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An SLF Rant

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On my first proper visit to the Scottish Learning Festival in 2009 I happened to share a taxi with Henry Hepburn from the TESS. We’ve kept in touch over the years and he has kindly attended and reported on some of our Pedagoo events. He occasionally emails me if he’s looking for a comment on something, which he did for his recent piece on the Scottish Learning Festival. Sometimes I am canny enough to decline the opportunity to comment, realising that anything I say can end up in print, but I try when possible to do what I can for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I believe that classroom teachers should have more of a voice in these sorts of publications and so if I’m asked I feel that I should try and put my money where my mouth is and say what I think. Also, from a purely selfish perspective, I feel that it’s good for Pedagoo if I have a good working relationship with the TESS. And also, because Henry is a nice guy.

So, when Henry emailed me and asked me for my thoughts on SLF, I replied. I hadn’t got round to looking at the most recent issue of the TESS yet and so when I got the following tweet, I was keen to have a look to find out what I’d said!

Having read the piece (sorry I can’t link to it, the TESS seem to have stopped uploading their content in May unfortunately) I’m surprised to discover that a) I feature so prominently in it, and b) it reads as if I’m having an argument with Alan Armstrong! Which of course, I wasn’t.

And so, I thought I would upload the bulk of the actual email I sent to Henry here (below). I stand by most of what I said, although I probably would’ve toned it down a wee bit if I’d taken a bit more time before hitting send. I also think that perhaps I went a bit overboard on the keynotes, perhaps they are still more relevant and challenging than I’d given them credit for.

“I’m afraid if anyone asks me about SLF I have a tendency to rant on at them. I haven’t been back for a couple of years, but last time I went there were three things which struck me;

– It’s a shadow of it’s former self with far fewer attendees and much less of the SECC being used for it.
– Hardly any of the seminars are from practicing classroom teachers. They’re mainly either Education Scotland/Scottish Government, Local Authority personnel or non-practicing teachers from other bodies such Universities, British Council, Outward Bound, etc.
– The keynotes seem to have become heavily constrained by the centrally determined agenda. It no longer seems to be about who’s good, but who will be most ‘on message’.

I’ve had a quick scan through this year’s programme and it would appear that the lack of teacher-led seminars is still an issue (I have to admit though that this is partly my fault as I had to withdraw my one due to my ankle!).

I think perhaps one has to call into question the purpose of this event. For me, it seems to be much more about prestige/marketing and message delivery from the centre and not of any particularly direct relevance to learning in classrooms. If you stop and think about it, if the purpose was to enhance learning & teaching in classrooms you would design it in such a way that a) lots of teachers could attend and would want to attend, and b) lots of practicing classroom teachers would be made to feel confident enough to sign up to lead seminars. Holding it on a Wednesday/Thursday at a single, large and threatening, venue doesn’t make sense to me if these were the objectives.

What was surprising to me was the reaction we got when some teachers who are planning a local Pedagoo event in Perth suggested that we try to encourage others to run one on the same day: http://pedagoo.org/local/takeover Now these might not all come off, but that’s because these folk are not really getting any support and so a lot of them will probably struggle. The best I can offer is some help with their webpages etc. But imagine if these teachers had the support of an organisation of the scale of Education Scotland! The problem is, because of the very nature of Education Scotland, they’d struggle to cope with the lack of control of such an approach, but at the very least you’d think they could work with a network of local authorities to put together a series of local events across the country.”

I think the reason I get so passionate about SLF is that I think it could be really great. I really enjoyed my first couple of visits, but this was primarily due to the chance to catch up with folk and to attend TeachMeet SLF. I’ve always felt that the seminars were lacking in classroom practitioners, and I’ve long wished more efforts were made to encourage and support classroom teachers to attend and present. In my experience, most teachers in staff rooms don’t even consider trying to attend, let alone submit a seminar, which is a real shame for what should be a must-go-to event for teachers in Scotland.

I agree with Alan when he says that it doesn’t have to be either or. SLF could be fulfilling a role that TeachMeet/Twitter/Pedagoo never could. However, I still think that SLF has the potential to better support the development of learning and teaching in Scotland’s classrooms through better engaging with the teachers of Scotland. I hope the moves to improve teacher engagement described in the TESS article happen and have impact, but many of them I’ve heard rumours of for years, so I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, if you agree with me, rather than waiting for SLF to change why don’t you join me in creating our own opportunities to learn from each other through Pedagoo.org.



TeachMeet SLF2010

Are you going to the Scottish Learning Festival next month? If you are, it’s worth making your way along to the highlight of the festival – TeachMeet. If you don’t know what a TeachMeet is…where have you been? Find out more here.

TeachMeets are free to attend. The only real requirement is that you’re prepared to get involved and take away some new ideas.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up now!


Who is the Scottish Learning Festival for?

I attended the SLF on Wednesday of this week for the first time, and I have to admit I left with mixed feelings on my experience. I’ve hesitated to write this, but I feel I have to be honest.

Initially, I was overwhelmed as I explored the exhibition hall in the morning (in between manning the East Lothian stand). It felt fantastic to be able to experience all of these cutting edge developments all in one place, and I enjoyed my conversations with many of the exhibitors. As the day wore on however, an unsettled feeling began to grow in my stomach. I couldn’t, and still can’t quite, put my finger on what was bothering me. I think it was something to do with the very commercial air in the exhibition hall. It was also something to do with the lack of practicing teachers who were there (apart from those of us who were there representing our councils). It certainly wasn’t aided by the disappointing nature of the two seminars I attended.

I think to me, the words ‘learning festival’ evokes a lot of classroom practitioners having an opportunity to learn. It certainly didn’t live up to this impression for me.

Why is it held at a time when teachers would require cover (which schools can ill afford) to attend? There were a lot of educationalists who are out of the classroom present – which is understandable given that their roles would require them to be there and they do not require cover – but where are they staying on the Wednesday night? Who is paying for this? Don’t these people get these opportunities to network etc. a lot anyway? Could this money be better spent? How can we get more classroom practitioners there?

As I said, I know this is a controversial reflection. But it’s my reflection, and I can’t deny it.

Perhaps ‘learning festival’ is just the wrong name and it will always struggle to live up to the images this evokes?