The 2019 conference took place from 29-31 March 2019. Each year we award a number of bursaries to teachers to attend the conference. Below you can read about the conference experience of this year’s recipients.
Why bother? This was one of the questions I faced sitting in my first PESGB Annual Conference workshop, albeit a pre-conference one if there is such a thing. While this was meant as an informative thought experiment that related, I later reassured myself, to writing a research proposal, I couldn’t help feel that it was a slightly-pointed question about whether or not I should bother trying to engage with the academic material to be discussed over the weekend.
The moment I stepped onto the New College campus of Oxford University, I was immediately aware that I was somewhere far removed from what I had been in as a teacher not 24 hours before. The classroom was an environment that I was familiar in, having both, with both experience and faith in my teaching ability that allowed me to feel comfortable as a leader in that space. Surrounded by academics however, many of whom the top of the field that I had only begun to partake studies in, I had the jarring realisation that this was now not the case. The phrase fish-out-of-water garnered a refreshed, and uncomfortably intimate, meaning in my head.
However, what else was I meant to expect? In signing up for the conference I was under no illusion that it was going to be a challenge for me, personally as well as intellectually. Reverting back to the role of student rather than teacher, I was made acutely aware of what knowledge I had (or lacked) and was faced with challenging the conception I had of myself that had been fostered over the past six years. Each day deepened my knowledge and understanding of the many areas of study within Philosophy of Education, and I found each talk both challenging and rewarding. The ever-flowing wine that was available at the end of each day really helped with this process.
I did however want to push myself and try at least to ask one question per talk I attended. The idea I had was that through participating in these educational spaces, I would feel more confident being in them. This I thought was pretty sound logic. There were rules though as I had an intense fear of being that one person who proves to the rest of the room that they are indeed stupid questions. Generally, I limited myself to raising a hand only in talks where I didn’t recognise the person speaking. This was similarly the case where I felt that the person speaking had written no more than one book. Suffice to say though, these moments ended up being few and far between.
Of all of the talks that I attended, all of which fascinating, all of which containing at least one doctoral student mentioning Heidegger and the nature of Being, Jan Derry’s key note speech on cognitive load theory seemed particularly effective at highlighting my own ignorance. When describing the concept of systematicity as “the idea that in order to possess one concept, it is necessary to possess many”, the only thought that ran through my head was that I had neither.
Although these difficulties were ever present during my time at the conference, I still felt that it was of huge benefit to attend. I learned to say things like, “I think you’ll find…” and “there seems to be two separate arguments happening here…”, and was offered invaluable opportunities to reflect on my practice as an educator. These powerful moments allowed me to think about my purpose within a school, what I wanted my teaching to achieve and how I could contribute effectively to an equitable school environment. However, on the train back to London after leaving the conference I was struck with the realisation that these thoughts will only make me question more thoroughly what is being implemented within my school and the reasons given as to why. Under management’s eyes, this could only lead to me being seen as one terrible employee as a result. Until next year.
They say you should never meet your heroes.
Having spent a hugely enjoyable 2017-18 doing an MSc in the Philosophy of Education at Edinburgh reading and hearing from the likes of David Hansen, Jan Derry, Joseph Dunne and many more of the keynote speakers and delegates at the 2019 PESGB annual conference, the prospect of my own attendance at the gathering filled me with feelings of excitement and trepidation… My master’s had helped me reflect on and get a better understanding of my fifteen years of practice teaching Philosophy and Religious Education in English and Scottish schools. I had returned to the classroom refreshed, with a much more coherent sense of my professional identity. After a couple of long terms back in the thick of it, I was hoping that the conference would provide similar invigoration.
We plunged right in with David Hansen’s opening keynote speech on ‘The call to teach’ and from then on it was a breathless schedule of talks, symposia and workshops interspersed with good coffee and sumptuous meals, until Michael Bonnet led us – exhausted and elated, to the cool shade of an imagined beech-grove (we need to ‘ecologize’ education) by way of a finale. What was it all about? I am not quite sure – but what I took from it all was the importance of philosophy in helping educators think about how best to conceive and describe their practice. Hansen’s talk urged teachers and teacher educators to cultivate and bear witness to the ethical core of teacher-professionalism, whilst other events I attended re-imagined time, how to live in an equilibrium between past and future, the possibility of engendering epiphanies, the desirability of dwelling a little longer in the metaphorical darkness and the more obviously practical questions of which educational goods should be prioritised by policy makers and whether the community of inquiry was an effective method for morally educating children.
Questions kept bubbling up in my mind, and I asked several, although my meaning was frequently some distance from what I had intended (perhaps I was a bit star-struck). Happily all the speakers were polite to such contributions and very open to further discussion over coffee or in the bar. It seems one’s philosophy of education idols do not have feet of clay. Over dinner with fellow teacher scholars – Diana, our friendly mentor and guide had managed to corral us together we discussed – briefly adopting the manner of those grudging sceptics of philosophy since time immemorial – what possible relevance all this word-spinning and stargazing might have for our concrete, classroom-bound realities. We concluded that if no one was thinking hard about how things might and ought to be then they were doomed to remain the same. Inspired by the visions we had been given, we resolved to set up our own school forthwith. Regrettably, over New College after-dinner port some disagreements over ideal performance management structures broke out…
These, and the other myriad quotidian concerns, were soon drowned out as we swelled the ranks of the conference delegates bellowing out songs round a grand piano, troubles forgotten, our united voices raised in (some sort of) harmony to a better educational world.
Writing this piece some weeks after attending the PESGB conference highlights that it is still very much within my thought process. Having just finished an intensely busy week, I had not had time to read the articles that corresponded to the scheduled talks at the conference. However, I soon found out that simply attending talks that interested me was a great way of accessing new ideas and perspectives which I had not previously experienced. Some of which have already inspired me to find out more (Kant’s antinomies of pure reason) and others which have directly impacted my planning for lessons (Bonnetts’s talk on ‘Transcendent nature, sustainability, and ‘ecologizing’ education’). Personally, the greatest element of the weekend- and why I shall be returning to the conference next year – was the opportunity to meet and converse with other like minded peers from very different backgrounds, yet all with a passion for education and discussing ideas. In fact, since the conference I am still in contact with some fellow attendees and we plan to maintain a space for continuing the spirit of the conference and therefore developing ourselves as educators through productive discussion.
On Friday morning, March 29, my Year 9s wrote their final assessment for a scheme of work on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. For nearly all of a double period they were focussed and silent, grappling with Antony’s funeral speech and the theme of power. Occasionally, a hand would go up. ‘Could you say that power in the play is parasitic?’ ‘Is it alright if I say that Portia is trying to be masculine, because that’s the only way she can be virtuous and stoic, and that’s how you become powerful?’ It was one of the happiest lessons of the year so far, as I could see almost everyone thinking hard, trying to say exactly what they meant, struggling to express difficult ideas. And I was thrilled by their questions: I could hardly believe I was being asked permission to say such things! Clearly, students were not just repeating what others (including I) had said in class, but fighting through to something new of their own, using words and concepts we had learned together. My excitement that I was leaving at lunchtime for the conference in Oxford was expanded by a kind of joy. This. I thought. This kind of thinking, this profound human good, is exactly what I want for them. And it is something school has the particular power to give.
It is a kind of thinking rarely possible for teachers, however. On a daily basis, I think about my lessons, my resources, my classroom management, my relationships with colleagues, but have to fight to carve out time to stand back and think about any aspect of my work in depth. Even in my recent teacher training (and even more so since) I often missed rigorous examination of aims, of ways of thinking, and of structures of thought, or purposeful, deep conversation with colleagues in which we examine more than a mark scheme, more than ‘strategies’ or policies.
What a supreme pleasure, therefore, to be surrounded by people whose role it is to think deeply, but who also understand what a classroom is like. David Hansen’s opening keynote, in which he spoke about the vocation to teach, and the importance of bearing witness to teachers’ work, was unexpectedly moving. I have rarely felt as affirmed in what I do. And this grateful sense of the importance of both what happens in the classroom, of what I do day to day, and of this rare opportunity to step back and examine that practice continued through the weekend. Everyone was extraordinarily friendly and open; each talk was followed by a well-chaired discussion in which contributions were welcomed from everyone; philosophical conversation continued over lavish meals, on the traditional Saturday morning run, and well into the night (for those so inclined!). Highlights were undoubtedly the keynotes — Jan Derry’s examining fault lines in cognitive load theory and Michael Bonnett’s on nature and ecologizing education, in addition to Hansen’s — and, especially, the spontaneous conversations. Those with fellow teachers stand out particularly. One evening, as Paul mentions above, we designed an ideal school (not without disagreement!); another, a recent episode with a recalcitrant Year 11 class of mine became the starting point for a remarkably fruitful consideration of ‘teacher anger’, and when (controlledly) losing one’s temper with a class might actually be the best thing to do.
On Sunday afternoon, I left feeling refreshed (though also exhausted), inspired, and beyond delighted not only that such a community exists, but that more teachers will have the opportunity of attending future conferences. I will be looking forward to the next one all year.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend the PESGB’s annual conference in New College, Oxford, at the end of March 2019. I attended as a “Teacher Scholar” – enthusiastically ready to talk, listen and learn. This was my first time attending an academic conference. I suppose everybody brings their own interests and specialisms to these events – which form lenses through which they view and reflect upon the ideas heard. My lens was shaped strongly by my day-job in which I work as a primary school principal. I was hoping to learn and think deeply about important current and future issues in education.
One such important issue that I have been thinking a lot about recently is environmentalism and the whole idea of “the environment” in education. In light of the increasing evidence for climate change and declining biodiversity, I’ve been thinking that it’s just not enough for schools to deliver occasional environmental lessons or biannually, to do a drive on related themes to earn a “Green Flag”. I’ve been thinking that current environmental concerns should be a spur to action, calling on educators to look again at foundational understandings. Perhaps we could start by asking, from an ethical perspective, what do we actually mean when we speak of “the environment”? In responding to this challenge, I think there is the potential to develop an enriched understanding of our personhood, our shared humanity and our intrinsic interconnectedness with the wider living world. On such topics, the conference did not disappoint!
Two talks in related areas that really resonated with me were the Saturday afternoon workshop with Dr. Jeff Stickney and the Sunday morning plenary session with Dr. Michael Bonnett. During Dr. Stickney’s workshop, in beautiful, warm spring sunshine, we visited a large old oak tree in the cloister space of New College. Stepping out of the Cartesian subject-object duality and Platonic essentialism, we looked upon and experienced the tree informed by Wittgenstein’s thoughts on action / reaction as avenues to change our thinking. What is the tree? Where does it start and end? Are we in the tree? We passed around pencils and card and were invited to have a new experience of the tree – and ourselves – by drawing it.
Dr. Bonnett’s presentation in the final plenary session on Sunday morning built on these themes. We were invited to consider nature as a dimension of experience and to reflect upon the epistemological mystery of things in nature – such as a flying insect disappearing in the warm dusk air, or an encounter with a tree or a woodland or indeed any phenomenological experience of nature. Our culture of scientism and the dominant Western metaphysics of mastery – and I would argue, some prevailing approaches to education – can miss the inherent uniqueness and natural, interdependent integrity evident in such encounters. Noting the limitations and dangers in such mastery approaches, we were encouraged to hear nature’s voice more in our educational conversations and to explore how we could facilitate more ethical experiences of nature for learners. We heard that such experiences should foster the development of a loving recognition of a post-human need for care, understanding and being-together with all other life forms and our planet.
So, as I left New College, Oxford and the PESGB Conference on Sunday afternoon my head was spinning – in a good way! It was really inspiring to spend time with so many interesting people who have such positive ideas for the potential of education and philosophy to enhance our lives and our futures. As the plane took off to fly me back to Ireland, I began some “blue sky thinking” of my own. I imagined improvements in how we see, design and use our educational spaces. I imagined a more ethical curriculum. I began to see that the development of a new, environmentally attuned ethic of personhood, interconnected with the wider natural ecosystem, need not be seen as difficult. Informed by my experiences at the PESGB conference, I can see that educators who move into this space can be inspirational and their lessons are very, very life affirming.