I am still suffering the culture shock of leaving Britain in January, 1991 to come to be director of the Science Center at TERC. TERC stands for Technical Education Research Centers, a 26-year-old, comparatively well-kept secret in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which produces excellent "hands-on" materials, research and technology in mathematics and science education. Its work is probably better known in Portugal than it is in Portland. They are modest souls, but as a strange foreigner I can shout their praises.
I am fast learning the American variant of English but am still largely baffled by the size and by the diversity of educational practice. There is so much I didn't know about. None of us talk enough to each other (and if we talk, not enough of us listen). There is so much overlap and so much parallel invention. The excuse of "it was not invented here" seems to have been invented everywhere.
Since at least the early thirties the education world has known that children can achieve more if, from time to time, they work collaboratively. We encourage them to share; to listen to their peers; to build on previous work. Working with others is one of the life skills they must learn, we say. But we don't do it ourselves.
Well, perhaps we are just starting to realize that there are some pay-offs to collaboration. Electronic mail and comparatively easy world travel have allowed us to invent new, worthy goals of international collaboration and to allow us to experience the enticement of foreign travel, the warmth of international hospitality, new audiences for our old ideas--all sufficient to remove any nagging doubts that we ought to be talking to institutions down the road (or even down the hallway).
While international collaboration is not possible for most teachers, there are notable exceptions. The National Education Association's interchanges with the U.K.'s National Union of Teachers led to exchange visits and seminars, in days of slightly less economic stringency, that talked about the ways we could collaborate on the developments in the use of computers in education in our two nations. They made good recommendations to states and local education authorities (LEAS), more weighty in that they were common views held by both organizations--but I know of no further actions.
At the classroom level, students can collaborate internationally in such programs as The National Geographic Kids Network (designed, written and tested by TERC). But too few teachers anywhere get the chance or encouragement to learn from each other, to go to conferences or even to read! Worldwide, the media currently seem to be blaming teachers for most of the things that are wrong with the world, but there is very little most of us can do about it-even in shaping change within our own school systems.
The U.K.'s Teachers' Centres
At home in the U.K., there used to be a network of Teachers' Centres--neutral ground where teachers could meet to share their ideas, listen to others and feel part of a profession. The centres had started off in the 1960s at the time of the Nuffield Maths and Science Projects. The Nuffield Foundation wisely insisted that if an LEA wished to join in piloting any of their projects (that is, to accept their funds), it would have to provide a neutral meeting place where participating teachers could share their ideas and channel feedback to the project's staff. There were soon many such subject-specific centers blossoming as the curriculum reform movement of the '60s got under way.
It was realized (probably for all the wrong reasons, like saving money) that there could be a pay-off, especially for the elementary school teachers, if there was just one, large, efficient center in each region. It would host all the curriculum meetings, be staffed, offer some facilities to share, have a professional library and sometimes even sponsor social activities. This way teachers would continue to "talk education" well outside their contracted hours at little cost to the LEAS. …