2. Thematic ECHA Conference: ‘Closing the Achievement Gap in Gifted Education’

The second thematic ECHA conference took place online on 23-28 March. Its co-organisers, MATEHETSZ – in particular the European Talent Centre- Budapest  – and Debrecen University spent months preparing for the event that has brought considerable international success.

History of ECHA conferences
The first conference of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) was organised in Zurich in 1988, exactly 33 years ago. According to Prof. Joan Freeman, one of its organisers, they were all highly excited since they wanted to create something new: a bi-annual European conference series focusing on giftedness, representing one of the biggest projects of the ECHA.

It was a clear sign of the strength and depth of the emerging relationship of Hungary and the ECHA that the Institute of Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) could organise the 2nd ECHA conference in 1990 in Gellért Hotel, Budapest. This was a most memorable occasion for Hungarian researchers, their first opportunity after World War II to personally listen to lectures dedicated to the theory and practice of talent support by several prominent international experts. Moreover, the conference served as a meeting point for Eastern and Western Europe; as an opportunity to get closer to each other, a highly topical issue at the time.

Ten years later, in 2000, Hungarians, specifically University of Debrecen, had the honour to organise another ECHA conference, the seventh, and the ECHA General Committee, the leading body of the organisation, invited László Balogh, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts at UD, to act as President of the Organising Committee. The success of the conference is mirrored by the fact that almost 500 talent support experts visited the country at that time.

The idea of organising so-called bi-annual thematic conferences focusing on narrower topics and addressing a smaller audience than the bi-annual ‘big conferences’, raised already a few years earlier, re-emerged during the presidency of Professor Péter Csermely. The first tender was announced to that effect in 2016, and the first thematic conference, dedicated to creativity, was organised in 2019, in Dubrovnik.

At end-2018, another opportunity arose to apply for the organisation of an ECHA thematic conference, and the staffs of MATEHETSZ and University of Debrecen drew up and submitted a joint application based on the traditions and successes of Hungary in this field. This partnership was no coincidence: MATEHETSZ and UD had already looked back on a decade of professional cooperation, and both organisations had considerable experience in organising international conferences. The MATEHETSZ team was led by Csilla Fuszek and that of University of Debrecen by Dr. Szilvia Fodor. They won the right to organise the thematic conference in January 2019.

The topic of the conference was the so-called school achievements gap. This was no accident either: in Hungary, talent support provided to (multiply) disadvantaged children and the research of the relevant programmes from several aspects (psychology, sociology, education) looks back on a past of almost 22 years. Moreover, the staff of the Department of Pedagogy and Psychology of Debrecen University were the first to join these researches. Furthermore, they are several national programmes considered “Hungaricum”, i.e. special Hungarian products, such as the Arany János Talent Support Programme for secondary-school students, the Hejőkeresztúr model developed for primary-school students or the Roma vocational college active at universities. That is, this issue has thorough foundations in the country in several respects.

The organisers believed the topic was of relevance both in Europe and globally, but they did not count on it becoming more topical than ever due to lockdowns/restrictions introduced to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the decisive and distinctive features of ECHA conferences is the combination of theory and practice. Accordingly, their participants include teachers active in everyday practice and researcher scientists. The application drawn up at the end of 2018 reflected this feature: the organisers wanted to present domestic best practices through visits organised to special locations in the country. But things turned out differently.

It had become clear by the autumn of 2020 that there was no point in sticking to the original tender plans: the content and structure of the conference had to be redesigned, since we had to think in terms of an online event organised in the online space, and find the most optimal solutions under the new circumstances. The following is an overview of the relevant details.

Structure of the Budapest conference
The international experience has made it obvious that the conference was to be as diversified and lively as possible, as it is not easy to sit and watch the screen for hours. The conference that was to last for 1.5 days was therefore extended to 5 days, with no more than a daily 3 hours of “new materials”. At lecture time, roundtable discussions started at 4 p.m. and lasted for a maximum of 3 hours, and they were repeated the next day in the morning to eliminate problems due to time differences. Three hours a day caused no difficulty to the participants, but feedback has shown that most could only join the conference on no more than 2-3 of the 5 days.

It is equally important that lecturers speak the language of the online conference, English in this case, well and understandably, and relay their enthusiasm for the topic through the screen. Many of the invited “plenary” presenters were world-famous researchers who have studied this field for years and are excellent presenters. Their name was a guarantee for having quality presentations. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not all 36 lecturers could take part at the studio recordings of the conference; Hungarian colleagues made up 30 percent of the whole group. Other lecturers and presentations came from the US, South America, the Far East, Kenya and Ethiopia and two persons came from India and from Israel, but the European continent was also represented by several countries in addition to Hungary, such as Greece, for example.

The combination of the presenters and the topic itself and the fact that conference participation could be offered free of charge thanks to the support of the Hungarian National Talent Programme resulted in what was an unprecedented number of registrations in the history of ECHA conferences: almost 700 registered. Another conclusion drawn from the relevant international experience is that a conference is successful if 50 percent of registered applicants actually log in.

Data protection law does not allow to have exact data on the number of participants, but according to the estimates it was certainly up to around 50 percent, so the event was a real international success and confirmed the excellent choice of the topic for the joint project of MATEHETSZ and the University of Debrecen.
Werk photos during the recording of the conference in the studio

Streaming was assigned to the competence of the Europe 2000 Talent Point in the first place, and the capacities of the school studio proved to be perfectly suitable to ensure continuous streaming at the conference. One risk factor of online conferences is the quality of connections from various sites (and platforms). The thematic conference strove to minimise live connections (there were 6 such instances in all), although these were no doubt the most fascinating moments of the conference. The organisers did their best to record at least half of the 14 hours of the conference in a studio to ensure visual mobility and save the excitement of having a quality meeting/discussion between presenters logging in from say three continents at the same time. Studio recording has also helped recall the atmosphere of live conferences.

All things considered, the organisers coped with the challenges generated by the pandemic, and despite the lack of face-to-face meetings, an essential element of any "traditional" conference, the participants could connect and reinforce their professional ties in the process of common thinking and learning.

Talent is a special kind of natural resource that is available in every country.