Hello, dear colleagues and friends.
I am writing this open letter - to my dear colleagues in Guyuan Teachers College, to my new colleagues in the Longdong Institute and the Haiyuan Middle School, and to old colleagues and friends in the AR group at the University of Bath. In addition this letter is addressed to Pip Bruce-Ferguson in New Zealand, who (for those who don't know) is a post-doctoral Action Researcher, at present working for the empowerment of others so that they might realise their dreams as well. Also addressed is Michelle Brown, a VSO programme officer from Beijing, who has been instrumental in the organization of this conference. Many of you will have heard the names of some of the people to whom this letter is addressed. Some of you are known to each other personally. Despite our differences and different experiences of life, our different countries and backgrounds, there is something profoundly important that I feel we share.
I believe this similarity can be expressed as a distinct hope and a belief in the future. I think we all share the sense that we have a responsibility to make the world a better place through our shared endeavours. I would like to write from my personal point of view about the AR conference that some of us have attended in Guyuan this weekend and say why I think it is so very significant. And I want to share with you all the wonderful feeling of success that has come from this marvellous conference. I hope that my colleagues in China don't feel it as an imposition, or that it is impolite of me to make some personal observations about the growth of our AR work. Today I feel like celebrating and I want to share this wonderful feeling with you all and explain what has led to it, as I see it.
About two years ago the AR group in the department of Foreign Languages and Literature at Guyuan Teachers College, took on an ambitious project. Action Research does not have an established background in China. There are one or two isolated projects, one of the main ones conducted in Beijing Normal University by Professor Wang Qiang. Our project was especially ambitious because as a form of research, AR goes against the whole idea of theory preceding practice, and Guyuan Teachers College is a small college in the northwest of China, not in a prominent location like Beijing, with all the advantages that such a position could expect. As we all know, in AR, for something to be improved, and for those improvements to render evidence, practice needs to precede the theory of it. Only by rigorous and systematic research, together with the help of our colleagues, can we make progress in improving the quality of education. This perspective is very new in China, but it didn't deter my colleagues in the English Department. Oh, no! Encouraged by Dean Tian Fengjun's visionary leadership, they made their first attempts. Despite their misgivings, despite their teaching-load, they did the work! They doubted, questioned, tried it out for themselves, and then gradually began to change their minds. It is this quality which I so admire in my colleagues - their flexibility. It hasn't been easy. There have been times when we have all wondered whether we could do this work. It seemed so difficult, and there were so many other responsibilities, which took time away from this task. However, time passed, and we struggled on, developed our learning and gradually, we knew the time was right to have a conference, in order to share this learning with others.
It is typical of Dean Tian's great humanity, and that of others within the department, as well as the vision exemplified by Dean's Xi and colleagues from the Hui Middle School in Haiyuan, that our concern for education was not to remain restricted to an individual institution but needed to widen its scope. In the early days of our collaboration about how to manage AR in Guyuan, Dean Tian and I would sit in his office, drinking tea, chatting about life, about education, and about China's development. I have often remarked to some of you, that these conversations were so significant to me, because I realised that together we would be able to accomplish something truly significant for the common good in this poorer northwest. Gradually, he began to talk about his dream: that education should be for all, regardless of background, regardless of circumstances; education should be of the highest quality for all our children. And, he said, AR, was the pathway to this goal. I remember those conversations with deep affection, because I felt that this expression of values was helping me to develop my own focus, and that together we (all of us in the department) really might achieve something valuable.
We have also been incredibly lucky to have the financial and strategic support from VSO Beijing, whose suggestion it first was that we might do some collaborative work with Qingyang. For that suggestion I am grateful to Paul Wilson and Michelle Brown, who took the trouble to come to Guyuan from Beijing to discuss the possibility with Dean Tian and me and then went with us to Qingyang (where the Longdong Institute is situated) and discussed the plan over the usual green tea and cigarettes!
VSO is committed to sustainable development, and as a volunteer here, my role is quite clear. In the midst of all the other work I am doing, teaching Literature and Methodology, must dwell a sense of responsibility. That as the 'outsider' (who feels so closely 'inside' these days, thanks to you all) I must do my work so that in the future others can achieve it by themselves. My colleagues can teach in more communicative ways and my students should be able to take their understanding of educational processes and their evaluation into their own teaching careers. This is sustainable development. Share skills, negotiate ideas, watch, listen, learn, teach a little, and then, when the time is right, step back and let people take responsibility for their own development. Sustainable development sounds easy in theory (isn't that just typical of theory!) but the practice is difficult: every step my colleagues come nearer to doing it for themselves, the less reason I have to stay here. And I LOVE being here, because here I have a chance to be free to pursue the dream of twenty years: sharing skills and changing lives. That's VSO's motto. It's also mine. This department has enabled me to concentrate my creativity for the common good in a way I have not been able to achieve before and I feel very grateful for that.
So, with all that preamble, let me turn to the conference itself and say something about why I think it is so worth celebrating. Over the last couple of weeks, so much has been achieved in the department and I am also aware of the hard work that has been going on as well in Haiyuan and Qingyang to prepare for this visit. Colleagues here have been working flat-out to make this conference successful. People have written speeches, compiled notes, discussed ideas, made materials (we have an excellent set of conference papers, for example), set up secretary-groups to take notes to the conference so that we can evaluate the result more fully, devised schedules, arranged accommodation, prepared for the comfort of others with extreme generosity of spirit and co-operation. We held a banquet on the Friday night and as is customary here, we chatted about everything under the sun, ate some excellent food, toasted each other with baijou, played dice-games and got to know each other. I love this about China. Individuals are so considerately treated by all the hosts. I noticed, for example, how Dean Tian and Dean Xi were anxious that each person had enough to eat, saying 'che che che' (eat, eat, eat, throughout the meal); how food was specially prepared and brought for different people; how everyone paid attention to the comfort of their neighbour. This degree of care is very touching, and something I am beginning to realise, is very 'Chinese'. I remember sitting back and looking around at my friends and colleagues and realising that I was just beginning to understand how important community is here and how very special it is. It is one of the reasons I love this country so much and why I seem to be staying and staying! I also realised how significant this community-kindness was to the success of what we were trying to do at the conference. By the time it came to Saturday morning, it seemed that we were already a coherent group rather than three separate ones. And as Dean Tian so rightly said in his speech at the opening of the conference, we are one big family now!
I have been to several VSO conferences in China, and enjoyed them, but the language used has always been predominantly English. This, I felt, was probably necessary, and when I consider my own appalling mastery of Chinese, I for one, am grateful to have been able to enjoy conferences in English. However, if sustainable development is a goal of VSO's work here in China, then conferences about communicative methodology, about AR, about the other areas of VSO's concerns in China, had increasingly, to my mind, to be held in Chinese. Our conference was almost entirely conducted in Chinese. This is a source of great pleasure to me and I want to celebrate it!
After a speech by our college President, Dean Tian talked about what a dean can do with AR. He spoke about his many concerns, about his own background of thinking in a Chinese way and how he has had to change his perspective to be able to take on AR. He talked about his responsibility to all members of his department for their professional development, and then, eloquently, expressed his hope that through AR he can play a part in improving educational provision for a wider sphere to include not only Ningxia and Gansu Provinces, but in the future, maybe influence education in China as a whole. He spoke about his desire to encourage his staff and the work he has been doing recently to improve his educational influence. He believes that Guyuan Teachers College will now become a centre of excellence for AR and already, plans are underway to make this official. His acumen, his great drive, his passion for education and now his systematic enquiry into his own practice in order to improve it - all these have been a wellspring of creativity, from which other colleagues, including myself, can draw.
The conference gave the space for four individuals, Zhao Xiaohong, Cao Yong, Ma Jianfu and Tao Rui to talk about their AR experiences. This was followed by some questions and then in the afternoon, this focus on individuals was developed through small-group work. Delegates from Qingyang and Haiyuan were able to talk freely with experts from the Guyuan department about their own misgivings, problems, early feelings about AR. I was reminded that two years ago, these small groups were convened by me, and now, here they were, doing it for themselves.
To finish the afternoon session, we had a plenary session in which delegates asked questions raised in the small groups and had them answered by whichever colleague from Guyuan felt moved to answer. This led to an interesting debate and exchange of ideas. I recalled that two years ago, I was answering all the questions. It was just getting better and better!
This morning we continued with the plenary session from yesterday afternoon, and questions were raised and answered, some by me, some by others. And all the while, the secretary group was taking notes. Half an hour after the conference ended, a copy of all the questions raised throughout the conference was given to me in English! This is typical of the tremendous efforts made by everyone at the conference to work together for the common good.
The main event this morning was Li Peidong talking about the ways in which AR fits into other researches. He gave us a cogent history of research from the thirties onwards, taking in Stenhouse, Kemmis, Elliott and then Whitehead and McNiff. His OHP transparencies were in English for the convenience of myself, Terasita and Helen (from Qingyang), giving us enough of a clue about his ideas. He went through his ideas with me last week and it was clear to me just how profoundly he understands the place of AR in the history of ideas.
For his closing address, Dean Tian talked about the new website for AR at Guyuan Teachers College, which will be officially opened next week! He also put forward the idea of compiling a quarterly-journal from the three institutions of case-studies on AR, and inviting others to join this work, copies to be made available on the website.
Then, after speeches by Li Peidong, Dean Tian, and me, (mine was a little tearful, I have to confess!), the conference came to a close. We ate a meal in the hotel main dining hall (did I mention the conference was in a local hotel, and very good it was too!) I stood on the steps outside and we took our leave of each other. Such warmth. Such smiles. Such delight. Both hands clasped tightly, gazes sought and held, everywhere, smiles wreathing happy faces, people buzzing with enthusiasm as they got into cars. Waving to our new friends, watching as they turned the corner and then, gone!
And here I am reflecting on the main reasons why, after such a tiring time, I want to write this down to you all: I feel we have so many reasons to rejoice:
Isn't all this reason enough to celebrate today? I hope you can feel the joy of this, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
With love and deepest respect to you all,
P.S. Later this afternoon, I met a young colleague in the street. I asked if she was tired. She replied that she was happy, that the conference was instructive. And then she smiled and said: Moira, I am inspired! I know the feelingÉ