“Experience is a master teacher, even when it’s not our own.” ― Gina Greenlee
I’ve been lucky enough to have taken part in three, week-long study visits during my career. I realise this is probably three more than many people, but taken over a career of thirty years it is not so much, and perhaps begs the question why this can’t be available to more teachers.
My trips have taken me to the USA, to Scotland, and most recently, to Canada as an associate of the National Academy for Educational Leadership (NAEL). Each occasion has been a fantastic learning experience, has exceeded my expectations, and has enriched my understanding far beyond what I have picked up from any reading I’ve done around international systems.
This blog will reflect on my ideas about how anyone lucky enough to be involved in such visits can get the most from them, and a few thoughts on my own experiences.
Let’s start with reading. Whilst I’ve just said I’ve learnt far more actually being on a visit than from articles and books, there’s no doubt that pre-reading and research is crucial. Study visits will usually start with some sort of overview from a system expert, but you really don’t need to be in a country to research things like the organisation of schools and curriculum, and your time whilst you’re there can be better spent on other things. Making sure you’ve done the research also means you can hit the ground running with lines of interest you could pursue.
Which leads to the importance of a clear focus. You will learn so much on visits like these, but you do need to have a clear idea what you’re looking for. Having said that, you’re bound to pick up unrelated things. I remember in Boston looking at the school curriculum and teaching and learning. Somehow along the way I found out they had stopped using the term ‘lockdown’ and gone over to the less emotive term ‘safe mode’ to describe that particular emergency procedure and we started to use that back at school on my return.
Recording your findings is important, given that you will no doubt not only be expected to feed back, but also to be very keen to do so, either in the form of a report or a presentation. Writing up a learning journal every day, keeping a record of bullet points, or just going over your notes with a highlighter every evening is really useful. Also it’s helpful to take as many photos as you can (having sought permission first, of course) of things that strike you as interesting such as displays or classrooms, and of people you meet, whether it’s formal group poses or even a selfie or two! It’s a good idea to keep all these (notes and photos) in a shared area so the whole team you’re with can access all the resources, and in the case of documents, edit them as well. It’s also good practice to share them with your hosts who will be interested in your perceptions and may also be able to correct any inaccuracies in your findings. Photos will all be time- and place-marked these days, so they also serve as a really good aide-memoire for you later on.
If you use social media this is a good way of sharing your literal and metaphorical journey. On two of the trips I set up dedicated hashtags. This is not only of interest to others, it’s also a good way of recording things for your own benefit, and for others in your group. Furthermore, if the people and places you visit are on Twitter or Instagram you can tag them in messages and share your thanks.
Advance planning is crucial. My recent NAEL visit was under the auspices of the British Council, our EAS Scotland visit I organised myself. In all cases, however, the visits were centred in one organisation, with one key individual in the host country. This is really important as local knowledge is crucial. Both in Scotland and in Ontario this was a University Faculty of Education. It’s also vital to have a ‘fixer’ to sort out logistics. This can be quite complicated, especially if the visit is overseas, and needs to be carefully thought through. In Canada we were really lucky to have Maija from British Council Wales. Nowadays there are a variety of apps you can use to help keep organised, and WhatsApp is a really effective way of keeping the team informed on a day to day basis.
Don’t expect one-way traffic! Although you have clearly travelled in order to learn from your hosts, they too will be eager to find out more about how things are done back home, so be ready to speak either off the cuff or indeed in a more formal setting. And make sure you get email contact details for further follow-up!
Finally, you do need to build in some time for the wellbeing of those involved. If you’re going far, you may have to cope with jet lag, so do bear that in mind. There will almost certainly be a need to keep in touch with colleagues back home, as the day job doesn’t go away, not to mention family and friends. Building half a day for R and R into a week away is probably about right. It’s also important to allow time and to find space to write up each day; as I mentioned earlier, you’ll hit the ground running as soon as you get back to school.
On every trip I have been struck by the generous welcomes we have received from fellow educators. It is a privilege and an honour to be able to participate. This also means there is a moral obligation to share the learning with others. Another common theme has been the camaraderie developed by being with colleagues. There is inevitably time for reflection and discussion on trains, in buses, and over breakfast, and this can be really motivational and interesting, and you’ll probably develop ideas which you’ll pursue together on your return which may even be unrelated to your visit.
I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to get involved in a study visit. Or why not consider organising one yourself? Grant funding may be available, and indeed visits to schools and other establishments may be free of charge or based on a reciprocal arrangement, so this can be really good value professional learning as well as being of the highest quality.
John Kendall is Head Teacher of Risca Community Comprehensive School and an Associate of the NAEL. He visited Washington and Boston with an EAS delegation, led a trip to Scotland supported by the EAS, and most recently (November 2018) went to Toronto with colleague NAEL associates.