I had the privilege of being headteacher at Chaucer Technology School in Canterbury in the mid-1990s. Chaucer, as we called it, was a vibrant and often an off-piste kind of school which not only sent some students on their way to Cambridge, but also had a range of amazing talent in other areas, such as the youngest person to walk to the South Pole (Ben Saunders), pass through its doors.
In fact, the list of special people that worked there or were nurtured there is long indeed. It includes extraordinary parents and governors. One parent, Jenny Uglow, without her even knowing, changed my life. Her biographical book The Lunar Men: The friends who made the future 1730-1810, filled me with the hope that it was possible for small groups of people to really change things for the better, and in particular to change things in schools.
Chaucer started life as the Canterbury Technical High School for Boys. The school’s first cohort of children was registered on the platform of Canterbury West Station just as they were evacuated during the Blitz by their headteacher Burt Parrot. Perhaps that spirit was in the roots of a school that just wasn’t scared to try to do all kinds of new things.
Innovation was in every subject. For example, imagine when computing came along. Chaucer was there with a landline to a main-frame computer over 30 miles away and Alan Hills, head of physics, ran some of the very first courses in computing in the country.
Yet still, within the same adventurous atmosphere some teachers steadfastly stuck to the old ways and measured their success, for example, by how quiet their classroom was. This worried me and I sought to learn a lot about change and quality and leadership.
I met Edward de Bono, travelled abroad with CfBT on fact-finding trips, but it was the Lunar Men who inspired me most. A small group of friends, who met by the light of the full moon in 18th century English Midlands, talked about issues, and then took action – and as a result changed the world.
Chaucer went on to become a super-connected school, not just for initiatives but of course to the newly emerging internet when it became a point of presence connecting all schools in East Kent. I remember giving talks about how this new thing called email was transforming how we communicated, even within the school. I wish I could have predicted how it now rules my life rather than helps it.
I’d taught O level astronomy and when explaining about the phases of the moon one day I had one of those moments when I realised that the full moon is a full moon at the same time all over the world and with email I could reinvent a new lunar society of distant friends and once every new moon we too could discuss issues by a metaphorical full moon that would help move education forward.
I talked about the idea over the years and I was patted metaphorically on the head as much a lunatic as a lunar man. That is until I joined Promethean, four years ago. Our CEO loved the idea and we invented Education Fast Forward, a movement that would exploit the best technology to carry out synchronous discussions and debates across the planet – and make things happen as a result.
We cajoled Cisco into allowing EFF, as we call it, to use their fantastic telepresence systems and we held our first meeting. With people joining from countries including Brazil, Canada, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Hungary, South Africa, the UK and USA, Lord David Puttnam and Balìnt Magyar (European Institute of Innovation and Technology) kicked off our debate where we discussed creativity in education and whether or not ICT should be a human right.
Since that first event we have organised 11 global debates. Through merging video-conferencing, big and small, together with social media we reach millions of people with each debate. Past debates and future events are listed on our website.
We have learned a lot during our first 11 events, both about education and about how to make technology work to support our community. However, I remain frustrated that we have much more to do to ensure enough action follows our debates, although we have at least changed one or two lives.
One of our young debaters changed her life-plan by retraining to become a teacher, and following a debate on peace, another contributor was so moved that he cycled across Sierra Leone, showing a video of the debate to villagers along the way.
We see our first debates as phase 1 of EFF and phase II started last month, when EFF was awarded charitable status and became an independent entity, with Gavin Dykes and myself as trustees and a group of EFF fellows keeping the original idea alive. With EFF’s new status we will be able to raise funds to enable action to happen, to carry out more debates and reach more people.
The early days of EFF were pulled along by a small team of volunteers. Now EFF has a staff of three and our team is working hard to grow the charity.
As a member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance, which also has the remit to spread the news about innovation that works, I hope that the EFF debates that have already happened and those that are to come will help teachers and all people committed to education to see what others are doing, will help provide inspiration and encouragement, and will help move their own education practice faster forward.
Further informationFor more on the inspirational tale of the Lunar Men, see this 2002 article by Jenny Uglow on the 18th century Lunar Society of Birmingham: http://bit.ly/1rWB1Jx
Jim Wynn is CEO and co-founder of the charity Education Fast Forward. Visit www.effdebate.org