How are bus tours like conferences?

So, I’ve been a bit quiet the past few weeks, but I have an awesome excuse: I’m travelling in Scandinavia! We flew into Copenhagen, hung out there for a bit, then joined a group bus tour through Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and now we’re staying in an apartment in Oslo for a week. Stunning weather, varied landscapes, Vikings… it’s fabulous.

And while we were on the organised group tour, it struck me: travelling in this way is very much like a attending a conference – at least most of the ones I have been to for the purposes of teacher professional learning and development. What do I mean by that? Well, in case you’ve never been ‘on tour’, let me give you a snapshot of what it’s like.

Before going away, you will have poured over various websites and glossy brochures in order to choose the trip you want. Does it hit all the highlights? Will you get to stay in nice hotels? What excursions are included? Then, while you are away, you have a highly informed Tour Director who organises everything for you. What time to get your bags packed and ready for collection. What time to have breakfast. What time to be on the bus for departure. When the ‘comfort’ stops will be. When and where lunch will be. The history of your present location. Suggestions of things to do with your unscheduled time. It’s quite the experience.

You’ll have the absolute reassurance that you will have seen the key spots in the neighbourhood. You’ll learn something of the country, its people, and its culture. You’ll have someone to help you if you have problems. You’ll have a whole busload of people to chat with. It’s organised, safe, and reliable. And enjoyable: you get to see a lot from up high in those reclining bus seats.

I think there are a lot of comparisons to be made with traditional conferences. You’ll spend time thinking about whether you really want to attend the event. Are the themes of interest and relevance to you? Who else do you know is going? What break-out sessions are on offer? Who are the keynote speakers? And once you’ve registered, the conference timetable is set. Follow the instructions and advice of the conference MC to make the most of the experience. You have the reassurance of knowing you’ve heard from experts in your field, the fun of socialising and networking with peers, and the enjoyment of learning something new.

But perhaps the key comparison that has struck me is that of agency. Bus touring and conventional conferences offer the illusion of agency. Choosing between optional excursions and deciding what to do with your limited ‘free time’ on a bus tour that is otherwise highly scheduled gives the illusion that you are an independent traveller. Similarly, choosing between breakouts and workshops at a conference gives the illusion that you are an independent learner.

It is undoubtedly harder to be independent in both contexts. It requires effort, motivation, curiosity, and, perhaps above all, time. Time to do your research, to really commit to navigating your travelling… or your learning. So what’s the pay off in going off the beaten track? Satisfaction. Pride. Confidence. And the skills to continue journeying.

There’s nothing wrong with the easy route. It’s a great place to get an introduction. But we must not stop there to admire the (carefully pre-selected) view. We must then find our own paths into the unknown.

IMG_3423
Own photo. Somewhere in Norway.

Why am I rambling about conferences? Because that’s the topic of my PhD. Learn a little more here.

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