My most recent memory of a traditional onsite education conference was Spring 2019. It was similar to so many of the conferences I had attended over the past 25 years. Let’s review the typical scenario:
- Location, location, location — Big conferences aren’t held in Gary, IN (famous for The Music Man) when they could be in Hawaii, Orlando, Austin, New Orleans, Charleston, or San Diego (on an aircraft carrier, no less).
- Variety and volume — Both the theme and the program provide something for everyone and the program is so packed with sessions that it can take a half-day to decide which to attend.
- Vendors, vendors, vendors — There is an exhibit hall with hundreds of vendors sharing their products and services for one-stop shopping. You can even get a seated massage. The vendors also finance large parties/gatherings during the evenings (costs are passed on to you in the form of higher prices).
- Inspirational and worldly keynotes — Speakers of national and international fame provide inspiration to your large audience. It’s a great energy boost to prepare for what is to come, but like most energy supplements, they wear off quickly. It’s cheaper to eat chocolate.
- Carefully screened workshops, but so many of them — Some conferences select by a committee and some crowdsource. The topic is less important than who you are, where you are from, and whether you’ve presented at that conference before.
- Network, Network, Network — According to conference attendance experts, it is the most important part of conference attendance. It’s easier to network at TSA security points in airports where everybody is in the same place. And, in some cases, “networking” has morphed into job interviews.
Few will deny the pure entertainment value of attending these large conferences, and some report that they were energized (a good thing) and might have even learned something (“I’ll let you know after I review my notes”). Yet many schools do not hesitate to send several members of the community, paying for airfare, hotels, conference fees, some meals, and miscellaneous expenses. The flip side of the finance equation is the conference sponsor, who must attract as many attendees and vendors as possible in order to make even a small profit on the event. Happily, all of the financial considerations enhanced by location would be worthwhile if school practices and policies changed as a result of conference attendance. Sadly, they rarely do. Attendees return with the best of intentions but dive right back into their daily routine after being away for several days. Within a week, nobody remembers the conference except that a good time was had by all. The lesson of the traditional conference: We need breaks from the daily routine, and conferences are a way of granting a “professional vacation” that has few downsides except cost.
What if conferences served a different purpose?
What if the goal of a conference was to educate attendees on a specific topic and provide them with the tools to return to their schools equipped to have an almost immediate impact and begin a process of authentic change? What is authentic change? It is change supported by a set of specific goals that are aligned with the mission/strategic plan of the school and are supported by most of the school community in a trust-based environment. What would that new form of a conference look like?
- The conference theme would be a program narrow enough to be thoroughly explored during the conference and with the potential to come to life at schools shortly after the conference. (“But we’re all too busy to take on another program just because somebody attends a conference and comes back inspired.” Somebody doesn’t go to a conference about a program that is not one of the school’s current priorities unless it’s strictly exploratory.)
- Attendance would be limited to a size that is manageable and intimate to ensure that meaningful progress toward specific goals can be made during the conference.
- The atmosphere would be one of personal comfort and authenticity. Building something important is not the result of marketing your school or yourself; it is a candid reflection of successes and challenges that you face, understanding that your peers are in the same predicament. That kind of empathy builds trust.
- The passion of the sponsor and each workshop leader would be to address the needs of each attendee by meeting them where they are in their thinking and respective state of school progress.
- Workshop pedagogies would model effective and active learning strategies in student classrooms. Slide decks would be provided to attendees as a resource, but not presented in their entirety during the workshop. Workshop leaders would minimize “direct instruction” as the preferred method of stimulating attendee learning.
- Attendees would walk away either with an action plan or the appropriate resources to create one.
- Vendors would be limited to those that have a direct connection to the specific topic of the conference.
Conceptually, attendees would function more as a working group than visiting educators “happy to be here.” The opening keynote would frame the topic and goals of the conference, explaining how the workshops are connected. The working group would have choices, albeit limited, for workshops to attend, based on their own expertise and the specific goals of their school. Each session would have a manageable group of attendees to promote meaningful discussion and small project teams. Networking would be more about problem-solving and comparing notes between focused workshops. Rather than a group of “sages on the stage” and listeners, attendees are a group of professional educators, some of which have volunteered to help their colleagues think about and structure an element of the working topic through facilitation. Imagine a session that prioritizes peer support and tangible results.
Now we have a venue for authentic PD that will lead to authentic change back home. The learning community at the conference emulates the learning community back at school (hopefully) where everybody is a peer (while some have a more facilitating role) and there is a strong measure of trust between school leadership and those that carry out the school mission daily.
Goodbye to the conferences we are familiar with. Welcome to the intimate and focused conference for authentic PD.