Every now and again, I meet some special people who remind me in the most delightful of ways why I have spent the greater part of my life involved in education. Such people somehow manage to take me back to why I chose to go into teaching almost four decades ago rather than try to become the songwriter and musician that I wanted to be when I was young and naive (nothing to do with a dispiriting lack of talent, of course). I returned just a few days ago from the town of Struga on the shores of beautiful Lake Orhid in southern Macedonia, where I attended a weekend event organized by a small band of dedicated Macedonian teachers who call themselves the Friends of Education. They had invited me (and a lovely group of fellow-presenters from across Europe and the USA) to present to a gathering of around 250 teachers and educationists from across Macedonia, and some from beyond.
I have enjoyed many education and technology conferences over the years, but there was something special about this one. It wasn’t a big fancy glittering occasion. Rather, it was a wonderfully convivial, well-organized and informal get-together of people who dedicate their lives to ensuring that young people have the best start they possibly can in their lives. Of the core organizing group of around a dozen people, all but two of them are classroom teachers who, on the Monday after their conference finished, would have been back amongst their students doing the job they love (the remaining two are a professor of education and a journalist, both of whom contribute tremendously to the group).
While they are very much an organic and unified team – a team whose members clearly all love and respect each other immensely – the guiding light amongst them is the wonderful and impressive Marina Vasileva. A teacher (and currently also a PhD candidate) from the capital city, Skopje, Marina is a warm-hearted and inspirational figure leading a group of equally warm-hearted and inspiring people!
I was able to offer the teachers assembled in Struga some thoughts about the past, present and future of the school. Predicting the future is always fraught with difficulty, but I suggested to them that we have to learn from the past if we are to understand the present and attempt to forecast the future. The future in education is one that we must not allow simply to happen – we must, as Alan Kay said all those years ago, invent our own future! I spoke about the fundamental relationship that has always existed at the heart of the school, a relationship that is changing inexorably in this age of pervasive networks and digital technologies, namely the relationship between teacher and learner. However much a teacher wants to, he or she can simply no longer be the fount of all wisdom in the classroom (of course the best teachers have always known that). It is a changing relationship that is already transforming the very concept of the school, and that will continue to reshape education in ways that we cannot possibly know fully as yet.
The learner today is a different creature in so many ways from the past, or at least now has the opportunities and the technological environment to allow themselves to direct their own learning, to grab and gather information and expertise from the surging torrents of knowledge flowing past them moment by moment today.
There are siren voices that say that the teacher’s role is somehow diminished in these changing circumstances. It is nonsense! The teacher’s role is vastly more complex and demanding than it has ever been, one in which the very best teachers know that they are now as much the ‘lead learner’ as the teacher in the classroom.
I flew out of Skopje on Monday with my head full of ideas about the possibility of talking to friends and colleagues from across Scottish education about establishing a Friends of Education Scotland. One of the core aims of this marvellous group in Macedonia is to put the continuing development of pedagogy and practice in these disruptive digital times firmly in the hands of the teachers themselves and to begin to shift teachers away from the dependence on professional development opportunities that have been for too long handed down from on high. We all know that the traditional model of CPD does not work. All teachers have always known that!
Friends of Education Scotland could be set up initially in a small, informal, friendly but purposeful way to attempt to develop a similar strategy in this country, and of course to develop strong links with the prime movers in Macedonia. Our two education systems have much to learn from each other. In time, perhaps our friends in Macedonia will see satellite groups being set up in other countries too. What an enticing prospect!
I will come back to this theme soon, as well as to some other aspects of my time in Struga. I want to share much more of what I learned there.
In the meantime, I would like to say ‘ти благодарам’ (pronounced Vee Blagodaram, meaning ‘thank you’) to all of my new friends in Macedonia. I hope to visit you all again soon.