That small group of far-thinking Scottish educationists who came up with the idea of TeachMeet knew what they were doing when they established the basic form and function of the concept: an informal gathering of equals designed to give a platform to everyone who wanted to be heard, a firm foundation in the practices of teaching and learning, an opportunity to teach others and to learn from others in a mutually supportive, non-prescriptive atmosphere. It promoted a recognition that we are all learners all of the time and, critically, a further recognition that no one has any more right to be heard and to be listened to than anyone else. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the Scottish mythologies of egalitarianism and enlightenment were captured in the seemingly simple concept of the ‘unconference’, a neologism that some have taken a dislike to, but one that will stick nonetheless because it works.
So, through the good works of those on Islay and elsewhere who established a vibrant virtual community around a wide-ranging conversation about what education might, or should, look like in 2020, a highly disparate group of approximately 50 people descended on the island last week to meet and continue the virtual conversation face-to-face for one brief day. Amongst that group were, of course, teachers from primary, secondary, further and higher education, teachers from the widest range of ages and experiences imaginable, from student-teachers and probationary teachers to one or two who had already retired, some current and past headteachers, people from the national agencies in Scotland, such as LTS and SQA, a member of HMIE (who, incidentally, understood perfectly the nature of the event), people from various management and administrative levels in Scottish local government, one or two from the private sector, some who worked in or alongside education but were not themselves teachers, and one or two who were simply interested in joining the discussion. All were made very welcome.
The key to the event on Islay was that is was just one very short, though highly enjoyable and much-anticipated, episode within a broad and varied conversation that has been going on for some time in the virtual space and which will continue long after the pleasures of Islay fade from the minds of those who attended in person. It is a conversation that has involved many more people than those who were able to make their way to Islay, some of whom, indeed, held a parallel online event via FlashMeeting, and it is a conversation that will continue to expand in the coming weeks and months by any and every means at our disposal. The opportunity to insert a physical component into the virtual conversation was an important one to take, and the success of the event on the day certainly justified that desire.
For me, however, the most interesting aspect of the event was found in the attitudes and behaviours of a very small number of attendees at the event. These were people who, evidently, see themselves as senior players in the education system, either in local government or in school management, and who therefore proceeded to bless the room with their words of wisdom on any and every topic that arose. These were people who, for whatever reason, were quite unable to recognise and acknowledge through their own attitudes and behaviours the complete irrelevance of their formal status to the event. Even their body language spoke volumes: while everyone else sat in the body of the hall around the tables provided, this group, for the most part, stood apart at the back of the room. Their apparent unwillingness to join the throng, consciously or unconsciously, came across as a demonstration of detached superiority. It is, unfortunately, a common sight in education worldwide to see, in full flow, those who feel the need to impress not just their views on everyone else, but the unquestionable authority and rightness of those views. Most of the time, it is entirely misplaced.
It was enlightening, for instance — and, frankly, rather amusing — to be lectured on the primacy of face-to-face contact in education by people who have no active online presence whatsoever, and to be told that being ‘stuck in front of a screen’ is no substitute for ‘real’ education (no definition proffered, of course). Watching the antics of those who suffer from the delusion that their formal status somehow confers authority on them was a salutory experience in a setting designed precisely to eschew such nonsense. In that particular setting, amongst that large group of people whose very presence at the event was the outcome of a long, complex and always-stimulating series of online interactions (through the Edu2020 wiki, through Twitter, through blogs, through online meetings, and through a whole host of means that these f2f–zealots simply neither know nor have any inclination to investigate) it did strike a slightly jarring note.
The positive effect, of course, was that this attitude of status-conferred authority, and the gushing and voluminous platitudes that we had to listen to as a result, established the perfect foil for all those in the room who understood precisely the nature and purpose of the event, who were aware that the event itself was just a small but significant part of a very much wider discussion, and who, because of their willingness to engage positively with the virtual, were therefore able to recognise clearly the singular lack of authority of these people in this context.