Conferences

This post captures much of the application I have just made to start my PhD in 2018 (yikes!). It is not intended as a criticism of any particular conferences or unconferences I have attended. uLearn17 last week was a blast! For me, it is about whāia te mātauranga hei oranga mō tatou: seek after learning for the sake of your wellbeing.

In April, I was sitting in the crowd at a popular teachers’ conference in Wellington when I realised I was bored. I had spent the day moving from one location to the next merely to listen to someone talk at me from the front of the room. My bottom was numb, I was totally disengaged from the professional learning on offer, and I just wanted to go home. It struck me: in a time when teachers are being asked to “do” school differently (Bolstad et al., 2012), isn’t it time that professional learning and development for teachers looked differently to match?

From this experience, I have begun to wonder about a particular aspect of teachers’ professional development: the conference. It seems to me to be an under-researched and unquestioned mainstay of professional learning.

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My image: uLearn17, Design thinking workshop

But what is a conference? It is just one aspect of a broad spectrum of professional learning and development opportunities and experiences. At its heart, a conference is a bringing together of people with similar interests in a fairly formal setting to engage in discussion. So what makes a conference different to a workshop, symposium or seminar? Coming to an appropriate definition will be one of the challenges of this research. For this current purpose, I see a conference as an extended professional learning and development opportunity. One that is both an activity as well as a process by which knowledge is exchanged.

Being part of a learning profession, it is fair and reasonable to require teachers to engage with professional development and research. It is enshrined in the Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession (Education Council, 2017). Teachers must “engage in professional learning and adaptively apply this learning in practice” and “be informed by research and innovations related to: content disciplines; pedagogy…and wider education matters” (p.18).

Thus the conference as an activity continues to be a popular means of accessing and obtaining knowledge as part of a teacher’s professional learning and development, even though research suggests that it has little impact on student outcomes (Timperley et al., 2007). Indeed, there are a huge range of conferences teachers might choose to attend from the formal, such as subject association conferences; vendor-sponsored conferences, for example CORE Education’s uLearn; union conferences, for example by the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA); professional networks’ conferences, for example, Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand (SPANZ); through to the informal, such as the unconference-style educamps.

As a means of accessing and acquiring knowledge, a conference can be seen as a learning process. Through this lens, a conference could be said to be about the transfer of knowledge. How then, does the model of the conference sit in this Knowledge Age whereby knowledge is increasingly seen less as a noun and more of a verb: something to do something with; a building block not unlike a humble Lego brick (Bolstad, 2011). These questions open up the possibility of exploring the epistemological and ontological aspects of a conference.

While there have been some calls to take different approaches to teacher professional learning and development, such as those made from Bolstad (2011), and Bull and Gilbert (2012), these appear to have had little impact on conferences. This isn’t to say there haven’t been some attempts made, such as the 2016 edchatNZ conference, on whose organising committee I sat. There, we organised teachers into ‘tribes’, with a trained mentor as ‘tribe leader’. While attendees still selected a few breakout workshops to participate in, they spent a significant portion of time as a tribe, working collectively to create an initiative that could potentially evolve beyond the two days of the conference.

Indeed, there are many competing constituent parts to a conference to be considered: the organising committee and its assumptions and agendas; the delegates or participants with their expectations and individual needs to be met; the speakers and presenters with their key messages and unconscious biases. There are considerable sources of tension and friction to explore. In fact, when I start to think about all of the aspects of a conference as both an activity and as a process, I wonder if a conference might meet the definition of a complex system (Johnson, 2007, and Holland, 2014).

Therefore, I am wondering about drawing on complexity theory as an overall approach to this research. I have been struck by the practices recommended by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in their book Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015): asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives, seeing systems. I have a hunch that this approach may be fruitful in seeking to understand what happens at conferences and why these things happen.

Within this framework, it could be useful to explore the history of the conference: what was a conference originally intended to be? Are there traditions modern conferences draw from, whether consciously or unconsciously? Given the context of conferences as a part of teacher professional learning and development, it may be pertinent to review principles of andragogy, as well as what the literature suggests constitutes effective professional learning, such as those offered in Garet et al. (2001), Desimone et al. (2002), Timperley et al. (2007), and Timperley and Alton-Lee (2008).

It would be interesting to interview attendees from a range of conferences: the teachers and leaders, conference organisers, as well as others present at a conference, such as those on the trade stands. What stories do they have to tell? What insights might they offer into the conference experience? What patterns emerge? It could also be worthwhile to consider why some teachers choose not to attend conferences.

In asking these questions, I am wondering about how conferences operate as a system, not unlike a biological ecosystem such as a rainforest, as well as the position of conferences within the wider education system. Conferences are one aspect of teacher professional learning and development, and thus can be subject to political forces and whims. How do these influence conference organisers and their choice of themes, keynote speakers, communication and marketing strategies?

It seems that there are many questions to be asked of conferences. It will be challenging to consider their constituent parts, and to attempt to see the conference as a whole. Why are conferences popular? If research suggests they have limited impact, why does the model persist? What might be learned from other professions’ conferences, such as those for doctors? Perhaps the key questions to be explored are the seemingly simple ones: what is happening at conferences? Why are those things happening? How might conferences be improved?

These wonderings lead me to my overarching question: How might conference participation support teachers in shifting their practice?

References:

  • Bolstad, R. (2011). Principles for a future-oriented education system. New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 2011-2012(21), 77-95.
  • Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A. Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
  • Bull, A. & Gilbert, J. (2012). Swimming out of our depths: Leading learning in 21st century schools. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER.
  • Desimone, L. M., Porter, A. C., Garet, M. S., Yoon, K. S., & Birman B. F. (2002). Effects of Professional Development on Teachers’ Instruction: Results from a Three-year Longitudinal Study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(2), 81-112.
  • Education Council. (2017). Our Code, Our Standards: Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.
  • Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes Professional Development Effective? Results from a National Sample of Teachers. American Education Research Journal, 38(4), 915-945.
  • Garvey Berger, J. & Johnston, K. (2015). Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. California, United States: Stanford University Press.
  • Holland, J. H. (2014). Complexity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, N. (2007). Simply Complexity: A clear guide to complexity theory. London, England: Oneworld.
  • Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best evidence synthesis iteration. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
  • Timperley, H. & Alton-Lee, A. (2008). Reframing Teacher Professional Learning: An Alternative Policy Approach to Strengthening Valued Outcomes for Diverse Learners. Review of Research in Education, 32(328), 328-369.
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