I like to start off with how I like to learn, how I behave during typical professional development.
When I am at my worst (and I am sure I am not the only one like this), professional development or conferences are:
- topics of zero to little interest to me
- sit n' get
- being active, but doing "meaningless" tasks
- being forced into groups
- non-device friendly ("put your devices away")
- no room for growth or exploration
- theoretical and not practical
I'm sure the list could continue, but the gist is there: I don't like a structure placed on my learning. I don't like having to learn in certain confines - be that groups or be that by time.
I know some argue that groups are great and we must encourage group work. I agree to this only to a small point. As an introvert, I gain my energy and excitement from time alone. Being forced into groups can kill my creativity and excitement. I support the idea of using groups after initial thought has begun. Then, true collaboration can begin. In my experience, forced pairing does not work well. As much as we want it to work and as great as it looks on paper, you always have the typical group dynamics. So, I do my best to avoid that. I do, however, support whole-group, where there are resident experts in areas but, in the end, everyone is responsible for their own contribution.
That seems like a tangent, but at my conferences I attend, there is this an attempt at making sessions more active. However, that attempt often includes forced activities or forced group work. This is not natural and, therefore, does not yield the best results.
Topics and coverage are extremely important. Who wants to learn something that is of little to no interest to them? Many conferences (not always PD) allow you to choose your sessions. However, sometimes, you attend a session that you don't enjoy. You need the freedom to be able to move and attend something you might prefer more. Some conferences allow for premium registration or for pre-registration of sessions. Unfortunately, this does not allow for freedom. I have witnessed verbal fights outside of sessions because of this - attendees fighting for the chance to be in one particular session. Learning should be a pleasure, not a fight.
Other conferences focus a ton on theory and not enough on practicality. Yes, we want idealism but not at risk of losing educators. I've witnessed some of my fellow teachers disengage because a speaker spent too much time on theory and not enough time "down in the trenches."
A conference needs to allow attendees the chance to learn and grow. Some of my best learning at conferences like ISTE and TCEA have come in the playground areas. I love having students teach me. It's practical, hands-on, and non-structured. It leaves me feeling inspired. I find myself distracted in typical sessions.
An EdCamp is one of the closest models to my ideal conferences. I'd prefer a student-led EdCamp or an EdCamp led by the most reluctant individuals. Many times, conferences are led by the go-getters. However, I think we could have some of our best learners if we led conferences through students or our least connected folks. Not only would we see things for a different perspective, it would challenge all parties to step up, to be creative, and to engage.
Learning is engagement. A great conference is one that keeps us engaged.
I'd like more conferences to be like a playground and less structured. I'd also like more to be free. The cost is a huge limiter for some. For instance, at ISTE, some companies dish out loads of money to sponsor the conference. It would be great if they could also (or instead), sponsor some teachers and students to attend. This would put more "regular" folks on the house.
We need more of the "regular" folks at conferences. The forward thinkers will always be forward thinkers. Conferences should not just be a gathering of those forward thinking folks, but an entry point for those willing to take the learning plunge.
What do you think? What does your ideal conference look like?