Two ‘E’s I took at #EducationFest 2015

Another academic year, another #EducationFest.  This behemoth is a genuine ‘occasion’ in the academic calendar.  It is brilliantly planned and runs seamlessly throughout the two days.  The process is slick and above all the experience is enjoyable.  Well done to David James, Anthony Seldon et al.  It is impossible to see even a tiny fraction of the speakers on show; one is always relying on instinct and trusting to luck when visiting a tent, classroom, Hall or the Chapel.  The true joy lies in the unexpected gems, those speakers banished to the penumbra of the campus who often have the most wisdom and expertise (but the smallest profile).  If I sound a little curmudgeonly at times in this post, please ignore that sentiment – #EducationFest is brilliant, and I wouldn’t want it changed in any way.

My 2015 experience was all about day 2, but let’s get day 1 out of the way first.  I made some ordinary decisions, certainly, but I felt rather flat at close of play.  Nicky Morgan was as expected, boring, though it is difficult to criticise her for being anodyne.  She was polished enough, though gave the impression she had a bag of soundbites to use, but only a very limited amount of time in which to say them.  We were therefore treated to a talk something along the lines of ‘Good morning…grit…PISA…gold standard…character…STEM…passion…goodbye’.  She made sure to plug the mother behind the mask, informing us that she had missed her son’s sports day for this, listened to a few lengthy monologues (definitely not questions) and then was whisked back to the HoC having been whipped into line to vote on something or other.

Martin Stephen and Ian Warwick made for an excellent couple (like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) and spoke with verve on educating the most able.  it was my Thursday highlight.  In an #EducationFest full of character ed, it was great to witness something different, both experts in different ways, and both very engaging speakers.  As with any worthwhile talk, I didn’t so much take notes as come away with a series of links, authors and books to investigate.

Not much more to report from Thursday.  I went to a couple of rambling tech talks – they came across as a live-action version of ‘shift happens’ – individuals more technologically savvy than edu-savant, explaining what the future will look like in a sort of ‘isn’t this scary for you?’ sort of manner.  It wasn’t really, and the talks lacked focus and message (and many slides post 2010).  The final panel talk of the day on ‘what is intelligence’ involved a stellar line-up (though not of teachers) and soon faded to resemble a ramble at pub closing-time.  The panel were jerked into life by Andrew Sabisky‘s excellent take-down of multiple intelligence which led to a rather contradictory message given by the Master to his own School’s admissions policy.  This was the first time the word ‘passion’ (hitherto heard many times whilst delivered in total absence) might have been used truthfully.  Thursday was flat – too many people relying on past presentations and reputation, too many talks lacked liveliness and spark, too many people were going through the motions – do they believe in what they are saying?  Have they anything new (or relevant) to say?

I tried to distill what Thursday had lacked for me, and it was two things: expertise and energy.  When I listen to someone, I want them to tell me things I don’t know, things about which they have developed expertise and are now willing to communicate it with me.  I also want them to deliver a presentation with belief – they need to believe what they are saying before anyone else will.  I know that bands play their most crowd-pleasing hits multiple times each year, but I still want to feel that it’s played just for me on the sole occasion I get to see them.

Everything Thursday lacked, Friday made up for.  Friday was brilliant: expertise, energy, integrity, bright-eyed communication.  I started with Adam Seldon, Jess Clark-Jones and Hayley Carr from Lauriston Lights, a charity venture set up to help children develop through focus on ‘non-academic skills’.  I felt they sold themselves a little but short, and really did push the academic side of things too (I think the balance could be tipped even further, too), but they were mightily impressive, lacking cynicism, polished and principled with a bit of inner steel that comes from knowing you’re doing a good job for the right reasons.  There were about ten of us in Mandarin 2 – they deserved a larger audience.

Another Friday highlight was the superb Lucy Crehan, and she had no problem packing the Driver Room.  She’s very likable and a wonderfully articulate communicator.  I’m sure she is an excellent teacher, and the combination of expertise (though delivered in a self-effacing manner) and energy was palpable.  Her book is worth a plug here – what can we learn from the classrooms of Finland, Singapore, Canada, China and Japan?  I wonder if the main conclusion to draw was that nothing matters more than the quality of teachers, but that’s a different blog, and I certainly need to read the book before I make further comment.

Described as ‘one of the greats’ by Carl Hendrick, Iain Henderson did his best to live up to that billing.  His talk threatened at times to move into the ubiquitous realm of mindfulness, but even to this scooped-out husk, devoid of humanity and kindness, what he said was deep and insightful.  His style was very ‘Jazz club’, and I mean that as a compliment.  His philosophy of ‘coaching’ made sense, and in my experience, this is an area ripe for development in Schools, especially boarding Schools such as he and I both work in.

I wasn’t sure how popular Andrew Sabisky’s talk on ‘what you really need to know about IQ’, and by this I mean how it would compare with popular opinion on intelligence, cleverness etc, but he was impressive and believable.  I have long been of the opinion that the best predictor of Sixth Form exam success, Oxbridge potential etc is how clever one is, and I do believe that you can gain a reliable and genuine measure of cognitive ability by testing.  Maybe the word ‘intelligence’ is too loaded, or has at least been bastardised, but the idea that all pupils are brilliant and that most can score at ‘genius level’ (according to Sir Ken Robinson) is simply not true.  No-one’s self-esteem will ever be raised by struggling to reach an unobtainable level, and everyone’s self-esteem will be raised by being appreciated that the level at which you are working out-strips what might be expected for the horse-power you were born with.  Jack Marwood provided an excellent follow-up to Sabisky and provided much to ponder on the need to draw valid conclusions from data.

I did not hang around for the vaunted Sir Ken Robinson, as I needed to be back at School for an evening in the Boarding House.  Having seen his TED talk, his RSA Animate scribble, read his books, heard him on radio 4 etc I feel educated enough to comment.  The man is engaging, articulate, witty and has a superb sense of timing.  He says nothing practical or applicable, has never taught and deals mostly in edu-quotes specialising in ‘truthiness’ or vagueness.  Scratch away the patina, and there’s a distinct lack of substance.

The best I saw at #EducationFest dealt with expertise (Sabisky, Marwood, Stephen) and energy (the Lauriston Lights lot, Crehan) or both.  My own PISA chart might contain the following: Perseverance (I decided against the use of ‘passion’), Integrity, Substance and Accuracy – I wonder how many of those you could apply to Piers Morgan?

Three, that’s the magic number…

Teaching is a wonderful vocation; every day has at least one high; no two days are the same; teaching keeps you grounded; teaching keeps you young; teachers never stop learning; teachers make minds; no-one ever forgets a good teacher.  Or a really bad one.

All of the above is true, but it’s sometimes easy to forget, especially at report-writing time, when dealing with unreasonable parents or colleagues or when pupils continue to disappoint, even when you’ve invested large amounts of time for their benefit.  The Secret Teacher column in The Guardian is an odious read, presenting the profession in a very poor light – all moaning martyrs, underpaid and overworked, doing it for the kids whilst being oppressed by forces from above.

If you want to retain perspective, to remind yourself that you really love what you do, I think you could do far worse than watching Robert Donat in ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’.  Ok, it’s a pretty flawed story-line in that he only really becomes lovable after his wife dies and it’s really her who knows how to build relationships with children and his pupils think he’s a bit of a tit until he’s bereaved, but try to remain unemotional in the final scene as he’s about to be spirited away and if you can do so, you’ve a heart of stone.  It was filmed at Repton of course, but nothing’s perfect.

There’s an ever-growing market for education literature, and not all of it is by Sir Ken Robinson (note I *did* include the title).  You may find something inspirational there.  If you’re not a fan of grainy 1930s films or the whole Public School thing really isn’t for you, here’s three books that should re-kindle your love of teaching, should it need a shot in the arm at any point:

Stoner (John Williams): re-discovered after decades being ignored, it’s a version of the ‘Mr Chips’ narrative, except there’s no real triumph at any point, pupils don’t really like being taught by William Stoner and there’s no big finish at the end.  It’s about an academic man, in love with his subject; a man with obvious flaws, but one who is not willing to compromise his academic integrity.  He understands the beauty of literature, and is more comfortable with the written word than the spoken.  Most importantly, it’s about teaching as a calling, about a person being inexorably drawn to the profession and finding all life’s joys therein.

Letters from School (John Rae): Any humility in this book does come across as rather forced (in the same way Richard Feynman used to talk about having no special talent), but these ‘fictional’ letters from School contain all the joy, hardship, hope and sadness that one comes across as the Headmaster of a great School.  There are vignettes of brilliance strewn throughout the text.  The diffidence Rae shows for the mis-judged hero-worship of a ‘maverick’ teacher by pupils past and present is a masterpiece of understatement.  The final line of that chapter, dropped like a feather on a pond, is perfect.

The Learning Game (Jonathan Smith): So what if it’s a little like a teacher’s comfort blanket, there’s plenty of sage advice contained within.  Smith does come across as though he’d have been more comfortable in another time (maybe Stoner’s era) but genuine wisdom endures and his passage about re-discovering your inner child through coaching Schoolboy cricket is worthy of Julian Barnes.

If I was ever asked to provide a welcome pack for new teachers, these three books would be it.

What’s your type?

I have always been vaguely suspicious of people who profess to have a ‘type’.  I mean in terms of partners: those men who seek out only blondes, the women who go for nothing but tattooed TOWIE types.  It’s like these people somehow came to possess a grainy photo of their perfect mate, only they can’t quite make out the face.  They then spend their dating years thumbing through lookalikes, forever searching for that photo’s match.  I wonder if there’s an Oedipal thing going on here, or maybe they are simply trying to reclaim a lost first love?

People who only read books of a certain genre, listen to music of a specific type or watch films that are derivative eschew the diversity offered by these forms of art.  We all have favourite foods, but who wants to eat tagine in summer or strawberries in December?  Sticking on the tagine theme, variety is indeed the spice of life, and limiting oneself to specific ‘types’ of anything leads to a much duller existence.

Think of some pupils you’ve really enjoyed teaching over the years.  Got a few names?  I’d be surprised if you found a ‘type’ in there, and if you did, it may suggest that you’re getting through to, or building relationships with, only a small cross-section of the pupils you teach.  Some pupils are easy to teach, some are hard work; some are charmless, others are politeness personified; sometimes you make a real difference (positively or negatively) and at other times it could be anyone standing in front of that pupil – the result would be the same.

The best pupil to teach is every type of pupil – the shy, outgoing, rude, timid, confident, obtuse, challenging, knowledge-hungry, laddish, witty, oafish, sharp, keen, delightful pupil. Pupils should not be pigeon-holed.  We are all confident in certain situations and mouse-like in others.  The point is that pupils are developing all the time.  They are never the finished article at School.  Even the most lazy, slobbish and insensitive pupils at 15 years of age *might* turn out to be wonderful characters in their early 20s.  We don’t take a roast chicken out of the oven after 20 minutes, decide it’s inedible and throw it away.  Believe in the possibility for change, that even the ugliest caterpillar might soar as a beautiful butterfly.  It won’t always happen, of course, but the fact that it *could* is what makes teaching so rewarding, what makes pupils worth persevering with and what makes having a perfect ‘type’ of anything so pointless.

How about your colleagues?  Try to be just as generous.  The possibility of change is even less likely in adulthood, but try to embrace the various types you come across.  No-one has a monopoly on good ideas in education and you can learn something from everyone.  Probably.