Agreed @TomWhitby – The education conference needs to be re-invented “focus the conversations on big ideas”

I read with interest Tom Whitby’s reflections on the value of education conferences in his blog My Island View

As a person who organises professional learning experiences for educators I struggle with the notion of the traditional conference. When I attend big events the irony is not lost. Big names talk about new learning paradigms, the role of technology and the new skills required for the 21stC in the context where we all sit in ordered rows as passive learners, with no voice, no collaboration and if the wifi for the venue is too expensive, no connectivity.

I am now observing that commercial conference organisers have identified a gap in the market and have jumped in, with both feet. They have the commercial acuity and financial backing to get the international top name speakers – and I mean the biggest names going around, that will attract both the registrations and the sponsorship – but the suspicious side of me thinks that the motive is not about improving the quality of education for the children in this country.

But for many of these speakers, their presentations are available on YouTube, and they are often speaking about the same stuff.

So why do people go in their multiple hundreds or even thousands?

Will there be a return on investment – translated back into changed attitudes and practice at their school?

Or is it the equivalent of going to a rock concert to see the favourite band in-person?

Conferences are expensive and for many not-for-profits the annual event is the injection of funds that can keep their other activities going for another year. But just as school education is being shaken up, in a parallel way, professional learning must be re-assessed. It is so often “do as I say, not as I do.”

Here are a few of my guiding principles for organising professional learning events. 

There is value in the expert – There are people who through study or experience are notable experts and are worth listening to. These people should be able to offer something beyond their regular spiel and know how to engage and connect with the audience.

Give participants a voice – Every person who attends a professional learning event comes with something to contribute. We need to create time and space for this to occur.

The content and activity should lead to changed and/or enhanced practice – Why do we come? Not to be entertained, although engaging speakers will also do that, but hopefully to be changed or lead change. 

There are opportunities for active learning – I have a mantra that runs around my head:

We can’t change the way teachers teach, unless we change the way teachers learn

If we want to challenge mindsets about learning, then we must model active learning for educators. 

Participants have choice – following from the previous point, what we hope to facilitate are learning environments that model new paradigm thinking. So how do professional learning opportunities incorporate choice and allowing educators to pursue ideas they are interested in?

There is value in the ‘gathering of the clan’ – I think one of the most important reasons for conferences is the connecting with the community. It is often said that the best part about a conference is the conversations over the lunch and tea breaks. 

Social media enhances when used strategically – Reliable wifi is essential and provides connection and dialogue. It also enables those back at school to follow the action.

The images here are from our two-day workshop, Making it Mobile that incorporates each of these elements. It was a great success and the 70 participants walked away with tools and programs that can be used with their own students.











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