Of pig breeders and dancing paradigms
Last Friday afternoon Lance Kieth of Texas Tech University could be found inspecting his handsome brown and cream cowboy boots in one of the cavernous ballrooms of Chicago's Sheraton Hotel.
He had flown up from the Lone Star State to present a paper at the American Educational Research Association on the ethical problems posed by young farmers' livestock competitions. But not one of the 11,000 academics attending the conference had turned up to hear him talk about the swinish antics that young pig-breeders can get up to, or the parental pressure that's applied. "When Joe junior wins, people come up and shake Joe senior's hand as well, " one farmer had told him.
Lance was therefore sitting uncomfortably alone at a large round table, with only his boots for company. "Well I guess it's a kind a specialist subject. I suspected that no one might come, so I'm not disappointed," he said, looking disappointed.
At the adjoining table, Alan De Young, author of a disturbing study on the chaotic state of Kazakhstan's education system, was also putting a brave face on the lack of interest in his work. But at the other side of the room there was no shortage of takers for several drier-sounding papers on the use of portfolios in assessing student teachers.
Because, despite what Lance thinks, esotericism is quite OK at AERA conferences. In fact, it's one of the few conferences in the world where a paper entitled "A weighted least-squares approach to robustify least-squares estimates," can pack a room.
This year's conference suffered from the major defect that afflicts all AERA conferences. It was simply too big. Around 3,000 paper-presentations and symposia were scattered around 69 rooms of two of the biggest hotels in North America, and this year, just to make things even more challenging, AERA members had to cross not only the pea-green Chicago River but what appeared to be a Grand Prix race track in order to get from one hotel to the other.
For the first time, computer software was available to help conference-goers manage their own programme, but many academics had evidently not taken up the offer because they shuffled in and out of rooms and up and down lifts looking rather confused. "This is giving my brain cognitive dissonance," said a researcher on the third floor of the Sheraton who wanted to get to the lower basement of the Hyatt hotel.
Nevertheless, much of the conference was fun, meaningful and phenomenally diverse (ironically, some of the most boring and technical papers were on how to motivate children). There were papers on the lure of mountaineering, the effect of origami practice on children's performance in size-comparison tests, educational counselling for the Cherokees, positive mobility in the School of Engineering in Uruguay, and women's literacy in rural Mali.
There was also the usual stiff competition for the most eye-catching paper title: "Keeping students in, gangs out, scores up, alienation down and the copy machine in working order", "The school dog is not the school dog: the dilemma of writing biographies", "The dance of dichotomous paradigms", "Talking together in Kalamazoo", "Dodging bullets and BMWs; two tales of teacher induction", and the arrestingly brutal "Stinky, nasty kids: their production and use in elementary school".
Harvard's Dr Howard Gardner, creator of the concept of multiple intelligences, didn't need to rely on such gimmicks. He and his co-presenters, Robert Sternberg of Yale and John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire, who spoke on practical and emotional intelligence, drew by far the biggest audience of the week. But it was probably the allure of the star names rather than the subject matter that filled the Hyatt ballroom.
In general, the conference was less concerned with psychology and neuroscience than it was with some of the perennial topics: the progress - or lack of it - of education reforms, the underachievement of African-American and Hispanic children in the "central city" (the euphemism now used to describe the inner city), the negative effects of tracking (streaming), and the career barriers thwarting women educators.
This year's conference also focused on the activities of right-wing school boards and their superintendents, the educational implications of the Internet, and America's standing in international maths and science tables.
There was also much discussion on how to involve parents in their children's schooling. But anyone who scans the American press knows that an increasing number of parents - particularly those described as the "Volvo vigilantes" - need no invitation. The Chicago newspapers last week carried several articles by parents who were dissatisfied with the quality of teachers or the "tracking" system.
But, unfortunately, like last year, the two daily papers of the city that the AERA conference was staged in seemed totally uninterested in what the researchers had to say. The national college basketball championships and a racially-motivated attack that left a young black boy in a coma were the two big stories of the week. And even the fatal shooting of a teacher in the parking lot of a Chicago school with three security staff was relegated to an inside page.
The AERA leadership is trying hard to woo the media and persuade them of the relevance of educational research, but it will not be easy to change their news priorities. In Al Capone's Chicago the newsdesks' guiding rule was "If it bleeds, it leads". The same is true today.