ (on the possible alternative models).

For the general development of ‘key qualification debates’ (and in view of the other central themes that have been mentioned above) it is of importance that the issue ‘synoptic assessment’ is explored in a wider context than was possible in the Intequal partnership. It is apparent that several curricular strategies to promote ‘key qualifications’ are lacking adequate assessment tools (which then limits the scope of transfer). Moreover, in order to link the debates on ‘key qualifications’ to the respective debates on ‘pathways’ or ‘progression routes’ or ‘access to qualifications’ it is necessary to clarify what kinds concepts of assessment are included in the respective ‘strategy packages’.

Reflections on the Prospects for ‘Capitalisation of the Outcomes’

The brief examination of the outcomes of the partnerships has indicated the following possible working perspectives for ‘capitalisation measures’:

conceptual re-examination of joint results and experiences (by developing an awareness of conceptual achievements of the particular projects and of conceptual deficits in linking the results with relevant contexts of policy-development);

connective enrichment of achieved knowledge-basis (by linking the results of particular projects and underlying policy-issues to parallel European results that are related to ‘neighbouring’ policy-issues);

focused recontextualisation of the enriched knowledge basis (by ‘translating’ some of the outcomes as focused contributions to national policy-development).

The examination also indicates that this kind of capitalisation requires group processes that are supported by external facilitators (who have the task to support the steps towards re-examination, enrichment and recontextualisation).

In such reflection processes knowledge accumulation is not understood as a mere addition of results and finding. Instead, the process has the task to create linkages between results, to discuss contradictory findings and to identify conceptual deficits that provide obstacles for knowledge transfer. Moreover, in such a process it is possible to learn that contradictions or deficits are not necessarily resulting from particular shortcomings of individual projects. Instead, the process of joint reflection can generate new frameworks and bridging methodologies which can help to overcome some of the difficulties. Finally, a joint reflection can more plausibly process separate findings and particular conclusions towards tentative strategy-packages or towards tentative strategy-menus.

However, a successful capitalisation process can hardly take place if projects are brought together only on the basis of artificial criteria (even if the main themes are seemingly related to each other). In order to launch successful capitalisation processes there has to be a real match of scientific interests and a well-founded expectation that a joint re-examination, enrichment and recontextualisation will lead to new insights. Moreover, there has to be a shared willingness to make efforts to re-interpret the outcomes of such processes as possible inputs towards policy-development.

From an organisational point of view it is worthwhile to consider in what way such capitalisation processes can be supported by the following kind of measures:

by initiatives of European research cooperation networks (and by facilitating international organisations like CEDEFOP and ETF on the European level) which can engage themselves as ‘task forces’ for conservation and for revitalisation of the heritage of European projects;

by initiatives of national agencies which can position themselves as the hosts of national ‘root projects’ and as receivers of the re-examined and enriched European insights;

by special measures within European cooperation programmes which can foresee a special role for ‘capitalisation activities’.

This document was added to the Education-line database 23 September 1999