I didn’t have high hopes for GISH – I didn’t know what to expect. But I had hoped for some sort of collaborative creating and remixing with some like minded people. So I paid my $25.01 (why the .01, I wondered) and waited to see what the challenges would be like.
GISH is a week long event, and this year it ran from 30th July to 6th August. So on Sat 30th I logged in from my PC. First I tried to update my profile, but the web pages kept crashing, so I gave up on that. Next I headed to the Teams tab, expecting to find a chat room or a forum, but there was just a list of names with links to email them individually. Meh, I assumed the captain would be in touch.
And that was pretty much it. I scanned through the challenges and picked up a couple I could do alone from my desk (many of them either specified a specific location in the US or required interaction in busy places, neither of which were possible for me), and wandered off to do other things.
During my busier than usual work week I occasionally wondered why nobody was getting in touch – was I missing something? I checked the Teams tab again, but there was still nothing there. But apparently I was missing everything, as I found out after the event had ended. It turns out that there was a ios/android app, and that’s where my team were chatting. Somehow I’d missed mention of it on the web pages. I know this is all my own fault, and I could have got in touch with the captain (who I did not know), or other team members, but there it is.
And I can’t help feeling a little sad that nobody thought to ask me where I was.
It took a while, but we now have in LRMI a Learning Resource Type concept scheme that defines a controlled vocabulary of terms that you might use to describe the type or nature of a learning resource.
Why it took a while: what is a learning resource, and what is a type?
Aside from everything in metadata being harder than you first think, and having less time than we would like, the main reason it took so long (and it took, like, a few years) comes down to aspects of what is a learning resource? and what it a type? Some folk maintain that there is no well-defined class of “learning resources”, anything can be used for learning and teaching, and that trying to describe different sub-types of “anything” is going to be a fruitless task. Pedagogically, I have no argument with the statement that anything can be used for learning and teaching, but for information systems that is not a useful starting point. I have seen repositories crash and burn because they took that as their collection policy. Telling people who are looking for resources to help them learn maths that they can use anything, just be imaginative in how you use it, is not helpful.
By way of analogy, pretty much anything can be used as a hammer. Somethings will be better than others, the ones that are the right weight, hard and not brittle, but I’ve used stones, shoes, lumps of wood, monkey wrenches and so on as hammers with some success. That doesn’t mean that “hammer” doesn’t exist as a category, not does it mean that it isn’t useful to distinguish a peen hammer from a sledgehammer from a copper-headed mallet. Not that I am easily distracted, but I have found plenty of shops that not only sell hammers as a distinct type of tool but they have a fascinating array of different types of specialist hammers.
A persistent resource that has one or more physical or digital representations, and that explicitly involves, specifies or entails a learning activity or learning experience.
So, not just anything that can be used for learning and teaching, but something that is meant to be used for learning and teaching.
Intuitively it seems clear that there are different types of learning resource: lesson plans are different to textbooks, video lectures are different to assessment items. But how to encapsulate that? Is something an assessment because it is used for assessment, or is there something inherent in some resources that makes them assessments? Likewise is a video lecture a different type of thing from a lecture or just a different format? The answer in each case is sometimes yes to both. The use of something may be strongly correlated to what it is but use and type are still distinct. That is fine: we have in LRMI a property of educationalUse, which can be assessment, and now learningResourceType which can also be assessment. Likewise, the format of something may be correlated to what it is: textbooks tend to include text; a video recording of a lecture will be a video. Again that is fine, we have mime types and other ways of encoding format to convey that information, but they won’t tell you whether something is a text book or a children’s picture book, and not all recordings of lectures will be videos. So learning resource type may be correlated to to educational use and format without being the same.
Principles adopted for the LRMI Learning Resource Type vocabulary
As with all our work in LRMI, we adopted a couple of principles. First it should focus solely on what was relevant to learning, education and training: other vocabularies deal well with other domains or generic terms. Second, create small vocabulary of broad, a high level terms to which other people can map their special cases and similar terms: those special cases are often so context dependent that they frequently don’t travel well. Related to both of these, we mapped our vocabulary to terms in two others: CEDS and the Library of Congress Genre/Form terms. The links to CEDS terms are useful because CEDS is well established in the US system, and we provided pre-existing terms many of which we adopted. The link to the LoC terms is useful because it links our terms into a comprehensive list of generic terms. LoC terms are an example of one of the vocabularies that you might want to use if you are describing things like data as learning resources: we don’t cover it because data as a learning resource is not distinct from data in general, but we are all linked data here, and when providing resource descriptions you can mix terms from our scheme with those from others.
Using the LRMI Learning Resource Type vocabulary
The vocabulary is expressed in SKOS, and so it ready for linked data use.
If you manage your own list of learning resource types using SKOS, we invite you create links to the LRMI concepts and thus improve interoperability of learning resource descriptions. We would be interested in hearing from you if you are in this situation. Perhaps you have suggestions for further concepts; you can raise an issue about the concept scheme if that is the case.
If you create learning resource descriptions you may reference this vocabulary in several ways, for example in JSON-LD you may have:
In schema.org, you may use the labels defined as simple string values, but you could include a link to our full definition (and hence provide access the links to other schemes that we define — after all this is linked data), by using a defined term as the value for learning resource type
This blogpost has been sitting in my drafts for a while. But when I saw this image circulating the internet this weekend I felt incensed to throw in my tuppence worth.
You see Tesco, I’m a teacher. And a parent. And I’d rather your marketing focused on things which really do support learning. Because actually, mobile phones are anything but ‘must-have’ if we hope to produce successful learners.
There’s lots of evidence to suggest that a mobile phone will not be helpful for a learner’s first day at school. This research clearly articulates why mobile phones need not be on our ‘back to school’ shopping list.
If you had told me 10 years ago, that I would have been writing this particular blogpost, I would have not believed you. You see, 9 years ago I was the biggest advocate of mobile phones in schools. Fast forward a decade, and this leopard has most definitely changed her spots. Now, I’d rather see a complete ban on mobile phones in classrooms such is my disdain for their distraction.
There are a number of reasons for this u-turn. First hand experience. Academic research. Professional reading. And most significantly a genuine concern for our young people.
I’m worried about the effects of increased screen time for young people. Constant use of digital devices seriously affects their ability to concentrate. Despite good intentions, it’s too tempting just to sneak a peek at the screen to check notifications. And before you know it, the rabbit hole of social media has swallowed another 14 year old for the 100th time that day, jumping from one video to another message, to email to Instagram to Snap chat. A constant loop of comparison via pings, vibrations and light. It affects concentration. It affects confidence. It affects mental health. It causes stress and anxiety. And these all contribute to poor sleep, poor well-being and poor mindset. Not a healthy combination if we want our young people to thrive.
I’m worried about the use of mobile phones in schools, and the implications this has for learning, when notifications, messages and snap chat are all fighting for our learners’ attention. What chance do they have to experience the joy of learning whilst being bombarded with reminders and communication via their mobile adding a whole other layer of cognitive load to their struggle. Studies show use of mobile phones reduces memory. Not to mention the research into the effects of constant multitasking and ‘app-hopping.’ What chance do we have for focussed, concentrated learning in our classrooms when fighting for attention is a shiny, phone distracting thinking and processing?
But ‘pupils shouldn’t have their phones out in class,’ I hear you cry Tesco. And you are right. Most schools wouldn’t tolerate mobile phones in classrooms. But…
Have YOU tried spending an hour without looking at YOUR phone?? It’s nigh on impossible for adults, never mind young, impressionable teenagers who are keen to fit in and often don’t see the direct benefits of what they are doing there and then in the classroom. Despite the rules, pupils can’t help themselves. A sneak peek there, a quick check in between tasks. Constant battles for attention. And that’s only the students who are keen to learn. Many others don’t have the same self control.
I wonder how many altercations between pupils and teachers stem from mobile phone usage in the classroom? It’s a huge source of friction between young people and teachers, and I’d hazard a guess that the proportion of time given to asking pupils politely to ‘put phones away’ or ‘pop that back into your bag please’ equates to a significant amount of time which could have been better spent on learning and teaching. Not to mention how often situations escalate significantly, when in fact could have been avoided all together had mobile phones not been on their person.
I’m worried about the impact mobile phones have on mental health and well-being, belonging and social interaction. Social media is the root of so many bullying and friendship issues for young people. Often these are drawn into schools as a result of incidences at weekends or in the evening, and already take up huge amounts of energy for pastoral staff. But these should not be the focus of our Monday – Friday in classrooms. Pupils should be protected from that in order to have the best chance at learning. So it worries me that our society now see mobile phones as ‘essential’ prerequisite for the school bag. I personally would much rather focus on creating meaningful face to face learning experiences in school.
And for those arguing the technological benefits of mobile devices, have a read at Daisy Christodoulou’s work if you haven’t already. There might also be parents/carers advocating the need to communicate with young people during school day. This could still happen. Either by a simple message picked up at the end of the day, or in emergencies through the school office, just like was the norm all those years before mobile phones. The issue in school, is that mobile phones, are so much more than ‘phones.’ Cameras, apps, social media, shopping, messaging – and it’s this combination of audio visual assault which distracts from the core purpose of school.
This blog doesn’t have any answers but it does set out to suggest the impact which mobile devices may have on learning. It aims to make parents, teachers and leaders consider how we help students to navigate the constant bombardment of marketing and media which suggest we need mobile phones at school. It may sound extremist to suggest schools should ‘ban all mobile phones’ but like every other educational debate headline we need to understand the context. This is not a draconian, power hungry rule designed to make young people hate school. It actually sets out to protect them – conserving their learning and well-being as well as providing equity of experience. It’s teaching them that in certain environments, especially those required for effective learning, we need focus, attention and thinking.
We need to give our students the best chance at education. Mobile phones in the classroom don’t support that.
For the last couple of months I have been slowly reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. Slowly – because it is a big book, in more ways than one. I am only scratching at the surface of it – but the discussion of the left and right hemispheres is fascinating. As a leftie and the daughter of a leftie, I grew up with a lot of folk wisdom about the left hemisphere as being the faculty of reason and language while the right hemisphere is the domain of emotion and visual imagery. This, as McGilchrist shows, is false – both hemispheres are involved in each, just in different ways. The right provides us with the big picture, while the left is good at analysing details and specifics. In his RSA talk, McGilchrist gives an example of a bird to illustrate this – using its left hemisphere to focus on picking out tasty seeds from amongst the pebbles while the right hemisphere scans the area for possible danger. Both functions are vital, both sides need to talk to each other and, importantly, also listen to each other. In particular, the right hemisphere is connected to the physical world in a way that the left is not. And this can lead us into problems when the left forgets to pay attention to the right, which it is prone to do. I would really recommend watching this talk. I’ll be back to talk about the consequences for humanity for prioritising the left way of thinking over the right which is the subject of the second part of this book.
It’s pretty impressive how ambitious the projects get. Scratchers often build copycats of “real” games like Cut the Rope, Super Mario Bros, and Terraria. Features like cloud variables allow them to make online multiplayer games, like Taco Burp (popular in my house)
This is quite a different degree of scratching than I’ve seen in my and other classroom recently.
A lot of food for thought, I never spend much time with scratch beyond preparing and experimenting with the most basic of things. I am not sure it is a rabbit hope I want to peer down for long. I think the simple types of things we do in class are enough for most of the pupils (along with micro:bits, lego and other coding). The advanced projects might be useful to point some of the more confident pupils at.
The third and final instalment of this series is about EduFest at Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland, which debuted in 2019 and was back in 2022 after a COVID-enforced hiatus. It’s a start-up which has huge potential, bringing together educators from across Europe every two years. From what I saw, it has a bright future.
If you want to find a venue for an education festival, then the vicinity of Lake Geneva is not a bad place to look. Le Rosey is one of the leading Swiss boarding schools and has made a strategic decision to move into thought leadership by running their own education festival. The ambition to make this a major European event is clear, though persuading local teachers to attend seems to be a harder task than attracting those from Germany, France, and the UK.
The line-up was incredible, with Dylan Wiliam headlining and providing further sessions. Strands were curated by researchED and WomenED, and there was a good range of speakers presenting in French for the local audience. Content Director Kim Kovacevic and his team deserve a lot of credit for that, as do the logistics team run by Philippa Barton. It certainly had a festival atmosphere, helped by spectacular weather. The campus is a mixture of the traditional and the ultra-modern, and the main performing arts centre provides a stunning and perfectly-equipped venue for a range of sessions.
Keynote – Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam): How Do We Prepare Young People For A World We Cannot Imagine?
The first thing to say is that if you haven’t seen Dylan speak, you really need to add that to your bucket list. He is very, very good. It’s a bit like watching a magician who pauses every so often to let you in on the trick. Dylan walked us through many aspects of educational and societal change, challenging orthodoxy and busting myths with ease. For example, we frequently hear that the increasing application of AI will destroy jobs, but the advent of the cash machine (which should have made many bank tellers redundant) actually increased jobs in the US over the long term because it allowed bank workers to focus on things that mattered more. This is why the only 21st century skill that matters is metacognition.
The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn… We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.
– Papert, 1998
Dylan then went through the many new ideas that we’ve seen in education over the past couple of decades, and his take on growth mindset is worth sharing widely. Essentially, there is no evidence yet to suggest that GM interventions have provided any meaningful impact in pupil learning. Here’s the evidence base he cited.
Dylan then called on us to be critical consumers of research. This slide is a very succinct and helpful steer on how we do that, by asking questions of research.
Overall, a tour de force from an educator who remains at the forefront of international thinking, and at the top of his game.
I ran back to back sessions on my book The Teaching Life, which was co-authored with Kate Jones (@KateJones_teach). You can read a review by Zoe Enser (@greeborunner) in Schools Week about it here. The talk crunched down some of the major arguments we make, such as taking control of your professional learning can enhance career planning, agency, and wellbeing. So much has changed in the world of professional learning, and not all of that due to COVID, but it has been an accelerator of sorts. We expand on Carl Hendrick’s argument that this is a golden age of professional learning, and pose challenge questions to the reader to get them to consider their own learning and career progression.
One of my favourite riffs is about low cost/high impact professional learning. Here’s one of my slides which has ten such methods, so see how many of them you’ve done in the past year.
After both of my sessions we had a lively Q&A and interestingly the same difficult question was asked after each one: how do we evaluate professional learning effectively? That’s tough, and I spoke about grappling with this with the Teacher Development Trust a few years ago. This post has a little more about how they do that.
Back for more, and this time the focus was on how we can develop as teachers to become better at what we do. There were four questions Dylan posed at the outset:
What makes effective teacher learning?
How should teacher meetings be organised?
What doesn’t get done?
How will we know if it’s working?
He spoke about the ‘Knowing-Doing Gap’ (Pfeffer, 2000) and I was particularly interested in Nonaka and Takeuchi’s model of knowledge creation and conversion (1995). We lose so much tacit knowledge in schools through experienced staff moving on, that we are always struggling to replace that.
Never one to just identify a problem and leave it hanging, Dylan set out his model for teacher learning and communities (see the sides below), as well as the responsibility of senior leaders. He said that his wife, a headteacher of 20 years’ experience, describes herself as a ‘deflective leader’, meaning that she spends a lot of time deflecting nonsense away from her staff that comes from outside the school. I know what that feels like…
Carl has been busy since we co-authored ‘What Does It Look Like In The Classroom?’ in 2017, having written ‘How Learning Happens’ with Paul Kirschner (@P_A_Kirschner). He went through many of the key aspects of the book, challenging poor practice like ‘just Googling it’ and highlighting solutions, like the Dunlosky et al (2013) study which shows the gap between what students actually do, and what they should do. Cognitive Load Theory was a core aspect of the talk, as well as the interesting work on engagement. If you want an excellent guide to how learning really happens, then look no further than this book.
Tom Bennett (@tombennett71): How To Get Anyone To Do Anything – The Parent And Teacher Guide To Managing Children
I last saw Tom speak at researchED Scotland in Glasgow in February 2020 and since then he’s published Running The Room, which I strongly recommend. In his usual irrepressible form on stage, Tom set out the nature of the behaviour that we see in children, and the essential contention that behaviour is something that is learned, ergo it requires a curriculum. The mantra of ‘don’t just tell children how to behave, teach them’ is key; there is a pedagogy to this. He cited the document he produced for the DofE, Creating A Culture (2017), and his list of takeaways is very helpful indeed.
Behaviour is one of the toughest areas that teachers grapple with, but keeping it simple and consistent is a good way to improve things. This was a talk that gives you the confidence that this can, and will happen.
The one downside to speaking twice is that you can’t get to as many sessions as you like, and it was a real shame to miss Adam Boxer, Becky Allen, Pedro de Bruyckere and Carli Ochs in particular, but I did get to finally meet Twitter pal Parm Plummer. It was also a pleasure to have another head from a Scottish school in tow, as Simon Brian from St Leonard’s in Fife came along and he also took the chance to visit some other Swiss schools for IBO experience. The chance to speak to educators from across Europe was a valuable opportunity, allowing us to compare notes about our respective systems. I hope this event grows and reaches a wider audience, and do check out the website for news about the next iteration in 2024. There’s a lot more to come.
The second day of the Festival of Education saw equal amounts of sunshine and political debate given that Boris (finally) resigned so there was a real buzz about the place. I managed to fit in sessions on classroom practice, social mobility, coaching and the BAMEed strand, so there was no rest for the wicked…
Nicholas Hopton (@RisbyDuck0): Going On A Bear Hunt – Making Desirable Difficulties Desirable
After being in the bigger venues yesterday I wanted to start today with some pedagogy. The Maths and MFL Departments have a very different feel, as sessions are usually by teachers and about what they do in the classroom. The title of this one caught my eye, and it didn’t disappoint. Nicholas is Head of English at Bedford School, and in terms of being well versed on current pedagogical thinking he certainly knows his stuff. This session (as the title suggests) was about Robert and Elizabeth Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties and how we make that happen during lessons.
In Nicholas’ approach, lesson planning is structured around the Bear Hunt story with balancing classroom challenges (rivers, mud, forests and caves) with scaffolds (walking sticks, pathways and maps). Of course, when faced with an obstacle, pupils can’t go around it/over it/under it but have to go through it. It’s about creating obstacles that pupils can, with effort and just enough support, overcome. Nicholas also threw in some Ron Berger (feedback should be “kind, specific and actionable”), and I loved what he does every summer with his pupils. They write spy fiction, and afterwards the pupils publish their work and have a book launch. Overall, a very good session with a lot of practical advice that was grounded in the best of current thinking.
Hashi Mohamed (@hm_hashi): Adventures in Social Mobility
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Hashi since we both went on a Remembering Srebrenica delegation to Bosnia several years ago. Since then he has become one of Britain’s most important voices on social mobility and race (you can hear more about his own story via his BBC Radio 4 documentary series and his book).
Hashi is the 8th of 12 children, born in Kenya to Somali parents. His mother was illiterate and his father was killed in a car crash. He came to the UK in 1993 at the age of 9, and couldn’t speak a word of English. He then went on to Oxford University and qualified as a barrister. If you think this is going to be an inspiring story of how hard work and grit leads to success, think again. Hashi is a critic of the concept of social mobility (both absolute and relative mobility) and argues that his story is the exception, not the rule.
Hashi was keen to stress the importance of early years education.
“I really strongly believe that this period can make a huge difference in someone’s life. No period of life is as important as the first four years. It’s when the basic structures of your brain are established. They set the course for your life.”
When it comes to inherited poverty, he warns that “deprivation begins in the womb.”
Much like David Olusoga yesterday, Hashi is not a fan of “meaningless slogans and phrases” (what David called ‘deepisms’). Teachers tell children that ‘work hard and you can achieve anything.’ He was scathing about Michaela Community School (which is five minutes from where he lives).
“Children should not be robots who walk silently in corridors. That school would not have worked for me, as a traumatised child. I promise you now that that environment would not and could not have brought out the best in me.”
He was clear that we have to grasp the reality that the problems we face in society are far more profound than teachers can deal with. Yet despite this, teachers and parents will still be left to deal with the consequences of what happened over the past two years; sadly, we cannot rely on the current government to deal with that legacy.
Another interesting contention he set out was this:
“Data does not show a direct link between education and social mobility. It isn’t there. It isn’t the determining factor. Education gets you to the starting line of a race. You then have to run it.”
He talks about some young people benefiting from a life that goes “From quad to quad to quad. You run from one manicured lawn to another. It is a life that is both straight and square.” For his own part, he broke into this by luck as much as anything else:
“I know that I have been lucky. Luck is an important factor to consider. Bad luck is easy to see, you can’t miss it. Good luck is something we often think is not actually luck, but something created by us.”
It was a fantastic session with many important provocations, making it a natural successor to David Olusoga’s talk the day before.
There was a significant strand on coaching and some of the key individuals in UK and international education were at the forefront of this, such as Rachel Lofthouse from CollectivED and Jim Knight. I didn’t manage to see them but did catch Chris Munro and Christian van Nieuwerburgh from Growth Coaching International doing a session which was really a live demonstration and analysis of the process involved in coaching. Christian asked for an audience volunteer, who happened to be a lecturer from Oxford University, and they went through a coaching discussion (she asked for assistance with how to be a better coach). Chris paused every so often to analyse the method with the audience. It worked very effectively and they referred to the GROWTH model, which Chris was keen to point out is not linear, but can be done in any order.
I had a really good discussion with Chris afterwards (somehow he and I have managed to miss each other despite his long period of lecturing at the University of Aberdeen). I’m really interested in where coaching sits in terms of reflective practice, as my next book will be on that theme. He gave me a lot to consider and links to go away and read, so that was a big help. This is why the festival is so good; you can approach any of the speakers and ask them for advice and guidance.
BAMEed (@BAMEedNetwork) Mentoring and Coaching – Effective Development Support for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Educators
A really positive addition to the festival programme was a dedicated BAMEed strand, curated by Penny Rabiger (@Penny_Ten) (amongst others). Penny was in the audience and at one point reminded us that BAMEed was founded with both white and BAME educators on board, so that “it’s not a deficit model. We want to increase the racial literacy of white people who are in positions of power.” She also reminded us, when we hit the sensitive point of language and terminology, that “language is always dynamic and always inadequate.” For what my humble opinion is worth, we need many more people like Penny in education.
This was a lively panel chaired by Lizana Oberholzer (@LO_EduforAll), with Krupa Patel and Nazya Ghalib as the guests. The focus was on the network’s provision of pro bono coaching for three sessions, with continued support available thereafter. Contact can be made through the website and Lizana assigns the applicant a coach from the extensive and experienced BAMEed team. Krupa and Nazya gave a lot of insight into the way this works and what the experience has been like for them as coaches. Both are hugely experienced and I can imagine that anyone who has them for a coach is being really well supported.
The discussion became very open with frequent questions from the floor, and I asked if the coaches tend to experience normative issues with coachees, or was it more specific due to the constituency? The panellists agreed that they see much more in the way of coachees dealing with issues of race and barriers, such as lack of representation. That is predictably sad, but BAMEed is providing support that will be game-changing in the long term.
Mindful of the discussion I had yesterday with Sanum Khan (@Sanumjkhan) and Kamraan Khan (@Kamraan1984) (who I sat next to at this session and we picked up where we left off) about the level of diversity seen in the regular festival session audiences and the BAMEed strand, I have to say that was again the case here. It’s brilliant that the festival has this strand, and I doubt there is much the organisers can do about audience footfall, but it was a really interesting point that Sanum makes about running two different PL programmes. Further thinking is needed on that point, but I had a great conversation with Penny at the end that will hopefully lead to further progress on this point in terms of teacher recruitment. Watch this space.
Finally, if you haven’t already been persuaded to attend the festival in the future, consider the brilliant networking opportunities that it presents. I didn’t go to every single session because I spent so much time talking to people, many of whom I haven’t seen in a very long time. There are many areas where people can just sit and have some food, a coffee, or even a cocktail, and if you want to have a go at speaking then the outdoor ‘green room’ is amazing. I had a great lunch with Hashi Mohamed, Jim Heal, Sarah Donarski, Eva Hartell, Kim Kovacevic and others which was as good as going to any of the sessions. I strongly recommend putting in a pitch to be a speaker for 2023 via the website from September onwards.
That’s what makes this event so special; it genuinely is a festival rather than a conference, because the laid back approach, multiple stalls and activities, and sociable community it creates are wonderful. A huge thank you to Shane Mann (@shanermann) and his team (especially you, Adele Kilby!); you all did a great job. I’m delighted it’s back.
After moving online during the pandemic, the Festival of Education at Wellington College was back on site and in person for 2022. It also moved date, coming in early July rather than late June, and that had no adverse impact on attendance or interest. With around 400 speakers and over 5,000 attendees over the two days, it’s back to being an essential part of the professional learning calendar. Here are some notes from the sessions I attended, and I’ve hyperlinked as much as I can to let you follow up the aspects that interest you most. If you want a sense of what it’s like, there’s a short highlights video here.
David Olusoga (@DavidOlusoga): Black and British – A Short Essential History
I began with a headliner, and he definitely did not disappoint. David spoke candidly about his personal experience (including being driven out of his family home by the National Front), his publishing career, and his belief that “histories are on the march”. He has multiple identities: Nigerian; half white working-class (with Scottish roots); black; and British. The book that helped him to make sense of these identities was Staying Power (1984) by Peter Friar, and he apologised for not writing children’s fiction sooner because he “looked down on children’s publishing, despite my own experiences.” He, and the publishing industry, are now making up for those mistakes.
He was very clear about the failures of the current education system. For GCSE History in 2020, for example, there were 59 options offered by the various exam boards. Only 12 of these cover black history, and even then only 5 are about black British history (the remainder are about slavery and civil rights in the USA). He said something that particularly resonated with me, as a history teacher:
“It shouldn’t have needed the murder of an African American outside a convenience store for change to happen… There is an enormous shift in attitudes that is being driven by an underlying generational change. The younger generation don’t believe that history is a place you go to be taught comforting myths.”
Once we moved into the Q&A it really opened up on some huge issues. When asked about his views on Black History Month, he gave the most powerful defence of BHM I’ve ever heard. Going back to 1987, it has been a significant vehicle for change.
“It’s one of the greatest achievements of the black British community – a moment when we supercharge black history and turn up the volume. Teachers have used BHM as a battering ram against resistance to introducing this history to their school.”
To argue that we need black history 12 months a year “sounds cool but is incredibly destructive…to call it tokenistic is ludicrous” especially as we don’t ever hear people challenging Holocaust Memorial Day on the same basis. He used the word “deepisms” to describe the kind of sloganeering that sounds good but is actually reductive and false – a point we’ll return to later with Hashi Mohamed.
On EDI, he argues that “the legal and financial sectors are doing better than the liberal arts and education because we gave ourselves a free pass.” He also disagrees with the narrative of victimhood around slavery history:
“If you are descended from slaves you are descended from survivors. The last thing we should do is think about them as victims, there was resistance at every stage of their life. We should remember them as heroic.”
A final question that was very tough for David (or anyone) to answer came from a young woman at the front of the audience: what colour is your heart today? His answer?
“I believe in empathy. If we can be empathetic we can tell the history of any people. History makes you empathise with people and that’s the most valuable thing for children to learn.”
Sir Anthony Seldon (@AnthonySeldon): 5 Things That Will Change in Education in the Next 10 Years and 5 That Won’t
If David Olusoga set the intellectual and moral tone for the festival, Sir Anthony Seldon brought the big picture and the bounce. Bear in mind that this was Boris Johnson’s denouement, when we had three education secretaries in a day, so Anthony was moving seamlessly between presentations and media interviews. His audience got the benefit of multiple riffs on current politics throughout, much to their delight.
He began with an overview of the Times Education Commission in discussion with political journalist Rachel Sylvester. The Commission focused on what people outside the education system want to see, not what the education system wants for itself. This was driven by concern at the increasing narrowing of the system, and a desire for change across different sectors of society. The consensus that emerged was that “education should not be done to children and teachers, but with them and for them.” The UK is being left behind internationally, compared to forward thinking systems like Holland (which leads on wellbeing) and Estonia (which leads on robotics). Here:
“one third of young people are told that they have failed by age 16 and those are disproportionately from the most disadvantaged areas of society. One third leave school with mental health issues.”
So Anthony posed us a question: in the next decade, what five things will change and what will stay the same? He gave us some time to consider our answers to that, and as he went through his list he challenged us to see if our predictions were aligned.
So what will change? He definitely sees a change to exams, development of the curriculum, family engagement in education (the idea of ‘porous walls’ was floated), the use of technology (especially AI and green-tech) and the impact of EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion). And what will stay the same? Pathways into higher education, early years education, support for parenting, and the political control of the system.
Some of the stats he presented were terrifying. In the last 10 years government spending on health has gone up 42% compared to just 4% in education. He didn’t feel that funding, or the position of teachers and staff will change a great deal. Ofsted was deemed too confrontational, with only 1% of teachers believing it led to positive changes in their school.
On political change, his prediction was that we wouldn’t see a general election until 2024 and that Wes Streeting will replace Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader before that. You heard it here first. He then finished in a very upbeat note, which was well received:
“Learning is an extraordinary joy when we set it up in the right way. We have a natural desire to learn.”
Panel: The Importance of Teacher-led CPD
This had a formidable line-up consisting of Rae Snape (@RaeSnape), Nikki Cunningham-Smith (@NikkiCuSmith) and Adrian Bethune (@AdrianBethune), and they did exceptionally well to battle the heat in the marquee. There was early emphasis on the importance of dialogic communities, meaning “teachers reading the same research and debating it.” I saw this just before I did my own session and was pleased to hear the importance of school visits, using social media, and reading groups as methods of effective and informal professional learning. There was also reference to the DofE’s Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development document which emphasises that “Professional development must be prioritised by school leadership.”
Adrian cautioned about anything that might be the ‘next big thing’, with a reference to the recent EEF report about cognitive psychology. Is this a case of academic research being transferred into the classroom as a lethal mutation? This led to a point being made by Nikki that you have to be careful about what you embed and how you evaluate that, as with multiple new initiatives being launched it can lead to a very varied experience for pupils as they move from one classroom to the next. She put it very well when she said “if you are interested in it and believe in it, it will be sustained over time.”
There was an interesting discussion at the end about the best CPD that the panellists had ever done. For Nikki this was a 3-day course by Bill Rogers on behaviour with the takeaway being that “learning to be a better practitioner doesn’t look like everyone thinks it does.” Rae added the importance of having a headteacher community around you, and shared her idea of having an academic in residence (one that I think has real value). She is setting up an ‘empathy lab’ which will include three teachmeets per term, and will share more information in due course.
My Session: The Teaching Life – How to Build Your Career Through Effective Professional Learning
I won’t spend much time on my own session, as Sarah Donarski (@s_donarski) has very kindly written a detailed piece about it here. It was based on my book with Kate Jones (@KateJones_teach) on professional learning and career development. I will share one slide below which consists of challenge questions for teachers about their career, so perhaps have a go at them and see if you can provide answers to them all.
After I spoke, I had a really fascinating conversation with Sanum Khan (@Sanumjkhan) and Kamraan Khan (@Kamraan1984) who approached me from the audience. Their challenge was why were they the only non-white educators at my session, and why was the BAMEed strand the converse? I honestly couldn’t answer that but it started a theme that was continued the next day (and beyond). For more on that how that unfolded, see part II of this mini-series of summer festival blogs.
That wrapped up a pretty epic first day, with a lot to reflect on.
Unusually, this piece is not about my professional life, but my personal life. It was driven by a desire to put something into words for my own children. Unlike my professional blogs it will not be actively advertised or shared, but will just sit here waiting for anyone to read it who will find some value in it; it is about memory, loss, grief, love and appreciation. Fundamentally, I just felt that it was a story that needed to be put into words.
I’m sitting in my father-in-law’s flat in the summer of 2022, three months after he died. He lived just outside the European quarter in Brussels, in one of those huge apartment blocks that the city has in abundance. The street below is always busy and noisy; tonight there is a party going on nearby with plenty of loud voices, even though it’s Sunday night in the middle of a severe heatwave. Yet up here on the 10th floor, that noise seems very distant.
Dr Skandary’s flat is small, even cramped. You get here via a lift that says it can hold nine people but in reality it’s four. There is one bedroom, a decent sized living room, a galley kitchen and a box room that served as a dining room which, at a squeeze, could get eight people around the table. Yet despite its size, I adore it. The decor is uniquely his own (the walls are all bright red), and reflects two passions: his family, and his love of hospitality. There are photos placed everywhere, many of them showcasing his life in the 60s and 70s. The view out of the windows looks west across the city, and lends the flat a feeling of space and perspective that it would otherwise lack if lower down the building. I feel totally at ease here; I feel just as strongly about this cosy flat as I do about my childhood home. I first set foot here sixteen years ago, and of all the places that have meant something in my life this association has been the longest. I have many happy memories, and it saddens me greatly to think this is the last time I will be here.
Dr Skandary’s life was far from ordinary. Born in Afghanistan just after the Second World War, he set out for Paris as a young man to study geology at the Sorbonne. He stayed on to complete his doctorate there, and he married my wonderful mother-in-law Mahmooda (a woman who has an equally incredible biography). Their honeymoon was an epic road trip, driving from Paris to Kabul. They made it all the way to the Iran-Afghanistan border where the import taxes on their car meant they had to abandon it and complete the voyage on public transport. Imagine doing that journey now.
Dr Skandary rose through the ranks of government and was a minister during the 1980s when the socialist, pro-Soviet administration fought the Mujahideen. Almost all western histories of this period speak of the Soviet (or Russian) ‘invasion’ of Afghanistan in 1979, but Dr Skandary and his family don’t see it this way. They argue that the Afghan government invited Russian forces in to fight narrow-minded (and US-armed) religious fanatics. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, a brutal civil war between various factions in the Mujahideen led to the rise of the Taliban, so it is perhaps a period worth revising. After all, which western historians talk of the American ‘invasion’ of Vietnam?
Dr Skandary held on for two more years after the Russians withdrew, but life in Kabul became too dangerous to endure. The Mujahideen had a tactic of kidnapping and torturing the children of government ministers, and with four yong children it was a risk he could not take. In 1991, he took his family to Delhi, departing with a single suitcase each. It was meant to be temporary, but he returned to Kabul a few weeks later to pack up the rest of their belongings. He found their apartment in Mikrorayon had been ransacked, and anything of value was gone. He returned to India, and would never again set foot in his beloved Afghanistan. His decision to leave was fully justified by the horrific death of his final boss, President Najibullah, in 1996, despite UN protection.1
Two years later the family moved to Russia, living a risky existence as illegal immigrants in a state that was transitioning from communism to capitalism. My wife remembers queuing for hours as a child for bread, but also her father taking her to McDonald’s in Moscow. From being a government minister with a limousine and driver at his beck and call, he was now working in a street market to support his family. Six years in both Moscow and St Petersburg followed, desperately trying to survive. Yet despite this poverty, many friends and family remember how generous he was helping others, and in exile he remained a central figure in the Afghan diaspora.
In the late 1990s he and his wife were granted, at separate times, political asylum in Belgium because they were Francophone. They were finally reunited, as a family of six, in a one-bedroom apartment in Brussels. It seemed that finally they had some stability and security, and their children could go to school. He worked for the Belgian government, vetting asylum applications because many non-Afghans tried to game the system by claiming to be from Afghanistan. He interviewed them to see if their claims were legitimate or not. This was his last work in life, which seems an extraordinary waste of talent for someone who was awarded a doctorate by the Sorbonne and signed international treaties and trade agreements on behalf of his government.
I first met him in 2006, in the same room that I am writing this piece, when I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He spoke Dari and French perfectly, but not English, so I had been to night school to reprise my secondary school French to ensure that I passed the test. Somehow, mercifully, I did. We became good friends, and I can honestly say that we never had a crossed word. He was always the life and soul of the party, dressed to kill, playing the gregarious diplomat at every family gathering and wedding, but it was in his own apartment that I thought he was at his best.
His cooking was legendary. His speciality was an Afghan dish called laandy pulao, which (if you’re a purist) involves dry-curing lamb for weeks before cooking it in copious amounts of rice. It’s a dish that very few people can cook, and I may never experience it again. There was always a ritual to visiting his home. The entrance, the formal welcome, the apératif, the food, the ‘bon cafe’ digestif on the sofa next door, and the leisurely catching up as the afternoon stretched lazily on. That same pattern, that familiarity, was a constant joy to me. I always knew what to expect when I visited him; this included reproaching me for letting my French slip, before being complimented for (somehow) making progress by the end of our visit a few days later.
We had a shared love of football, politics, good whisky, and philosophy. Although he was a man of science by training, he always talked about the broad principles of life. What makes a person good and honest was a frequent topic of conversation. I knew full well that he was educating me and setting out his expectations at the same time, but I appreciated that greatly. It was just what I hoped to get out of my relationship with my father-in-law.
He was a convinced socialist through and through. Not long after we first met, my parents came to Brussels to meet him and we went for a walk in the city. As we passed a mosque, my father (a presbyterian minister and RE teacher) asked him if he was a frequent visitor there. He simply said “Jamais. Je suis un socialiste.” He observed the rituals of Islam when the occasion called for it, but he was absolutely secular. I could never place him exactly in terms of his politics, but if I had to try I would say he was not a million miles from Nehru.
I got a small taste of what his political modus operandi was like when my wife and I had our Afghan wedding in Cologne in 2008. We had to visit the wedding centre (a venue popular with Afghans and Turks in the west of Germany) to negotiate the details and the price. I sat next to him and just watched, making constant mental notes, as he did all the talking. Over several rounds of tea, and with a mixture of bonhomie and steel, he induced the management to offer the very best service at the lowest possible price. He had a particular talent for showing his disapproval in his body language, but not his words. It was masterly. And after all, he knew he had a strong bargaining position. He was still a significant name in the Afghan diaspora. To give a specific example, when my wife went to the Afghan embassy in Brussels to apply for work experience, she was asked to give her name. When she said ‘Skandary’, they immediately said “Ah, you must be Dr Skandary’s daughter!” Any attempt at achieving anything on her own merit has always been difficult because of this.
He was very conscientious about his health. He swam regularly (I tried and failed to keep pace with him once – let’s put that one down to youthful naivety) and he walked for two hours every evening. Afghans have a saying that “sightseeing is sightseeing, but getting lost is still sightseeing.” When my wife was little he told her that she should walk everywhere to learn her surroundings and should always pay attention to the names of the streets. It is a habit I have picked up from him, and I recommend it to everyone. It helps you to know where you are, and where you are going.
He seemed indefatigable to me, yet he succumbed to a heart attack not long after being admitted to hospital during a visit to see his brothers in Denmark, suffering from high blood pressure. I last saw him in October 2019, and that gap was down to COVID; our next scheduled trip in April 2020 was cancelled, and it never crossed my mind that the forced separation of that period would mean that we would never see each other again.
After his funeral in Copenhagen in April 2022, we had a family get together and it was a strange occasion. It felt as though he was there; I always expected to see him as I went from one room to another. At the end of the evening we watched a reel of photographs of him over the years, and it was a trigger to my grief. It came in powerful waves. The enormity of what I – we – had lost suddenly came over me and I couldn’t control it. He had had that effect on many more people besides me.
So now I sit here in his flat for the last time, putting down some thoughts for posterity. This is mainly for his five surviving grandchildren, only one of whom will retain any memories of him into adulthood. He was by no means perfect, but he owned his imperfections. His passing was marked by a wave of loyalty and affection from the hundreds of attendees at his funeral, some coming from very far away.
Having lost my own father ten years ago, I am still processing the loss of my second father. As with all important relationships, the memories live for many years afterwards. I read recently that great people die twice; the first death is physical, and the second is when their legacy ceases to be remembered. I think that Dr Skandary’s second passing will be a long time coming.
Rest in peace, Baba Jan.
1 I should add that my wife’s family has the utmost respect for President Najibullah. If this period interests you, follow Heela Najibullah on Twitter. My wife met her recently at a conference for the Afghan diaspora and it was a rare case of meeting your idol and not being disappointed.