Islay Education 2020 Unconference
It’s just over a fortnight since the unconference but it has given me time for some reflection and to put it into context. Andy Wallis and Ian Stewart of Islay High School made a magnificent job of the organisation; it is not every conference that has a help yourself bar with malt whisky. The barbecue to accompany the evening session and the tour of Bowmore distillery and 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 venue for a look into the future. They are already heading that way with an innovative curriculum and timetable and very good use of ICT. The S3-S6 timetable is a pick and mix of academic and vocational courses designed to give pupils a real choice, even to including some Open University courses. The vocational courses provide realistic experiences through the Social Enterprise firms such as the Catering which tenders for outside contracts. Then there is the Samsung Q1 UMPC for every pupil loaded with one of the best Microsoft programs, namely OneNote. Combine this with tablet PCs for teachers linked to wireless projectors in the classrooms and wireless printers and there is a flexibility and freedom from hardware constraints which shows the way it should be with present technologies.
2020 is not that far away and the world of education and technology is changing so fast that there will barely be time to plan for it. So did the unconference point the way? Expectations for this gathering ran exceedingly high beforehand and it is fair to say that when that happens the reality of outcomes will often disappoint. If we could arrive at a blueprint in the course of an evening, even with the huge talent and enthusiasm from a considerable cross-section of informed educators present, we could all perhaps have stayed at home and sent in our answers. We are talking about a hugely complicated subject which affects the whole population and there is probably no single solution to satisfy everyone. This is not to be deplored as a sense of dissatisfaction can help innovation.
An unconference is a democratic being and the delegates at this one chose the topics we would discuss – Assessment, Learning Spaces and Relevance of Skills. By the time we got to this last one, the word relevance was not thoroughly addressed and we tended just to catalogue our favourites. However, I would suggest that the most relevant skills were certainly mentioned and are perhaps the building blocks for more specialised skills. Literacy and numeracy are fundamental. We should today define literacy as an ability to interpret whatever is presented to us, so text, music or sound, audio and visual in all its forms must be included. Interpret is not perhaps the best word as I see it as both active and passive, e.g. writing and reading. Numeracy is almost a sub-division if we call it the interpretation and manipulation of numbers and mathematical concepts. These skills are relevant in that we cannot make any progress without them. That is not to say that the whole population is equalled adept at the whole range or that uniformity is even desirable. Because uniformity too often in practice means dumbing down. If Mozart had been reduced to my level of musical literacy the world would be a dreadfully cacophonous place. I think I might define a skill as something to be acquired by practice. It is not something to be arrived at by independent thought or logic. One learns the rules of arithmetic rather than trying to re-invent them. Alphabets are a set of rules as words are a set of definitions.
Assessment proved to be as expected a contentious subject and I think we did well to highlight the ends of the spectrum, external summative tests of knowledge and internal unmoderated judgements of teachers. Assessment, evaluation, validation were all bandied about. We reached no conclusions but did spotlight the mountains to be climbed to reach a new consensus. Neither extreme is wholly right but all have elements of value. The extreme of summative tests of knowledge are frankly unreasonable when one percentage mark can change a grade and therefore a person’s future. On the other hand the nice young lady who works hard and writes neatly is bound to have an advantage over the ill-mannered lout without a pen in at least some teachers’ subconscious. Of course it could be argued that an assessment of the whole person should include manners but should not perhaps determine a pass or fail in Mathematics. If this same discussion were to take place when more of the Curriculum for Excellence is in place, there would almost certainly be major revisions of opinion.
Learning Spaces produced some interesting points of view as John Connell has already drawn attention to. There were valiant contributions making the point that a learning space is no longer a clean dry school building with superior toilets. Bearing in mind the state of the nation’s economy, the provision of large numbers of new schools may become an ever more distant prospect over the next few years and the idea of “the world is my oyster” through the medium of the internet may take on more significance. The world of the imagination is also a relatively inexpensive learning space. While the unconference was at times a bit chaotic there were many salient points made by a wide range of contributors which showed that there is change in the air and a significant minority who are going for it.
One unconference is like a swallow; it is not in itself a summer. However this unconference did make it clear to me that there is a movement or groundswell which is questioning orthodoxy, pushing for debate and ready to embrace new methods and experiment with alternatives to our somewhat tired teaching customs.
Quite apart from the intensity of debate is was good to meet existing friends and put faces to cyber colleagues. Anybody who thinks that social networks in cyberspace reduce real life relations should bear in mind that for many of us the outcome of virtual meetings is real life friendships with people from distant places who we would never otherwise meet and who enrich our lives as we hope to impact on theirs. I mention but a few, Ollie, Tessa, Theo, Alan, Andrew, David, Jaye, Katie, Stephanie, Stuart, Alan and a good many others.