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?

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