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Are Education Conferences Worthwhile?
They can be great for introducing people to new ideas, but on their own they're not enough to ensure schools change for the better.
I’ve done many presentations at education conferences over the last four years: international, national, statewide. Sometimes they’re events put on by a group of school districts or a single district, or a literacy organization. And sometimes I’ve been asked to speak to faculty and staff at a single school.
Most recently, I’ve been in Santiago, Chile (seen in the photo above), to speak at a conference that is part of a loose international network called researchED, which originated in the UK about ten years ago. The Chile event drew over a thousand educators and featured speakers who had traveled thousands of miles to be there.
I came from Washington, D.C., and two other presenters came from the U.K.: Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of the Michaela Community School in London, an amazing institution I’ve written about before; and Kate Jones, a former teacher now affiliated with Evidence Based Education, who has written a string of user-friendly books on cognitive science.
researchED events are designed to bring educators together with researchers and others who have expertise in the science of learning—a body of evidence that many teachers unfortunately haven’t been exposed to. I’ve been to three researchED conferences in the U.S., and there’s always been a lot of buzz and enthusiasm among attendees.
At the same time, the number of attendees has never been more than a few hundred—a drop in the bucket when you consider there are over three million teachers in the U.S. The idea has caught on better in other countries.
In the U.K., there are multiple researchED conferences every year, some of which draw so much interest that there are waiting lists. And the conference in Chile was on a massive scale compared to the ones I’ve been to. Sponsored by a local education nonprofit called Aptus and now in its fifth year, the Chile event has attracted a steadily increasing number of attendees.
But even if these events draw a crowd, how much do they—and the many other education-related professional development events that occur on a regular basis in the U.S.—actually accomplish? Do they change what teachers do in the classroom?
These questions are occasioned by a tweet I saw on the day of the researchED conference in Santiago, from a teacher named Eric Kalenze. He’s the person who first brought researchED to the U.S., organizing the conferences more or less single-handedly for several years.
“I am currently 90% sure that I’ll never attend another education conference,” Kalenze tweeted.
I was taken aback. I could understand vowing never to organize another conference—it must be exhausting—but why vow never to attend one again? (In a subsequent tweet, Kalenze clarified that the “90% sure” was pretty much a “never again” statement.)
Kalenze didn’t explain the thinking behind his tweet, so I can’t speak for him. But I can think of a few reasons to be skeptical that typical education conferences or similar events accomplish much.
First, we have evidence that “PD,” or professional development, for teachers is generally ineffective. A report done several years ago, called The Mirage, found that in the four school districts studied, the average amount spent on PD was $18,000 per teacher, per year. But 70% of the teachers in those districts failed to demonstrate any substantial improvement. Even when teachers did improve, the researchers were unable to figure out why.
One basic problem is that most PD is unrelated to the specifics of the curriculum a teacher is using. It might be a workshop on, for example, how to foster critical thinking in general. But cognitive science tells us that critical thinking, like reading comprehension, isn’t a skill that can be taught in the abstract and applied generally. Students can only learn to think critically about specific topics, as they acquire knowledge about them. If teachers are teaching about The Great Gatsby or the Civil War, what they need is a session on how to foster critical thinking about that particular content.
The other problem is the one-off nature of conferences and other PD events. At the researchED conference in Chile, one of the presentations made the point that bringing in an “expert” speaker—and here the presenters’ slide included a photo of yours truly—isn’t enough to make change happen. There has to be an ongoing, continuous effort managed and sustained by the school or district itself.
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As far as the first problem goes, I would draw a distinction between typical PD and the kind provided by a researchED conference—or, I hope, the kind I provide in general. True, the presentations aren’t grounded in the specific content teachers are covering in their classrooms. But on the other hand, they’re designed to dispel a lot of myths that are disseminated by teacher-training programs and the PD educators typically get.
In that sense, a researchED event can be eye-opening. One of the points I made in my presentation, for example, is the one I mentioned above: that it’s impossible to teach something like critical thinking in the abstract. Teachers—including those in Chile—are often told they should focus primarily on that and other “21st-century skills,” like creativity and communication, rather than on ensuring that students acquire any particular knowledge. But in the absence of knowledge-building, that kind of skills-focused instruction doesn’t work.
In her presentation, Katharine Birbalsingh was even more radical, challenging the philosophy that has become basic education orthodoxy—i.e., that teachers should be “facilitators” rather than actual instructors, and that children are endowed with innate knowledge that merely has to be drawn out.
“This is wrong,” she declared. “We have to put the knowledge in.”
More generally, she advised the audience, “Whatever the teacher-training institutions have told you to do, don’t do it!”
Despite her iconoclasm, or perhaps because of it, Birbalsingh clearly struck a chord with the audience, which interrupted her a couple of times with applause. No doubt her credibility was bolstered by the fact that Michaela had just been named the top school in England for fostering growth among its students, for the second year in a row.
In her presentation, Kate Jones provided the most practical advice for teachers, describing a plethora of creative classroom strategies for helping students retain information—something that teachers often get little or no training in, since it’s not considered important. No doubt many in the audience left with plenty of new ideas.
Still, there’s the second problem: the one-off nature of the event. An eye-opening talk, or even a passel of good practical ideas about instruction, doesn’t necessarily translate into changes in classroom practice—especially if a school’s curriculum is in conflict with cognitive science, or if the leadership isn’t on board.
And people sometimes take a message from a presentation that isn’t quite the intended one. I recently discovered that one U.S. school district that has had me talk about the value of a knowledge-building curriculum not once but twice is still using a curriculum that doesn’t actually build knowledge.
But I’ve also seen evidence that a one-off presentation like mine—or a book like the one I wrote, The Knowledge Gap—can spur significant, long-lasting change. In some places, the leadership has gotten on board, adopted one of the handful of true knowledge-building curricula (see here for descriptions by the Knowledge Matters Campaign, an advocacy organization), and provided teachers with the ongoing support they need to implement the curriculum well. Many of those schools and districts have seen improvements in teacher satisfaction and student performance.
That’s more likely to happen if there’s an organization like Aptus, which doesn’t just sponsor researchED conferences. It also develops high-quality curriculum and provides teachers in Chile with support in delivering it.
But even if a lone teacher attends a researchED conference or similar one-off event—from a school that is still teaching in the usual ineffective way—I think there’s still some value in that. The teacher might have an eye-opening experience and bring her new insights back to her school, or at least feel assured that she’s not the only one in the world who is questioning educational orthodoxy.
So I’ll continue to do presentations at education conferences and PD events—even though my schedule is getting a little out of hand (I just had a dream that I went to the airport to attend a conference but couldn’t remember what or where it was). In fact, shortly after I get back to the U.S., I’m heading to Halifax, Nova Scotia for another researchED conference. But I’m under no illusions that hearing a talk of 45 or 60 minutes by an “expert” like me, without more, will be enough to ensure change.