Yesterday I went to the first conference I've been to in a good few years. For me, a conference means turning up and - in the main - just listening. Recently I've attended learning days, teachmeets, unconferences and other variations on 'large gatherings of people with a common interest', but these have generally been participative, with workshop elements or more formalised 'meet and greet' opportunities.
We've moved away from the traditional conference models, and I've actually rather missed them. There is a fear, at these events of 'talking at' people. Is the assumption that this is dull, or unworthy, because people aren't necessarily learning anything? They are entertained (hopefully), but often passive. As @tombennett71 said at the start of his talk - it's ironic that as educators we spend time extolling the virtues of participative methods of learning but then always revert back to the lecture at events like this (I totally paraphrased this - apologies to Tom! - but hope the gist holds true :)
I learnt lots yesterday though; about the differences between transmissive and progressive education; the links between reflexive practice and action research; and the value of the question. This made me reflect back on our recent Reflexion Days at Northern College. The keynote by Lou Mycroft (@teachnorthern) was consistently mentioned in evaluation as being one of the points at which learners were most engaged. They also used phrases such as 'inspired', 'made connections', 'got me thinking about my teaching' , 'learnt what key terms mean and how to use them'. It was kept deliberately minimal, but I wonder what our assumption was here? The people in the room were there (in the main) because they wanted to be; many were familiar with the critical thinking practices employed at Northern College - perhaps this meant that they were more than ready to engage and question (internally and externally), as well as reflect, and this is why they took so much from it? As Lou wrote in a recent conversation with Alison Fisher:
'I wonder if the sort of work we do together is about learning how to be better (more critical, more discerning) with any interesting (or not) information source? So, for me, a great, informative presentation equates with a TED talk, or a movie, or documentary, or poem or book...with the added punch of face to face charisma to drive the points home. As an 'expert' thinker, I can sift through the information, know how processing works for me and squeeze everything out of it that I can.'
I certainly felt like I was processing what I heard yesterday at #NTENRED. The helpful questions in the programme facilitated this - particularly this one:
'Is the speaker's point of view contested? what might be the alternative viewpoint - have they discussed this?'
But what really made my thinking and learning go deeper was the fact that I was also spending time tweeting. Initially this was for the benefit of friends and colleagues who couldn't be there What I actually found was that it allowed me to actively participate, in the following ways:
- making connections with my own thinking and the thinking of others
- finding new people to connect with, with the bonus of avoiding the pain of face to face introductions (perfect for an introvert like me!)
- providing space to reflect later on, and follow up new ideas.
It brought other people into the room with me, too. A colleague asked an important question about the diversity of the speakers and delegates, which led to a discussion with @ellietrees about the homogeneous nature of events such as these, gender balance, and how to create more diverse Twitter networks. (I would be interested to hear what other #NTENRED participants think about this).
The best thing was that, by articulating what I heard in my own words, I was able to make sense of the information in front of me and reflect more deeply. I'm not sure that this would happen in the same way through note-taking; there is something about writing even short pieces for the web that elucidates and crystallizes thinking, and instills a discipline due to the public nature of the messages sent out. It also reminded me that the people sitting in front of us at events like these are engaging in a multitude of diverse ways, facilitated often now (but not always) by technology. I want to allow and encourage this kind of participation in any future plenary sessions I deliver, and hopefully both myself and my students will reap the benefits that follow.