In the sumptuous surrounds of the Tyneside Cinema, we found ourselves supplementing our pedagogy whilst supping on hillbilly lemonade with the sounds of King Stitt, Jamaica’s oldest living DJ ringing in our ears. We knew we were onto a good thing.
We arrived in this fortuitous scenario as a result of a happy misunderstanding. Days earlier my colleague Fergus Hegarty, half asleep with King Stitt’s Christmas Tree on his ipod, misinterpreted the lyric ‘Drink wine, feel fine’ to be ‘Take your time, leave a line.’ This of course makes perfect sense if you have an 11th grade chemistry group the next day, for whom remembering and consequently executing instructions for a practical experiment is not amongst their strengths. So the next day you run with ‘take your time, leave a line’ and carry out the experiment without verbal instruction or commentary, asking your students to make notes on your demonstration. You tell them “Don’t worry if I go too fast, take your time, leave a line, someone else will pick it up, we’re all going to share our notes anyway.” And you find your students asking better questions and engaging with your instruction with greater efficacy, and what’s more, they are doing it a way that is both more interactive and communal, or to put it another way, fun!
And what fun we had taking the role of Fergus’ students at the subsequent Teachmeet. Except that the process Fergus shared with us at the Tyneside Cinema was how to make hillbilly lemonade, which is most certainly not part of the UK A-level Chemistry curriculum.
This is the way Teachmeets work, with teachers happening upon good ideas, trying them in their classrooms and sharing the outcomes in a reciprocal cycle. Teachmeet is a movement of ‘unconferences’, an unconference being a gathering that is both organised and driven by the participants rather than a traditional conference which might have a more top-down or agenda driven, transmissive structure. As such Teachmeet works equally well in large conference halls or the back room of a pub and thanks to digital media its reach is beginning to extend around the globe.
Since the first Teachmeet in Glasgow in 2006, the idea has proliferated throughout the UK thanks largely to its communal ethos and also the advent of web 2.0 and social media has made it increasingly easy for teachers to arrange, reflect upon and promote the events.
Presenting at an event is voluntary and you can choose to do a 7 minute micro-presentation or alternatively a 2 minute nano-presentation and these must be based on classroom practice and experience rather than promoting or showcasing any products. Of course you can also choose to be an enthusiastic lurker and tuck into the free food and drinks (an integral part of the evening). You may even choose to take part in informally facilitated learning conversations in the break between presentations.
Over the years Teachmeet variants have been developed such as fishbowling, where a group of teachers sit in the middle of the room with an audience. The members of this group are the “fish”. They talk through a problem that is facing them and share the process of solving it. The audience watch, suggest ideas and ask questions. Then members of the audience have the opportunity to swap seats with the fish and either lead the conversation down a new path or to pose a new problem.
What has been striking about the increase in popularity of Teachmeets is just how far teachers will go both literally and metaphorically to find ways to meet and to share practice. Typically at events I have attended there have been delegates travelling upwards of 100 miles to be there. We have had live links to speakers at Glastonbury festival and a colleague who recently set up a Teachmeet in a neighbouring county, chose to time the virginal Teachmeet so that he could bring his mother-in-law, a principal of an elementary school in Las Vegas to share her ideas with local primary teachers in person. Why is it that teachers will travel to such lengths?
“Teachmeet provides a space and social atmosphere to share ideas — there is something special about getting peers talking to each other,” says language teacher Ewan McIntosh who first coined the term Teachmeet supporting the view that “the best teacher of teachers is another teacher” (UCLA Writing Project, 1998, p.1). “Teachmeet is not about technology but about teaching,” says Ewan. “It’s a trading of stories — the technology helped us find each other.”
At our last Teachmeet NorthEast event we were very lucky to have Ewan McIntosh as a guest presenter and it was indicative of the esteem in which he and the idea of Teachmeet is held that after his presentation a colleague from another school congratulated Ewan on the idea of Teachmeet with a quite earnest and sincere qualification of: “This is the reason I am still teaching today”.
The same teacher Alasdair Douglas was interviewed for a national education supplement and commented: “I was a depressed, run-of-the-mill teacher, working in a rough area, just going through the motions in the classroom and feeling I couldn’t go on. Going to Teachmeet switched me back on to teaching — and I’ve discovered hundreds of often free online resources, and ideas from which I can pick and choose to switch my pupils back on to learning.”
We have been holding Teachmeet NorthEast events for a couple of years now and without fail, the events are always well attended, and I for one always come away with practical ideas on how to improve my own practice. I have learned about Bigg’s SOLO taxonomy, which has transformed my own thinking about encouraging higher order thinking in my students. I have been switched on to the ideas of Ron Berger; critique and redrafting is now an integral part of my teaching toolkit. It was also at a teachmeet that I was first introduced to the work of Graham Nutall from whom I have gained insights into the tacit aspects of learning and am now experimenting with ways to reward and validate unintended and unique learning outcomes. Similarly, reading the literature of David Perkins and Geoff Petty after plugs at Teachmeets has led me to make substantial and profound changes to the design and delivery of our creative arts curriculum at our school to incorporate their respective notions of making student learning more akin to the world of adult work and using evidence based teaching practices in the classroom. Most of all I have been privileged to be amongst and to be inspired by like minded individuals who find time to share practice, and to do it with heart.
One prime example of the reciprocal professional learning that is at the very heart of the Teachmeet movement is in the proliferation of hexagons in classrooms across the UK and the growing consensus that they are better than squares. Perhaps I should explain. At a gathering some time ago my former colleague and expert Teachmeet compare Chris Harte shared an idea that he had read on another teacher, Damien Clarke’s blog. The idea was to get students to display relational thinking using SOLO. Originally students had been linking ideas by placing squares containing keywords alongside each other. They were then were asked to explain the link between the words. Damien’s idea was simple, to replace the squares with hexagons, thus allowing more links and importantly more complex relations to be laid down on the table. Due to this particular Teachmeet coinciding with our school’s national conference there were attendees from schools up and down the country, and more watching online. An ensuing dialogue on twitter documented the experiments that teachers made, and how they had adapted the idea for their own disciplines and context in schools as far flung as Weston-Super-Mare over 300 miles away.
Teachmeet may well be the rock ‘n‘ roll of professional development, and of course as teachers there is an imperative to get the basics right before we can augment our practice with King Stitt and hillbilly lemonade. Much of the content in presentations is based around ‘tricks of the trade’ that only work when you have a solid pedagogical knowledge and framework upon which you can hang these ideas. In fact, the quality of presentations can be variable, but this reflects the reality that teaching is a messy process that is filled with uncertainty.
If we are to practice what we preach in terms of handing accountability to our students through engagement and innovative 21st century curriculum design, and if we are to be reflective practitioners for whom enquiry and self evaluation is to be a stance, then we must take equal responsibility for own professional development. Teachmeets are a means of constructing collective intelligence and pedagogical knowledge where new networks can be forged and invariably old ones rekindled in a social atmosphere.
Of course Teachmeets are just one mechanism by which teachers can share ideas. That Teachmeet as a brand has become successful is not necessarily due to the structuring of the events, but more in what they ask teachers to give and what they receive in turn. In a UK vista where teachers are feeling increasingly undervalued by politicians, evident in the recent widespread industrial action, there is solidarity to be had in the sharing of values and ideas. We live in a digital age where teachers tweet and students live an increasing proportion of their lives online. There has been no better time for we teachers to take control of our own development. If two heads are better than one then I can not think of a better means of furthering not just our professional development, but our profession as a whole, than by harnessing the potential of our collective commitment and ideas. This might involve creating research or enquiry groups within our schools, or establishing online spaces to meet and share resources for schools across our district areas or beyond. We are best placed to know what would work in our particular context, and to find ways to collaborate for the furthering of our practice.
Indeed it is the organic, emergent and unique nature of each Teachmeet that appeals to those most human and noble of endeavours: those of community construct, sharing and co-authoring narratives and the exposition of passion and inspiration… and of course good food and drink which may or may not include hillbilly lemonade!
UCLA Writing Project. (1998). Programs for Classroom Teachers and Aministrators. Los Angeles: Center X UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
Parker, S (2011). ICT – All in It Together. London: Times Educational Suplement. Available: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6069982.
FURTHER READING AND VIEWING
For more information on Teachmeet, go to:
Tait Coles – A teacher from Leeds trying out the idea in Science:
David Didau: A teacher from Weston-Super-Mare using hexagons with Romeo & Juliet in English Literature http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/01/28/hexagonal-learning
See Chris Harte’s presentation at Teachmeet North East TMNE11 25th May 2011: https://youtu.be/t1U-u4xNbbU