Islay Education 2020 Unconference
It’s just over a fortnight since the unconference but it hasgiven me time for some reflection and to put it into context. Andy Wallis and Ian Stewart of Islay High School madea magnificent job of the organisation; it is not every conference that has a helpyourself bar with malt whisky. Thebarbecue to accompany the evening session and the tour of Bowmore distilleryand not least the beauty of Islay the island made for a memorable stay.
So what of the unconference itself? Islay High School is a very appropriate venuefor a look into the future. They arealready heading that way with aninnovative curriculum and timetable and very good use of ICT. The S3-S6 timetable is a pick and mix ofacademic and vocational courses designed to give pupils a real choice, even toincluding some Open University courses. The vocational courses provide realistic experiences through the SocialEnterprise firms such as the Catering which tenders for outside contracts. Thenthere is the Samsung Q1 UMPC for every pupil loaded with one of the bestMicrosoft programs, namely OneNote. Combine this with tablet PCs for teachers linked to wireless projectorsin the classrooms and wireless printers and there is a flexibility and freedomfrom hardware constraints which shows the way it should be with presenttechnologies.
2020 is not that far away and the world of education andtechnology is changing so fast that there will barely be time to plan forit. So did the unconference point theway? Expectations for this gathering ranexceedingly high beforehand and it is fair to say that when that happens thereality of outcomes will often disappoint. If we could arrive at a blueprint in the course of an evening, even withthe huge talent and enthusiasm from a considerable cross-section of informededucators present, we could all perhaps have stayed at home and sent in ouranswers. We are talking about a hugelycomplicated subject which affects the whole population and there is probably nosingle solution to satisfy everyone. This is not to be deplored as a sense of dissatisfaction can helpinnovation.
An unconference is a democratic being and the delegates atthis one chose the topics we would discuss – Assessment, Learning Spaces andRelevance of Skills. By the time we gotto this last one, the word relevance was not thoroughly addressed and we tendedjust to catalogue our favourites. However, I would suggest that the most relevant skills were certainlymentioned and are perhaps the building blocks for more specialised skills. Literacy and numeracy are fundamental. We should today define literacy as an abilityto interpret whatever is presented to us, so text, music or sound, audio andvisual in all its forms must be included. Interpret is not perhaps the best word as I see it as both active andpassive, e.g. writing and reading. Numeracyis almost a sub-division if we call it the interpretation and manipulation ofnumbers and mathematical concepts. Theseskills are relevant in that we cannot make any progress without them. That is not to say that the whole populationis equalled adept at the whole range or that uniformity is even desirable. Because uniformity too often in practicemeans dumbing down. If Mozart had beenreduced to my level of musical literacy the world would be a dreadfullycacophonous place. I think I mightdefine a skill as something to be acquired by practice. It is not something to be arrived at byindependent thought or logic. One learnsthe rules of arithmetic rather than trying to re-invent them. Alphabets are a set of rules as words are aset of definitions.
Assessment proved to be as expected a contentious subjectand I think we did well to highlight the ends of the spectrum, externalsummative tests of knowledge and internal unmoderated judgements of teachers. Assessment, evaluation, validation were allbandied about. We reached no conclusionsbut did spotlight the mountains to be climbed to reach a new consensus. Neither extreme is wholly right but all haveelements of value. The extreme of summativetests of knowledge are frankly unreasonable when one percentage mark can changea grade and therefore a person’s future. On the other hand the nice young lady who works hard and writes neatlyis bound to have an advantage over the ill-mannered lout without a pen in atleast some teachers’ subconscious. Ofcourse it could be argued that an assessment of the whole person should includemanners but should not perhaps determine a pass or fail in Mathematics. If thissame discussion were to take place when more of the Curriculum for Excellenceis in place, there would almost certainly be major revisions of opinion.
Learning Spaces produced some interesting points of view as John Connell has alreadydrawn attention to. There were valiantcontributions making the point that a learning space is no longer a clean dryschool building with superior toilets. Bearing in mind the state of the nation’s economy, the provision oflarge numbers of new schools may become an ever more distant prospect over thenext few years and the idea of “the world is my oyster” through the medium ofthe internet may take on more significance. The world of the imagination is also a relatively inexpensive learningspace. While the unconference was attimes a bit chaotic there were many salient points made by a wide range ofcontributors which showed that there is change in the air and a significantminority who are going for it.
One unconference is like a swallow; it is not in itself asummer. However this unconference didmake it clear to me that there is a movement or groundswell which isquestioning orthodoxy, pushing for debate and ready to embrace new methods andexperiment with alternatives to our somewhat tired teaching customs.
Quite apart from the intensity of debate is was good to meetexisting friends and put faces to cyber colleagues. Anybody who thinks that social networks incyberspace reduce real life relations should bear in mind that for many of usthe outcome of virtual meetings is real life friendships with people fromdistant places who we would never otherwise meet and who enrich our lives as wehope to impact on theirs. I mention buta few, Ollie, Tessa, Theo, Alan, Andrew, David, Jaye, Katie, Stephanie, Stuart, Alan and a good many others.