Last weekend, I cycled from my home in Bethnal Green to the 2014 ResearchED conference at Raine’s Foundation School and was amazed to see so many teachers paying out of their own pockets to attend a conference about educational research on a Saturday. The impressive attendance, possibly over 600 delegates, was a real testament to the power of social media: this was truly a “Twitter” conference in that the interest for it has been generated because its leading lights are such active Tweeters. What was really good to see was that quite a few of its attendees seemed to be young, passionate teachers intent upon trying to improve their practice and wanting to engage in the intellectual debates around education. The conference was absolutely packed: you could scarcely move in the main entrance hall of the school at the beginning of the day.
I was there with two other teachers from my school: the schedule was choc-a-block with different talks so we decided to divvy up going to different events. Most of the talks, though not all, were about the whys and wherefores of teachers should using research to inform their teaching or how they might do their own research. The movement is led by Tom Bennett, who has been a R.E. teacher at Raine’s for the last ten years and is the Behaviour Guru for the TES as well as a prolific tweeter. He is now leaving Raine’s to teach part-time at another school and have more time to run ResearchED and write. Under his guidance, the movement is going global: there are going to be conferences in New York and the Far East soon I believe.
As I’ve pointed out before Bennett is, by and large, a fan of Michael Gove’s reforms and advocates what one might chararactise as a “didactic” model of teaching with the emphasis being on the “teaching of knowledge”. In his book, Teacher Proof, he ridicules what he perceives to be the opposite of his approach: “voodoo” pedagogy which advocates such inanities (as he sees them) as Brain Gym and Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that quite a few of the speakers at the conference are evangelical about what might be termed a “knowledge-based” curriculum and keen to show that the research endorses their pedagogical model. Perhaps for this reason, I felt a little nervous about going to the conference. On the whole, I’ve felt a bit dispirited reading Bennett’s work which I believe unfairly judges teachers like me, who advocate collaborative learning and take people Howard Gardner seriously, as being hopelessly woolly and failing to teach children “knowledge”. Furthermore, I’ve found my interactions with teachers who are strongly supported by Bennett like Andrew Old quite traumatic on the internet because I know I am no match for their witty one-liners and put-downs.
But I was delighted to find that talking one-to-one to teachers who probably don’t agree with me on a lot of things – including Tom Bennett, Andrew Old and Katherine Birbalsingh — at the conference was a really positive experience. For me, the real marvel of the conference was the way people were talking to each other outside the events: there was a genuinely open atmosphere. Unlike the Wellington College Festival of Education, which I’ve found a bit snooty, there was a real sense that we were colleagues in this “teaching thing” together, even if we may disagree on certain things. I think possibly holding the conference at Raines was an important factor here: this is a non-selective, inner-city school in Tower Hamlets which serves some of the most deprived students in the country. There’s the smell of reality in the place which is the opposite of the rarefied atmosphere you get at places like Wellington.
For this reason, I found the day therapeutic. Many of my worries and anxieties about the Gove-supporters – who I have unkindly called “Gove’s blob” or “the Glob” in the past – vanished. Just as I am not a member of the Blob – Gove’s term for any person who might advocate anything that smacks of progressive teaching methods – Bennett and his supporters are not the Glob. It makes a big difference that Gove’s gone I think: he was a divisive figure who did insist that you were either “for us” or “against us”. There was a palpable release in tension in the air with him gone: I spoke to journalists, academy chain bosses and other important educational chiefs during the day and found them refreshingly open.
In particular, listening to Andrew Old’s talk, “How to have a rational argument about education”, was the best therapy I’ve had in years. As I said before, I’ve always found his anonymous internet presence rather scary and found his emphatic one-line put-downs a bit upsetting at times. It was a revelation seeing him in person: I suddenly “got” his tone. I believe now he’s actually not confrontational but just certain he’s right; it’s a very difficult concept to get unless you meet him in person. My amateur video of the talk gives you a sense of his personality I think:
I appreciated the way Old related his ideas about logic to etiquette on the internet. At the end of the session, I told him I liked his talk and he told me he enjoyed my two books, ‘I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out of Here’ and ‘Teacher On The Run’!! Later on, in the pub, we worked out that we’ve both taught at the same Midlands school, depicted in ‘I’m A Teacher…’ and had a bonding experience the like of which I would never have imagined could have happened in a million years a few days ago. Now that I “get” his tone, his “habitus” as Bourdieu would term it, I have found myself re-reading his blog http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ in entirely different light. Although he himself feels tone is unimportant in an argument, my experience of meeting him and others at the conference has made me realize that it’s very important. The internet has been incredible in the way it has brought so many people together to talk about pedagogy, but the real dialogue for me happens face-to-face.
My other therapeutic moments at the ResearchED conference:
- Having Andrew Old hand me a TES goodie bag he’d found in the pub because I didn’t have one, only to discover that it was the “Tough Young Teacher” Oliver Beach’s bag!! A few tweets led me to cycle over to Oliver’s place in the East End the next morning. We had a pleasant conversation about the conference.
- Tom Bennett taking a “reminder” photo of my copy of Geoff Petty’s Evidence-Based Teaching and promising to consider Petty and Mike Bell, of The Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network as future speakers. I also had a friendly conversation with him about differing views on group work, which I will do another blog on.
- Challenging Nick Gibb about the problems with high-stakes, one-off exams which the Coalition has introduced at GCSE and A level. Another blog here I think.
- Talking frankly with TES journalists about the possible Tory bias of the magazine – which they denied with some cogent arguments and evidence – and the whole issue of teachers being paid for their resources, which is now being introduced.
- Talking to David Didau, a.k.a. the Learning Spy and author of The Secret of Literacy, about supporting the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and being invited to be a member of the ginger-headed teachers’ club, despite the fact that my hair is possibly no longer ginger. But it once was!
- Just feeling the general vibe that teachers are genuinely up for turning this into an intellectual, evidence-based profession which will put us on a par with the medical profession in terms of rigour and dialogue.