Dutch Coven: researchED Amsterdam builds bridges

31st January 2016 at 11:31

Tom Bennett reports back from the first researchED conference in the Netherlands



This piece was originally going to be puntastically subtitled 'researchED Amsterdam is Gogh!' until I actually checked and found that the phonemes match wasn't quite as cute as I'd imagined. That illustrates a nice puzzle I've learned to expect since I started researchED in 2013: how do you dig up an idea from one soil and plant it in another country? Banyans don't do so well in Basingstoke. Answer: don't try. Instead, talk to the people there and see what they want to do with your odd seeds. 

I was contacted by Jans Tishauer last year, a sweet man who turned up at every event we held, who suggested he wanted us to hold a day in the Netherlands, and because I am a strong decisive leader with a clear vision, I said yes because he kept asking me. How glad I was though. Along with his son Nils and business partner Bettina, they built a researchED event with my remote supervision- sort of a TEDx event without the futurism and the weeping in private. They found a great school, Hermann Wesselink College, a brave Principal, and an extraordinary supergroup of voices from the Netherlands and nearby. Upside: we got a round table of talent such as Pedro de Bruyckere, Marion Stenneke, René Kneyber, Paul Kirschner, Frank Cornelissen, Christian Bokhove, Karin den Heijer, Amber Walraven, Daniel Muijis...Downside? Because sessions were in Dutch, I could only watch them perform, uncomprehending, like a Scottish Tantalus. Never do you feel more British than when you address about 300 people in English who can eaily move from one language to the next. 

I was- am- never sure how well researchED will land in each new territory, because I don't presume anything in case I need to flee from pitchforks. Each time I'm thrilled if it works; this time I was blown away. It was a brilliant day, and the speakers were brilliant. I started events by laying out my small stall: the day is designed to bring together communities affected by research; to start better dialogue; to raise research literacy among teachers; and to catalyse informed change for the good of all. Stapled to that is the insistence that researchED isn't here to lead people to the Promised Land; I suppose in an irony-storm of pupil-centred education we're looking for these communities to find out for themselves what works best for them, and why, and when, and what 'works' means for them. God forbid I should be a sage on the stage to these people- I'm waaaaay over on the side, waving. 

I finally got a chance to meet some of my edu-heroes properly like Rene (who was waving the 'Flip the System' flag handsomely) and Pedro (who, like a mad man had driven to researchED London last year and back from Belgium in a day. Kirschner insisted on wearing the T-shirt for us, and I boggled at the custom made researchED bicycle lights that were given out to all the guests (and I am not making that up; years from now they'll be traded at Southeby's for a fortune). Despite my monolingualism and profound ambiturnerism I managed to have 100 fantastic conversations with as many fascinating people, learning about the curious and compex differences between education systems that notionally all have the same aim. 

What was clear was this: in the Netherlands (and beyond) there is an extraordinarily healthy appetite for people in education to understand for themselves what their practice means to them. This box can't be closed; educators of all shades and shapes are talking to one another, through social media, through events like researchED. The old top-down heirarchies are shaking, sometimes grumbling. It's only natural that some of the traditional gate keepers of top-down prescriptivism are unhappy to feel their monopoly slipping; and it's only natural for teachers and those who love education to forge new models of growth for themselves. The possibility exists at last for an international web of formal and informal collaborations between classroom teachers, academics, researchers and even policy makers. The simple axiom 'the research proves [what I want it to]' is no longer acceptable. People want to understand for themselves. 

There is a duty of care here: teachers are not researchers. But they are teachers, and objects of research study as well as beneficiaries (or not). We need to become- as a community- critical allies to the efforts to structurally understand education. Efforts to pretend teachers are researchers are as fruitless as pretending researchers are classroom teachers. It is the dialogue between these communities that is where the magic can happen, and we see it every time we hold a conference. And we can learn to understand each other's value and role a little better. Challenge, instruction, debate and mutual takeaway are the prizes. 

This was one of my favourite days we've held. It was organised and executed beautifully by Nils, Bettina and Jan, as well as their superhero team of events management students led by the formidable Janna. I loved the Netherlands, and it's even easier to love Amsterdam. And I loved the connections we made here this week, and I love the hope it gives me that we can continue with these collaborations and build upon the promise of a a better-informed future that it implies. I call it a polite revolution. I mean, it really is quite polite. But it is a revolution. 

Thank you to everyone for making it such a success.


Other highlights:

  • One of education's beloved voices revealing how as a youngster in Amsterdam they were forced under threat into buying a bag of tea leaves, in what must be the most conscientious and scrupulous mugging ever. ('No, I insist! Take it! Or else!')
  • Pedro de Bruyckere revealing how he played in a band at Ronnie Scott's in Soho
  • Pedro de Bruyckere talking about being the oldest of eight children, getting a Michelin star meal in Belgium for 25 euros....in fact pretty much all of Pedro's breathless, intense, joyful stories.
  • Being driven from the conference and hearing Karin den Heijer, one of our speakers, on radio already
  • Amsterdam's cyclists' carefree approach to racing through the dark without lights. If only they'd come to our conference...
  • The way that the only time you smell weed in the open is when there's a big group of Brits oafishly barrelling down the street like a conga line of morons
  • At the end of the day I was presented with a bottle of Flemish whisky, which winks evily at me from my hotel sideboard even now. Do I drink it, or have it exorcised?
  • The thought of doing this again next year.