Letter from Australia, part 1: Die Hard on a plane

19th February 2015 at 23:42

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck, the elven narrator, boasts that in order to run errands for Boss Oberon he'll "put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes". Two-hundred years later and we still haven't caught up with him, although we're gaining ground. 24 hours to get from London to the Land Down Under, in a tin can, at pressure. It's still quite a marvel, although you lose the metre in the description.


The reason: researchED Sydney, an education conference I've organised in partnership with Shore School and Gorilla Learning. It still seems absurd that we've managed to build something at such a distance, like eating sushi with stilts. ResearchED, for those of you fortunate enough to have missed my oeuvre, is a project I started two years ago, then watched like Baron Frankenstein as it rose from the slab, broke its buckles and kicked out the castle door. At the start it was just a kitchen-table project: build a conference where some of the best educators, teachers, academics and researchers could get together and start to have honest, powerful conversations. But off it went, marching round the countryside looking for friends, and now I'm not sure I could stop it if it wanted to. The slaver has become the slave. Now I go where researchED tells me.


And now it's told me to go to Australia. A year ago I was asked if we could bring the researchED idea to Australia by Simon and Carol Townley, a couple of teachers who had, in grand tradition, left Pom for Oz years ago. We met in the pub garden opposite my school in the East End of London and we talked and it all seemed like a very cool, very improbable first draft for a Pixar movie, sketched on a napkin. Be careful what you sketch on napkins.


The researchED idea has gathered momentum as it rolled down the mountain, and in the UK it's been growing like a snowball. But Australia? Ten time zones away? Even I was sceptical. I shouldn't have doubted the Master.


As with so many moments in this movement, even when I didn't build it, they came anyway. Shore School offered to host, and gave way beyond what I could have hoped for. Cameron Paterson, Global Teacher nominee, became my school link and partner, and aided by the Townleys and Greg Ashford, we started to lasso the best talent we could find in Western Australia. And what names we found: academics like Kevin Wheldall; Stephen Dinham; teacher/ bloggers like Brett Salakas and Nick Brierley, Corinne Campbell, all gave freely of their time and talent. Not a dime changed hands. I think that's remarkable.


Why do it? Same reason as all the others; because there's a wind blowing from the digital west; there's a new paradigm sheriff in town. Social media has brought producers and consumers of educational research closer together than ever before; hell, it's even changed what we mean by those terms. Instead of helpless recipients of "the research proves this and if you disagree, tough", teachers and schools are now, more than ever, in a position to say show me the money – or the evidence.


We can breed a healthy scepticism towards phoney research made of candy floss, while simultaneously reaching a blind man's hand into the fire, to find research that might help us to answer some of the questions we already have, that others have already tried to answer. Both steps, one after another, giving us something novel: direction, inspired by – incredibly – the needs, passions and curiosities of teachers, not merely the desperate fancies of whoever runs a budget.


That's what I'm trying to do with researchED. And from the other angle, researchers can find new, more critical audiences for their labours; new partners; new participants; new ideas and directions. What a time to be alive. I can't tell the future; I don't know where this is going. I only know where it began.


Meanwhile, back on the plane, I've hoovered up Big Hero 6 (good) and Nightcrawler (very, very good) on the magic chair lantern, rewritten half my novel (doggerel) and swum through the soup of cabin blackout (is there a time when you feel more absolutely alone than alert amongst your fellow humans who are reclining, comatose, in rows, while you sit in the dark, tanning from the blue light of an insomniac's tablet? People who can sleep on planes and trains are unnatural, and will find little succour in my glorious new world order).


I have no idea how researchED on Saturday will go. Actually, I have a very strong hunch, but I'll cage its optimism until every bird is plucked, stuffed and roasted.


Back on the plane, I've made friends with the family next to me (is it long haul flights, or just the boundless affable enthusiasm of the New World that breeds such unBritish bonhomie? It takes doodlebugs and famine to get us hugging each other and making eye contact). The wee toddler sleeping next to me rolled off his chair like Frank Spencer; I walked in on a granny at her toilet (so I can cross that off my bucket list); and I remembered a dozen things I still need to do before the conference. This is the show that never ends.


And we're not even half way there.