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Final Plenary Session - A personal appreciation of the ICEVI European Conference Education - aiming for excellence

by Marianna Buultjens

6th European Conference of ICEVI
Chemnitz, Germany 14-18 August 2005

Dear colleagues, thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on the conference with you. There will be two parts to my overview.

First of all, what attracts someone to apply for a place at a professional conference? For myself, I can say that, first and foremost, both the topic and the expected quality of the presentations are the deciding factor. The title of this conference: Education - aiming for excellence must certainly have raised expectations! When the European committee chose this title, we did so in the belief that that is what most colleagues in the field of vision impairment are aiming for in their professional work. As a committee we did not discuss what is meant by 'excellence'. Nor should we have done so, because the conference itself: that is, the Keynote speakers, the presenters, the participants and the whole process and experience of working, discussing and enjoying together, are the means by which we will come to an understanding of what this term must mean to us and for us.

Throughout this conference, Keynote speakers and the presenters in the different theme areas and poster sessions worked together on defining what 'excellence' might mean for us. In the opening Keynote address Sven Degenhart told us that excellence can only be achieved by teamwork and networking and only by those who care about what they do. We must build on existing strengths, prioritise the challenges facing us and consistently pursue solutions to these challenges.

On Monday Michael Brambring in his Keynote address on Assessment, told us how he and his team of researchers had clarified why young blind children achieve some developmental norms at a later or earlier age than sighted children. By analysing the complexity of the tasks and the environmental conditions in which they had to be carried out, rather than the seeming deficits in the children, they identified the tasks that involved increased conceptual and sensory demands for children who cannot see compared to those who use sight to carry them out.
Gordon Dutton talking on Low Vision, demonstrated how vital it is for us to know the visual thresholds of children with whom we work, so that we can ensure appropriate pedagogical and environmental learning experiences for them. Keeping up with research outcomes and new medical and psychological developments must form part of our search for excellence.

On Tuesday Natalie LÚvi-Dumont gave us an overview of the range of provision in Europe for the professional preparation of teachers of the visually impaired and the challenges faced by the training providers in fostering and developing Professionalism. Natalie told us that ICEVI Europe has supported these training providers through the four Teacher Training Workshops which offered an opportunity for collaborative working towards excellence in this field.
Kevin Carey challenged us in his Keynote on ICT by suggesting that we may well have the wrong priorities for educating blind and visually impaired children and young people. We should be thinking of today's world as a 'communications network' and ensuring that our students are involved in content creation not just content reception. These young people can only compete and succeed through teamwork, or as Kevin put it, they need 'syndicate not solo learning'. Kevin also suggested that as far as ICT is concerned, some of us need to make the leap from 19th to the 21st century, by-passing the 20th! In pursuit of excellence this may be a necessary leap!

On Wednesday Mira Tsetkova took us through the history of Orientation and Mobility. There were many surprising revelations including the fact that O&M was introduced to Bulgaria, her country, by two Bulgarians who came to study O&M in Chemnitz! Mira told us that 'excellence' has many faces and the road to achieving it demands research, dedication, care and a balance between old and new.
Nina Hummel illustrated for us the current struggle of professionals involved in the field of Activities of Daily Living (ADL) instruction. They are involved in defining their profession and getting it recognised in Europe through achieving the European Quality in Rehabilitation Mark. This recognition will be a benchmark for these professionals in their pursuit of 'excellence' in enabling young people with vision impairment and blindness to develop problem-solving skills and 'to thrive - not just survive!'

This morning, Sietske Brandenburg, on the topic of Social Competence, started on a high note: being socially competent sets you free and promotes positive relationships. She then took us through the competencies necessary for the professionals involved stressing the importance of positive expectations in shaping a child's capabilities. Once again we heard about the importance of learning cooperatively as this model promotes 'social cooperation'. Sietske recommended that we bear in mind that of all the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for a teacher of VI in the pursuit of 'excellence', attitude is the most important and the most difficult to change. To help us she offered the mantra: 'social competence sets you free; competent professionals set you free!'
It was fitting that the final Keynote Address was on 'Family'. Renate Walthes posed some direct questions: are we as 'excellent' in dealing with families as we are in O&M? Families are a special social system, defined through their tasks of providing care, well-being, love, strong bonds, common history and managing the diversity of daily life. Is there a standard of family 'excellence'? By means of images of families relaxing, playing and discussing during holidays organised by and with professionals and quoting thoughtful reflections from parents and from research done on the helping strategies, Renate showed how only families themselves can decide what excellence means for them. She suggested as a way forward: families making this 'excellence' available to professionals in order to strengthen it.

In the parallel sessions, poster sessions, videos and exhibitions we were able to see and share in examples of research and practice, carried out with care and reported and evaluated honestly and openly. The process of reporting to colleagues, is in my view, as much a part of the pursuit of excellence as the work itself. Ultimately, each one of us has to examine where we are in our pursuit of excellence and to where, and in which way we wish to make progress. This conference will have been a success for us if it has helped us in this process.

One thing missing from the conference was enough time for in-depth discussion after each Keynote and parallel presentation. It is a sign of how the ICEVI European conferences have matured, that there was a palpable and expressed need for this form of intellectual exchange. It is no easy matter to provide this in a conference with so much content and so many different languages! Perhaps in planning future conferences, our new ICEVI-Europe committee will consider a range of models of programme where more in-depth discussion is possible for those who wish it.

Now to the second part of my appreciation of this conference! As one of the important messages of this conference has been teamwork, it would have been remiss of me not to have had help from colleagues for this overview. Many of you have contributed to my thoughts, knowingly or unknowingly, through discussions we had, or comments I overheard! Throughout the conference, Francis Boe has been busily photographing participants, places, events and moods to provide a happy retrospective for us. The photographs go beyond what I am able to express in words! Thank you Francis!

What else makes us give up holidays and spend money to come to a conference? Catching up with old friends (many of us now share a life history of meeting at conferences!) - and making new ones? Visiting new countries and cities like Chemnitz, Dresden and Meissen? The chance to see the latest technology and resources in the exhibitors stands? Enjoying good food, good wine, beer and the occasional mineral water? Happy evenings spent at SFZ? Personally, I love all these things and an added spice is the 'Tower of Babel' aspect - 34 countries represented and nearly as many languages! All these experiences have been provided here in Chemnitz, safe in the TLC (tender loving care) of 50 members of the Saechsischer Foerderzentrum (SFZ) staff. Karsten, you are lucky to have such charming, helpful and patient staff - but maybe they are a reflection of their boss? Finally, to sum up for myself, and I hope for all of you, this conference has been a friendly and joyful exchange of news, information and mutual encouragement so that together we can continue to pursue excellence.

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