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ICSEI 2015 Some early thoughts from Cincinnati

I have just returned from the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) 2015 event, which has been happening in Cincinnati. This is an annual event lasting some four days and pulling in educational researchers, policy makers and practitioners from all over the world. The annual congress is held in a different country each year. The ICSEI organisation and its annual congress is aimed at bringing these three key groups from the world of education together as they seek informed ways to improve learning, teaching and performance in schools across the world.

In her message of welcome, the ICSEI outgoing president, Alma Harris noted the important role of the organisation in ' the formulation and sharing of new knowledge' about learning and school leadership. The keynote speakers and workshop contributors had as their theme 'Thinking Globally, Acting Locally to Educate All Children To Their Full Potential.' The organisation of the conference centres around one or two keynote speakers each day, a series of breakout workshops and a series of 'Network' meetings. 

The days are intense and start from 7.30am most mornings with the various network breakfast meetings, followed by a keynote and then some 'breakout' workshops. Following the official welcome by Alma and members of the organising committee we were straight into our first keynote provided by Andreas Schleicher who heads up the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA as it is more well known. Andreas though was not in the hall, he was unable to attend in person, so we were treated to a video presentation by him and then a question and answer session via Sype. Not a great start for Alma and her team, but everyone made the best of it and we thanked Andreas for his opening contribution. It was probably as well he wasn't in the hall, as his presentation was followed by a panel discussion of what we had heard, and PISA did not come out of this unscathed. Professor David Reynolds, from Southampton University, was particularly scathing of a lot of the PISA conclusions and messages, dismissing the results as 'bad science' and with which there were many unanswered questions and false inferences. This was my opening foray into ICSEI and set the tone for the next few days. We were not here just to accept and rubber stamp what we saw and heard, but we were to engage with it all critically in order to test and question conclusions and validity when we needed to. The discussions and dialogue following presentations were key in promoting greater understanding and sharing knowledge.

The rest of the day, and the next three days, were a roller-coaster ride of engagement with more and more leading thinkers and researchers in the field of education. We had people like Alma Harris, Andy Hargreaves, Lorna Earl, Lynn Sharratt, Tony Townsend, Dennis Shirley, Chris Chapman, Dave Reynolds, Daniel Muijs, Sam Stringfield, Janet Clinton, Carol Campbell, Margery McMahon, Karen Seashore Louis, John MacBeath and so many others leading and participating workshops,  and who made it so difficult to choose which one to attend. Indeed, a lot of people couldn't make that choice too easily and ended up moving from one to another to try and capture the main points and take part in the discussions. I will post in more depth on the keynotes and the workshops I attended when I have had some time to reflect and consider my notes, in this post I just wanted to give a flavour of the event and the quality of the debate, and of the contributors.

Following Andreas' initial keynote, we then had further major inputs from professor Tom Good, from the Universityof Arizona, Dr Vivian Tseng of the William Grant Foundation, Dr Robert J Marzano co founder of the Marzano Research Laboratory and Dr Dan Duke, professor at University of Virginia. All of these speakers talked of their research and shared some key findings that had come out of this. Some of the research was very current and some was gathered over a career of many years. Whilst at the conference, I was Tweeting many of the main messages from these speakers, so hopefully you may have seen some of these already. But, again, I hope to return them in a later post, or posts.

I was attending this conference for a number of reasons. One was as a representative of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL), and the other as part of the Scottish delegation who were to present on what has been happening in our country and our schools system. There was another key reason that we will come to shortly. 

Our presentation took place in the main conference hall and was entitled 'Scotland: Small System, Big Ideas. Is it Working?' I was part of a panel chaired by Tony Finn, who is now chair of the SCEL Board. The rest of our team consisted of Alan Armstrong, from Education Scotland, Margery McMahon, from Glasgow University, Moyra Boland from Glasgow University, Chris Chapman from the Robert Owen Centre at Glasgow University and Norrie McKay from the General Teaching Council of Scotland. We hoped to represent all the key players in the Scottish Education system, with myself also representing practitioners. We started with a short presentation on what has been happening in Scotland with Curriculum for Excellence and the partnership working to help support this in schools. We were very honest and acknowledged the difficulties we have faced, and are still facing, as we continue on this journey of development. We then posed questions for the audience about where they thought the difficulties might lie ahead for us, and for themselves if they wished to take a similar approach? This provoked a lively debate and each of us took part in group discussions around the hall and tried to answer further questions people were raising. We then returned to the panel and threw the rest of the time open to the audience to ask us further questions about the approach being adopted in Scotland. This was very full-on and there was a tremendous amount of interest in what we have been doing. We actually ran out of time, after an hour and fifteen minutes of lively debate, so we did not get the opportunity to deliver some further pre-repaired responses to som of the questions we had posed. This didn't really matter, as most of what we had wanted to say had been brought out in response to the issues raised from the floor. 

This was an exciting engagement for us all, but especially for myself as I was attending my first ICSEI conference. It is quite daunting to face such a knowledgeable and prestigious audience and talk about your own practice and the impacts of this for learners. But that is why I was there and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to have an input and share my own experiences and thoughts. The response to our presentation was very positive and personally I have developed my own professional network, have made contacts with people around the world who are trying similar approaches as we in Scotland, and also many who were particularly interested in, and involved with, using practitioner enquiry approaches to individual and school development. 

The third reason we were there was because ICSEI is coming to the UK in 2016. If that wasn't exciting enough, it is coming to Scotland and will be happening in Glasgow from January 6th to the 9th. We were also there to accept officially the handover for the hosting of ICSEI and to put on another presentation at the  closing ceremony. This was led by Norrie and we had the same team plus the addition of Professor Emeritus John MacBeath, one of Scotland's leading thinkers and researchers in the field of learning and education for many years. John, once of Glasgow University, is now working at Cambridge University. We found a piper in Cincinnati and he led our delegation onto the stage. We then informed the delegates about what to expect when visiting Scotland and Glasgow next year. They were told about the wonderful countryside, the culture, the creativity and the history all under the tag of 'People Make Glasgow.' We showed them a delightful video of school pupils from Glasgow talking about their schools, teachers and learning. The learners finished by extending a warm welcome to everyone to join us in Glasgow in 2016. this was rounded off with the piper accompanying us all in the singing of 'Auld Langs Syne.' I think it fair to say that this brought the house down.

We were overwhelmed by the number of delegates who told us how committed they were to attending ICSEI2016 in Glasgow. Many of them also added that colleagues who weren't in Cincinnati for various reasons had already indicated that they too would be present when the Glasgow event takes place. This was all very heartening for organisers of Glasgow, who are committed to make this event a success and with a particular Scottish and Glaswegian flavour. The theme for ICSEI2016 has already been announced. This will be 'Connecting teachers, schools, and systems; creating the conditions for effective learning.' One thing we wish to promote further in Glasgow is the contribution of practitioners, and the Saturday of the event is planned to be a 'Practioners Day'. Confirmed keynote speakers already include Rowena Arshad of Edinburgh University, Graham Donaldson of Glasgow University and author of 'Teaching Scotland's Future', practitioner Marinieves Alba, Community School Director in New York and Pasi Salberg, now a visiting professor of practice at Harvard University. This is already an exciting list of contributors and more will be added as we head towards next January.

Wherever you are, if you are involved and interested and committed to improving the research base on education and using this to support practice in school, this promises to be a 'not-to-be-missed' event. We are very keen to have the practitioner voice loud and prominent as part of the Glasgow 2016 and I would urge colleagues across the UK, and particularly in Scotland, to attend, contribute and take part in the dialogue and conversations that will help shape and inform our practice. This event is coming to Scotland in recognition of our on-going commitment to high level research in education  and how we use this to inform practice and promote innovative approaches. The practitioner voice needs to be heard to keep the focus on impact for our learners and our schools, this can only happen through collaboration and networking at events like this. I shall be posting more on this soon.

In the meantime you can visit the Glasgow website at and via the Twitter feed at @ICSEI2016 for more announcements as arrangements take further shape. The eyes of the education world will be on Glasgow next year and we can show the very best of what we have to offer. I hope to see many of you there. If you want to see more information about what has been taking place in Cincinnati over the last week you can visit the ICSEI2015 website, where keynotes and presentations are set to appear soon. I will be posting more of my own thoughts soon.

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