researchED Scotland: working oot whit works

30th August 2015 at 18:22




Tom Bennett reflects on a powerful day of CPD in Glasgow

I took the high road back to the land of Hume, Sydney Divine, and Jack and Victor, with the confusing milkshake of intimacy and dislocation that going home entails, simultaneously comforting and vertiginous. The past stubbornly refuses to stand still for you. Glasgow was starting to reinvent itself even as I was growing up. Since I’ve been away I visit four or five times a year, and I’ve seen it in fast forward, like a strobe, as money moved in and cranes went up. Mother Glasgow has never looked better.

Another mother: the University of Glasgow, my alma mater, and it was an indecent treat to host researchED Scotland there; in fact, Charles Wilson Hall, which had been converted into a beautiful  tiered lecture theatre and which served as our core venue, was where I sat my final exams. Not even a goddamned blue plaque, nothing. Some odd, friendly ghosts attended me as I opened and closed the day from the lectern there. To my shame, I never graduated when I should have, choosing to instead film an episode of the dating show Blind Date. I only returned to get my scroll when I went into teaching and they insisted on a completed degree. I felt like Gandalf at a disco when I did. 

I’d been inspired to bring the circus up here by the prodigiously talented Mark Healy; if you’ve never met him, imagine Malcolm Tucker with a degree in cognitive psychology and more grit than Carol Dweck’s budgie cage. He’s certainly persistent. He basically wore me down, insisting that we bring the researchED gladiators to the Rome of Caledonia. And I’m bloody glad we did. Professor Bob Davis, the departing head of the School of Education at Glasgow was the other conspirator in our plot to bring the madness of evidence-assisted debate north of the wall; he’s possibly the wisest man I’ve met in teacher training. 

We kicked off with an exclusive interview with Professor Daniel Willingham booming down from the screens at us like the Mighty Oz, answering questions posed by Twitter, before the crowd dispersed into a series of streams so that attendees could build their own day. Of course, the devil in this detail is that you miss almost everything. It’s like being asked to pick a ride in Disneyland, knowing that if you go for Pirates of the Caribbean, you’re barred from Space Mountain. Ah, the curse of choice. I barely see any of the acts anyway, as I’m usually spinning organisey plates all day. But my highlights of an already well-well lit day were:

1. David Cameron, or the Real David Cameron as he goes by, to distinguish himself from his identical twin in SW1A. I’ve never heard David speak before, if you ever get a chance, see him in action. He’s one of the finest polemicists I’ve seen in some time, raging and thundering from the soapbox, machine-gunning point after point about Scottish education and its relationships with research. One target was the Curriculum for Excellence, and its uncontested adoption without sufficient scrutiny. Noble aims, he said, perhaps lost in execution? He started with a showing of the Gove vs Reality clip, and I was worried it would be a session of pointless corpse-stabbing; but he used it as a springboard to talk about evidence in policymaking. If you get a chance, try to see this man in full flight. 

2. Kieran Halliwell, or Ezzy Moon as her superhero name goes, presenting for the first time in public. She was nervous before she went on, with no need to be; a great addition to the roster of talented, motivated teacher voices.

3. Professor James Conroy was a rare and quite magical being. His session, "Why we mustn’t lie to ourselves", ranged far and wide, and took in phonics, Seamus Heaney, the new orthodoxy of collaborative learning, bigotry and the reductivism of Pisa. "Pisa will tell you that children in Singapore experience the same low levels of disruption in lessons as the UK. But these figures are self-reported,’ he said. ‘As someone who has seen both, I can tell you that they certainly do not experience the same levels. This is a fiction." He was so worth listening to, I nearly bought a ticket. A grand and important voice. Watch this kid, he’ll be big one day. 

4. Ann Glennie pirouetted through her approaches to phonics, and the difficulties that its adoption has had in some quarters. She had a queue of people who gave up their coffee break to quiz and connect with her, and that, my friends, is a proxy indicator of outcomes you can’t fake. Teachers giving up a brew – imagine. 

5. Philip Tonner and Jonathan Firth from Hutcheson’s Grammar School discussed ways in which their school had launched a program of engagement with research on a structured basis, and what it entailed for them. They’re the Carl Hendrick of Scotland, and it’ll be fascinating to see how they progress. 

These were just the people I could stand still long enough to see properly. The quality-generosity quotient was extraordinary, and reflects the levels of altruism and mutial support you can find in education. I’m indebted to everyone who came along and gave so generously of their time, including Lyndsay from New York who made it over just to come to the conference. It’s an honour to connect with people internationally like this, and I’m always amazed and humbled by levels of engagement like this. At the national conference in London this Saturday we have attendees from Asia, America and Africa. And I thought getting the tube to Watford was far. 

Every time we take researchED to a new territory, it’s fascinating to see how the idea takes root in the soil and watching to see how one cultural artefact blends with what already exists. There’s already evidence of great practice in many areas of Scottish education – free access to research journals for all teachers, for example, and (I think) a better relationship between school and university. I hope that emerging teacher-led movements like researchED can develop stronger synapses between education north and south of the Wall, taking cues and reflecting upon both mighty systems. Social media has freed a genie of collaborative practice that threatens to reprofessionalise teaching. Who knows what happens next? All I know is, it’s our future to make. 

Finally, I want to mention a moment that had nothing to do with researchED and everything to do with my debt to the great community of all teachers in time and space. Last year I wrote a column for the TES about a memorable lesson I had from a brilliant teacher called David Meek when I attended Boclair Academy. As the attendees left, one of them introduced herself as a former teacher of the school. David Meek had passed, sadly, but she told me that his widow had read the article and was touched by the tribute. Hearing that was worth rubies to me. It reminded me of something I have found useful to believe: that we are responsible for our own frailties and failings towards others, but owe a debt to the ocean of others for our successes. Thank you, Mr Meek. You couldn’t save me from agnosticism, but you added immeasurably to my learning.