Monday, July 05, 2004


The pace is on again (still?), and once more we have more things to write about than time to write them. Last week we had a fascinating 5 days at the Eleventh International Literacy and Education Research Conference on Learning held at Cojímar (5 kilometres east of the under harbour tunnel in Havana) in Cuba. The conference is one of several conferences hosted annually in different parts of the world by Common Ground Conferences. This was a wonderful conference experience, and we are looking forward immensely to next year’s event in Granada, Spain.

There were several hundred delegates, including more than 200 from North America. In addition, hundreds came from Cuba and other Latin American countries, and scores from European nations, South Africa and Australasia. An impressive simultaneous translation facility across Spanish and English was available. Interestingly, the conference organizers continued their laudable practice of offering extremely generous registration reductions for delegates from impoverished countries. The quality of the politics behind this conference was matched by the quality of the experience of participating in it. The range of papers was rich and the program was FULL. The days went from 8.30am until 6.30, and it was impossible for us to find a time slot when there were not at least 2 or 3 presentations we wanted to attend.

We go to a lot of conferences, and this one ranks way up there with the very best. It was certainly the most enjoyable conference we have attended, and was rich on all kinds of educational and educative dimensions. Sessions ranged from presentations giving insider perspectives on contemporary educational directions in Cuba itself, to discussions of diverse research projects concerned with literacy, numeracy and new technologies, developments within autonomous educational initiatives on the part of indigenous peoples, trends in educational software development, projects evaluating learning in the area of literacy, contemporary approaches to areas of adult and non formal education, and so on. The Program is available online and gives a good sense of what was available.

One of the truly outstanding qualities of this conference – a reflection of its politics, we believe – was the complete absence of grandstanding. This was not a scene where people come to grab attention. Rather, it was a conference swimming in humility and in genuine enthusiastic interest for issues, research findings and discussion.

Perhaps the best way to communicate the character of this conference is to say that it honoured the words of the organizers captured by Mary Kalantzis’ as follows:

“The conferences are driven by what you might want to call communities of practice or engaged people who say let’s come together and do it. We started off doing it in Australia but there is no point doing it just in Australia now. The world is really interrelated and there are scholars not just in the English-speaking world who are deeply interested in these themes. At first we thought it would be just about the English speaking world, and that the diversity to be addressed would be in the English speaking world. What we are finding, however, is that these conversations are attracting people from all over, because each time we have a conference now we have a country partner who wants the ideas grounded in their practice. So whether it’s Cuba or Greece or Spain or Malaysia, there is a partnership of peers that come together around those issues. We have discovered that they produce a much more difficult dialogue at a theoretical level because participants are coming from different places. If you are serious about ideas you can’t just do it within the group that is familiar and knows itself and has a set of routines about language and routines about ideas that can come together. For example, you come together, with a group of Chinese scholars in education, say, and a group of American and Australian scholars. The Chinese talk about e-learning and you talk about e-learning, and they talk about dialectical materialism as still being important to them, which forces you to deal with something very different as part of that conversation. You aren’t just talking about reflective practice which is what we now say; they are talking about dialectic which we are no longer talking about in the same way. So that creates a very different genuine engagement which makes it both easier and harder. It is easier at the level that it is attractive, it pulls at you emotionally. But it is harder intellectually because you have to suspend and transcend and negotiate and you have to test your ideas in a broader landscape, as they do too. So the conferences are a very living, organic and very vibrant platform”.

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