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.
So, TeachMeet has been, and is, a roaring success — the list of TM’s that have taken place, or are still to take place, in 2009 alone demonstrates this clearly: ASN/SEN, Havering LA, BETT, Borders, Islay’s Edu2020, LeadMeet, Student Edition, Midlands, LearnTech Wales, Scottish Learning Festival (and this is not an exhaustive list). The small group of friends and colleagues who created TeachMeet should be proud of what they started.
I believe that the time has come, however, to think of an alternative to TeachMeet — not, I hasten to add, as a replacement, but to stand alongside TM as another way of getting people thinking, learning, playing and working together to change education, in circumstances where the particular strengths of TeachMeet are not so appropriate.
Let’s look at the organizing guidelines for running a TeachMeet event:
- It’s an unconference, meaning that control is distributed amongst those taking part — no central direction of speakers or of specific topics, participant-driven
- Talks last, at most, 7 minutes each
- It is — foremost — about classroom practice — is it happening now in a classroom somewhere?
- Speakers volunteer, usually via a wiki, and are selected to speak as the event happens, in random order (and if there are too many, some may end up not speaking at all)
- No use of Powerpoint / Keynote and the like, except in Pecha Kucha style
- No product-selling, even by sponsors (of whom there should, ideally, be more than one)
- Participants, whether speakers or lurkers, should be able to get online, ideally by wifi
- Extend the scope of the unconference through a backchannel, or a number of backchannels, including video-conferencing, SMS, Twitter, whatever
- Tag everything so that coverage does not disappear into the ether
The simplicity of this set of dos and donts has been the bedrock of TeachMeet’s success. Certain aspects of the simple principles, however, do place certain restrictions on what TeachMeet is able to achieve in the round, and the key restriction, I believe, is the insistence that all presentations should be based firmly in classroom practice.
It is a restriction that, by its very nature, will diminish the prospect of topics and themes that question the broader aspects of how our societies establish and maintain the arrangements by which formal education is delivered to their populations. If we restrict ourselves to discussion of what is happening in the classroom, we immediately limit the possibility of questioning whether the classroom itself should even exist in its current form or at all, and whether the school that surrounds that classroom is the best, most humane and most effective way to ‘do’ education in the changing context of the 21st Century. In other words, by accepting the core guidelines of TeachMeet as the starting point, we hinder our own scope for seeking societal or global alternatives to the status quo in formal educational organization and curricular structures. Piecemeal change becomes the order of the day rather than wholesale transformation.
It is also an inescapable fact that not everyone who attends a TeachMeet is a classroom teacher in any case — many have been, like me, teachers in the past, but it would be absurd in the extreme for someone in my situation, for example (almost 15 years since I last took a class in any formal sense), to offer hard-working, dedicated classroom teachers any kind of teaching advice that would be at all relevant or appropriate to them.
Now, the simple fact is that this particular guideline has been breached in practice during some TeachMeets — I certainly heard some great discussion at the Edu2020 meeting on Islay that went way beyond classroom practice, and the imaginative LeadMeet in July, organized by Con Morris, by definition, took discussion beyond the classroom (although, of course, I know that many critical aspects of leadership in the classroom were discussed too).
A lesser problem with the TeachMeet concept, although one that matters a lot, is that they do tend to attract people of like mind. Most presentations given at Teachmeets are offered as sermons to the converted — differences aired tend to be in the detail rather than in the core ethic or philosophy being espoused. I agree with the short tenet I once heard from Sir Robert Swan, the polar explorer and yachtsman, when he said that: ‘any team that is thinking the same, ain’t thinking’. It may be comforting and pleasant to find oneself amongst friends — and given the attitudes, ranging from indifference to hostility, offered by so many teaching colleagues to those who are trying to change practice in the classroom — this is an understandable thing to want to do. For this reason alone, TeachMeet will continue to thrive in its current form — and rightly so. If it helps colleagues to charge batteries, to learn innovative classroom practice from others of like mind, and to let them know they are not alone in their classroom endeavours, then that has to be a good thing.
But it is a simple fact that real change — genuine systemic transformation — will only happen in education when a majority of those involved in the whole enterprise of formal education begin to recognize the deep-seated issues and problems with our increasingly desperate attempts to make an 18th / 19th century model work in the 21st century.
For that reason, I believe we need to come up with a form of event that takes some of the core democratic and participant-driven principles of TeachMeet, but which permits discussion to range far beyond the bounds of classroom practice and, crucially, which also attracts people of strongly divergent opinions to take part and to engage. I offer no particular framework for doing this, since it would be helpful to hear some debate around the idea first.
- Do we need an occasional alternative to TeachMeet?
- Does such an alternative already exist, one that is genuinely participant-driven?
- What might such an alternative look like?