Diane Ravitch gives the opening keynote at NAESP 2012.

I recently spent 3 days in Seattle at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) annual conference.  The 3 days were jam-packed with keynotes and plenary sessions by some well known thinkers and speakers like Diane Ravitch, Douglas Reeves, Rick and Rebecca Dufour, Rick Stiggins, Yong Zhao, Andy Hargeaves, Rafe Esquith, and Eric Jensen.  I came away from this event truly inspired…

My personal learning network at NAESP.

However, my inspiration was not solely from the speakers – much of my inspiration came from the brief but ongoing dialogue I had with 3 principals I met through Twitter: Scott Friedman (@irishscott), Christian Pleister (@cpleister), and Jeff Prickett (@jdprickett) – follow these awesome guys on Twitter – well worth connecting with them.  I attended the conference alone but because of social media, I was able to connect with these educational leaders, along with a few others, to discuss the words of the speakers and how we could use the ideas in our schools and education systems.

I have described before how my learning has been greatly impacted by social media… but I have to admit, although I was inspired at the conference, I was also very frustrated.  After 3+ years of learning alongside others through Twitter and blogs as well as participating in 2 Edcamps, I have learned the importance of taking the time to reflect and engage in powerful dialogue around ideas in education.  The schedule of this conference was similar to every other conference I have attended: keynotes and number of sessions compressed into a few days (although this conference had more “famous” speakers than any other I have attended).  The problem I have with this format of session 1, session 2, session 3, session 4 is that there is no time to reflect and discuss the HOW’s of education- HOW do we take the ideas of these thinkers and create change in our schools?

The Edcamp model allows a large chunk of time in between sessions for participants to dive deeper into the ideas.  In addition, the sessions themselves are not about being a spectator but more of being an active player in the discussions.  At NAESP, not only was there no time to connect with others face to face, but there was no wireless and thus, the multiple conversations that often occur in backchannels on Twitter was lost.  There was also no lunch provided… I am not disappointed in this because I had to reach into my pocket to buy lunch; I am disappointed because participants dispersed into their own schools and districts so very few opporunities were there to connect with new people (but as I said, I was privileged to be connected with others prior to the conference through SM).  At one point, as Andy Hargreaves was discussing innovation, I leaned over to Jeff and said, “how innovative is getting 1000′s of educational leaders in one place and have them… NOT talk for 3 days?”.

Now, I am not being critical of NAESP as the speakers they brought in were educators that I had looked forward to hearing and as I said, I came away inspired… but I think it is time to truly challenge the traditional conference model of professional learning.  The Edcamp model is one idea but I strongly believe that conference organizers just need to steal the collaborative idea of edcamps and build it into the conference.  Instead of going keynote, session 1, session, 2… why not have rooms dedicated to those who want to collaborate and dive deeper into the learning and ideas presented by the keynote(s)?  These areas could be completely free for participants to choose or could be focused on a specific topic or area of interest facilitated by an individual(s) determined prior to the conference.

It is no secret that funding for professional development is down and therefore, attendance in conferences is down.  I love the Edcamp model but I also think there is still a role for keynote speakers and session presenters.  In addition to rethinking the entire methods of professional learning (professional development days, etc), it is time to rethink how we do our professional learning so it is more cost effective and more collaborative.  It is time to rethink the traditional conference model.

What are your thoughts on conferences and professional learning?  Have you attended conferences that had a traditional conference model WITH time for collaboration?

A special thank to all those I met at NAESP – the inspiration for this post is the slight disappointment we did not get to learn more from you.