researchED 2013: it worked

10th September 2013 at 01:09

So, there was this conference last Saturday. I'll confess a conflict of interests here: I organised the damn thing (along with an Olympiad of teacher-talent, principally the formidable Helene Galdin O'Shea). Six months ago, Sam Freedman, director of research at Teach First, was having a Twitter-chat with Ben Goldacre about the need for a grass-roots movement to spearhead teacher involvement in better educational research. Sam flippantly suggested I put a conference together. I looked down from GI Joe on the TV and tweeted, "Sure". 


Six months later, and I'm clearing up programmes, T-shirts and name badges from Dulwich College after one of the best days in my teaching career. Within an hour of me catching the worm dangling from Sam's line, I had hundreds of tweets and e-mails from people who wanted to be involved - who would attend, help, or speak at such a thing. By the time I woke up the next day, my iPhone was palpably heavier with all the messages of support. By the end of the next day I had four venue offers, completely out of the blue; by the end of the next we had a Twitter account, over 1,000 followers, and three separate national newspapers offering to be media partners and sponsors. Mind. Blown. This was an event that wanted to happen. The universe was telling me something.


For the next three weeks - this is term time, I hasten to point out - I was pulling 2ams every night just to keep on top of the admin. Speakers poured in; organisations and interested parties lined up in synchronised altruism. Expressions of interest and support were regular as a metronome. The universe kept talking.


Helene joined early on - I knew her as a stalwart of Teach Meets and other teacher events, and her involvement was the organisational catalyst that turned my filing system of endless post-its and to-do lists written on my forehead, into an operation. If anyone has a military campaign they want run, I have her number.


Astonishingly, the tickets sold out within about 8 weeks. I ended up with a waiting list of several hundreds. Early on I decided two things: it had to be held in a school, and it had to be a Saturday. It seemed absurd to hold an event like that any other time if I wanted teachers, like me, to attend. Summer holidays meant that we would have to go with September rather than the chronologically more ideal July/ August. Several people emailed me to say that teachers wouldn't give up their free Saturday the week they returned to school. None of these people were teachers.

I already knew that we had managed to sign up a cast of extraordinary players. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that they produced contributions that were themselves extraordinary. Their contributions will all be online soon, and other bloggers have more effectively covered their offerings. Ben Goldacre, one of my early inspirations, headlined for us, showing us how a tech snafu can be turned, Midas like, into presenter gold. Amanda Speilman, Tom Sherrington, Becky Francis, Laura McInerney, Daisy Christodoulou, Brian Lightman, Daniel Willingham....everyone dug deep and gave.


Frank Furedi provided a necessary check and balance to the enthusiasm; every pantheon needs a Loki. He was the grit this oyster needed, the brake on the steam engine that stopped the conference becoming a love-in. Truth be told, anyone expecting a cultish optimism that research was either easy or held all the answers, would have been quickly disappointed. Speakers from David Weston to Laura McInerney repeatedly raised red flags to the error that absorbs so many in this arena: aspirations of omniscience. The audience, almost 80% teachers, were no mugs, and no acolytes either; they weren't here to be told good research was easy. They wanted to hear the problems as well as the possibilities. It really was quite civilised.


Of course, I heard almost no one speak. Having picked my First XI of speakers, there was no time for me to actually attend their sessions. My day was a pinball machine of adjustments and putting out tiny fires. When you run a conference you are the God of Small Things. All I saw were rooms packed to the door everywhere I went.


The question is, where does this go now? Fortunately the possible answers to this, like most of the requirements for the conference itself, were available from the crowd; wiki suggestions included, of course, another conference, which now seems inevitable, and much earlier than the 12 months I toyed with before. It's easy to be enthused by any kind of training that promises change, and I've seen enough to know that life is rarely that simple. As I said in my closing speech, the danger of a good conference is that you think they're going to change everything, and the opposite danger is to imagine that it will change nothing. I think I will pitch a sensible "safeball" and suggest that we can change something. Ideas for the future include Journal Clubs, where peers meet to critically discuss research; or a researchED magazine that gives a platform to research for teachers that is both open access and accessible; over the next few weeks we'll be releasing almost all of the sessions from the day as TED-style clips so that not a drop of wisdom is wasted.


It really was astonishing, and I am rarely astonished by things in education. I relied on the kindness of strangers, and they did not let me down.


Watch out for researchED 2014.