I teach, therefore I am.
After a night of excitable education discussion (and some less salubrious rugby watching) with the UK education crowd, and a majestic breakfast at my hotel, I was ready for another day of debates, interviews and thought pieces.
First stop was listening to Brett Wigdortz speak about Teach First and how it had been created. The talk was mostly aimed at those interested in setting up their own enterprise; looking at the establishment of Teach First from an entrepreneurial angle. As success looks similar no matter what area of life you apply it to, there were some pieces of advice as useful for school leaders as business leaders. In particular Wigdortz talked about being prepared to be ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’ when launching an idea or piece of work; explaining that sometimes in the pursuit of perfection you simply stop yourself from ever putting anything into motion. Similarly when it comes to timing, there is a balance to be had. You need to look out for the right time and place – to know the market and where you can fit – but you also need to be prepared to grab opportunities when they come along, even if you don’t quite feel ready. These are choices which have to be made regularly as part of school leadership and resonated with some of the discussions I’ve had about leadership at #WomenEd events, whether it be taking the leap into leadership roles or on behalf of your school/organisation. In a nice symmetry, the talk reminded me of my first event the day before in the way it explored how a business model could help us learn about improvements in education (the Education Foundation have also done great work on this).
Next it was back to the debate chamber; over the course of the day I attended two debates here, one about international aid and one about academic selection. In the first (‘This House believes international aid should be used to promote the donors’ own interests’) there seemed to be quite a bit of niggling around the wording of the motion: ‘was the word promote misleading’; ‘is all aid motivated to some extent by self-interest?’ Pauline Rose argued that spending money on education scholarships for elite students from other countries to attend your universities was an example of promoting self-interest, where aid would be better served for vulnerable school children in African countries. Hassan Al-Damluji expanded further on this, arguing that aid doesn’t go where it should because of national interests, and that we needed to have a bigger conversation about what worked and what was successful.
Whereas Oley Dibba-Wabba argued that countries needed to take responsibility for their own aid, and this should only be supplemented by international aid if the country would be spending money itself, she also warned of the dangers of aid being used to dictate policy in developing countries. Her debate partner, Matthew Bishop claimed that as all aid is in some respect self-interested, we should see this positively as this self-interest made it more likely that countries would give aid. In general there was an agreement that there was a tension between ensuring aid would support values of the country giving the money and would also reach the most vulnerable. This tension reminded me of the previous day and the way in which intuitions often guided the way when it came to policy choice, though when you dug down into the arguments it was often the case that people’s values were more aligned than you would ever think, but were driven apart from intuition when it came about which path to choose, and therefore they needed to back this up with strong reasoning.
Without much movement in the debate, it seemed that perhaps the speakers were more in agreement than they suggested. The audience seemed a little unclear too – asking questions which strayed somewhat from the topic in hand. My two favourite aspects from the debate both highlighted how important knowledge of these types of debate is to making them run well (as illustrated in the excellent debates of the previous day).
She was hugely impressive and reminded me of how important a good chair is, particularly when it comes to questions and timings. In this debate which at times threatened to be both meandering and stagnant, Medina was vital in bringing the debate back to the question, ensuring speakers were concise and insisting that the audience asked questions rather than making statements – even stopping people to demand a question and taking points as ‘comments’ rather than asking the speakers to respond.
About half way through his speech,Hassan Al-Damluji having blurted out something slightly controversial about his organisation, looked up and said “I presume its Chatham House rules.” We all looked up from our various devices from which we were live tweeting, stared at the cameras which were filming it to be streamed, if not live then as close to it, and then to the chair, who seemed to stifle a laugh when she said “No!”
Perhaps it was just a bad joke from Al-Damluji or a moment of panic after realising he said something he shouldn’t have but either way, apart from being pretty hilarious, it was also a reminder that you are only in control if you know the rules – the presumed knowledge of formal debates but also of arguments more generally. A key area for schools to consider in their enacted curriculum.
The second debate saw Geoffrey Canada and Jordan Shaprio argue for the motion: ‘This House believes that academic selection is the best way to help poor children’ against Becky Francis and Tony Little chaired by Maysa Jalbout. It was quite remarkable (and bizarre) to see Geoffrey Canada arguing for academic selection, whilst Tony Little argued against the motion. For the liberals in the room, it was a good test for the elephant and rider: would the emotional appeal and passion of Canada’s argument and political stance sway us from the reasoning of the opposing team (Little’s argument that Eton mainly selects on ‘ability to live within a residential community’ was a particularly testing moment)?
The feeling that I came away with was that the values of Geoffrey Canada and Becky Francis were more aligned than the debate suggested, but they had different views about how to reach similar goals. Canada joked that Becky Francis had “tricked [him] by coming to the debate with evidence and facts” and it was this which won the debate. Arguing that ‘high ability’ pupils achieve significantly better in grammar schools is the only way that Canada’s argument could have any weight – presuming you chose to ignore the premise that selective education is not the best for all children – and Francis was able to dispel this with a nod to the evidence which shows that pupils with similar prior attainment and socio-economic backgrounds at successful comprehensive schools succeeded at the same level as those in selective schools.
The grammar school debate seems to often fall this way, with those against grammars using evidence and research to support their argument whilst the pro-grammar side tend to rely on anecdote and instinct (although Heather Fearn’s latest posts have been an exception), but perhaps that’s my bias talking.
On the subject of choosing emotion over reason, I had previously decided to go to one of the teacher masterclasses run by the nominees of the Global Teacher prize as this would give me an insight into the differing views about what makes great teaching. However I walked past a small marquee which was soon to house Andrea Bocelli in an interview with Vikas Pota and found myself lured in by the celebrity glamour and the hope of a snippet of an aria. I didn’t know what to expect but the session beginning with the audience singing national anthems whilst they were waiting for Boccelli to enter, was a curveball. It was particularly interesting to see us all represent our various stereotypes within the space of 5 minutes. A Canadian man started joyfully, in an operatic manner and to general admiration (because everyone loves Canada). After an awkward pause, a group of Italians then jumped in with a shy but passionate rendition of their anthem, which as we were waiting for Boccelli seemed fitting. The UK contingent shuffled down in their chairs and looked at the floor like awkward school children as some boisterous Americans shouted something equivalent to ‘screw Trump, let’s sing anyway’ and then sang their anthem. Luckily for the blushing Brits, the last notes of this faded just as Boccelli’s arrival was announced and no more audience singing could take place.
I’m always a bit suspicious of celebrities commenting on education, as they usually say something glib or ill-informed about how schools are messing it all up. However Boccelli was humble and nuanced in his approach; discussing values rather than policies. He drew on his experience of being mentored to consider the own lessons he had learnt about education. In this he discussed the importance of his work ethic and how being given the knowledge that hard work was key, was the fundamental building block of his success. He was also questioned about a piece of technology that he is currently working on, which aims to help people with visual disabilities to become more independent, which was very moving and testament to his philosophy of hard work.
At the same time he spoke poetically about the importance of great music as a way to save the world with beauty, (quoting Dostoyevsky), and explaining that for him “music gives us the emotions we need to survive everyday”.
I left feeling moved and uplifted – it is rare that you hear someone talk about the beauty at an education conference, and I couldn’t help but think we should be talking about this more often.
The final panel of the day was one of particular interest to me: ‘Empowerment, Equality and Impact: A Briefing on Girls’ Education’ – Maria Khan, Sumera Haque, Rebecca Winthrop, Urvashi Sahni and Joel Gomez chaired by Leonora Dowley. Throughout the conference I had been impressed by the calibre of the panelists and chairs, in particular by the plethora of brilliant women and this was no exception. The panel spoke powerfully of their own experience, with Urvashi Sani explaining her own escape from domestic violence: “It was my education that took me forward, to come out of the shadows, my hope is that girls all over the world will have that chance.” Sumera Haque spoke both about being a single mother, saying that much of it was to do with willpower and community; her son joined the stage to say that she didn’t give herself enough credit and that he was a feminist because of, and for, her and all other women. Meanwhile Rebecca Winthrop discussed the importance of equality in societies where boys were being prepared for the labour market whilst girls were being prepared for the marriage market, whilst also emphasising that to win the battle you needed to focus on the way that equality was better for boys and girls, and that this needed to be a unified fight. Joel Gomez focused on the inequality in US education both in terms of gender and race, as a reflection of a global problem: “Schools and communities fail pupils because of the lack of courage to do the right thing.”
Discussion around girls’ education and equality of opportunity in education pulls at my heart strings and I think this panel was fascinating and hopeful in many ways, but again I was left with more questions that were yet to be answered. Particularly as once again the panel began to talk about curriculum as a potential solution, and discussed how equality needed to be taught in schools. I understand this on an emotional level; when you care deeply about something, it makes sense that you believe it should be taught. However, having spent a lot of time thinking about, researching and developing curriculum, I don’t think this can be the immediate answer to social problems. An academic curriculum in schools does allow social movement and enable equality of opportunity because of the access it gives to great ideas and powerful knowledge. The enacted curriculum: the discussion and critiquing of this knowledge, also opens up discussion on subjects such as gender. However this doesn’t mean it should be a shoehorned into the curriculum as a unit of study, or that this is the responsibility of a school education. Which leaves the question: whose responsibility is it and how do we practically address these issues of inequality? I think Gomez may have been onto something when he talked about communities and Rebecca Winthrop’s assertion that we needed to ensure boys were invested in this idea of equality of education was also key. I’d recommend watching the panel debate, and considering what your answer would be (I’m certainly turning that one over).
After a busy day of education events, I joined Daisy Christodoulu for a debrief before the Global Teacher Prize. We mulled over many of the ideas from the conference and beyond, and concluded that one of the best things about education events is the unique opportunity it gives educators to dissect and evaluate different ideas and practices beyond the walls of your own institution. I really believe it is in this way that we move the conversation forward and give teachers and educators a chance to influence the direction of education. The glamour of Dubai, including the final Global Teacher prize event (with a very moving speech from the winner), added a reminder that education and the work we do as teachers is worthy of celebration.
Footage of the conference can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/user/GESForum