What is it about a mandated, contractually obligated, professional development conference that inspires some teachers and completely turns off many others? Why do some teachers glow with excitement at conferences and many others complain as they go through the motions? Is it the conference itself, or the attitude of the educators attending, or a combination of both?
When it comes to professional development for educators, conferences are believed to offer a great deal of choice with usually a seemingly wide array of sessions and workshops for educators to choose from to fill their blank schedules for a full day of learning. That is at least what is in the minds of the conference planners as they spend a huge amount of time planning these events. They seem to concentrate on the how and what of education, but fall short of the why.
The why refers to why we do things in the first place? Without at least discussions on that subject of why we should, or should not do certain things in order to examine their relevance, we might find we are doing things just because that’s the way they have always been done. To simplify an example: that is why we teach keyboarding and not typing. There are no longer any typewriters, but keyboards abound. Of course all of that goes out the window with mobile devices where thumbs and pointer fingers rule the keys. The point is that we examined why we were teaching typing, and found that we needed to teach something else to stay relevant, keyboarding.
We need more sessions in conferences that use panels to examine why we do the things that we do and engage educators in that discussion. We need more individuals leading discussions to explore and to challenge various things that we do in education. These panels and discussions should be sprinkled through conferences and repeated at least once, so that schedule conflicts will be less conflicted.
CHOICE in professional development is one of the biggest deterrents to learning. Yes, I said it. I know we are adults, and we are capable of making choices and we will all fight to the death to maintain that right of choice, but in most cases it doesn’t work. People do not know what they do not know; yet they will still make choices without sufficient information to do so. Why would an Administrator choose to attend a session on Blogging when he/she has no interest? That Admin might get a better understanding of why he/she should be blogging, as well as the need for their staff and students to blog, if they attended such a session. Again, this will be a selection that will probably not be made, because that admin did not have enough information to make an informed choice. The same applies to teachers choosing not to attend certain sessions based, not on their knowledge of a subject, but rather their lack of knowledge. I know we can’t know everything, but we need to recognize and admit to that. Maybe we are not capable of free choice 100% of the time in professional development.
Another question is how many people will choose to attend a session that takes them out of their comfort zone? Admittedly, some do make that hard choice, but the majority of folks in attendance will not make that uncomfortable choice unless they are attending the conference with a friend who drags them into such a session. These conferences need to find a way to allow for some choice while limiting it in other ways. Maybe a “Chinese menu style” conference with two choices from Column A and three from Column B for every attendee might be a solution. Column A would be pedagogy, methodology, and education philosophy sessions with panels and discussions, and Column B would be the how to sessions.
My final critique on these conferences is one I have made in the past. Most of the sessions in these conferences are conducted by teachers who are presenting to attendees on how they teach in class with specific tools. This is usually an explanation with a PowerPoint presentation. It is a reasonable assumption that they run these sessions based on their experience as a teacher teaching children. Their methodology becomes flawed because adults do not benefit from pedagogy. Adults learn differently. Andragogy is adult learning. Conversation and collaboration work best for adults, not sit and get while sitting in rows. This is why the sessions that usually get the highest ratings from participants are the sessions that addressed the participants as adults to meet their needs.
None of this is new. I have addressed these issues many times since I began as an education blogger. I think the term “yelling into the wind’ comes to mind whenever I cover this topic. If we prioritize professional development as a continuing need in education, eventually someone might listen to these suggestions. When that happens in whatever decade it does, please remember you heard it here first.
I must add to this that the people who plan these conferences are hard-working, dedicated individuals who do their best to provide the conferences with which they have been entrusted with the best presentations available. They do the best they can based on what they have experienced from other conferences.
Maybe we need apply that “why” question here. Why are we doing this conference? If it is to get educators to learn more about their profession and teach more efficiently and effectively with purpose and understanding, then maybe we need to change things up. Let’s teach teachers in ways that they learn best. If we are still teaching for the typewriter in this age of computers, we have it all wrong. We need to re-examine, re-evaluate, and re-vamp what we do with education conferences and professional development. To better educate our kids, we need to first better educate their educators.