Our team of experts are often invited to speak at high-profile conferences, and we’ll sometimes pop along to learn more and to network with others who work in our space. Sometimes these events are of high-quality – the Whole Education events for example are great. But all too often we leave conferences wondering what we have really achieved, apart from a nice day out of the office. Are we the only people who come away disappointed?
Our main problem is that we don’t feel they offer significant learning experiences. There’s often lengthy keynotes from people who offer little inspiration. Speakers are often conceptual thinkers who work at the strategic level. It’s great to get their insights but they often cover too much theory and not enough practical examples to help root it in reality. Or they aren’t balanced with speakers who are actually working on the frontline.
I also get frustrated that audience questions can result in a one or two people hogging the floor with lengthy commentaries about their own thoughts without actually questioning speakers that are better qualified to share their insights further. I feel I’ve come to see the expert on the stage – don’t get me wrong it works amazingly well when people pose great questions that stimulate further, useful, discussion, but all too often that doesn’t happen. And don’t get me started on the speakers who are clearly from private companies who have paid a great deal to get on the stage but have nothing useful to contribute. Apart from that they’ve paid for the lunch.
Breakout sessions are rarely well designed to be energetic, interactive, and most important, to offer the chance to do more practical work. In fact they are usually just mini versions of the main event – more speakers, more Q&A formats. No facilitation.
We’re running some conferences this year. We are excited about our ‘engaging schools’ work and want to work with school leaders and decision makers to help them to think about redesigning their schools to foster deep engagement in learning.
Now, we know a LOT about creating opportunities for learning. So how awful would it be if we offered a conference that looked like the above. We couldn’t hold up our heads in public again. We get why people do the same-old, same-old, it’s more of a risk to break out of the mould and try something new. But again, given that we are an innovation organisation helping others to see that risk is a vital part of the innovation process, we need to practice what we preach.
We love the ‘flipped classroom’ concept. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it’s a taking the education world by storm, turning on its head the traditional classroom/homework structure. The ‘flipped classroom’ concept involves lectures posted online for students to watch at home, with class time devoted to collaborative activities that build a deeper understanding of the subject matter. So, instead of having a teacher stand up and impart knowledge to a class full of students, students do the traditional ‘content’ stuff at home. This frees up time for them to have deeper learning experiences in the classroom. It’s such a powerful model because it’s a much more effective way of learning. And it better utilises the teacher’s skills. Early research shows that students do much better when they learn this way.
When designing our conferences we decided that we wanted delegates to benefit from every conference’s richest resource – the people in the room, in rich collaborative sessions that allow you to work with experts, learn from your peers, and ask burning questions. But how to allow enough time for this, whilst still having keynotes from great speakers, and opportunities to ask them questions? This is where we drew inspiration from the flipped classroom model and decided to run two flipped conferences.
This model offers many interactive sessions where delegates can explore issues in depth rather than sit through long plenary sessions with a short space for questions and answers. It maximises the time for these, while managing to still offer insights from high-profile experts. Delegates can view keynotes and lectures before the conference at their leisure, and we’ll be feeding questions on the day to experts and sending follow up videos that can be taken back to schools for further learning.
We’ve just noticed a blog post from Audrey Watters, a journalist specializing in education, who cites Alan Levine's call to "flip the conference." It’s exciting that there are others out there who think this could transform conferences as we know them. Come on people let’s start a movement!