Sunlight hit the spoon on my table as I ate a Dial House breakfast on a beautiful English summer morning. Soon the room was enlightened and outside I could see the blue sky muscling away the clouds, a very slight breeze slipping under the leaves of the tall trees that populate Duke’s Ride, Crowthorne.

Seeing that I only had 15 minutes until registration opened at the Sunday Times Education Festival, I took my bag and made my way down the road to Wellington College. It was quite a walk from the hotel to the gate of the college and an even longer walk (no exaggeration) from the gate to the main building complex, passing students training or playing sports, manicured lawns and many, many luxury cars.

Some criticised – through Twitter and elsewhere – the message that is sent by hosting an educational event at a place that costs £30,000+ per year, but I find the argument old and very tired. There are rich schools, there are poor schools with many in between and whilst I believe every child has the right to experience a rigorous and empathetic and, most importantly, free, education, when opportunities present themselves by organisations to host these kinds of events I don’t see the point in raising ancient and pointless arguments to detract from an otherwise excellent opportunity to learn, share and grow. Do we complain when teachers get the chance to go to sponsored events at world class facilities that cost tens of thousands of dollars a day? Not if its a valuable experience.

I accept the injustice of inequality, but surely this kind of event can be seen as a bridge between all contexts and perhaps the start of greater connections between different schools regardless of socio-economic circumstances. (in my next blog post I will try to accurately summarise an interesting panel who discussed What Kind Of Schools Do We Need?)

Now that that’s out of the way, what are some of the positive and exciting things that happened over the first days’ sessions?

Well firstly, we were joined by Paul McCartney (awesome!). Via video (aww..). He spoke about Meat Free Mondays and the impact of our own choices and understanding of our place in the world on our future. It’s great to see such influential people choose to pursue interests that have a vibrant and positive impact.

As Sir Paul was chatting, I took the time to let my eyes adjust inside the marquee in which I was sitting with probably over 300 other delegates. The roof was underlaid with a network of fairy lights, offering an amazing and very ironic constellation of stars on a perfectly sunny day outside. It was a beautiful and interesting space to be in, reminding me of the amazing efforts our Events team at my school go to during Year 12 graduation to make the space as beautiful and memorable as much as the speeches and stories told on the stage.

Under the stars we listened to different speakers offer their position on the purpose of schools, from one speaker who revealed that there are 75 million unemployed youths in the world at the moment and that education is the key to both social and economic stability and sustainability. Also discussed was the role of politics in education and how constantly changing governments wish to put their own stamp on education and act not often in the best interests of the students in their care. A difficult set of problems indeed.

Leading from this was a panel, held in a lovely light Spirituality Room and surrounded by books from Freud for Historians through to works by the great Terry Pratchett, regarding global systems of education and lessons that can be learned in the UK. Public vs Private, national vs global, four different perspectives were offered by the likes of James Tooley and Judith Guy and I walked away trying to distil my own view. I think I am most likely to agree with someone that says there needs to be a variety of environments and pathways for students in every country, and that government needs to play a role at some level to provide consistency across systems but not necessarily intervening at the microscopic level. Trust in educators to do their job and run their places of learning, all the while having high expectations and require proof that teaching and learning is occurring in an effective way and accepting that schools are more than just marking factories.

It was interesting to listen to Judith Guy explore the nature of the International Baccalaureate and how it transcends the daily political rumblings of a nation, but is also at the same time susceptible to an intentional ignorance or well meant misunderstanding of bodies and institutions that do work within a national, state or local framework. Some schools in Sydney offer the IB as an alternative qualification, although there are some that require students to complete both the state AND IB requirements at some stages if schooling, a massive undertaking for anyone who knows how content-heavy the NSW and upcoming Australian curriculum can be.

As a parallel offering to the usual educationally fruitful discussions, talks and panels in the various rooms of Wellington College, some companies has sponsored teachers, consultants and students to welcome visitors into their spaces to demonstrate how they use particular technologies in the classroom. In the Google room, filled with colourful beanbags, quirky furniture and a buzz of collaboration, Tom Barrett (@tombarrett) from No Tosh Ltd and TeachMeet promoter was showing off some of what students at Wellington had been doing with a bit of his help. Instead of studying The Road by Cormac McCarthy and doing worksheets or chapter summaries, the Year 9 students used a range of Google apps to create a whole collaborative website, each page of which focused on a different aspect of the text. Some pages required students to intensely analyse scenes and provide appropriate and annotated music, images and/or film to represent how they imagined the scene to flow. Creative, collaborative, connective, inspiring.

It was then time for me to push the learning frontiers in a session called, oddly enough, New Frontiers in Learning. Educator Ed Lawless, Tom Barrett, journalist Kate Russell (@katerussell) and inventor/designer Tom Lawton (@tomlawton) explored their visions and hopes for education in a world bombarded by information and potential opportunity.

Ed spoke about the impact of online learning environments to connect students with deep learning and collaboration, beyond that provided by traditional school models. He discussed the changing nature of professional dialogue and working with young people through online classrooms (24/7 and asynchronicity being major benefits) as well as confronting educators with the question: are we transferring current practice to digital form or are we transforming education itself?

Tom B spruiked the benefits if Twitter and other social media for transforming reflection as part of an educator’s normal practice. He believes that it is an abdication of professional responsibility to ignore the potential and current impact of these technologies (not that all teachers must themselves be experts or even actively engaged, but just aware and accepting of it at the very least.) He also introduced the audience to the idea of design thinking for learning activities ie a process of: immersion, synthesis, ideation, prototyping and feedback. See Tom’s blog here

Running in this theme of change and the impact of technology was Kate Russell’s passionate exploration of how teachers can and should help students engage in a world where technology is ubiquitous, regardless of their own trepidations and fears. She often speaks to students about how to effectively navigate the often murky waters if the web, and I’d certainly love for her to talk to my girls about what drives her. I loved her expansion on the typical “information superhighway” metaphor to argue that teachers need to “help kids cross the information superhighway.” To me, this suggests a few things:

– adults need to engage with the reality, not ignore it
– adults need to act as a guide and also fellow passenger who helps a students’ learning journey
– students need to be able to see the goal, understand the risks, prepare effectively and actually do the walk themselves
– adults and mentors need to be adaptive and flexible in their approach depending on the learner standing at the side of the road next to them.

Tom Lawton impressed everyone in the room with his addictive enthusiasm for education, invention and life in general. This is the kind of guy you wished you had in Year 7 technology because he’d be encouraging you to fail as many times as you need to in pursuit of your dream. But what pleased me most about Tom’s talk was that he hardly ever focused on a particular technology or tool but rather spoke of trial, failure, success, dreaming, hard work and all those other aspects of character and our world that we want to prepare students to face when they walk out those school gates for the final time. His invention, the Bubble Scope, was a hit as it takes a 360 degree image or video instantly from his little handheld device connected to an iPhone. Very cool and very handy. Again, he stressed, it’s not about being new toy, it’s actually used to capture the world beyond the traditional frame of a camera. What a great metaphor for ideal learning.

Staying in the same room, the Driver Lecture Room – complete with high windows and a bust of someone significant – I was interested to hear the next presenters on Digital Is Dialogue. Harper Ray (great name!) who is responsible for digital learning at Shakespeare’s Globe gave us an excellent overview of how the theatre is engaging with students from right around the globe (the Earth, not just his workplace). From adopting actors to online discussions to professional development to immersive digital learning experiences, the Globe (the theatre, not the Earth) has certainly helped plan many of my lessons for the next time I help my students engage with the work of the Bard. Definitely explore the learning area of this magnificent website to see just how many valuable resources have been created for us time poor educators.

We also had a talk from a representative of the Times Educational Supplement (TES) and the website http://www.tes.co.uk – I was already familiar with the site so after giving myself a mental gold star I was happy to note that several tens of thousands other people visit the site every year to download, share and critique the thousands of resources available online and for free.

After a bite to eat – one of my few criticisms of the EdFest is that there were not any breaks to chat to speakers or other attendees without missing another session – and a feeling of regret for not bringing a more substantial coat, I met up with a representative from Glow Science http://www.glowscience.org.uk and we had a good chat about the potential of well-produced online learning objects to enhance classroom experiences or to help teachers flip their classroom easily.

My not-so-inner History teacher was brimming with nerdy excitement at a session from 2pm: a talk by Prof David Cannadine on Further Thoughts on the Right Kind of History. Not having realised he released a book earlier in the year on the previous thoughts, I thought he was jumping straight into effective historiography by suggesting that his view was part of an ongoing debate. To my delight, he did both.

Mainly focusing on the differences between the almost identical lamentations of politicians over the course of the 20th century and the actual history that is taught in schools (to which my memory fired up a related fact that ancient Greek philosophers used to complain at the lack of historical knowledge of their students), Cannadine made strong cases for 1) that history is important and should be part of every citizens’ education and 2) there is little chance on anyone agreeing what kind of history that should be.

As you can probably imagine, I was in history heaven.

Some key ideas and quotes from the talk, delivered with a wit as dry as a desert on a hot Tuesday:

– there has always been criticism of history teaching for an extensive period of time
– there is much tension and outright conflict over the “cheerleading” vs “warts and all” views on history (in Australia: “three cheers view” vs “black armband”)
– there is tension between whether it is better to be taught a national history or history as ones place in the world
– is history for the imparting of knowledge or of skills (including imagination, interrogating evidence etc)
– narrow and detailed knowledge or generalistic and thematic?
– “history is about perspective and proportion”

And finally, and almost in itself a compelling argument for taking history teaching away from the power of democratic governments:

“the average term of office for a minister or secretary of Education in the UK over the last century is: 2 years.”

Interesting.

Finally, before I chatted to a rep from O2 Learn and convinced her of the benefits of TeachMeets (she in her other hat as a teacher had actually been to some), I sat in the gorgeous chapel of Wellington College, complete with the stained-glass names of famous alumni, to listen to critic, author and absolute expert on Shakespeare: Stanley Wells.

Into his 80s now but still with a booming actors’ voice that made his microphone completely unneeded, Stanley explored the reasons why Shakespeare should indeed be retained as part of a UK – and indeed global – education and why reading, experiencing, discussing, viewing and sharing Shakespeare can be a completely uplifting and almost holy experience. Using his iPad to keep to script, he kept his audience engaged with anecdotes and experiences of his own mixed with a hint of sadness at the way that schools are shifting to be driven more by the need to tick boxes than to educate the minds and souls of young people. It truly is a pleasure to see people so passionate about their own area if interest but keen to see students share that passion too.

The day was filled with new ideas and learnings and I thank you if you made it to this point. Please do comment on what you think and hopefully these two particularly leviathan entries (yes, prepare yourself for Day 7) will lead to a great debate.

Apologies for typos – iPad keyboards are not built for essays I fear – and neither is my attention span whilst in amazing historical cities, ripe for exploration.

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