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Many people active in the education sector have considerable experience working in European projects. For others, though, transnational projects are still very new and exotic in comparison to their everyday work. In fact, the first steps are often accompanied by insecurities, doubts or even fear. However, by the time they have reached their third project, they have become familiar with European project cycles. Partnerships between organisations and within networks are strengthened and people feel encouraged to engage in more comprehensive and innovative educational projects. But how can the different levels of European cooperation in education and training in transnational projects best be described? The following is an attempt based upon the “Paradigm of Transnational Working” developed by Nicholas Walters (Inteval Ltd, UK). It relies on long-term observations and exchange between experienced parties and should by no means be taken as an empirically verifiable hypothesis.
1. Entering the transnational playing field
A mixture of excitement and vague fears is usually encountered at the entry level. Just like going on a holiday to a foreign country, taking part in international conferences holds an exotic appeal for those involved. For those starting a new European project, this excitement is dampened by a range of insecurities. They have to deal with the stress of travelling and finding appropriate accommodations. They are typically also worried that their own foreign language skills are insufficient—this fear is generally overcome by the time they realise that all non-native speakers have to deal with the language barrier and that speaking the language alone cannot be equated to having the competencies required by the project. When positive experiences and perceptions are gained, those involved become more interested in taking part in other transnational education and training experiences.
2. Working in delegations
The next level can best be described as the delegation level. At this point, the participants see themselves as representatives of their organisation or country. They focus on showcasing experiences and observations from their own organisation, work environment or home country. During project meetings, a lot of stock is placed in the presentations. The projects and activities emphasised there by individual participants are generally analysed according to their perceived value or accomplishment. The exchange between those present is then often reduced to a critical analysis of the other presentations. The danger of such an analysis is that stereotypes are reinforced, for example when different working approaches are traced back to old prejudices (the “well-organised German”). However, with time and with the ability and willingness for self-reflection, this changes at the following level.
3. Identifying common ground
The third level is key for further development. It begins when the participants are able to identify and name aspects and traits which the organisations and countries involved have in common. This is generally brought about through practical personal experiences such as study visits, job shadowing, and exercises. This gives rise to valuable discussions in which comparative—but not critical—analyses are carried out, and the selection of examples of good practice is not based only upon presentations and papers. At this level, not only does the range of common attributes expand, but the differences between participants are perceived in a different way than before: Instead of talking about differences which have to do with, for example, political restrictions or social contexts, participants are able to be more understanding of substantial and conceptual differences. It is at this point where many partnerships reach a crossroads. While a deeper understanding of substantial differences can be helpful in further developing collaborative work relationships, failure to properly perceive and respect differences can promote misunderstandings and thus hinder or prevent effective collaboration in education and training and the further development thereof.
4. Working cooperatively
So long as the partners are not led astray in the fashion described above, fruitful cooperation in education and training can develop at the fourth level. This can manifest as thematic or methodical and practical projects which can be carried out in a collaborative partnership effort. At this level, the key to success is the assignment of roles for the completion of the group’s task. Work is divided up and distributed according to the specific skill sets of each participating partner, and each partner is responsible for their part of the project. These parts then become a whole; the quality of the end result is heavily dependent on the quality of the individual tasks and whether or not they are coherent when combined. The best output is therefore useless if the partner responsible for circulating the results does not live up to expectations.
5. Creative and inclusive partnerships
The fifth level is, in terms of its quality, a significant step above the working steps preceding it. Here, the content-related and conceptual differences which have been established can be used to better identify challenges. These challenges can then be met by the partners together, while still keeping the key differences in mind. Here, transnationality has the highest surplus value, as it grants participants the chance to work creatively and collaboratively in a new environment. At this point, the culture of individual organisations, their status, their accepted foundational knowledge, and their ideological positions are of only minor importance. The context of such transnational partnerships is more free and facilitates problem-solving in cases for which this would not be possible in the typical environments of individual organisations or on the previous levels. This has significant ramifications, not least for the parties involved, as preconceived valuations are questioned and cultural and conceptual factors become less important. This is the level at which synergy and long-term impact are most likely to occur. European cooperation in education and training is becoming transformative, all the while gaining momentum and identity.
Each longer-term transnational partnership will in some form pass through one or several of these levels. It’s possible that partnerships and individuals already find themselves stuck at the first level. Not every cooperative endeavour can or wants to complete their own development according to all five of these specific levels. Nevertheless, it can be useful for many organisations, partnerships, and networks to regularly monitor and reflect upon the progression of their own European education work.
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The following blogs might also interest you:
“Slow and steady wins the race, or a Sisyphean task?” (Blog by Susanne Lattke)
Erasmus+ projects in the field of literacy/basic education (Blog by Simone Kaufhold)