“There is huge potential in the collaboration between psychologists and educators”

“There is huge potential in the collaboration between psychologists and educators”
Professor emeritus Gábor Halász is, among others, an education researcher, a Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, former Head of the National Institute for Public Education and former President of the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation Governing Board. He was Head of the Doctoral School of Education at ELTE PPK for five years. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of PPK’s foundation, Professor Halász shared his memories about the faculty in general and the Institute of Education in particular, and talked about the importance of collaboration and the genesis of knowledge.

How did you wind up at ELTE PPK?

I am one of those researchers who spent the majority of their professional career at government-related institutes and not in a traditional academic environment. In this respect, I was an outsider. In the middle of the 2000s, Professor György Hunyady invited me to the faculty with a view to launching a programme concerning higher education management. This concept eventually evolved into a specialisation offered by the Educational Science MA programme. However, this was not simply about establishing and designing a programme. Since higher education pedagogy as a discipline had not existed back then, my aim was to create and develop this entire research and educational profile. The Higher Education and Innovation Research Group (previously Centre), which I became a leader of, was established for this purpose. For several years, we used to conduct a monthly workshop, inviting representatives from the given field. We were basically building the knowledge background which subsequently formed the basis for a more modern mindset about higher education. It was especially important to establish partnerships and inter-institutional collaborations, which did not—and still does not—have a long tradition in Hungary.

What could be the reason for this? Is the situation different abroad?

Rivalry is really strong here in Hungary: a Hungarian university is much more likely to cooperate with an international institute than a national one. The necessary mentality, which is orientated towards projects and groupwork, is not an integral part of daily routines, and this hinders cooperation even more. It is completely natural for universities in other European countries to participate in joint schemes, although I have worked with Frenchmen who initially considered groupwork uncomfortable.

At PPK, I led three major multi-year research programmes through the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund. These programmes – especially the first one, Project Impala – laid the foundation for a new, innovative paradigm for organising and running research projects. The twist was that we involved a lot of people in the project who were not working in a vacuum but engaged in continuous communication with each other, creating a constant flow of knowledge building and sharing. By running different workshops, the entire research programme became a sort of organisation development process, enabling us to learn from each other.

How would you rate PPK and, more specifically, the Institute of Education from this perspective?

When I think about my workplace, usually the Institute of Education comes to mind. What I really love about it is that the culture of cooperation is deeply entrenched in the institute. I have never noticed any sort of rivalry between different interest groups that would dampen the mood here and damage the efficiency of the organisation.

The only surprising thing I found upon my arrival was that andragogy had been looked down on, whereas the study of adult education was a leading field of research abroad. The discipline was basically emancipated when the Institute of Research on Adult Education and Knowledge Management (FTI) became an independent institute. I immensely value the work done by the FTI, and I maintain excellent professional relationships with them. Nevertheless, the current level of collaboration between the two institutes (the Institute of Education and the FTI) leaves much to be desired. There is ample room for improvement in terms of both education and research projects. As Head of the Doctoral School of Education, I always tried to ensure that all programmes be equal. At the level of doctoral education, it was self-evident that the andragogy programme should be side-by-side with the pedagogical and other programmes.

Can we extend this perspective to the entire faculty? The “Faculty of Education and Psychology” name inherently refers to a close cooperation between the two disciplines.

I regard it an extremely promising state of affairs that we educators are in the same institute as the psychologists. However, the exact meeting point between the two disciplines should be taken into account. Educators have fewer connections with the psychologists who study cognitive neuroscience; in contrast, we have lots to talk about with those who work on counselling, therapies, or organisation development.  Educators concern themselves with practical and pragmatic issues. The emphasis is not on scientific publications but on practical support; therefore, collaboration can be especially fruitful with those psychological subdisciplines that are inherently practice-oriented.

Talking of practice: research universities are often criticised for the minimal influence they bear on fieldwork and for not conveying the knowledge they generate to those in the front line. Is this criticism justified?

How to convey knowledge to the practical experts is not really a question any more; rather, we generate knowledge together. Me as a researcher and the other party as a practical expert work together on a problem, and during this process I learn as much from them as they learn from me. This is a radically different attitude from the one where the researcher believes that they know what and how to do, then goes home sad because the practical expert did not understand their explanation. These experts and decision makers interpret and comprehend thoughts and problems in an entirely different way, so our job is to convey what we want to say in a manner that they find easy to process and manage. A study of mine has recently come out in an OECD publication on how researchers can learn from practical experts. (Who Cares about Using Education Research in Policy and Practice?: Strengthening Research Engagement | en | OECD)

Just to give an example: one of the most exciting things I have done here at PPK in the last 15 years is the EDiTE programme, through which we invited partner schools into the doctoral programme. At first, those coming from the schools did not really understand why they were here among the researchers, but after the second or third occasion they started to come up with creative solutions on how to benefit from a research-focused doctoral student spending a few months with them.

As a teacher, what examples of learning from each other have you seen?

Predominantly, I teach courses to international students and experienced professionals. One of the most remarkable experiences of my professional career was when I taught practising teachers in evening classes: kindergarten and nursery school teachers learnt about theories of education systems or European education and integration. At the exams, I was genuinely pleased when I noticed that these experts in child education managed to synthetise the concepts they had learnt with their professional experience, all at a very high level.

From this perspective, I regard the closure of the Pedagogical Centre, which was meant to unify the pedagogical education at ELTE by integrating the three faculties training educators, a huge loss. I believe that we could learn a great deal from special education teachers, for instance, who do not deflect problems but try to solve them. I have the same opinion on my colleagues in training schools: they are the ones from whom we could best learn the science of efficient teaching and education. On the level of the doctoral programmes, at least, this collaboration never ceased to exist.

Besides teaching and researching, you are also a prolific author. What project are you currently working on?

I’m writing the fourth volume of a series of fiction whose protagonist-author, Reijo, guides the readers (and himself) through the education systems of the world. This volume focuses on Asia, introducing the curriculum reform in Hong Kong and the world of international developments.

This actually ties in with my work in the Learning Institute of Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), where I’m engaged in the Learning from Asia project. That continent has such a huge pool of knowledge, we could learn an astonishing amount from them! I’m constantly learning from my Asian students, without whom these books could never have been written. Thanks to students from Myanmar, for instance, I could teach dismissed teachers online, which gave me the chance to test in real life what one of my characters does in the second volume.

PPK celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, so everything is about recollections now. Could you please share with us a few of the defining experiences you have made during your time here at the faculty?

For me, the greatest experience has been the formation of the international student community and our cooperation and coexistence with this community. They provide a unique and insanely stimulating intellectual environment. Although they are our students in name, I feel that they have surpassed us in that they are extremely motivated and use very innovative methods. A few weeks ago, there was a panel discussion about the problems and issues faced by doctoral programmes, and a few of our students participated in the discussion. At the end, I told them that I would gladly trust the management of a doctoral school to this team of four students.

Another exciting experience is to oversee the amazing transformation that uninformed and indecisive freshmen undergo by the end of their programme. We have had the opportunity to organise multi-semester, project-oriented programmes at PPK, during which we took the students out to the fields.

We strive to teach by tackling real-world problems, and seeing the success of our approach always proves to be a great inspiration to me.

Could you pick out a few of the most inspiring people you have met during this period?

I can only repeat myself: I have amassed a huge amount of knowledge by interacting with students, which I will always cherish and treasure. Apart from this, the knowledge-sharing communities and workshops that developed during research projects also influenced me greatly. Each time I went home with more knowledge that I had arrived with.

If I really needed to pick one person, I would choose Professor György Hunyady: I admired and still admire his contribution to the integration of teacher training and his coordination of the Bologna Process.