Saturday was my first full day at Oppi, the Helsinki teaching festival where I was delivering a session on behaviour. It was exactly as mad as I was hoping, and more – a blend of Nordic optimism and futurism. Underneath the irrepressible ties-undone sensibility was an operation as smooth and serious as Desert Storm. It takes a lot of sweat to make something look that relaxed.
As soon as you entered, the grooviness was obvious: instead of name badges and lanyards, we all had hand-cut wooden medallions upon which we were invited to write our twitter names. You get the idea: it was VERY GROOVY, BABY. I felt like I should have tumbled into the atrium entrance like Austin Powers, as Quincy Jones piped me in with a lively brass bossa nova.
If this was swinging Carnaby Street, I felt like Basil Exposition, maybe even Dr Evil. All around me sessions buzzed and hummed with Age of Aquarius-style enthusiasm for game-based learning, Building Learning Power, global digital cooperation, Lego, Angry Birds and apps to innovate and reinvent the classroom as a virtual space. These are not, I confess, areas I embrace. I have found that most of such things have as much utility as a teacup in Atlantis, and that their USP relies more on novelty and the seductive promise of pointless, pretty innovation. Such tools can leaven a long lesson with playful respite, but they are the salt to the meat of the meal, not the entree itself.
But beyond the brimming, boundless über optimism of the vendors, there was, gratefully, some discussion, albeit mannered and careful. But by and large we were treated to a bit-stream of wireless pop-up wheel reinventing: Saku Tuominen talked about student mindsets of "dreaming and doing": workshops on Mario Jump; Fun Learning (which I wrote about yesterday); learning in parks; Tomi-Pekka Niukkanen talking about 21st-century learning environments that cater for all learners, and so on. There was even a stall advertising something called 'International Mini-Fiddlers', which I declined to investigate further.
Tomorrow belongs to me
At times, I felt like a man from the past, frozen then awakened in an unfamiliar, strange future. But if it's popular, it's popular for a reason, which I think is connected to the very finest of impulses in humanity: the belief that tomorrow can be better, and the belief that no problem defies solution, if thought and effort and heart are invested in it. The idea that we can refine our lives through a marriage of science and reinvention is a beautiful, humanist sentiment that empowers and inspires.
But such a project must be tested in the crucible of experience. Build a chair out of any new polymer you discover, but try it out before you get your granny to sit in it. To say that inspiration is inspiring is a tautology, but to base, for example, a school model on it is a propositional claim that requires justification. I love to see children engaged and inspired, but who could ever guarantee that as an intrinsic part of every classroom? Despite early enthusiasm (and a zombie-like persistence in classrooms even today), learning styles simply have no evidence base. Gamified learning has no solid evidence base. 21st-century skills is a cultish movement that, again, has far more in common with a belief system than a justified social need. The mere acceptance that technology offers us exciting new possibilities in the classroom (which it does, without question) must not be conflated with the claim that these possibilities are transformational, revolutionary, or fundamental.
Monopoly money and the Jenga curriculum
And seriously, what on Earth are companies like Rovio doing, sticking their beaks into education? What prompts a game manufacturer (and I might add, a bloody good one – I dropped a month of my life pointlessly slinging avian avatars at pig citadels) to hustle its way into classrooms? Altruism or opportunism? Businesses have scented blood in a new, synthetic market, where supply pre-exists demand and needs must be invented and sold to consumers who don't even realise they just invited someone to pick their pockets. And how is this achieved? By the academics who push the magic mushrooms/beans at the school gates, the ones who thrive on the easy liquidity and patronage of rich corporations. "The research says" has never been a more devalued phrase than in education, when what is true depends on what you want to be true. Is there no magic bullet or bean too shameless that some Faculty of Education somewhere won't wrap it in ribbons and charge you for it? No dodo too dead that they won't put lipstick on it and call it your girlfriend? I long for the day a professor of education stands on a stage to introduce next year's Brain Gym and says, "This is something these guys want to sell you, but for all we know it's a bunch of crap". But no. "This is interesting," they say. "This has exciting possibilities."
Who let him in?
My session was full, thank God – I was up against The Mighty Eagle. Being the anti-Ken Robinson about the cult of innovation that surrounded me, I was concerned that I might be torn apart. Fortunately, I found that Scandinavian teachers are just as sensible and pragmatic as anywhere else, and were just as happy to be told that it's ok to tell kids off, set boundaries and have high behaviour expectations in order to build good learning relationships, as most teachers in the UK are, unless they're peddling something.
The Great Serge
The finale was utterly ******* bonkers. We had a short video about physics from the ISS satellite, just for the festival, half an hour of thank-yous from Claudia the director of learning at Suklaa – the organisers of the event, a presentation from i.am.angels, a STEM/robots program in LA run by will.i.am ( I was particularly moved by the video that included Jack Black telling us, "Einstein was a rock star", Snoop Dog ominously promising us that "My robot is better than your robot" and Justin Timberlake assuring us that "science is everything"). As we were processing that, we were treated to my personal highlight: Serge (or "Serge....the great!" as he told us), a strongman who swung a deadweight around and made everyone laugh and the front row **** their pants in fear. Somebody went on stage to make a robot. And the digital curtain fell, and I felt like I was taking crazy pills.
As I left, I spoke with a lovely woman who wanted to berate me about an article I wrote where I argued against smart phones in lessons. 'How can they learn in a museum?' she asked, looking visibly distressed at the thought of the poor children, bereft of their beloved digital teats, and I wondered how we both managed just fine without them.
Don't misinterpret me – I bloody loved this festival. I loved the enthusiasm, and the palpable sense that we could make the future a better place for children. It hummed with kindness and optimism. I think that optimism can be channelled in better ways, but the world of ideas is a big place, and God bless the cradle from which these hopes came. I loved the play areas for children (and Finland seems to be an extraordinarily child-friendly place), as well as the spirit of collaboration and ambition that pervaded the entire event. Outside it was raining, and cold as Christmas; inside the Sun was shining, everyone was smiling and the future was bright.
In fact, it was so bright, I had to wear shades.
PS Thanks to Darina at Suklaa for raising the Titanic, to Michael Shaw for making me look good, and to Doug Belshaw, Oliver Quinlan and Bill Lucas, who were quite the most genial company a man could have in the pub afterwards, where thoughts turned from educational battlelines to good conversation and cold beer.