The Athens Institute for Education and Research have held their 11th anual education conference in Athens. My paper Cats, Dogs and Pheromones: researching the student experience was accepted and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend and present.
This was my first International Conference with multiple insights into lifestyles and education systems different to my own. There were over 170 presentations from the UK and the US, from Europe, the Middle East and Far East; too many to list individually but details are available from the conference website.
In true blog style I’ve reflected and extracted those strands which have made the greatest impression. An international conference exposes you to difference on so many levels; language, culture, customs, the difference in attitudes towards education, the state versus private systems, class, politics, race, gender and religion – it’s all there in a challenging mix that encourages you to see yourself and what you do not only though a different lens but from the privileged vantage point of a much wider picture. I’ve come away having revisited my work, institution, country and self with fresh eyes and attitude.
Many presentations focused on the poor status of teaching and the work being done to attract and keep motivated, enthusiastic individuals into the education sector. Low esteem, and lack of support for innovative practice, was prevalent in ex-Soviet bloc countries such as Slovakia and Latvia. The quality of teaching was also an issue in several presentations from Turkey. In contrast, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia appeared to support educationalists and presentations from these countries focused more on developing student learning than staff CPD.
Social and cultural divides were exacerbated by political and economic difference in countries such as the US and South Africa. My own awareness of the high levels of negative attitudes towards black people in the US was raised and I would now recommend reading White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.
The reality of education in rural South Africa challenged the image of a successful one laptop per child project that I saw presented at the ALT 2008 conference. There we were shown pictures of happy smiling children in school uniforms holding their cream and green plastic laptops. At ATINER 2009 we heard about the difficulties of engaging with young children who were orphaned through HIV or AIDS, where the eldest child, often barely in their teens, takes on the role of parent and looks after siblings who are hungry, and only have their own rural language to communicate in. Criticism of projects like OLPC does seem justified. As much as I support educational opportunities as having potentially life changing powers, a basic hierarchy of needs, which we take far too much for granted, is being woefully ignored; food, water and shelter would seem more of a humanitarian investment than promoting educational technology that continues to create Western wealth and status.
It was reassuring to see a number of presentations under the theme Special Needs Education; referred variously to as ‘profound and complex learning difficulties’ and ‘Intellectual’ or ‘Developmental’ disability; a comment was made that Autism and Dyslexia are fashionable making it more likely that funding will be available and this seemed to be supported by the number and nature of the presentations in this area. It was disappointing to see that ‘special needs’ was the last conference slot; someone has to be at the end but I felt that this decision reinforced a sad lack of status.
Regarding my own areas of interest , there was little about preparation for education; the main focus in the majority of cases was on improving the quality of teaching rather than the quality of the student experience. Regarding the student, there were common themes from both east and west of learning styles, multiple (and emotional) intelligences and independent learning but the concepts of preparation and/or retention were largely absent. The exception was a presentation from the UK that looked at the difficulties encountered by students transitioning from Foundation degree in FE College to final year on campus and it seemed there was a lot of cross over with my Getting Started project aimed at new potential students.
Another area of interest is online learning and I looked for relevant presentations but mine seemed to be on of the few focusing on construction of virtual learning. The few others I found were about the staff or the student rather than the content. I may have missed some. I realise now how important it is to ensure the title reflects the content. When it is the only information available (no abstract or even a strapline) it’s open to misinterpretation.
In countries with greater state controls than the UK, it must take a brave person to stand up and suggest change especially where this could be interpreted as criticism of existing systems. For example, to gain employment in Turkey your educational qualification is less important than your ideas, family, ethnicity and religion; it’s illegal the presenter told us but it’s ‘how things are done’. Also, the event emphasises the privileged position of the English language. On several occasions I heard presenters apologising for their English, explaining that they had 2, 3, or 4 other languages, then going on the present and take questions with a fluency I couldn’t muster in any language. Travel and exposure to other ways of life can be a powerful educational experience; it was apparent from many presentations, in particular those from the far east, that the UK education system is valued and yet one of its weaknesses is the lack of support for the development of a multi lingual curriculum.
On a generic level, it was a friendly conference with typical ‘laid back’ Greek organisation. The location in a ‘luxury’ hotel made it feel privileged (similar to the state/private education dichotomy referred to in many presentations). Personally I would have preferred to be on a university campus; this was alluded to in the opening speech but no reason given other than the Director was ‘persuaded’ to use the hotel. It felt a bit like being in Russia in the 1970’s when tourists were exposed to a carefully guided and controlled vision of the major cities with a deliberate barrier around the realities of day to day life.
The challenge of any conference is the writing up after the event. A realistic summary would run into thousands of words; reflecting and extracting common themes takes time and blogs are not ideal mediums for conference reports; this is far too long and breaks all my own blogging rules on brevity. However, the value is in the production and even if this is for my eyes only; as 99% of blogs are, the discipline of revisiting notes and papers and attempting to identify the strands, is an important one.
My final comments are that conferences are expensive to attend, challenging to participate in and require high levels of hyperactivity to negotiate your way around differences in country, language, time, money, habit, culture and custom. They are also fabulous experiences; wonderful opportunities for networking and a real way of underpinning your work with research and publication. They also inevitably make you feel proud to be involved in the /UK education system which for all its faults is still held up as an exemplar to many other countries around the world.