SLF09 Post 2: TeachMeet – is there a time to break the the rules?

This is a post which I was saving for later, because it seemed to make sense to talk about the Scottish Learning Festival and TeachMeet before doing any kind of analysis. However, as we all know, best laid plans gang aft a-gley; in this instance because I went to read this post on John Connell’s blog, which directed me to read this other post first. As it turns out, I felt a need to comment on the first post, and the responses from Neil Winton and Ewan McIntosh, but instead of a short response to a blog post, I found myself writing and writing, and wandering further and further from the original point. So much so, that not only did I decide to turn it into a blog post in its own right, but I also still haven’t managed to read the post I went to read in the first place! (I’ll get to it later!!!). Who knew I had so much to say???

For those of you who might not know about TeachMeet, here’s a quick explanation for you by Tim and Moby as premiered at TMSLF09 (the TeachMeet fringe event of the Scottish Learning Festival this year).

Tim and Moby explain about TeachMeet

Now, it’s fair to say that I am a huge TeachMeet fan – and evangelist too – and have been since my first one at the Glasgow Science Centre. They are an amazing thing to witness; events put together and attended by enthusiastic and committed members of the education community, and I have learned so much from each and every one I have attended. It’s easy to see why TeachMeet continues to expand. The format is really something – short, snappy presentations mean that even if the presentation that’s on has absolutely zero relevance for you, something else will be along in about 6 and a half minutes, and you can talk to the person next to you while you’re waiting anyway. Learning conversations, round tables, breakouts, distance presentations – all help to mix it up a bit and of course the ‘intervals’ are good too.

While this all might seem easy and obvious to come up with, it clearly wasn’t. The innovation and imagination to come up with the TeachMeet model is something we should all be very grateful to its architects for. It is an unconference – meant to be subversive and a bit ramshackle as Ewan points out in his comment on John’s post. Something that is a bit different to the conferences or talks that we are all sent along to on a fairly regular basis. All in all, TeachMeet creates a very special atmosphere or spirit amongst those attending (and even some of those who aren’t).

And it is this spirit, surely, that is TeachMeet’s strength. Whilst rules have been put in place to create the event and indeed this atmosphere, clearly an evolution has now occurred. Is there a point at which the rules stop being part of the solution and start becoming part of the problem?

I watched the other night as 2 different presentations ran close to their allotted 7 minutes. Both presentations had clearly struck a chord with the audience and had everyone engaged. They weren’t going to last 15 minutes, or even 10, but both needed perhaps 7 and a half or 8 minutes to come to their natural, elegant and effective conclusions. So, decision time: do we allow these brilliant presentations to over run slightly, or do we cut them off in an abrupt manner citing the Jobsworth Mantra (“Them’s the rules……”)?

My own feeling would be that we can be flexible, and afford them that little bit of extra time – it is, after all, our time we are giving – and indeed this seemed to be the prevalent attitude on the night. However, I know that there are those who think that a rule is there to be enforced. Is this what the original organisers of TeachMeet intended? Somehow I doubt it (although I am willing to hear that I am wrong on that issue).

On top of all that, at the moment, we (inadvertently?) put up a number of barriers to participation for the non-tech-savvy classroom practitioner. Apart from the fact that the TeachMeet blurb – and indeed the logo – have a strong focus on technology, there is the way we market and administrate the event itself to consider. How do you know when the next TeachMeet is coming up? Check the wiki? Keep an eye on Twitter? Read blogs? And if you want to go? Easy – sign up on the wiki. All this when there are still teachers – and good teachers at that – who through no fault of their own may struggle to access an e-mail.

A related Twitter conversation has been going on recently regarding the subject matter of TeachMeet presentations. The model has proven successful so far, but are we currently ‘preaching to the choir’ by focussing on technology? We have asked how we can widen the TeachMeet audience, and perhaps opening up the subject matter is a way to go? A sustainable ‘family’ of TeachMeets after all, do not need to have the same people attending. We have seen a number of distinct TeachMeets evolve already: TeachMeet ASN, TeachMeet Physics, TeachMeet Student Edition and even TeachMeet Mac!   Surely a mix of Primary TeachMeets, Subject-based TeachMeets (I have heard rumours of a Techie TeachMeet for months, and I would also have thought Geography would have been right in there….) and local authority based TeachMeets such as that suggested by some teachers in Falkirk would be a good and sustainable way to move forward. Add in the ‘spinoff’ events like LeadMeet, GregMeet and even BeerMeet, and that adds up to a pretty healthy  and varied scene.

So, is it time to relax the rules a bit? Throw things open to a bit more innovation and adaptation, in the TeachMeet tradition? Perhaps if we do this, the TeachMeet alternative that John talks about may just show up itself. But to do this, the enthusiasts and forward thinkers need to know that it’s ok to try things out and to make mistakes, and that by doing so they are not going to annoy, upset or even offend others in the education community, particularly those who came up with the original concept and those who have helped build it into what it is today. After all, we don’t want TeachMeet to turn into the precious crockery that’s never used and just for looking at.


  1. We touched upon the issue of preaching to the converted in the flashmeet at tmslf09. It seems there are a lot of conversations going on along these lines at the moment.

    While this is not the area I’ve been focusing on, I agree with you on the timing issue. Strict adherence to the rules means we cut off inspirational speakers who might only have needed 30 seconds more, but they could also have taken 15 minutes.. I guess we have to ask why the rules are there. Why 7 minutes? Why can’t we run over a little? Would it become a shambles if rule bending was introduced?

    I’m also quite concerned by the (very low) number of people who begin their talks with ‘sorry, but this isn’t about ICT’. Perhaps if we had a balance of ICT and non-ICT talks, it would make Teachmeet a more accessible concept for non geeks.

    Quite a few people I’ve tried to bring along said no because they were very intimidated by the presentation topics. Put it this way, if we’re going to introduce people like my mum to teachmeet, we’ve got to make her feel like she has something to contribute. Maybe I should ask *her* how we can do that!

  2. A great post, making me think about loads of things! 🙂

    It’s always good to question why rules are there. One of the nice things about Teachmeet in my mind is that the attendees largely come up with the agenda. It’s the attendees that propose the subjects to be talked about and discussed, and are randomly picked to keep some semblance of impartiality.

    I must admit, I’m a fan of the 2/7 minute slots, and I like the fact that these are strictly adhered to. I would like to think that those that speak at Teachmeet ‘start’ a conversation in their 2/7 minute talks. If they say something that I’m interested in, I’m either going to follow it up online, or even better, ask them a question during the evening. If people knew the timing rule could be bent, then would they prepare for only 7 mins? There are a huge number of people that I have met or heard through Teachmeet that could keep me enthralled for hours, but by only giving them a short time, it helps them focus and me make a connection. It also helps keep the evening moving along and us all able to hear more people? (And what else would the teachmeet camel do with it’s time?)

    I definitely think we need to widen the audience, and open things up significantly. I completely agree with Ollie that Teachmeet is the best CPD you can get, but I worry that the focus is still too techy. I’d love to hear more non-tech focused talks, as I know I learn a great deal from them. Perhaps if there were more non-tech focused talks on the list, then people might feel less intimidated? Is the barrier actually signing up in the first place? Local Teachmeets sound like a great idea – there has already been a few of them, but it would be great to widen this out more.

  3. I think at TMFalkirk09 we need alternate Pry/Sec presentations. I can learn a lot from Pry. teachers especially about ACfE.

    TMTech will probably go ahead after the TTA (tech teachers assoc) conf. in Nov, even if it’s just a couple.

    Pubmeet is a variation on the format too.

    All good fun, but how do you get more teachers to commit ? I only went to TMSLF09 cause I was speaking at a seminar at 4.30pm. I met two colleagues who used to work at my school and they turned their nose up when I said I was going to TMSLF.

    I think you can’t change the format too much as it will then kill the whole idea, you can’t manage it. If it becomes managed people will stop going.

  4. Like Andrew I like the 7 minute rule, short attention span I guess. It also allows quite a lot of folk to speak. I was hoping to speak the other night, if someone had gone on for 15 minutes I would have been upset.

    Change the rules for an event, but don’t change them mid event.

    So far, imo, breakouts have not worked really well as folk just wander and chat.
    ‘preaching to the choir’ not too worried about that one, I see it more as a gathering to recharge.

    The spinoffs are providing alternatives, places to test different ways of doing things I hope they keep spinning off, it has always been time to break the rules at teachmeet.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Just to clarify my point about the talk times, I like the 2/7 minute slots too, as I pointed out in the post I believe they are a key strength of TeachMeet. Whilst a 15 minute mini-note has worked in the past (where publicised in advance) I’m not advocating that the presentation rules are binned and that everyone prepares 15/20/30 minute talks, I was signed up to talk last week too (hoping might be stretching it a bit…..) and was disappointed I never got to talk, but I would have been raging if I hadn’t got to talk because everyone else was doing 15 minutes.

    I just feel that there should be a degree of flexibility allowed on the night from the MC/Chair. They should be able to ‘read’ how a presentation is going and how the audience are reacting, and be comfortable enough to allow a presentation that is going well to run over for a minute, the same way that they should feel strong enough to cut something short if it is a sales pitch. Even John Davitt was questioning the other night whether the camel was still a good idea, and telling me that he had it wrestled off him so that he couldn’t throw it.

    Regarding breakouts, I thought the (genuine) ones at last year’s TMSLF worked well, and liked the idea that David Noble came up with last night – managing the space and time to ensure that everyone gets to speak that wants to, so perhaps choosing 4/5/6 micros at once and getting them presented at round tables could work, the crowd choosing which of the presentations they want to go and see.

    Finally, I’m glad that in all the reaction so far to John’s posts and to my own that everyone has been happy to allow ‘tinkering’ with the TeachMeet format to see what people can come up with.

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