Letter from Australia, part 2: researchED Sydney and beyond

22nd February 2015 at 02:32

I've just had the most wonderful day.



If part of me queried the wisdom of travelling to the other side of the world to hold an educational research conference (the cautious, rational part) then it shut the hell up after researchED Sydney. researchEDs in the UK I've just about become used to. But Australia is so far away that it felt like planting a geranium on the Moon. Australia – the very little I've seen of it – is extraordinary. As many people have mentioned, everything there seems to want to kill you. The birds certainly sound like they want to kill you. It's like someone built Europe in Burma. It's also home to some of the most fantastic people: blunt, confident, friendly, without face or conceit. Maybe I just met the nice ones. 


But talking to Aussie educators online, I could see that many of their concerns were our concerns, which is probably unsurprising given the DNA of people, the universal roadmap of the human brain, and the increasingly international nature of education. The OECD has a lot to answer for; now every country in the world looks over their shoulder to see who's racing up behind them in the rankings. For good or ill, systems are now assessed against each other. 


Education in Australia is fascinating. For UK readers, it's like an alternate dimension where everything is the same until you suddenly find an odd difference, like a universe where WWII ended in 1951, and Nixon lasted for two whole terms. They're just beginning to follow a National Curriculum; in 2006 Pisa judged Australia to be 6th for reading; education is compulsory until 17; 65 per cent of schools in Oz are state run; the rest are mostly either private or Catholic (now there's a tripartite system we don't see in the UK). All schools have to follow the state curricular framework, unlike in the UK where independents, academies and free schools can bite their thumb at the NC. And so on. 


Controversies rage here, as they do in the UK, around teaching styles, learning styles, content; skills, and all the greatest hits we've come to love in the UK systems. And research; the role of research, that too. Simon and Carol Townley, the indefatigable duo who invited researchED over in the first place, seemed convinced that this was a conversation that many Australian teachers were beginning to have, and researchED could be part of that. Thanks to them, and the generosity of Shore School, where we laid our scene, we built it. They came. Early, many of them. There hasn't been a conference yet where I've set the start time and people haven't just flooded in forty minutes before it while we're still putting our leotards and make-up on.  


This engine runs on hope


As with previous conferences, it ran on kindness, an entirely unpredictable fuel which can't be bought or ordered. Heather, a teacher, staffed the registration table. Shore paid for printing. 200 TES light-up pens I'd hustled from the last conference (and which customs seemed to mistake for cocaine holders, as two of them were broken apart when I opened my suitcase, in perfect disarray) were handed out to much delight (rightly so – they're a glowing marvel); Natasha, Trevor and Yolanda from Shore mucked in with the tables and the IT and the desks and...everything. It's been a very special part of researchED that it is grassroots, non-profit and done in the spirit of supporting each other. Suddenly, everything becomes possible – speakers donate their time and people forgive you a million administrative stumbles. Thank God. 


The day started with a Welcome to Country, a custom I hadn't been aware of: a short address at the start of any formal Australian ceremony to acknowledge that the land upon which the event takes place was once indigenous land. Eleven-year-old Levi Nichaloff, who had joined the school only weeks before, did the honours and knocked it out the park. Cameron Paterson, my Shore link (and nominee for the Global Teacher Prize) told me that Levi had been practicing for ages to get it right. We teachers often forget just how appalling it can be to speak in front of a large crowd. Apparently when he saw his name in the programme, he was jumping for joy. Well, he earned it. 

As usual, we had several streams of presentations on at once so people could build their own day. As usual, I saw snippets and slivers throughout the day as I shook hands, shot trouble and fretted. What I saw, I have to say, was fantastic. Some highlights I managed to grab were:


  • A panel debate on the role of research in education: we had Stephen Dinham, Kevin Wheldall and Kevin Donnelly. The latter is particularly a lightning rod of controversy in Australian educational politics; he's like Toby Young without the fan club and the self-restraint. I asked him why he was such a divisive figure; he said it was because he was outspoken and a sincere Catholic. I know that some people didn't attend simply because he appeared, which I was saddened by, because to my mind I would be more inclined to go to a conference if there were a few people I fancied hissing at, but people will know their minds. I'd certainly rather engage with a range of opinions than exclude anyone because I don't agree with them. 
  • Greg Ashman, who also writes for TES, talking about Cognitive Load Theory. Greg was a real mensch as he agreed to do interview duties for the small camera crew we had been donated. 
  • Corinne Campbell who spoke about her own primary school's experiences of research into homework. 
  • John Bush who spoke about the School Improvement Toolkit, a version of the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, and how it could be used effectively. We discussed how the Toolkit was, like any tool, open to abuse, and schools mustn't make the mistake of just reading the headlines and doing that. I think this is going to be a big deal in Australian schools very soon indeed. Just watch. 
  • The formidable Carol Townley spoke about building teams in school 
  • The amazing Professor Kevin Wheldall, retired, but still holding court in the lunch room with a small crew of acolytes all day. It's always heartening to see a man with his credentials wear his learning so lightly. Truly charming. 
  • Meeting #AussieEd online magicians Bret Salakas and Nick Brierly. Suddenly the word – or tweet – becomes flesh. Glory Be!
  • Finally getting to see Michaela Pinkerton, a brilliant teacher from New Zealand, talk about research dissemination in schools and the impact it's had. It's surreal to meet people whom you've respected on social media for years, but never thought in a million RTs that you'd ever meet. But real life is surreal after Twitter. I myself rarely appear in three dimensions any more; I just upload myself into the Matrix.  
  • Listening to the astoundingly listenable Kerry Hempenstall talk about literacy and the broader research ecosystem of education in Australia. I was struck by just how many similarities there were to the culture in the UK; the same battles, and pilgrimages from blind decision making to evidence usage, via snake oil and legerdemain. 


And those were just some of the sessions I saw for a few minutes or more. I was constantly distracted by the fact that, if you looked over the brow of the hill that shore perched upon, you had an eye melting view of Sydney Harbour, the Bridge and the Opera House. It was like watching the telly on 1 January, without fireworks. Next time I intend to hold researchED on 31 December, starting in the evening.  




What next?


I'm as happy as the happiest clam at Christmas to say that it went off like a dream. The feedback was terrific. And unless everyone was lying like wrong 'uns, most people seemed to embrace the vision that researchED attempts to bring – that teachers have the right to engage with research, to be critical consumers, users, even generators, but certainly participants in the great vivarium of education. By the end of play I had offers from no fewer than five schools to hold researchED events in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Cairns. Strewth. Oh yes, and New Zealand. So there's that. 


It's going to take a bit of processing, but I hope that there's soil in this landscape for the ideas that animate researchED to take root. That teachers can, using social media, catalyse their own professional development by collaboration, cooperation, and investigation. From the people I met, there certainly isn't a lack of talent, ambition and enthusiasm. It was being at the heart of that crucible of optimism and mission that kept me propped up against a 22-hour jet lag, and it's the best remedy I know for cynicism. 


It's a real honour to have met with and worked with the people that came along. Some of it has been filmed, and will be up on the www.workingoutwhatworks.com website very soon, along with presentation notes and a collection of blogs. 


Dude, where's my OBA?


The day ended, gladly, in the local pub, where I reaped my bounty of free rounds (thanks to Glenn MacLachlan and Greg Ashman for service to the researchED cause in this respect) where I discovered to my astonishment just how many people – speakers and attendees – had flown in just for the day. It's that kind of commitment that can't be forced by a line manager or school leader; it has to be earned and built. To see so many people do so much because they care was worth a good deal indeed. 


And so back to the hotel for a descent into jet-lagged, trippy surrealism. Disappointingly, no one offered me a knighthood before I left. I expect there'll be some sort of ceremony at the airport.