Summer Turner

I teach, therefore I am.

GESF Conference: Day One – elephants and sharks.

In Jonathan Haidt’s books ‘A Righteous Mind’ he explores how despite the fact that many of us believe we are rational beings, we are mostly guided by our intuitions and emotions; searching for reason subsequently to back up the decisions we have intuitively made. He uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant; where the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our ‘conscious reasoning’ whilst the elephant is all our emotions, visceral reactions and gut feelings. Haidt argues that it is the elephant who chooses which path to walk upon; that it drives the journey. If we want to change the journey we therefore have to work on convincing the elephant (the emotion and intuition), not the rider (the reasoned mind).

Attending the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, I thought about this idea a lot. At a global conference packed with debates, conversations and thought pieces from a range of speakers all nobly trying to determine the best approaches to ‘address the challenges of education, equity and employment for all’ there were bound to be differences in thinking. I have begun to wonder whether our righteousness when it comes to education is the major block to global progress. So I was determined to visit GESF with an open mind, to attend a range of sessions and to take notice of the elephants in the room, including my own.


My first session not only had elephants, it had sharks – and I don’t mean metaphorical ones. The ‘Transforming Learning: Getting Public-Private Partnership Right’ was a panel lunch which took place in the Ossiano (the Atlantis Palm’s underwater restaurant). It was quite a start to the conference witnessing a panel of education experts in conversation as sharks and stingrays floated past. The panel consisted of Arne Duncan, Geoffrey Canada, Rebecca Winthrop, Andreas Schleicher, Harry A Patinos and was chaired by Denise Gallucci. There was a general sense of agreement of the value that private partnership could bring but that this needed to be explored cautiously. Arne Duncan argued this could be done if educators were secure in the knowledge of their goals, and then “tried out different things” to get them there, whilst Rebecca Winthrop thought that standards should be set at government level but the model of education that followed was up for grabs; Andreas Schleicher added that the “current education model is not scalable” and seemed to be arguing technology could have a reforming role to play.

Here we began to hit on some interesting discussion that was worth teasing out further, as there was often an assumed agreement of ideas around school curriculum and the role of the teacher – as exemplified in Galluci’s summing up of the arguments by saying that we had a ‘19th century factory model of education which needed to be transformed into a 21st century model’ and that ‘teachers [needed to be] narrators and inspirers rather than content managers’. This didn’t quite match with some of the arguments I heard from Arne Duncan and Geoffrey Canada later in the conference, and was the first example of intuition taking the lead over reasoning.

What the panel and chair did convey was a genuine will to improve public education and some interesting ideas about why private partnership might be useful for this: Harry A Patinos suggested that we needed to “manage the message” when it comes to public schools as private schools are becoming more and more popular. This idea that we need to be happier to sharing and publicise great practice within public schools, to appeal to parents, is something that could be dismissed as marketisation but actually if handled sensitively could be of huge importance whether in terms of informed parental support of schools, or teacher recruitment. I wonder whether our emotional block to thinking of schools as in any way like businesses, also blocks us from taking some of the initiative from the business world which could significantly aid schools. It doesn’t mean schools have to become cold conglomerates because they pick up on some tips about how to display their successes or how to recruit good staff. Geoffrey Canada drew on charter schools as an example of when getting people in from the private sector could work really well, describing how sometimes the public sector needed a jump start from external talent and that often schools could be trapped by a lack of expertise. It certainly seemed like there was potential here for positive public-private partnership but it was apparent that the standards and goals, which were alluded to earlier in the conversation, needed to be laid out in more detail.

At this point I skidded around the marble floors to find my way to the next session, which was on UK Education Reform. Throughout the conference, I felt very proud of the UK representation and the nuanced arguments and challenges they lay out. It seems that the endless Twitter debates, conferences and blog wars have created quite a force to be reckoned with in the UK education scene.

Sadly, my fish tank staring and inability to navigate through the endless pathways of the hotel meant I only caught the end of the panel discussion between Nick Gibb, Becky Francis, Michael Wilshaw and Brett Wigdortz chaired by Jonathan Simons of the Varkey Foundation. I arrived to hear Simons put Wilshaw to the test on the subject of schools gaming the system, whether exams or Ofsted. Any suggestion of trying to play Ofsted and the school “would be shut down” Wilshaw asserted (much to the disbelief of my Twitter followers). Wilshaw did talk convincingly on the need for private schools to give more of a hand to the public system; a theme which echoed some of the discussion I’d just heard. (Having attended conferences hosted by private schools and/or private businesses, I wonder if this alone could be a support to the public sector.) Nick Gibb followed with a point on enabling more collaboration between schools – naming the academies programme and ResearchEd as examples – which added specifics to this already mentioned idea of shared educational success. This was a key theme of the conference: how can schools and educators work together to move towards wider success? Intuitively this collaboration seems important but beyond the conference and Twitter bubble, I wonder how common this is and whether the variety of school structures and choices has helped or hindered this concept of unity.

Fittingly the next session was a discussion with two former Education secretaries who had both been controversial in terms of whether they had unified or divided the education community during their time in power: Michael Gove and Arne Duncan. They were in audience with Alice Cornish, also of the Varkey Foundation and an equally impressive chair. Both Gove and Duncan were articulate and seemingly candid about their work. Gove was honest about the mistakes he had made in power, mostly focusing on the pace in which he had enacted decisions and the clumsy nature these had happened, with a particular mention of the building schools for future programme. When questioned about his somewhat tetchy relationship with teaching unions, Gove diplomatically praised a number of teaching union heads but also noted that unions cannot necessarily reflect the plurality of teacher voices. He stated that Education Secretaries will always be hated, which he was ok about, but that he had regrets over not getting the message to teachers in the right way. Duncan echoed Gove’s praise for many union leaders and argued that the diversity of unions and teachers meant that it was impossible to treat them as one unified voice.

The plurality of teacher voices and opinions has been particularly apparent in reaction to the free schools programme (charter schools in the US), which both Duncan and Gove have supported. Alice Cornish quizzed them both about this controversial area of education and to what extent this was an ideological approach. Here was where the differences between the two became more apparent, with Duncan clearly seeing the charter schools as a branch of school improvement: “I’m in favour of good schools whether these be charter or traditional schools […] for me the word charter doesn’t necessarily reflect quality […] all I care about is good results for kids [no matter what that type of school is]”. The small scale of the charter school programme in the US in contrast to the free school programme in the UK exemplified the difference in approaches by both former education secretaries. For Gove, whilst the school improvement angle was obviously important, the programme was clearly (and unsurprisingly) more ideological, with the focus on an attempt to hand power back to schools and teachers to allow them to take charge of education; he mentioned both School 21 and Michaela as examples of schools doing this successfully but very differently. 

Discussion on school structures led onto questions of accountability (echoing the former debate with a concern about the prospect of gaming) and Duncan talked about the important balance to be had between holding schools accountable and making accountability so terrifying that schools gamed the system, which could be most damaging for vulnerable pupils such as those with SEN who would have a potentially negative impact on statistics, and thus be swept aside or pushed out of schools.

This conversation opened the door for the big hitter question on selective education. Alice Cornish was Paxman-esque in her grilling of Gove over grammar schools and whether these fitted with his ideology of education and what he had achieved with state schools during his time. Unfortunately, he refused to let on about his true opinions on grammars; simply saying that he would support the party line. Katherine Birbalsingh and I discussed this via Twitter and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all.

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But it was Duncan’s next point about the importance of education going beyond politics, which really stuck with me; he argued that we had to move away from what was politically left and right in order to improve education for all as “the cost of academic failure has never been higher [and] none of us have done enough to improve standards.” This was enough to persuade me that Gove’s decision to support the political line rather than sticking up for the best ways to improve standards was the wrong one.

At this point I sidled over to the debate chamber – an actual replica of the House of Commons chamber – to witness Daisy Christodoulu and Nick Gibb triumph over Andreas Schleicher and Gabriel Zinny in the argument: ‘This House believes that 21st century learners need their heads filled with pure facts’ chaired by Nick Ferrari. Daisy has written about this remarkable debate in more detail on her blog. The huge swing of votes was testament to the combination of passion and reason from both speakers for the motion.

This was the first of two debates where I saw how great speakers can begin to change the direction of the elephant, by both appealing to it and shaping the path it will walk. Gibbs’s passionate response to the challenge that teaching facts stops schools from caring or that it was all that schools were about was very convincing. He argued that of course schools do more than teach facts; they have strong pastoral systems, great arts programmes and care for their pupils but if we steer the debate away from knowledge, we will go back years in terms of education and social justice. This appeal to the elephant in education: the intuitive decisions which come out of our moral and emotional responses to educating children, was persuasive. It linked to what Duncan had said in his previous debate about education going beyond politics, as reminded me of this blog post from Michael Fordham about the importance of understanding that different approaches to teaching don’t imply more or less care for children. Daisy Christodoulu’s tackling of a question on working memory by explaining the evidence that teaching facts is the best way to help pupils remember what we teach and therefore ensures success for all children despite their starting points, was a clear demonstration of how to shape the path. Teaching facts builds knowledge more successfully, which tackles the limitations of working memory and therefore helps all pupils to achieve. These arguments have already convinced me and moved my thinking over the last few years from Schleicher and Zinny’s side of the chamber over to Gibbs’s and Christodoulu’s, so I didn’t find my intuition challenged again but for many of the audience, particularly those outside of the UK, this was a first.  

In the next debate, it was time to put my intuition and emotions to the test: it was time for Gove again (who I’d been mostly impressed with earlier in the day), but this time up against Julia Gillard who I already admire hugely for her infamous speeches in her time as Prime Minister of Australia. The motion was: ‘This House believes schools should teach national values over global values’ with Michael Gove and Lutfey Siddiqi arguing for the motion and Julia Gillard and Emiliana Vegas against the motion. I was firmly on the side of Gillard and Vegas at the start of the debate, but found myself drifting towards the uncertain category towards the end. It was a shining example of the importance of brilliant speakers – Gillard and Gove in particular were articulate, witty and generous, which meant the debate was not only enjoyable but forced us to really consider both sides of the argument.

Siddiqi argued that we did not have a shared global values system and that the idea of assumed global values was one held by the liberal elite, who were able to be players on the global stage but have forgotten those in their own backyard. Drawing implicitly on the themes of Brexit and Trump, Gove argued that we can have both global and national values, but these have become imbalanced which creates growing gaps and resentment.

Gillard insisted that we do have universal values: the aspiration for humans to be free and living in peace and though we might not be able to take every human impulse and make it a global value, we can unite when it comes to the big ideas that matter. Gillard’s argument that values are bigger concepts than policies; that these values are about the global consensus of what binds us together as humans on this planet, fitted with the theme that I had picked up throughout the day and that brings me back to Haidt, and the idea that if we could let go of our righteousness and instead find a way to respectfully debate ideas, we might progress further or at least all get along better in the process!

At the end of the first day, I found myself brimming with thoughts and questions and looking forward to searching for more answers to determining whether consensus could, and should, be found.



One comment on “GESF Conference: Day One – elephants and sharks.

  1. Adam
    March 30, 2017

    Great summary – thanks!

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This entry was posted on March 29, 2017 by in Uncategorized.
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