Yesterday I attended the SELMAS Annual Conference at Stirling University. The tagline for the conference was, “What will education look like in 2023?” The day was chaired by Dr. Dee Torrance. These are my notes and thoughts from the conference and I should warn you, they are quite long, certainly for a blog post.
The event took the form of four keynotes spread across the day, with opportunity to network over coffee and lunch, followed by a (too) short panel discussion. The planned “group tasks” were ditched as minor technology gremlins conspired to eat the available time (is this the future?). We were also given a presentation by senior girls from Ross High on leadership and a “bonus” session from Terry Wrigley and Danny Murphy on Terry and John Smyth’s new book: Living on the Edge: Rethinking Poverty, Class and Schooling. The keynotes were at first sight eclectic but themes emerged from the four very distinct perspectives shared by our speakers: Donna Manson, Matthew Syed, Ollie Bray and Tommy Boyle.
Donna’s keynote didn’t carry a tagline but if it did, it might have been something like, “education will continue to change lives”. Her keynote was structured around what she called five P’s: the first being that what we get out is related to what we Put In, a proper teacher signpost that we were not going to sit passively listening to her speak. Sure enough, at points, we were asked to share our thoughts and perspectives with our neighbour: we even had scaffolded sheets on which to take structured notes if we needed them. Donna is the Head of Education in Fife and is teacher through and through. What struck me about her talk was how much of herself she gave us: personal anecdotes and reflections on her experience which revealed the second P of passion for education. She underlined the importance of educators having this passion to change lives through the emergence over the next decade of more people-centred learning communities. This theme was considered from a number of perspectives and one with which I particularly connected was the exhortation that in such communities, every person is feeling valued. I was reminded of a young girl’s response to being asked, “what should the school values be?” This 14-year old revealed wisdom beyond her years when she answered, “that every person, no matter who they are, should walk out of the school feeling better about themselves than when they walked in.”
Donna challenged us to consider what presence we carry with us: does this presence disengage others – young people, colleagues, staff – from you? The implication that we should become ever more self-aware if we are to recognise and help realise the potential in these others. In her role at Fife Council, Donna has quite a focus on data, which she shared with us as we considered with her the evidence that attainment in schools has a strong correlation with affluence (my words). Her emphasis on the importance of raising attainment, in particular literacy, was well made. Personally, I worry about some school initiatives which target young people who are “on the cusp” of an attainment boundary. These boundaries are arbitrary – I question if it is fair that extra effort is put in to supporting children across them. Is it always for the good of the child, or the good of the stats?
The final P in Donna’s five was Professional enquiry. Here, she pointed at McKinsey, Hargreaves and Glaze who have written much about the idea of professional capital. This for me is a fairly Republican construct revealing the immaturity that still pervades public sector attitudes to staffing an enterprise like education. I might have preferred her to have picked up more on Professor Donaldson’s thinking. Her final points revealed the rich underpinning of her talk in recognising that culture is key: understanding the culture of the community, the young people and the educators will lead to understanding learning and teaching in our schools.
Matthew Syed: The Talent Myth and the psychology of performance
Matthew is a sportsman, journalist and author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. Although very entertaining, much of his talk was based upon the messages of his book, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Carole is well-known to many educators since her 2009 keynote at the Scottish Learning Festival. Matthew did share some interesting stories and managed to soundbite for us some of the essential issues:
- Young people are embarrassed by the process of learning
- Success depends on the quality and quantity of domain experience (i.e. practice)
- Ability is growable
- People need an authentic notion of success
- Within the constructivist model of learning, cognitive conflict yields effective learning
- The brain’s plasticity causes it to adapt to usage – it grows when used!
I’ve bullet pointed those because these ideas are so familiar to educators, but two things that connected well with Donna’s presentation are worth picking out. The first is that feedback is important and if it is to have any value to the learner, it must be as soon as possible (Syed) and it must be of the highest quality (Manson). Second, self-esteem is fragile and easily damaged in learners unless they know how to respond to failure. Recognising that failure is an opportunity to try again, to practise, to sustain the hard work necessary, is the cultural mindset characteristic of success. This resilience is something that as educators, we ought to overtly develop not only in our young people but also in ourselves.
Leadership – What is it?
This is the question asked by Anna and Christy, two seniors from Ross High as they began their presentation. Their definition is that Leadership is about skills: your own, and how you develop others’. Despite their acknowledgement of the history of rivalry between Ross High and Preston Lodge High School, they were gracious enough to acknowledge that they had been inspired by a Preston Lodge presentation at the SELMAS annual meeting a year ago. They realised that you can become confident in your own learning through taking control of it.
They decided to attempt to break the culture of opposition to the adoption and use of technology in their school. The girls described how an ICT group was established, of pupils from S2-S6 covering a range of ages such that the group had built-in sustainability. The group identified after some research that there are three tools that would enable them to enhance in an intelligent way the use of ICT in their school. These tools are (i) the virtual learning environment Edmodo, (ii) the file management and sharing suite Google Drive, and (iii) web-based modern computers: Chromebooks, otherwise known as “the browser on a stick”. The presenters described how these three tools can be used to improve the student experience and enrich the teaching through the use of documents, forms, websites, and email.
Christy and Anna acknowledged the support of the school and the expertise of Karen Haspolat (@karenhaspolat) and David Gilmour (@dgilmour) who had provided some excellent support and training. Finishing with a YouTube video on the advantages of the ChromeBook in Education, these two young women had shared with us how they had learned and shown leadership in bringing this project to life and having done so in such a way as to ensure it will live on beyond their time at Ross High.
Living on the Edge
After a very good lunch, Danny Murphy and Terry Wrigley talked about the pedagogy of poverty, and, in the words of the flyer for their new book, “… the nexus between poverty and underachievement.” Terry is a well-known author perhaps best known as co-editor (with my colleagues Rowena Arshad and Lynne Pratt) of Social Justice Re-Examined: Dilemmas and Solutions for the Classroom Teacher, a standard text in initial teacher education.
Ollie Bray – Future Thinking, Future Learning
The new head teacher of Kingussie High School, Ollie Bray (@OllieBray) is known equally well as an educator as he is a technologist. He began his talk with the Intel infographic on the What happens in an internet minute as backdrop, referring to the Beyond current horizons project on the future of education which, although reporting in 2009, Ollie says, is still valid today.
Ollie identified something of what we know about the future: the population is ageing; there is increasing scope for intergenerational learning; we will be increasingly working and living with machines. He asked, “does technology make highly skilled jobs less skilled?” I imagined a helpless Jean-Luc Picard commanding a kettle to make him, “Tea, Earl Grey, hot”.
Considering what is happening now, and what will become more common, Ollie pointed out Google Glass; personal and professional learning environments; that distance matters less (although geography still counts); the ‘cluster’ campus; weakening institutional boundaries and the availability, just in time for Christmas, 3-D printing. One or two conclusions from this forecast were drawn, the first I am not convinced of: that intellectual property will become the oil of the next 50 years. The reason I am not so sure of this is that intellectual property (IP) is a concept interpreted by law, whereas oil is tangible and not subject to interpretation: it provides energy, end of story. It is a real commodity, in contrast to the abstract commodity that IP represents. What I can agree with is Ollie’s assertion that a digital future needs infrastructure.
All of this looking through a glass, darkly was underlined by Ollie’s observation that it takes place in the context of increasingly sharp and extreme socio-economic divides.
So, what will school in 2023 look like? Ollie’s forecast is that they will be resilient and agile, prepared for change. They will be tech-rich but will look much as they do now because we are unable to shift the purpose of school. I believe this is not as true as many think. If you consider the age demographic changes with the demands for retraining and re-education of a workforce that will change careers many times, schools may increasingly be opened up to community learning centres where the current strong association of age and stage is broken. Classes may increasingly flip: the blended learning model may be more adopted in such a way that a more highly personalised learning trajectory can be sought and found within the context of centres of learning for all citizens. This sits more easily with Ollie’s description of hacking education, repurposing it to better suit us all. The clues are there in Sugata Mitra’s SOLE toolkit, for one example.
Ollie’s presentation slides are available here.
Tommy Boyle – An employer’s perspective on future learning
Tommy’s eclectic presentation was difficult to follow but was not without merit, if it lacked structure. Some of his important messages included the importance of not labelling children; encouraging teachers to enable young people to be able to respond to being told they are “not good enough”. His themes echoed messages from the other keynotes: self-esteem; holistic teachers who recognise their responsibility to develop the whole child; the values of hard work; extra-curricular opportunities (specifically sport, but applicable more widely) to develop skills, self-confidence and resilience; preparing our young people for the future; and challenging the cultures of our society that work against these values.
Panel discussion and close
The conference concluded with a too-short panel session with Donna, Ollie, Tommy and Colin Webster from the Ellen MacArthur foundation (circular economy: see here). Questions from the floor were answered briefly but in one response I thought I heard the delicious hint that education could go the way of the police, i.e. out of the grip of political short-termism.
I have to say that this was a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking day with a mix of speakers that were really well balanced in perspective but through which the delegates were able to draw patterns and common themes on the way we can try to influence the development of education in Scotland. For me, I think my own observation at the end of the panel session delivers one message: that a not insignificant role for educators is giving children the permission to own their own lives. By this, I mean that at different ages, we cease to be a product of our parents and socio-economic environment, living within the parameters set by these, and become our own individual selves. I spoke a little about this in a podcast: this moment is when we realise that our success is down to nobody but us; that success is related to how much we try, how we deal with failure; that the life we have belongs to nobody but us; and what we do with it is nobody’s business but ours. My point is simply that bringing young people to that realisation is potentially in the hands of their teachers, who in this sense, give (or rather, allow young people to take for themselves) permission to own their own lives.