“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”. Abraham Lincoln
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
William Shakespeare, Touchstone, As You Like It
‘That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.’
Isaac Asimov, Guide to Shakespeare.
Are Teachmeets all they’re cracked up to be? Buzzwords abound around their ‘grass-roots’, ‘bottom-up’, ‘trailblazing’ and ‘ground-breaking’ nature. Big claims are made for their potential to transform or even revolutionise education. My sceptical instinct is to see them as the froth on the surface of the ocean, while far below the surface, deeper currents drive education forward.
The Brighton teachmeet last weekend, run by the Education Foundation and Labour Teachers, was the first one I’ve attended. A ceremonial first XI team of top education bloggers was assembled by Ian Fordham & Ty Goddard: John Tomsett, Tom Sherrington, Ros McMullen (all headteachers from the Headteacher’s Roundtable), David Weston (CEO, Teacher Development Trust), teachers Chris Waugh (founder of blogsync), Janet Colledge, Emma Hardy, Ashley Harold, Joe Ambrose and Mark Anderson – the ‘glitterati of the Twitterati’ brought together by (and including) Labour Teacher founders John David Blake and John Taylor. Anonymous bloggers Andrew Old, Tessa Matthews and Redorgreenpen stealthily located themselves in the audience, with less anonymous edublogger Kris Boulton alongside. Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg attended and surprisingly spent almost three hours listening to teachers and headteachers. All this seemed like a golden opportunity to test the idea that education bloggers might in any way affect education policy.
So here is a one-sentence summary of what was suggested.
Ty Goddard urged teachers to seize the mantle of innovation in education.
Mark Anderson evangelised about ICT and social media, telling us that not a day goes by where he doesn’t learn something new on Twitter, and that teachers can learn much from the experts – their students.
Ros McMullen diagnosed the problem as a broken exam system that will remain so, as long as we continue to confuse the two purposes of assessment: mastery and differentiation.
David Weston showed us how ITT is prioritised over CPD, and that collaborative practice, standards, career progression ladder and peer observations are the paths towards improving teacher quality.
Helene O Shea and Kev Bartle opened up the black box between accountability and autonomy, mentioning alliances research and CPD, as well as exam boards, PRP and OFSTED.
Emma Hardy urged teachers to look to each other, but that to be innovative, extra unnecessary testing needs to be removed from primary schools.
John Tomsett said Twitter and blogging have the potential to engender an education spring, a civilization of the mind in cyberspace; and that policy-making from the bottom up is gaining traction, as the story of the Headteachers’ Roundtable shows.
Janet Colledge said that education is about two things – how to make a living and how to live – that we should all know that you can get a University degree from an apprenticeship – and urged us to get work experience back into Key Stage 4.
John Taylor suggested three policy proposals aimed at tackling the gaming of admissions, increasing the quantity and quality of applicants in to teaching and narrowing the gap in University admissions.
Tom Sherrington said that an English Baccalaureate to match the IB is within our reach, both affordable and doable; he has launched a trial in 13 schools.
Chris Waugh gave us a glimpse of what he does when the government isn’t watching: innovative technology combined with student speaking and listening.
Joe Ambrose suggested a policy caucus of grassroots teacher groups and asked what the point was of learning facts when we could teach information literacy.
Ashley Harold used the analogy of Plato’s Cave for school leadership, and said there was no universal correct way to teach.
I then foolishly spoke against the grain about how knowledge, memory and practice could improve the curriculum, assessment and teacher training.
John David Blake asked what happens next and urged us to shape and guide education policy; he introduced Stephen Twigg and said he was listening to the profession.
Stephen Twigg talked about the tension between change and stability; he was asked a question by Emma Hardy (amongst others) on PRP, and replied that he was not against it full stop, but that we needed a proper national framework and flexibility.
I spoke to Stephen Twigg briefly afterwards. I should have asked him whether he read any education blogs. The current education secretary does, mentioning several education bloggers in his speeches, from Tom Bennett and Andrew Old to Daisy Christodolou and Matthew Hunter. Next time, I will ask Mr Twigg this question. Until both education ministers and shadow education ministers read education blogs regularly, I think it unlikely that education blogs will influence policy in any enduring way. But I do hear the message from John Tomsett and blogging and social networking has the potential to change teaching.
As for the chances of teachmeets affecting education policy, I remain sceptical. The final match result of the first outing of the select first Twitterati XI was 0-0, a goalless draw between teachers and politicians. Man of the match was Tom Sherrington for making a concrete proposal that he is piloting across schools. And there was at least one spectacular own goal, though as it was 0-0 it must have been disallowed by the referee.
For my part, teachmeets still feel a bit liked pooled foolishness. Then again, when the status quo is quite so foolish as it currently is, perhaps there is some wisdom in holding a mirror up, and seeing just how foolish we are. And just as fools have a role to play in foolishly speaking truth to power in Shakespearian theatre, perhaps we have a role to play in foolishly speaking truth to power in education, too. That, perhaps, is the secret of the successful fool.