Reflections on the International Standing Conference for the History of Education

I recently attended the International Standing Conference for the History of Education at the University of Porto, which was themed ‘Spaces and Places of Education’. Although I didn’t attend as many sessions as I would have liked because it was doubling as a holiday and a chance to explore the city, it was a really good opportunity to talk about my research in a different contexts and to hear international perspectives on histories of education. 

Of particular interest was the session ‘Educational history and the challenges of justice: Contested spaces and their legacies’, featuring papers by Emily Barker (University of Greenwich), Jona Garz (Humboldt-University Berlin) and Eleanor Simpson (University of Winchester). Covering topics from migrant children’s access to play spaces in post-war Britain, to schools for learning disabled children in Germany, to tabloid moralising around Section 28 and sex education in the 1980s, they explored concepts around justice and justice, ideas about ‘educability’ and who can be educated, socially defined categories of identity and inclusion, acceptance and intersectionality, the construction of social norms around ‘ordinary’ behaviour and family life, the othering of those who do not conform to this, and the spatial borders and boundaries placed around education.

Another session I enjoyed was ‘Transnational entanglements of Educational Spaces: Material, Affective and Imaginative Connections’, which explored transnational influences in progressive education. I was particularly pleased to hear from Lottie Hoare (University of Cambridge) about ‘Vanishing Primary Schools & 1970s Yorkshire’. Hoare’s paper focused on the Open University programme Balby Street Kids. Featuring leaders from the West Riding of Yorkshire education authority (disbanded the year before following the 1974 reorganisation of local government), including the recently-retired Director of Education Sir Alec Clegg, the programme was discussed as a defence and representation of progressive education and its aspirations for an imagined audience. The programme featured children at a school in a West Yorkshire mining community. As well as paying attention to their surroundings, through projects such as creative writing, the programme showed them engaged in movement, giving them physical confidence, as well as drama, in a re-enactment of Beowulf, presenting both a translocal and transnational picture at the same time as presenting a particular vision of English education. Although the programme was a documentary, the question and answer section highlighted its creative approach.

My paper took place in the session ‘Material, Textual, Imagined and Virtual Spaces of Education’. I was particularly interested in a joint paper by Nelleke Teughels and Wouter Egelmeers (KU Leuven) about Lantern Slide Projection in the Classroom: Virtual Spaces of Education (c.1880-1940)’.

Teughels and Egelmeers discussed the use of magic lantern slides in Belgian schools, as objects of direct and indirect observation. In subjects such as history, such visual aids were a way of bringing the inside and outside together, and the object into school. Used for ‘virtual travel’, magic lanten slides were both a substitute for and complementary to field trips, opening up new horizons for students. They highlighted the limitations of the sources they used – two educational journals published from different religious perspectives, which mentioned magic lantern slides without discussing them in detail.

The resulting discussion included comments about the link between photography and ‘truth’, the role of magic lantern slides in classification and the creation of pre-defined categories, and how educationalists wanted to see the world.

Some of the questions directed at the paper could as easily have been asked about Pictures for Schools, such as ‘how did the schools access the materials’ (through catalogues)? Was it possible to find out about the experiences of the students? What was the relationship between the magic lantern slides and object lessons in the 1920s, and educational ideas around intuition and sensing? How widespread was the use of these educational resources (it was often affected by a lack of funds)? How did these resources relate to new technology, such as radio and cinema?

The questions I was asked following my paper also gave me several perspectives to consider, such as:

  • How did Pictures for Schools fit into earlier school museum projects?
  • The children who answered questionnaires at Pictures for Schools appeared to use sophisticated vocabulary – what preparation did they have for the exhibitions?
  • Were all the answers this enthusiastic?
  • Was there any relationship betweenPictures for Schools and Elliott Eisner, who was also interested in critical education (and was very important in Brazil, where the asker was based)?

The conference had a strong strand to support early career researchers, and it was particularly beneficial to attend a session about publishing in journals concerning the history of education, such as History of Education Quarterly and Paedegogica Historica. The three pieces of advice that stood out to me were to 1) look at who’s on the reviewing board 2) consider how your work is internationally relevant and make it relevant to people in other countries and 3) that interdisciplinarity is encouraged.

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