Saturday, December 20, 2008

STUDENT Conferences are the Answer

December is a busy month! I was thrilled with an opportunity to visit Jon Becker's excellent blog Educational INSANITY. I sat down (innocently) to enjoy a peaceful and quiet read and french-vanilla coffee - not expecting to face an old and troubling issue. Then I read Jon's thoughtful December 4th, 2008 blog Conferences,Presentations, etc. - and the flurry of comments it inspired - and I felt an old concern I've learned to repress. My coffee is cold now and I am hot. Right up front, you should know that I am, at best, an education conference skeptic. At worst, I am an anti-education conference protester. Given this disclaimer, you now have the option of retreating.

I've attended and presented at more education conferences than I can begin to count. I abandoned confidence in them several years ago. I was forever changed by one surreal but pristine moment. I'll never forget it. I was attending yet another education conference on the west coast far from my east coast home. I looked up in this moment and was struck by a camera click instant - a kodak moment - a mental snapshot that hit like a thunderbolt. According to the Urban Dictionary definitions, my kodak moment, epitomized the second definition, "a horribly twisted event." For the first time in my conference experiences, I literally saw what I'd never seen before. I saw HUNDREDS of educators - glassy-eyed and disconnected - wandering through a Reno, Nevada casino in search of a vendor hall to claim cool "freebies" - simple trinkets promised by a vendor/presenter. And, all of this happened on a school day - a Friday morning! I can't reproduce the kodak moment. I can't reimage the looks on those educators' faces. I've provided a similar image of the setting in the photograph above and offer these descriptors for my colleagues' facial expressions: bewildered,dislocated, uncertain, confounded, lost, misplaced, uncomfortable. Can you see my twisted kodak moment? Have I made it vivid? Do you see the problem here?

I was struck by what seemed to be a flawed education conference system and faced five big questions that forever changed my outlook on conferences.

1.) WHO is in school teaching our STUDENTS on this Friday morning?
2.) WHAT could we do to improve STUDENT learning if all funds used for this educational "gathering" were applied directly to improving opportunities for STUDENTS to learn?
3.) WHERE does all the money generated by this conference go? Does it find its way back into U.S. classrooms - where it was appropriated to be spent on our STUDENTS' learning?
4.) WHY aren't forums like this dedicated to our STUDENTS who could benefit greatly from a conference that exposes them to the best minds and newest knowledge on the face of the earth?
5.) Finally and most difficult, WHEN will educators admit that a trip to a casino-centered conference is a blatant "perk" - a trip to an "adult playground" - possibly at students' expense? I was troubled that the public funds spent on this one conference might have supplied countless schools with the modern tools needed to upgrade educational opportunities for students.

In my own thinking, we've lost our way with education conferences. We leave our students sitting in closed nineteenth century classrooms while we jet to Reno to hear the best children's authors promote and sell their new books. We sit passively for an hour while speakers tell us what we already know. For those who wish to sight-see, seek entertainment and enjoy the ambiance of a new setting, the conference is a semi-vacation. If you are honest you know this is true. Let me ask you a very direct and difficult question: How are we any different than the corporate executives who redirect investors' and taxpayers' monies to opulent conference opportunities? How are we different? That is my question.

There is a fundamental flaw in the current conference design. The flaw - we've omitted education's reason for being - OUR STUDENTS.

My resolve is to avoid education conference that fail to focus on the STUDENT. In the meantime, I am learning far, far, far more using online professional development opportunities. I learned more in the K-12 Online Conference 2008 than I have ever learned in all face-to-face conferences combined. I see more potential in the NotK-12 Online Conference than I can ever image taking place in traditional education conferences. I find more pearls and nuggets in EdTechTalk forums than in packed conference halls. I sleep better at night knowing that I am not contributing to or profiting from a flawed attempt to "improve education." Marketing products and ideas to educators in short, one-shot, speaker-centered sessions is a poor application of research on learning. We know that. It is expensive time wasted. We are far too smart to think these conferences are improving the future of our students. We are far too ethical a profession to sit by as our profession directs funds to unproductive causes. Let me conclude with this very difficult question: If we asked our students and their parents to glimpse my "kodac moment," would they not be as infuriated as those who are losing their life-savings on investments mismanaged by leaders who recently scheduled an elaborate conference at the taxpayer's expense? When U.S. citizens look at the Nation's Report Card, do they have a point in wanting to know the percentage of education funding spent on "elaborate conferences" for educators?

I'm just saying...let's think about this. Let's get real about our reason for being by focusing on our STUDENTS. If we focused our time and best thinking on how to create an effective conference for STUDENTS, we'd quickly see a First Lego League Competition, a Mabry Film Festival, an Inventor's Forum, a Writer's Symposium, a Health and Fitness Extravaganza, a World-School Financial Summit, and on and on. Then the educators could learn through Gary Stager's "minds-on, hard-play" with one important twist. They learn with and beside their students - as it should be in the 21st century.

Photo Credit: Casino at Excalibur from http2007's photostream on Flickr.


  1. Hi Beth,
    Just stumbled upon you blog and have enjoyed going through the posts, especially the one about educational malpractice.

    As I was reading this post I began thinking about not just having conferences for kids, but having them lead certain workshops, or at least be major contributors. I know one conference last year had many presentations on using 2.0 tools in school led by folks who had never really used 2.0 tools in a classroom. I see many presenters and tech integrators who use lots of great examples of the technology that they are asking attendees to use, but none of the examples are theirs. They can show a finished draft, but cannot speak to how to go through the various stages to get there. I think this actually does more harm than good. Newbies are shown these incredible examples, have no idea to how to actually get kids to that level, try to do it in class, fail, give up...
    My kids have had the opportunity to speak at a few conferences (virtually) this year. Now for each, I have no idea what the experience of the presenter was that asked my kids to participate, or what happened before or after my kids spoke, but each person in the room had the opportunity to ask kids who are actually using the technology questions about how they were using it, difficulties, changes they have made, etc. They were able to see the (wow-only intended to type a few sentences and I am still going!) the excitement and learning that has occurred within each kid because they used the tools.
    I think also that it would be helpful for teachers from average schools with average kids to hear about things that were done in those classrooms with 2.0 stuff. Too often if you probe a bit behind a "wonderful" 2.0 collaborative project it was done by an "elite" group of kids led by a full time tech integrator. I would like to hear more from teachers in average schools with average tech equipment. Ok--sorry, starting to ramble. Seems as though I have some unresolved issues on conferences too.

  2. Hi, Paul,
    I'm so glad you commented. I suspect there are a host of educators who know on some level that education conferences - as they are currently structured - are not the best form of professional development. It was good to hear that you've actually had students involved in conferences. I know they benefited from the experience. Our work, after all is to give students an opportunity to showcase THEIR work. I'm with you, Paul, I'd love to hear some cracker-jack students tell US how to use social networking. Bet the teachers could learn a few things!

  3. I'm with you--I hate conferences and now refuse to attend them. I prefer to stay at school and work with my students.

  4. Hi, Delaine,
    I just visited your blog! Great to connect with you in the blogosphere! I'd sure like to hear specifics about what you dislike about conferences. I'm thinking the "dislikes" probably identify the very things that need to morph into more productive and beneficial practices. Hope to hear more from you!

  5. Exactly. I do look forward to seeing people I know at Educon and a mini-vacation at PETE-C. I pay my own way and no school funds are used in my case. There is indeed no change in the 19th century classrooms, and that is the sad part...........

  6. Hi, Lisa...You just inspired an insight! Do you suppose we are currently perpetuating "20th Century" conferences - and in this 21st Century the "same old" conferences just don't seem to make sense? For me, this might be a key insight. Thanks for pushing the thought forward!

  7. Hello, Beth,
    is there any school system which is focused on the students´ needs at all? In Germany, the problem with the school system is that there isn´t enough further education for teachers, and if there is, we have got to do that during our spare time. There is next to no further education concerning technology, and even filling out reports for the students is done by hand. If there is a change, teachers, who are mostly 50+, can´t manage that. Nobody shows them how to do that.

    Another problem is that lessons are too short and teacher-centred. If you go about changing your teaching style, there are always those who tell you: "This will never work." or "How do you keep discipline in the classroom?"

    Still I think there is no way around putting the students in the centre of learning and showing them how to direct learning themselves.

  8. Hi there
    This is a most thought provoking post and while I share the concerns you express I don't think the answer is simple (in my context anyway). Personally I object to going to conferences during school time for the reasons you have outlined about the negative impact on students. At my school staff only get sent during the school holidays - and they have the option to say no. That is a beginning to sorting out who is going for the learning/networking!
    Then we require reporting back to the staff and school board of what has been brought back that is of value to our students, staff and parent community. In the last year we have switched the forum for this to Google docs as it gives the opportunity to collaborate in the thinking/writing and non-attendees can re-visit the ideas shared and ask questions when they have had time to reflect themselves.
    The reason I think that there is still a place for face-to-face conferences is #1 the networking and #2 the reality check for some teachers when they see that there are hundreds of other teachers out there confronting (or reveling in) whatever the school is focussing on at the moment. And that it is not some crazed notion that the management have grabbed off the internet and are trying to implement in isolation.
    Don't know if you have ever experienced this, but one of the frustrating/wonderful things about facilitating professional development in your own school can be working with a teacher over a long period of time and they just don't 'get it'. They go off to a conference and some stranger tells them the same thing and they come back excited about this new thing they have learned at a conference. I have been on the opposite end of this plenty of times too when presenting at conferences.
    I think someone out there must have come up with a continuum for conference attendance (I'm thinking a bit like the ACOT model) where you get to a stage where you are 'over' conferences and the online and unconference style is preferred. I still work with 100s of teachers who have NEVER been to a conference!
    Finally 2 things:
    I think taking teachers to visit other schools where the focus of PD can be observed successfully operating with students is more powerful than a conference.
    Conferences run/presented by kids are wonderful. I have had students presenting at these for several years.
    Thanks again for the post
    Auckland, NZ

  9. Well, good ideas abound! Emile, you nail the problem when you identify the need for self-directed learning opportunities for students AND teachers. Seems that schools everywhere are constrained by 20th C boundaries!

    I'm also intrigued with Dorothy's suggestion about teachers visiting exemplary schools as a PD experience. We don't do nearly enough of this kind of exchange in the U.S. Can you imagine a scenario in which mini-conferences are held in high-performing schools with teachers, students and guests serving as presenters? My first choice for such a conference is Microsoft's School of the Future in Philadelphia. Touring that amazing facility with teachers, students and Gates himself would be the ultimate PD experience!

    Oh, and Dorothy, you may be right about "conference overload." I'm sure I was overloaded! You make a great point with this leveling perspective.

  10. Just came across you on twitter and have now signed up for your podcasts and RSS feed. Great post. I was there (in Reno). My principal literally asked if I had ever heard of this NCTM thing and if I would like to go to Reno. I told him that the local conference was in Oklahoma but he said that the school district was going to send people to Reno. He also wanted me to accompany a new Math teacher who had never been to any PD outside of the school district. So, I went.
    My one defense of attending the NCTM conferences (locally or nationally) is that I always learn a nugget or two that I take back to my classroom/school. And, I thoroughly enjoy interacting with teachers outside of work.
    One district I was with would not help with the funds unless you held PD for the math teachers in the district and kept a journal of all of the sessions that you attended. The last district I was with made me pay for everything AND take a personal day. So, there are a couple of extremes.
    As for student conferences, I am fortunate to teach in a New Technology school and we have students presenting projects to their classmates about weekly. In Texas we will be having an All School's Student Conference (at the Univ. of Texas) this Summer where students will be presenting to other students from the 4 Texas New Tech schools.
    Social Media (such as twitter, facebook, and linkedin) have made it easy to interact with experts in all phases of education and I see conferences going the way of the black board. As you mentioned, on-line conferences and webinars are convenient and fill the need for educating educators.
    Thanks again for a thought provoking post.