This October mascil partners from the University of Nottingham, the University of Jaen, Utrecht, Athens, Trondheim and the University of Education Freiburg met in Nottingham to set a clear focus on what mascil is all about. Vincent Jonker from Utrecht took part in the meeting and shared his experiences in an interview after he came back from Nottingham.

Vincent-JonkerRight after your return you tweeted: "We had an inspiring meeting in Nottingham." What was so inspiring in Nottingham?
Well, we had a very good discussion, I think, on our classroom materials and professional development as well as on the question of what mascil is all about: Is it about materials, or is it about professional development? In Nottingham we agreed that it is about professional development for which, of course, you need materials.

How will the classroom material you collect and promote on the website support professional development?
You need the material to find examples which can be used within a professional development session. A good professional development session can, for instance, be about choosing material on the website and have a discussion on its quality. Which means the tasks we collect and present on our website are not just there to do them, but to discuss and evaluate them. So we want teachers to be critical about the use of the tasks. The tasks are just examples, and it is very important for the teachers to know that they can change the material. We will write guidelines, so teachers know how they can change the material according to their needs and their students' needs without making the task lose its connection to the world of work or its inquiry-based quality.

mascil materials are supposed to be tasks suitable for inquiry-based science teaching set in rich vocational contexts: Are there vocational contexts which are more suitable than others?
Well, if you observe a person who is working on an Excel's spreadsheet and you take a picture of the screen of the computer to be able to talk about the task that is being worked on in the Excel's spreadsheet, one can talk about a vocational context, but you are not aware of the entire context the person is working in. So maybe a richer vocational context would be to take a picture of that same person working on the PC with an Excel's spreadsheet but in the environment of the workplace, so you see if there are other people also working on spreadsheets or on something else. Maybe you can see that there is a planning board in the same room which has something to do with the logistical problem the people work on in their spreadsheets. So a rich vocational context is when you see more than just a small task, you see the context of it as well.

The connection to the world of work is supposed to make a task more authentic. How does that work?
Well, it gives the task some kind of purpose. You know that you are doing it because you are a worker, or you are in the role of a worker having to produce something. A task is just more meaningful if it is embedded in a workplace situation, where you will have to deal with shortage of time and have to finish a product before five o'clock; just things happening in a normal work setting will make the task more meaningful, more authentic.

In Nottingham you agreed on four categories to define a task connected to the world of work. One of the categories says the outcome of a task connected to the world of work is a product for an audience to use. Who could that audience be, and what kind of products are you thinking of?
Yes, Malcolm Swan, one of the people from Nottingham, said it is very important to mention the product in a task, because a product makes a task more meaningful and it makes the learning environment be more like a workplace setting where you always work on a product. The products we talk about here are of course not real products. But they can come close to real products. Easy ones are products like reports or posters; they are easy because they are products we know not only from the world of work but from normal school contexts as well. More challenging are products made out of some material you don't normally use in a classroom, let's say wood or metal. Products made of such materials are normally only produced in vocational schools, where it is quite normal that students work with all kinds of materials: For instance, if you want to become a cook, you will have to cook a real meal, which will be eaten, and you will get an assessment for the meal. In a normal classroom situation, however, it is often just a part of a product you can realize ...

Working out the recipe without cooking the meal ...
Well, to make it more meaningful it would be good to cook at least part of the meal, maybe just the soup. I think within mascil this is just what we are looking for: tasks which are authentic enough, but also practicable in different school contexts and systems.

And the audience making use of the product are those eating the meal ...
Yes, the audience can be students from the same class, it can be the teacher, and it can be the parents, but also teachers from other disciplines. In the Netherlands we have some projects which can serve as an example, especially in vocational education but also in general education. It works, but of course, you have to prepare it, especially if you want to cooperate with people from outside the school system. If you, for instance, want to work together with an old people's home and cook in its kitchen ...

This means what the mascil partners have in mind is not all new ...
There are just exemplary projects, while mascil is about finding out how inquiry-based learning in connection to the world of work can be implemented in different European countries and across different school systems. One important discussion we had in Nottingham dealt with the great challenge of making students experience work situations in general education. We have to collect tasks which imitate a workplace situation but at the same time fit into the setting of a normal school, otherwise teachers will not use them.

But why do you offer tasks at all; isn't inquiry-based learning more about arranging a learning environment in which students get room for their interests and questions, and - motivated by the teacher - come up with a task themselves?
Yes, it is very important to have an open ended question allowing students to explore what is of interest to them. This, however, completely changes the traditional role of a teacher. Most teachers are used to working with closed ended questions. So with our teacher development and the tasks we collect we will provide teachers with the tools they need to be able to work with more open ended situations, in which students not only come up with standard solutions asked for by a teacher, but in which they - supported by the teacher - come up with their own solutions.

So it's about traditions and habits which have to be overcome ...
Well, it's more than that. In Nottingham the English people were very clear on that. They have developed many very good ideal tasks and questions, but the exam program of the UK leaves not enough time to do those tasks. The main focus is put on preparing students for their examinations. So that is an obstacle. Another one are costs coming up when you want to arrange an inspiring learning environment for which you need materials or arrange meetings with people from outside your school ...

Will teachers, who are mostly busy with preparing students for exams and therefore mostly used to work with closed ended questions, not be afraid of open ended situation which they cannot completely control?
Yes, I think in the Netherlands more than half of the teachers might fear that, maybe more than 75 percent of all teachers. But there are also teachers who really like working with open ended questions. We made some interviews, which show that the history in which the teacher has learned his role as a teacher is very important for his experiences and his will to have a more open ended situation. If he or she is used to it, used to the role of being more a supporter of a learning process than about making a student learn, it works. We know from teachers that you have to collect experiences with open ended tasks for many years to be sure that you are still getting to the goals set by the school system. It takes a lot of time.

Interview by Gesine Kulcke