A note on keynote speakers @ NIS Con

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(This photo is not actually from the NIS Conference; it’s Nick Clegg not engaging with his audience at the UK LibDem’s 2014 Conference. Source: Guido Fawkes)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a conference. I wasn’t fortunate to attend too many presentations, but I caught the main plenary sessions with distinguished guests from abroad. I felt quite impressed while I was there, and this impression probably lasted a few days. But if you asked me now, I wouldn’t be able to say what was so good about it. The glossy building… Big fancy ideas… Flashy slide shows and yellow socks… Was I fooled into believing that something important was taking place? I think I was. I think a good chance for an important and meaningful conversation about the state of education was wasted on what essentially amounted to a marketing campaign for NIS itself and the keynote speakers.

What is a conference, anyway? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as either ‘a meeting of two or more persons for discussing matters of common concern’ or ‘a usually formal interchange of views’. Both suggest some kind of interactive communication (discussion or exchange). But did this actually happen?

The Chair of NIS Board in her welcome speech reiterated the official slogans on ‘values and spirituality’ in education and (in a strange way) connected them with the distinctive features of today’s tech-savvy school pupils capable of earning ‘serious’ (!) money on Instagram. I thought that was a controversial point worth discussing, especially when the room was full of experts on exactly that kind of thing. But there was no discussion. The speakers came on and off the stage; each delivered their perfectly choreographed, TED-worthy talk; but none took any questions from the audience or otherwise engage with anyone in the room.

What is particularly upsetting, many keynote speakers (Tim Oates CBE of Cambridge Assessment was a refreshing departure from the squad) made no attempt to connect their talks to the local context or initiate a conversation with one other (although there were a lot of potential points for debate). The speeches sounded more like promotional pieces to sell books, which they most likely were. The psychologist Gordon Neufeld’s presentation, for instance, seemed particularly insightful to me as I was listening to it – he spoke about the importance of students’ attachment to teachers in the modern emotionally deprived world – but now I can’t remember why it was so good, nor do I know if it actually holds for Kazakhstan. Maybe it does, but he didn’t bother to research it, provide any contextual examples, or at least react to what the NIS Chair said in the beginning. His excellent presentation skills, however, paid off: all his book sold out before the end of the first day.

I hate to sound like an old grumbler, but if you wanted to learn about these people’s wonderful ideas, you could easily find their articles or YouTube videos on the Internet – there was no need to spend so much of the tax-payers’ money on bringing them here to just recite the speeches they’d given umpteen times elsewhere. It would be interesting, nevertheless, to see them interact and integrate the local context into their talks. And it would most certainly make an impact on the ‘hearts and minds’ of teachers here.

4 thoughts on “A note on keynote speakers @ NIS Con

  1. Thanks, you “old grumbler”. I think every flashy TED-talk-esque conference plenary session needs a critical, perhaps even a bit cynical, response like this. One of my dreams for NUGSE is that we hold conferences the way they should be held, with explicitly designed space and opportunities for interaction. Did you get a chance to attend any of the break-out sessions? Did they manage to differ at all from this glossy facade of authentic communication? 5/5

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  2. Great blog! You’ve just took the words out of my mouth when you said that you were “fooled into believing that something important was taking place”. It seemed like the conference with all its atmosphere and cerebrospinal fluid splashes took place in a parallel universe getting out of which you face the upside down reality. Did you have a chance to visit any other international conferences outside KZ? Is there any difference?

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  3. Dear @chsherbakov,

    I loved this post for its criticism and construct view. I definitely agree with you regarding an interaction key speakers should demonstrate to their audience. If to be honest, I did not like that part where speakers had to present their books, selling them. Participants were also getting signatures from them. This reminded me the cruel world of marketing. In this case, it was an educational marketing with no meaning. Meaning here refers to your understanding of a good conference, where “interaction” is a key determiner. Another point raised by you is doing a research for the benefit of something, not for the sake of research. Unfortunately, I believe that there are not enough researchers conducting studies for the benefit of changing something. Again it might be closely linked with getting a popularity through marketing…Thank you again for this impressive post!!!

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  4. Dear @chsherbakov! Thanks for the great post which in a way reflect my personal view.
    Funny thing, I do remember the yellow socks with colorful dots, however, I struggle to locate a person wearing them in my head. But it is not the point. Although I have to admit that I really enjoyed some of the keynote speakers presentations, the one thing that I kept thinking about was “will there be an expert from Kazakhstan who will share his or her experience and motivate all the teachers sitting in the hall with their personal example?” Someone who teachers would remember not because of their pretentious speeches but because they touched their emotions and hearts by what they did.

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