Sunday, March 22, 2015

Contemplating Conferences

In the last month, I've participated in five different professional development experiences.

  • District level workshop investigating Standards-Based Learning and vertical alignment of content.
  • A weekend class as part of an ongoing program for Biotechnology teachers in Minnesota.
  • Minnesota iSummit.
  • Minnesota Conference on Science Education.
  • National Science Teachers Association National Conference.
Although I have learned and reflected as a result of each of the experiences, I have also been considering the flaws in some of these models. In particular, I've been contemplating the role of traditional "conferences" in the landscape of modern teaching. At both MnCOSE and NSTA I couldn't help but find myself disappointed at times. Disappointed in the predominance of traditional "read along on the screen while I talk" presentations, disappointed in the lack of pedagogy demonstrated by various speakers, and disappointed by missed opportunities for collaboration. I came away from these experiences with a conviction that we need to re-envision education conferences.

Before diving further into my ideas on this topic, I want to clarify that I do not blame the conference presenters for these flaws. First of all, it's a lot of work to prepare for a conference session and not everyone has the guts to stand in front of a room of their peers and speak. I have presented at conferences myself and was certainly not perfect. We all come from a tradition of having attended conferences before we actually offered our own sessions. We tend to replicate what we have already experienced in these presentations, which isn't always forward-thinking. If you have ever presented at a conference, first of all, thank you! Secondly, keep reading and consider what you might change next time.

When I first started attending conferences, it was the late 1990's, and I was just getting comfortable with finding information online. Twitter, Google+, and web-conferencing tools like Skype and Google Hangouts were certainly beyond my imagination. The acronym PLN may have existed, but I doubt it had anything to do with the educational sphere. A conference was the one place where I could find a bunch of great lessons and ideas in my content area in a short amount of time. Publications like Science Teacher only came out once a month, and I was lucky if there was one article each month that pertained directly to my students. Conferences were jam-packed with content that I could hand-pick. I remember the first time I attended an NABT (National Association of Biology Teachers) Conference as a new teacher and felt like the world had been opened to me.

Fast-forward fifteen years: If I need to brush up on some content, I find a free iBook, eText, iTunesU course, or MOOC. Looking for an innovative way to teach about Transcription & Translation? A quick Google search will provide me with lesson plans, projects, animations, and simulations I can adapt to use in my classroom. Feeling isolated as the only Biology teacher in my district? I participate in constantly-changing and engaging conversations with other like-minded educators via various online boards, blogs, and a multitude of social media tools.

So what need do conferences fill in this era when teaching resources and connections are now available to me by simply hopping on my MacBook?

In my opinion, conferences must offer experiences I can't have while sitting on my couch in my pajamas. First, I want to "do" something when I go to a conference session. Secondly, I want to collaborate with other people while I do that something.

I think an example of an actual conference session I attended this month will best illustrate this point. (Before you read on, recall what I said above about not blaming the presenters!) The presentation was about case studies. I use a few cases studies in the classes I teach, all of which I've found online and have adapted. In this session, I was looking for new ideas for case studies and better methods of implementation. Here's a brief overview of what this session did provide: A description of the different types of case studies and resources for finding them online. Throughout the presentation, our speakers frequently told us the best case study is one you write yourself. The end.

For me, this was a missed opportunity. When I consider what version 2.0 of this session should look like, here's what I would love to see: A brief introduction to the components of a case study, separate the audience into small groups of similar content area, and then guide us through writing a group case study we can all take back and use in our own classrooms. In this version, the audience would be active participants in the session. It would take advantage of the "genius in the room," and we'd all go home with a product that we couldn't have made on our own. Win! This is how my classroom operates; why shouldn't a conference session look the same?

There are some conference models that come close to this experience for me. EdCamps are the first that pops into my mind. They definitely encourage participation and collaboration. The one factor that they occasionally lack, however, is the "product." I've been to many EdCamp sessions that generated great dialogue, but nothing substantial that I could directly apply to my teaching. And sometimes this is okay too - but again, I have also had some powerful conversations on Twitter chats. At a conference, I'm looking for something more.

If you agree that our paradigm of what constitutes an "education conference" needs to change, what can we do? Personally I've made the decision that every time I present I will make a conscious effort to get my audience doing and collaborating. I'll reflect on this question: What will the participants come away with that they can't find anywhere else? If you are a presenter, please consider this same question. If you are a frequent conference attender, please give those feedback forms some of your time and tell the presenters and conference planners that you want and expect more from an education conference.
“Not having heard something is not as good as having heard it; having heard it is not as good as having seen it; having seen it is not as good as knowing it; knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.” Xun Kuang 
Image "Conférence NWX2012" from Frédéric BISSON on Flickr. Available via Creative Commons.