Dodging camels at the 'unconference'

27th May 2011 at 01:00
TeachMeeters are spreading grassroots expertise fast. Douglas Blane reports

Like stamps, raincoats, logarithms and deep-fried Mars Bars, TeachMeet was invented in Scotland and has since spread around the world. Five years ago this month, six teachers sat in an Edinburgh pub and discussed better forms of continuing professional development (CPD) than lengthy sessions from consultants and education experts.

They knew the real expertise was in the classrooms, where inventive, persistent teachers were trying thousands of new ideas that no one ever heard about. Some worked; some didn't. Getting that experience and discovery out of the classroom and into other teachers' heads became the goal.

So the idea of an "unconference" was born - an evening session with food, chat and presentations by teachers for teachers - no experts, authority figures, salesmen or rules. Actually, there are some rules and they are enforced. At the heart of a TeachMeet is a series of snappy, focused presentations that last seven minutes (the micro-presentation) or two minutes (the nano-presentation).

Presenters decide in advance how long to speak, offer the topic on a Wiki - a collaborative online document used to organise the event - and are selected at random on the night. "Any speaker who exceeds the allotted time usually gets a camel thrown at them," says literacy adviser and former English teacher Bill Boyd, who is compering the first TeachMeet at the University of the West of Scotland.

"But since we're in Ayr at the seaside, we'll use this instead." He grabs a brightly coloured beach ball and tosses it to Ian Stuart, depute head at Islay High. As a TeachMeeter from way back, Ian knows the importance of keeping speakers to time and has no qualms about throwing the soft toy camel - or the beach ball.

As always, the TeachMeet topics are wonderfully diverse - from geocaching and GPS to social media in the classroom, risk-benefit analysis for outdoor activities, and "tech stuff for the non-tech teacher".

Technology is the TeachMeet engine. But although the early adopters were techies who taught themselves, and technology is still needed behind the scenes - to deliver the sessions live to online participants - it's largely unobtrusive now for those who attend in person.

"If I can do this, so can you" is both a recurrent refrain and the essence of TeachMeet thinking.

Time for sharing more of what people can do, and have been doing, is built into every TeachMeet, with workshops during the formal session and a meal afterwards, where talk continues over a curry - known as TeachEat. "It always seems to be a curry," says physics teacher Drew Burrett.

"TeachMeets work best when you have a mix of new people and those with some experience. Teachers come first just to listen, but they often present at the next one they go to. Geography teacher Val Adam, for instance, has been to just one TeachMeet before, but she gave a presentation tonight and helped organise it. It's not hard to take part. It's all about wanting to share."

Another recurrent theme at the Ayrshire TeachMeet was the continuing challenge of getting learners onto Glow. "They're not interested," said several teachers who did not want to be named. "It doesn't appeal to them. They won't use it."

A subtext in many talks was the difficulty of engaging learners with just about any technology that excites their teachers. There is clearly still a digital divide, with youngsters using computers to make friends, play games and go shopping, while teachers try to nudge, guide and cajole them into learning too.

One technology that enthuses pupils and teachers equally is blogging, says Bill Boyd. "Writing's hard for anyone. So anything that gets kids writing, especially boys, has to be good. Blogging does that, because it doesn't have to be a big essay on paper that puts people off.

"It can be a paragraph or a sentence, whenever they feel like it. The other beauty of blogging is the comments - the feedback the kids get on their work, from other people and not just their teachers."

Feedback and speed of response are the keys to learner engagement in any technology that teachers like, says Stuart Hepburn, lecturer in performance and creative writing at the University of the West of Scotland, who delivered a micro-presentation on Twitter as a teaching tool.

"You use a Twitter hashtag to keep track of what people say and you react as fast as you can. That's the secret. If they put something up and it sits for days with no response, their satisfaction goes way down. But now, if there's a play on TV, we'll tweet it to the class in advance, watch it ourselves, then discuss it with them on Twitter immediately afterwards.

"And they go `Wow!'"

Following a TeachMeet, many participants post blogs, slides, images, video or audio online.

TeachMeet Ayrshire: bit.lygefM6o

Twitter as a Teaching Tool: http:ow.ly4ESNH

MEETERS' TWEETS

joycecarson Had my first ever TeachMeet at Ayr and am enthused to try out new things . what first?

literacyadviser Great night at #tmayr Well done to @AyrshireGeog @kazmuir4 @drewburrett and all the presenters. Now to follow more peeps.

catmill Particularly enjoyed the variety of backgrounds of those at #tmayr. Hearing from experts in other areas is always so thought- provoking. :)

claire_og Twitter stops the isolation in teaching.

islayian Damn, missed the 12.45 ferry. Have to wait for the 6pm ferry now. At least it's a nice day to sit around in.

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