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.