Keynotes, for any of us who can remember the early 1990s and obscure Australian TV, was a music based quiz show hosted by Australia’s favourite Puzzling Star, Richard Wilkins. (Puzzling Star, as in – how the heck is he still on TV?) It was a show so mediocre that no-one has bothered to make a Youtube video of any part of it – just this one page of some startling early 90s fashion. Keynotes are also the most promoted and hyped part of any education conference. They usually feature an educelebrity – a person who can wow people with powerpoints, prezis, videos – whose job it is to dare people to dream. About something. Anything, really. Then, the rest of the day is filled with people going to workshops that may or may not involve butchers’ paper. Though, these days, the butchers’ paper has been replaced with Smartboards or somesuch. (Of course, then there is TED, which is a day of keynotes. Woo!) Keynote speakers are a vexed issue for any body that organises conferences. The people who organise the these conferences spend many a day trying to find the best, most inspiring people. This is reinforced by the belief that Keynote speakers get participants through the door with their hundreds or thousands of dollars.
I think this is all absurd. My attendance at a conference has never hung on the identity of the Keynote speakers. To me, keynote presentations are somewhere between a American Televangelist sermon and a book launch. Promoting your yee-hah idea and then being humble about that idea. Though, as TED fever hits the keynote scene, I can see the whizzbang starting to overwhelm the humble. I usually find Keynote speeches interesting for about 10% of their length. There’s the key ideas and a couple of good anecdotes, a couple of usable ideas and that’s it. The other 90% has been filled with a wide array of edufiller, mostly where we see that the Keynote speaker is just one of us – the one of us with a microphone, but one of us all the same. The filler often comes from the following array – some self-deprecating story of Where I Did Something Wrong and I Learnt From It ; When I Heard Someone Else Say Something Really Profound ; You Know, Stuff in the Past Wasn’t That Bad ; It Really Isn’t Your Students, It’s How You Engage Them ; All Students Want to Be Creative, You Just Need the Key ; Sometimes Your Students Are the Best Teachers and so forth. And then I remember vividly the American educelebrity Gary Stager (whose Twitter name throws in the Ph.D, just so you know), who harangued people at the ACEC 2010 conference for “allowing” the National Curriculum to be written and spending the rest of the time generally telling people we needed to get with the times. And 1:1 laptops in classrooms will save the educational world. The organisers at ACEC then got more bang for their $10,000 when Stager proceeded to roll his eyes at the work being presented during at least one workshop.
ACEC 2010 was my first ever big, expensive education conference and all I remember thinking from the Keynotes was Stager’s Rant, Sylvia Martinez’ GenYes idea being excellent (but, even so, was the 10% I liked of her keynote) and the best Keynote speaker by far being the Australian Chris Betcher, who didn’t charge $10,000, I would imagine. Betcher, like Britain’s educelebrity Stephen Heppell in a presentation I saw a year or two before, presented practical ideas, didn’t harangue people, didn’t act to “inspire” people and then was approachable afterwards. But as good as Betcher and Heppell were, the workshops and seminars were the main attraction at ACEC, as was meeting fellow educators. The same has gone, for me, at ETA Conferences. This is why I feel vaguely resentful that all participants at conferences are herded in to see the keynote, as if that person really is the Most Important Person to hear. It’s also telling when some people look askance at people who dare to tweet and web surf during keynotes, as if that is rude. Almost as if you were tweeting during a sermon or homily. It is at such conferences that you won’t see Twitter backchannels being shown on screens in the presenting hall – because more than likely someone doesn’t agree with a. the keynote presenter or b. the fact that everyone has to listen to them for the hour.
I thought I was alone in being annoyed by Keynotery until I went to a TeachMeet in Castle Hill recently, and Summer Charlesworth (@EduSum) was less than enthusiastic about them. The entire set-up of the TeachMeets gave me an insight into just why Keynote didacticism and even the old conference model might be a thing of the past. The speakers only spoke for a short time, presented practical ideas and no-one was looking daggers at those of us who were tweeting and web surfing during the presentations. And instead of the 10% good stuff, 90% filler ratio, it was all the good stuff. There was a teacher in Yorkshire, Nick Jackson (@largerama) who spoke of Digital Leaders, which is the same type of program spoken of by Sylvia Martinez at ACEC. His talk, delivered via Skype, was just as inspiring and helpful as the 10% of Martinez’ talk – except he didn’t charge a cent, didn’t need to put up in a hotel and got to the point quickly.
Having seen this model work so smoothly, what is emerging for me is two alternative versions of the educational conference. The traditional form, keynotes and all, may well be under threat. I missed the ETA Conference in Sydney this year, largely because I didn’t hear about it. Emails didn’t appear, faxes may have been sent – I don’t know. Twitter is largely quiet about such conferences. Twitter was silent even during the conference, when only three attendees out of the hundreds who go tweeted during the conference. In addition, ETA Conference attendance is a vexed issue when schools have tight PD budgets and often don’t like the prospect of having to pay for casuals in addition to the entry fees. Staff often have to choose to have only one PD experience a year, and many might not want to spend it listening to a keynote speaker. In addition, planning and approvals for attendance has be done months in advance. On the flip side, having been part of the organising of such conferences and being a presenter, I appreciate that there are a lot of costs involved – not the least being the conference location, the food and the keynote speakers. I can also appreciate that people would be resentful about having information from the conference being made freely available to tweeters outside the conference, who haven’t paid a cent.
TeachMeet, however, is a different, more flexible arrangement. They occur frequently, in a number of locations throughout Sydney, in schools that are provided free. Food is often supplied via sponsorship or BYO. They are also tweeted about – with the backchannel shown for all to see – are free, was easy to attend, there is no paperwork to be filled out. They also more casual and welcoming, in terms of the format as well as in who can present. It is much less confronting to someone to present a 2 or 7 minute idea than a 50 minute presentation. And no keynote.
I’m not suggesting that the traditional conferences don’t have their place or even prestige – they do, and will continue to have pride of place for many teachers. I still get lovely feedback on the material I prepared for Run, Lola, Run for a 2008 ETA Conference, which was created partially because it was my first presentation and I was desperately nervous. However, they might have to change their stripes in order to survive. The first thing to go might be the Keynote address, simply because they present lovely, challenging ideas, but ones that we hear all the time in education. What people crave at conferences is support, inspiration, useful things for classrooms, a friendly atmosphere. The special location, gourmet food and imported keynote presenters provided at traditional conferences are unnecessary trimmings. Concepts like TeachMeet will become more and more attractive for time poor teachers who need small courses served often, rather than the wagyu steak (or, in some cases, overcooked roast beef) served once a year.