Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Death of the Hotel Education Conference

As a teacher consultant we are often called upon to either attend and or present at various educational conferences.  Without explicitly naming any direct conference that I have attended, I want to state that as education has evolved, so to has the model for professional development.  Three things ring true with most centralized educational conferences.

1. They cost a lot of money
2. They have little impact on teacher practice
3. They reinforce a teacher centered pedagogy

1. They cost a lot of money

Pic. of me prior to my Google +
workshop at GAFE Montreal
The irony of this statement is that I have found that the most beneficial conferences have been the less costly ones.  For example, Educon in Philadelphia (which you can read about here) costs a mere 150$ and was a great experience.  Edtech GAFE (Google Apps For Education) are extremely beneficial and cost around 250$ on early bird pricing.  Both these conferences are held on weekends, therefore no supply cost is incurred, and the participants and clearly vested, since they are willing to give up their weekends for PD.  In contrast,  some conferences cost well over 1000$ per attendee and are held during the week when Districts will incur additional supply costs.  Holding the summits in schools seem to be a cost saving initiative that makes for a more authentic learning experience than the impersonal feel of large hotel ballrooms.  Also, hosting your conference in a school allows for a more personalized learning experience for your attendees, since you can offer multiple breakout sessions.  This leads me to the second point.

Jim Sill (@mistersill) giving his wicked Youtube
workshop at GAFE summit Montreal

2. They have little impact on teacher practice

In his book Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie lays out a meta-analysis of many different teaching strategies to measure their impact on learning.  Systematically, centralized direct instruction, demonstration, formative practice and coaching all scored relatively the same in terms of comprehension.  However, in terms of skill acquisition, formative practice and coaching had a significantly larger impact than direct instruction and demonstration.  Lastly, in terms of concrete and sustained application of these new skills, the only method that had any impact was coaching.  So what exactly does coaching imply? John Hattie defines it as:
 "Coaching involves empowering people by facilitating self-directed learning, personal growth, and improved performance." 
This is why tools such as Google + and Twitter, which allow teachers to grow their PLN (Professionnal Learning Networks) have such value, since they are asynchronous and low cost.  In the end, the quote implies that centralized training, unless supported by continuous mechanisms that are accessible and affordable, has next to no impact on teacher development.  I remember a conference that I attended recently where the schedule consisted of 2 days of back to back keynotes (about 20 in total) with very few breaks and little time for reflection or interaction.  It isn't that any one of the presentations were all that bad (I was giving one of them #irony), or that the facilitator didn't do a good job moderating the conference, it is simply that this conference model is no longer relevant in education.  By the end of the first day, a fellow attendee (@Dlnorman) tweeted this out to the conference hash-tag during the final panel:

After laughing (almost out loud) I realized that he basically summed up the feeling of most of the room. Again, it wasn't that what the panel was saying was completely irrelevant, it's simply that the attendees weren't active participants and they felt they weren't given the right context to express themselves and debrief about the happenings of the day; therefore, learning was not present.  How does this reality translate into our schools? Our classrooms? I guess the question that needs to be asked is: If this training model has little to no impact on teacher practice and learning, why are we doing it?  That takes me to the third point.

3. They reinforce a teacher centered pedagogy

It should come to no surprise that the hotel type educational conference is still a favored format for teacher PD.  In the end, this mode of delivery reinforces what most teachers are comfortable with: many students learning from one all knowing expert.  This phenomena is nothing new however, models for integrating new technologies in schools have also been subject to this kind of problematic.  Just look at Bill Ferriter's (@plugusin) excellent blog post on Why He Hates Interactive Whiteboards.   Basically, no one likes change, but given the new technological context our students and teachers are now subject to, there is an immediate need for it.  School Districts need to invest in teacher PD since they are the front liners.  Teachers are the ones who interact with students everyday and have the greatest impact on their learning.  In the end, it is time to actualize a new vision of teacher PD and realize that if we want teachers to take risks, evolve their craft, and do things a bit differently, maybe we should start training them differently and offer different mediums by which they can improve.

I feel it is time to do away with the stale danishes and watered down coffee; the drawn out Power Points and the complex packet handouts.  It is time to network teachers and support them in a timely, cost efficient way.  Let's give our teachers time for them to create and develop together.  Let's allow teachers to build on their curiosity.  Let's encourage our teachers to re-establish their relationship with wonder.