9 questions to ask about big name speakers at education conferences

This is an updated version of an article that was first published in March 2015.

I enjoy a good keynote, especially if it “delivers”. To my mind, a keynote should be informative, inspirational and entertaining. All too often, however, keynotes by so-called “visionary” speakers leave me feeling both uninspired and uninformed. I am left with the sense of having been entertained, which is all very well, but unless it’s an after-dinner speech I’m also left feeling cheated.

So these days, where there is a choice between attending a celebrity speaker’s talk or that of an “ordinary” teacher who is doing great stuff in his or her classroom, I will almost always choose the latter. In fact, I have developed a kind of rubric that I follow when deciding whether or not to attend a celebrity presentation. It consists of a number of questions, which I’ve written up below. Feel free to use them if you think they are useful. Some of these questions cannot be answered until you have attended a talk given by the person in question. But you will know for next time.

We Have A Problem?

Do they have anything substantive to say? I’ve attended too many talks where a summary of the lecture could accurately be given as:

“There’s a problem in education and somebody needs to do something about it.”

What I’d like to know is: what is the problem, and what do you think ought to be done about it? After all, you’re being paid to talk to us as the expert.

What’s The Answer?

Has the speaker suggested a solution? A good thing to do would be to suggest solutions, I think. Maybe these would be visionary, and for some time in the distant future, which wouldn’t be wonderful, but would at least be something.

What Can Be Done In Practical Terms, Right Now?

I often hear a keynote celebrity speaker end their talk with:

“We need to have a debate about this.”

I used to listen out for the next logical sentence, which would be something like:

“And to facilitate this debate I have set up a website/online survey/conference… to which you are all invited to contribute.”

I say I used to listen for that, but the second sentence never comes. I did once, in my younger and more naive days, take literally the offer of a keynote speaker who said:

“If anyone is interested in starting a debate on this subject, come and see me after the talk.”

I did, and his answer to my statement that I would be interested in taking part in such a debate was:

“Great. Here’s my card. Phone my PA and she’ll arrange for you to have a tour of our offices.”

I wasn’t sure how that constituted a debate, and so I never took him up on the offer.

Has The Speaker Worked In My Kind Of School?

When I listen to ideas proposed by a speaker, I always try to picture myself putting it into practice in some of the schools in which I worked. I’ve worked in tough places. I was very innovative, but in my experience you can’t just do something and hope it works. The kids in tough schools tend to be very street wise. If they see a system, they know how to work it pretty quickly. Even some of the best-intentioned plans fall down because of this fact. (In one school I worked in, the school counsellor always offered distressed kids a cup of tea in her office. The predictable result was that every teacher had at least one “distressed” kid who needed to see the counsellor, winking at the rest of the class as they left the room.)

I’ve worked in non-tough schools too, where the kids are willing to learn and are full of enthusiasm for new ideas. But in those schools it tends to be the parents and the senior leadership team who see no need for innovation if what you are already doing is delivering the results. (And if you’re not delivering the results, you are not likely to be given a mandate to innovate anyway. You’re more likely to be told to shape up or ship out, in effect.)

Some of the ideas I’ve heard would either be illegal, or would result in parents complaining that their children weren’t being taught. What I’m saying is that even an idea is stupendous, there are usually practical realities to implementing it – not to do with the idea itself but the ethos of the school, legal matters, pupil and parental expectations, and the willingness of the senior leadership and other colleagues to take it seriously. I never hear any big name speakers even acknowledge such issues, let alone suggest how they might be tackled.

Has the speaker worked in ANY kind of school?

I realise that educationalists don't have to be teachers. In England the first Chairman of the General Teaching Council was Lord Puttnam, a film producer, and the in-coming Chief Inspector at Ofsted is Amanda Spielman, who has not taught either.  

But I don't see why I should listen to someone telling me how to teach when they have never taught themselves. Anyone can right the wrongs of the education system, just as I'm an expert in sorting out various international conflicts and the issues surrounding Brexit. But that's nothing but pub talk, which is fine in a pub, but not in a conference.

Are they saying anything new?

One of the things I've discovered over the years is that some big name speakers don't actually have much of a handle of what is really happening in schools. I attended a conference recently in which the big name speaker was giving advice that may have been fine ten years ago. She seemed, in my opinion, to be trading on her past glory. I think you have to update your knowledge or risk becoming an irrelevant relic.

Does Research Appear To Back Up Their Claims?

Research is good, especially if it is genuine research and has not been not cherry-picked, or is not a conflation of different elements of research that has the (hopefully) inadvertent effect of giving a misleading impression, or leaves out statistically-significant evidence that would give a rather different picture.

What Does Your Gut Say?

Call me unscientific, but I do believe in the concept of professional judgement. If someone is saying something that doesn’t feel feasible, even if they appear to have the research to back it up, then I think there’s a good chance your professional expertise is making itself felt – quite literally. When I am about to spend a fait amount of money on a product, I do my research. I look at customer reviews, for example. If someone is trying to sell me an idea, I do the same. I look for their name on the web, to see if anyone has analysed what they’ve said or felt an unease similar to myself. This can be useful if you don’t think something is quite right, but can’t quite put your finger on why not.

What About Their Kids – Or Yours For That Matter?

Quite often the ultimate test of an idea is: would the person advocating it put their own kids through it? (I thought this story about Silicon Valley folk who send their kids to a non-tech school quite interesting, for example.) If you are not in a position to answer that question, then ask yourself: would I want my kids to be subjected to this? You can ask this question even if you don’t have kids. If the answer is “no”, then there is clearly a fundamental flaw in the idea. Or it’s proof of something that Andreas Schleicher said at the Education World Forum back in January 2015:

“All parents want school improvement – as long as it doesn’t involve their own children.”

(Disclaimer: that is not an exact quote.) I took that to mean that parents tend to be in favour of initiatives to improve schooling, as long as implementing them doesn’t disrupt their own kids’ education.


For me, if the answer to any of these questions is likely, on past experience, to be “no”, then I will spend the time networking, attending a talk by someone who has something useful to say, having a coffee break or checking my email.

If you go to education conferences (or would like to), you may find my book useful. It’s called Education Conferences: Teachers’ guide to getting the most out of conferences. Click on the link for more information.


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