Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 2
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Educational twinning across continents
Yehuda Peled, Israel. Western Galilee Academic College
and Ohalo Academic College
Carol Lloyd Rozansky, Columbia College Chicago
Peled Ph.D is a professor of Educational Technology and the head of the Information Studies department at the WGC. Lloyd Rozansky, Ph.D is a Professor of Education and the Chair of the Education Department at Columbia College Chicago
This longitudinal case study of Educational Twinning between two elementary schools in Israel and the United States is based on teachers’, administrators’, and researchers’ perceptions. Challenges included time zone and school calendar differences, language differences, different understandings of curriculum, and principals’ commitment. Successful components are explained by the principals’ commitment and support of Twinning, personal connections between educators, adequate time to plan within and between schools, moving from small projects to larger ones, learning about partner school’s curriculum, and integrating Twinning activities with existing curriculum.
At the heart of Israel’s survival is the connection of Diasporic Jews to Israel and its Jewish population. However, the opposite is occurring. Cohen and Kelman (2007) found that young Jews are becoming less and less attached to Israel. Addressing this problem is Partnership 2000, a program that connects Jewish communities around the world with Israel (Jewish Agency for Israel 2011). One component of Partnership 2000 is Educational Twinning.
Educational Twinning is the pairing of two classrooms from separate geographical and national areas to infuse added value to traditional learning (Peled & Dunnivun, 2011; Zimmerman & Peled, 2009). As students participate, their understandings about the wider world are expanded. Additionally, their development of communication and inquiry skills increases, they reflect on their attitudes toward other people and places, they develop empathy and openness to others, they often challenge stereotypical views, and they begin to consider their own roles and responsibilities as global citizens (Uzunboylu, 2006).
Successful Twinning is based on a partnership model (Peled & Dunnivun, 2011) that includes both a working relationship based on respect and equal contributions from each partner, and recognition that students have much to learn from distant peers. It contributes to the strengthening of connections between distant communities. In the research presented in this paper, Twinning was conducted between schools in Israel and the United States. It was hoped that participating US students and educators developed, strengthened, or renewed their attachment to Israel.
At the heart of Twinning are joint activities that are designed to promote collaborative learning across schools. Collaborative learning, which is the grouping of learners for the purpose of achieving a common learning goal, is an instructional method in which learners at various performance levels work together in small groups (Gokhale, 1995; Novak, 2002). The learners are responsible for one another's learning as well as their own (Mayes & Bennett, 2005). When this collaboration is inquiry and project-based, both teachers and students have opportunities to develop an understanding and appreciation of diversity that can replace a simple tolerant acceptance of others. As students collaborate across international forums, they may develop an appreciation for multiple perspectives as they examine issues common to both locations (Lock & Redmond, 2006).
The purpose of this longitudinal case study (Stake 1994) is to understand and describe the processes and outcomes of a cross-cultural program—Educational Twinning—that connects elementary students from one Jewish day school (S-US) in the midwestern United States (US) with an elementary school in the Western Galilee Region (S-WG) of Israel. To accomplish this, we describe both the challenging and successful factors in this Twinning experience as well as an overview of shared activities. Lastly, we provide some generalizations that may contribute to successful Educational Twinning endeavors between other international partners. (Note: The use of “we” throughout this paper always refers to the two authors.)
Data collection and analysis
Following Wolcott’s (1994) modes of data gathering, we collected data over the first five years of the partnership (2004-2009). Data included our interviews of the principals and teachers, teacher and principal questionnaires completed at the end of the fifth year, written materials from the schools, e-mails, and descriptions of educational activities. Additionally, we attended staff meetings at the two schools when possible in the role of participant observer (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). To analyze these data sets, we applied inductive reasoning, moving from the details of our data to general themes (Creswell 2005).
The data yielded three main themes: Challenges to Twinning, factors leading to successful Twinning, and shared activities in Twinning.
Challenges to educational twinning
There is a seven-hour time difference between the two schools, which impacted real time web-based communications. Beginning and ending dates of the school year also differed. The US school followed Jewish religious holidays while the Israeli school was secular, enrolling both Jewish and non-Jewish students. This resulted in several days when the US school was either closed for religious observance or focused on the holiday instead of other curricula. This impacted the available time teachers and students had to participate in shared activities. The differences in the religious emphasis also meant that Jewish holidays and customs could not be a focus of joint activities, though the schools did share some short-term activities based on Jewish holidays.
Language was another challenge. Although students in each school studied the others’ language (i.e., English or Hebrew), few students were proficient in their second language. Predictably, the older children in both schools had the most facility with the two languages. Likewise, few teachers were proficient in both languages. The Israeli principal was fluent in oral English, but was only moderately competent in generating written communications in English. The American school principal had a very limited understanding of Hebrew; she could speak very little and could not read or write it. These language differences added a perceived burden to the bilingual teachers at each school.
Money was also a challenge. In the first few years, the US school lacked technology support in personnel and hardware; therefore, they mailed activity products, which was very costly.
During the first year, as the two schools identified possible shared activities, there was a tendency for the US school to select isolated activities that were not directly related to curricular objectives. These were accurately perceived by the teachers and the principal as “extra duty.” Most of these projects were not implemented in the initial years. The Israeli principal and teachers were more accustomed to thinking and planning in units and were able to accomplish this. However, the US educators were resistant to this perspective throughout the study. Additionally, the US teachers perceived that their Israeli counterparts did not want to teach the units they had suggested.
At the US school, the principal retired after the fourth year. The new principal struggled to provide leadership for Twinning. The Israeli school principal believed that it was essential for the new principal to visit the Israeli school. Similarly, the principal at the Israeli school left due to a promotion to Superintendent at the Ministry of Education.
Factors contributing to successful twinning
The most important factors that contributed to successful Twinning were the personal connections between the two principals and between the teachers at each site. These connections strengthened over time. The alternating yearly visits by the participating educators were essential. Each school identified project coordinators who maintained regular communications that also furthered the success of this Twinning.
Starting with small projects was important. The principals and teachers needed time to review each school’s standards, looking for common themes. They also had to negotiate which parts of the units could be connected across grade levels at the US school, since it had fewer students and thus needed students from all grade levels to participate.
Additionally, teachers needed time to plan at each school and time to plan collaboratively. They learned that it was necessary to plan a year in advance.
Shared activities in twinning
The identification of shared activities was a result of collaborative work between the principals during the first year and between the coordinators from the second year onward. The S-US identified Jewish themes, while S-WG suggested themes that were anchored in their Israeli school curriculum. At a certain point an agreement was reached on what to do for the first year. Subsequently, the coordinator from S-US visited the Israeli school each spring when her school was closed for Passover. She and her Israeli counterpart built the infrastructure for the coming year. The details were ironed out at the end of each school year.
When the US teachers and their principal discussed Twinning activities, they tended to develop lists of things they could do, such as finding copies of children’s books and magazines to mail to their counterpart institution. However, they had no reason to believe that S-WG needed these materials or would welcome them. They mailed a stuffed lion named Ari-Ot back and forth, along with notes about his travels. They planned to exchange correspondence to be published in each school’s newsletters. They also listed several Jewish holidays that they hoped could guide future interactions.
Students exchanged Shana Tova (Happy Jewish New Year) cards through regular mail, which was expensive and took a long time to arrive. Students also wrote letters to each other that proved problematic because of their lack of language fluency. This activity was modified so that students wrote in their primary language.
S-US identified one large unit, The Ocean, which had potential for shared learning activities. However, S-WG did not follow through on the project and this frustrated teachers at S-US.
By the third year of Twinning, S-WG identified major units that the two schools could address, including the environment (recycling), ancient Greece, and the solar system. S-WG also identified isolated activities, such as the sharing of kites—commemorating the sacrifice of Janusz Korczak during the Holocaust—that students had mailed to the other school.
At the end of the third year, plans for the following year contained some isolated activities, such as sharing collages depicting feelings, making dreidels and puzzles, and continuing the sharing of Ari-Ot, the stuffed lion. They also identified two possible units—world explorers and immigration to Israel—that met requirements for both schools.
The Israeli principal best understood the importance of identifying common units rather than isolated activities. She explained, “In order to enable the integration of the project into [the] schools’ life, we've decided that all the educational activities will be based on the curriculum and not an addition to [it].”
Educational Twinning can be an effective way to connect students from different geographical locations and cultures through the sharing of curriculum-based activities. This research describes how it can be an effective means to encourage interactions between Israeli and US students. Successful Educational Twinning programs have the following characteristics:
(1) Commitment by all educators to Educational Twinning with their partner school
(2) The development of principals who encourage and mentor teacher participation throughout the Twinning experiences (Peled, Kali & Dori, 2011)
(3) Competent Twinning coordinators at each school, including fluency with the primary language(s) at each site
(4) Opportunities for face-to-face personal interactions between principals, Twinning coordinators, and teachers
(5) Similar understandings of curriculum as theme-based bodies of knowledge and processes
(6) Time allocated for teachers to identify common curriculum and develop shared activities
An Educational Twinning experience as described in this paper cannot be based on a rigid framework. Although it has to be based on thorough planning and understanding of each partner's needs and specific local limitations, there is a call for considerable creativity by the teachers and administrators. Twinning can promote various degrees of creativity among the participating students and the teachers. Creativity in education has been recognized as increasingly significant in the last 20 years (Craft & Jeffrey, 2008). Out of nine distinct rhetorics identified by Banaji and Burn (2006), we consider three to be addressed by the Twinning experiences:
(1) The notion of creativity as ubiquitous. This entails the notion that creativity involves skill in having the flexibility to respond to problems and changes in the modern world and one’s personal life. The foundation of this rhetoric lies partly in early year’s education and the notion of providing young children with the tools to function successfully in the world. Twinning encourages students' creativity through the need to communicate in a non-native language. The ability to connect and comprehend one's meaning through drawings, descriptions of one’s home surroundings, and cultural and local activities which are alien to the peers on the other side of the globe require students to engage in a fair amount of creativity. Older students who are engaged in joint web based projects encounter difficulties that require creative and flexible thinking.
(2) Creativity as a social good. This involves seeing individual creativity as linked to social structures. Addressing multiculturalism and acceptance of differences are major issues in Educational Twinning.
(3) A discourse around creativity and new technologies. This emphasizes the affordances of these in relation to creativity. Technology is a means for communication and creation of communicative artifacts that can replace the lingual communication artifacts we usually expect students to communicate through.
The teachers and coordinators of Twinning were required to address numerous daily problems that can become a huge hindrance to the flow of the activity if not addressed with a lot of imagination and creativity. Obviously, narrowly adhering to the prescribed curriculum and to classic teaching methods or non- imaginative problem solving is likely to result in a stalling of Twinning and its associated educational opportunities.
At the conclusion of a five-year successful Twinning experience between two schools on two continents with numerous obstacles to overcome, this research shows that well-planned curriculum-based activities across schools geographically separated, can gain momentum. Administrators must be committed to and engaged in this complex connection to a school that is distant. Twinning can become part of a long-term school focus as long as there is an obvious identifiable added value to it. In the research reported here, principals, teachers, and, most importantly, students, shared learning opportunities about curriculum and about each other.
This research was supported in part by the Jewish Agency for Israel/Partnership 2000, the Ohalo College of Education, Israel, the Teacher Education Department of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the Natan and Hannah Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
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