One of the most popular PD models, particularly when schools close for the summer, is the large-scale conference with guest presenters and experts in a variety of areas. Hundreds, if not thousands, of participants, attend these events.
Why is it that we continue to organize conferences, you may well ask? There is significant research that confirms events such as these are not helpful if we expect participants to leave with a commitment to implement even half of what they may have learned from the conference. Joyce and Showers (2002), did some early research in which they were able to demonstrate that it is only when professional development is accompanied by strategic coaching intervention that participants ever have any success with the implementation of the strategies they may have learned at a one-day staff development session or conference.
So why would anyone agree to go to the trouble and expense to present at such an event, knowing it has limited value?
Well, I think we are often too quick to condemn these large-scale conferences without considering the possible benefits, so long as they are part of a long, more comprehensive strategy of staff development. By themselves, large-scale conferences do not provide the depth of learning and understanding to have any appreciable impact on student learning in a classroom, school, or district. However, that is not to say that they could not, provided they are seen as a means to generate an initial entry to ignite some enthusiasm and generate conversation for school and district teams about the possibility for implementation. One has to be able to begin somewhere other than the popular book study I hear many school leaders speak about. A book study, like a large-scale conference, may well be necessary, but it is largely insufficient training to sustain systemic changes that will lead to higher levels of student growth. I see this very much in the same way as implementing a new program or instructional strategy in the classroom. One has to begin somewhere, but without the presence and relationship with an instructional coach, it is unlikely that the teacher will progress further than a surface level of understanding of that new program or instructional strategy.
Hattie (2014) speaks about the need to understand the difference between surface-level learning and deep-level learning. Herein lies one of the explanations about the value of large-scale conferences, I believe. Large-scale conferences are really about surface-level knowledge and are foundational to participants’ understanding about the basic elements of larger concepts.
For example, next month I will have the privilege and opportunity to present at one of these large-scale conferences. In one of my presentations, “How Does a Leader’s Mindframe Make a Difference in Shaping a Visible Learning School?” I intend to argue the point that without the proper support and vision of the school principal it is almost certain the program, initiative, or strategy will fail in reaching the intended application. My session on the Leader’s Mindframe is designed to establish the importance about how the beliefs and attitudes of the school leader contribute a great deal to the eventual success of the implementation of any initiative or strategy. To understand what this means requires that we examine what Hattie has identified as the ten “mind frames” or ways of thinking—prerequisite notions that shape our behavior or actions. These actions then result in success or failure. The attitude the principal brings to the work, I believe, is the single biggest factor in determining whether or not the idea is implemented successfully.
In this conference, there will be only so much I will be able to share with the participants. It will clearly be a surface-level presentation of concepts and ideas about what the essential practices are that principals need to embrace in order to assure the training is of benefit to their school. To take this work deeper, principals need to study, understand and apply these and other practices in order to ensure the implementation of what they learn with fidelity.
Said another way, one needs to first have a surface level of understanding of the practices before one is able to apply those practices more deeply. These large-scale conferences help build the background knowledge essential in understanding the robust research base of Visible Learning, as one example. That means participants will need to learn the basic elements of these sessions in order to be able to make use of either one of them for more complex or deeper level strategies in implementing various elements of the Visible Learning research in schools.
The other benefit of this conference and others is being able to listen and learn from individuals and school teams who have been implementing various strategies using specific tools. Seeing and hearing the experiences of those who have been struggling to implement the concepts and principles of a framework or innovation is best understood from their stories, struggles, and successes—or lack thereof. Large-scale conferences are the ideal venue to hear those stories and to be able to ask questions of the people who have “walked the walk.” One must still be cautious, however—if this is all you do, you will certainly fall prey to the shortcomings of the “one-shot wonder” syndrome.
On a “deeper” level, keynotes from the likes of John Hattie, Michael Fullan, Pedro Noguera, and Vivian Robinson stretch our thinking even further.
So, let’s not be too hasty in denouncing the benefits of large-scale conferences in developing and extending the learning opportunities for all participants and presenters. As a long-time practicing elementary and secondary principal, I’m presenting some of these surface ideas at the Annual Visible Learning Conference in Washington, DC. Hope to see you there!
Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development: Fundamental of school renewal. (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Hattie, J,. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Hattie, J., Yates, G., (2014). Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn. Thousand Oaks. CA: Sage Publications.
*Ainsley Rose, “Are Conferences Really Worth It?”, As originally published on Corwin Connect, July 6, 2016, https://corwin-connect.com/2016/07/6545/.