Tuesday, September 29, 2015

That's Not The Work

Admit it. You've been to a conference in the last few years, and maybe more than one. The food was hearty, you saw some old friends, the breakout sessions were fine, and the keynote speaker did a nice job. In fact, you quite enjoyed the presentation. You laughed, you agreed more than once, and you had a couple of "ah-ha" moments which you shared with your table or your online PLC. Then you went back to your district office, school, or classroom, and you carried on exactly as before.

The term I am starting to use for sessions that don't lead to actual change is "edutainment." They are usually affirming. They might even feel inspiring. In the end, in the interest of pleasing the audience, presenters are not prone to pushing very hard or demanding too much in regard to actual participation. Sadly, this type of event really is a cultural norm in the education world. All manner of us attend conferences with this same model and most of us fully accept the low level of accountability around the work, despite the significant cost in public money. Attendees will need to pay a conference fee of several hundred dollars, often stay in a hotel, and if they are a school based employee, get coverage that costs hundreds of dollars a day. A good chunk of this money will go to the conference keynote, often a professional presenter, and their fee will be in the five figure range. In fact, if they are in demand enough to work regularly, their annual earnings will be 3-5 times (or more) than the superintendent of your school district, the person who is actually accountable to your Board of Education for moving student learning forward. I know a few part-time presenters who are leading their own organization in an effective manner, but their responsibilities in their real work prevent them from engaging in a consistent presentation schedule and gaining full keynote status. I recognize that the professional presenters do work hard to stay relevant, but some have never actually worked in the field, or have long since left the learning environment and in doing so have fully converted from practitioner to educational celebrity. Professional presenting can be a rather lucrative micro-industry, but in the austere environment of education, this type of low-yield spending is pretty tough to defend.

If learning and leadership are both about change, the event needs to be more than preaching to the converted and get beyond mere edutainment. So, I ask you to consider these questions:
  • Did the opening presentation act as an anticipatory set for a legitimate planning session?
  • Did it push you to think differently and consider much broader perspectives?
  • Did you get the tools you need to do something you couldn't do before?
And most importantly:
  • Did the facilitator lead you and your learning team through a planning process that will move your class, school, or district forward in a genuine manner?
If the answer to all these is a "no", then you may have been wasting your time and the public money you spent to attend. I recognize I'm hardly out in front of this conversation. The research has been pointing out the fallacy of the "one-time" "sit and git" professional session for a long time, and we are overdue to make the shift to something more impactful. To be honest, I still like conferences, and I'm not quite ready to join or initiate a full boycott. However, after the next session is over, if I go back to my district office, school, or classroom, and I carry on exactly as before, what I participated in was edutainment, and that's not the work.


  1. Hey Pete - this is such an important topic. I wonder, though, what role planning plays in this (rather than what role the presenters play)? Presenters have done an effective job of making the best of a system that leads to a shotgun approach to PD. Our current model of PD is full of opportunities and choice with very little followup or continual learning. Head to a 2 day conference, listen to 3 keynotes and attend 5-6 breakout sessions. Rinse. Repeat. In a system that is set up like this, speakers often have 1 hour to grab the heart and attention of the participants before they move on to a different session. We all know how ineffective this is in learning.
    Until we change how pro-d is done, we will continue to get people who do a good job within the current structures and get very little learning beyond the day.
    In order to push people beyond the day, there must be alignment with school/district learning and there must be trust to move forward together.
    I remember my Masters prof saying we need to "blow up" the system and start over and I laughed when he said this... but the more I think about "rethinking" PD, the more I start to see his point. Our current system is a multi-million dollar industry that tries to balance autonomy with entertainment and learning with a small dose of accountability.
    So what if we started over - what would effective PD look like? Thoughts?

  2. Hey Chris,
    Thanks for commenting. A few years ago we asked the Buck Institute to come do a summer session on PBL, and it caused some raised eyebrows when they gave us conditions. If we wanted them to work with us, it was for a minimum of five days, over three visits with time in between, and everyone had to be in a learning team, or no deal. We did do it their way, and I have to say the uptake was much greater as a result. I would say the same thing about the school based PLC sessions from my school. The model of co-creating an expectation to try something new, experimenting in your class, coming back and talking about it with your team, then adapting and doing it again actually led to tangible change in practice, and I believe, learning. My other favourite adult learning was the BCELC sessions we did here in BC several years ago. Great topics and facilitators, but once again, several sessions linked together over time with a cohort. Sessions still have to engaging and meaningful to be effective, but the common thread I believe is that the learning has to continue over time, in a team, with a healthy mix of autonomy and accountability built in there. PJ

  3. Nice stuff Peter. I also think many of these experiences are terrible modeling. We too often sit in a room discussing the need for students to engage in inquiry based learning, to make their learning visible and to use technology is new ways - and we do this in a very traditional way. If everything we are proclaiming about student learning is true our learning needs to reflect it. We like the big conferences where we can disappear at the back of the room because it is easy - just like our students who often love the lectures - it lets all of use tune out. I actually think we should be boycotting some more of these events - if we don't they won't have a reason to change.

    Chris Kennedy

    1. Hi Chris and thanks for commenting. In our District we try very hard to model effective practice when we are doing learning session with our principals or our teachers. There is continuity because the content must connect to our Ed Plan and we are moving along a pathway, pardon the pun. We also spend a lot of time planning the session activities to engage our learners in a way that promotes, or rather, insists on collaboration. It isn't easy though, as the level of commitment from the planners and participants goes way up, but that was my point. Some of our professional organizations have made that level of commitment and those opportunities have been held up as exemplary. I am not boycotting just yet, but if I don't see you at the next one, I'll understand.

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