I’m not a completely hardened TeachMeet attender, but I think I have been to 12 now so I’m hardly a newbie. These TMs have ranged from the glamour and glitz of the BETT this year TeachMeet (due in part to the AV set up in the APEX room left over from Gove’s presentation on Wednesday morning), to the hardcore rigour of the Scottish Learning Festival TeachMeet (TM was invented at SLF), then the cosy warmth of the NAACE TeachMeets and various local ones in the North and North West (the latest being in Halifax) which are even more intimate.
TeachMeets are brilliant. End of story. They bring teachers together to discuss (or rather show and tell) what works in the classroom. They offer targeted CPD at no cost to the participants and they are free from commercial and editorial bias. TeachMeets are a form of unconference, a reaction to the high fees, top down organisation and often commercial bias in traditional conferences. Wikipedia notes that the first unconferences as being the Science Fiction Conventions which have been around since the 1930s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconference). I think unconferences are older than this, and Jesus was probably an early advocate. Faced with the stifling tradition and structural dominance of the pharisees, and wanting to start a new movement, Jesus took his conferences outside. He sanctioned any gathering as a place where his teachings could take place and his parables were micro presentations, compressing in both a temporal and semantic way, the meanings he was conveying.
The TM movement is now mature, the model is established, the brand respected and many teachers this year will attend their first meeting and then hopefully go on to many more. TMs continue to deliver, and many note how they deliver far more in terms of Continuing Professional Development than conventional courses. If you don’t believe me, check out the tweets from the recent #TMSEN12 in Leicester (http://bit.ly/xo1KYQ)
The notion of ‘unconference’ suggests a rather hippyish reaction to the staid structures of the traditional conference, a kind of free spiritedness and sense of jouissance at people coming together to share a common passion. This is true, but paradoxically I would argue the TM model is successful because it has MORE control and MORE structure than ordinary presentations. I have spent some of the best days of my life (in the meaning of days I was at my best and could have done something else) in the traditional conference and I never cease to be bemused, annoyed and sometimes just plain pissed off with the incompetence, arrogance and egotistical behaviour of many speakers. Many cannot keep to time, give them 30 minutes, and they will talk for 40, give them an hour, they will take 1 hour and 20 minutes, give them 2 hours and they will have you sat their on velour covered seats in a hotel in Basingstoke until the cleaners come round and start chucking you out. Time management is not an issue in the TM, the timings are policed rigorously, the most you get is 7 minutes, 2 minute nano presentations are also available. Watching TMs convinces me that most people if they have something to say should be forced (me included) to say it within 5 minutes of speaking. That rigour compresses what people have to say, it squeezes out the peripheral details and preambles which we often use to pad out longer talks. It makes us get to the hub of what we have to say. It’s like the Fast Show, but for sharing educational resources. And it works, so part of what I have to say here is that TeachMeets may not be broken, so there may be no need to fix them.
But some people, both in real life and on twitter, are worrying that the TeachMeet genre may fall prey to stagnation. They worry that it may be the case of the preaching to the converted, even that TMs can become cliquey and fail to impact on larger numbers of teaching staff and bring about genuine changes in teaching. I think these people may be overly pessimistic, but every pessimist holds a grain of truth in their hand and maybe TMs do need some new thinking and ideas in order to keep them fresh and relevant..
The tricky bit about a conference (be it a glossy powerpoint one, or an ‘un’ version), is what happens next. People like to gather together, have a drink and food and listen to each other, that’s what we do. But measuring impact and changes which people may make as a result of attending is more tricky. Here is a list of things I think could be tried. Note that these are not instead of the micro and nano presentations, but in addition to, so the spirit of free sharing of what works in the classroom is not lost.
1: fishbowl conversations. Set a good topic to debate and use the fishbowl method to get everyone involved. The fishbowl method (http://bit.ly/x4r5vO) uses social norms to ensure everyone can take part and this could be useful in pooling collective knowledge, and perhaps setting some local goals.
2: Buddying arrangements. Given that some TMs are very experienced practitioners, and others come with less experience, perhaps an experiment to formally set up buddying at the TM to be continued for a set period (say around 3 months).
3: Action Research. Action research is very much a forum of unresearch. It wrests power back from the academy and places it in the hands of practitioners who conduct experiments within their own teaching to see what works. Building on point 2 above, a TMS could be used to set up some collaborative action research projects. The results of these could be presented at later TMs and impact across more than one classroom could therefore be shown.
Current political tinkering in education stresses how competition between schools can drive up standards. The TeachMeet, in its very DNA, stands against this divide and rule Neo-Liberal theory, and could be a powerful agent for allowing teachers to collaborate between schools. But in order for that to happen, I am slowly moving round to the realisation that an extra layer of activity on top of the presentations at TeachMeets is needed.
Even making suggestions about changes to TeachMeet seems a transgressive act. I have no more right to suggest adaptations than Nick Gibb. And I think there is still lots of mileage in the current TM format. The suggestions for extensions are above are conversation starters and I am sure people out there will have some even better ideas to add.