The Power of a Conference

Posted by on Nov 30, 2008

I believe attending conferences is one of the most dynamic ways for a professional to develop.

I recently attended the IETC conference in Springfield, IL, and I left, as I typically do from such a conference, with the indelible notion that there simply aren’t many better forms of professional development in existence.  I find this of great interest, as typically, many school leaders do not seem to share my sentiment.

Perhaps one of the most oft cited criticisms of a conference by administration is the cost and potential lack of accountability for those in attendance.  As opposed to sending people to conferences, the alternative is typically to bring in an expert to address the entire staff.  Unfortunately, while in theory that allows more people access to the same information, in practice, it tends to be much less effective than planned due to a myriad of distracting issues.  Hopefully, someday soon, people will start making this part of their normal inservice routine to facilitate greater results.  Regardless, there are too many things working against the success of the mass inservice model (sitting everyone in terribly uncomfortable lunch tables or folding chairs, having speakers speak of the importance of allowing student movement and attention breaks while delivering said message in an uninterrupted 3 hour information marathon, really, really bad PowerPoints).

Seven years ago, a friend of mine won the Milken Educator Award.  A few months after he won it, he was being interviewed for a journal, and the interviewer asked her first question.  It was something to the effect of, “What has been the most instrumental factor in making you the excellent teacher you are today?”  His answer came without pause.  “Attending professional conferences.”  My friend said at that point the interviewer smacked the table, turned off the recorder and said, “You know, I’ve now interviewed a number of Milken Award winners.  Every single one had that same answer.”  She went on to elaborate that the reason this bothered her so much was that she used to be a principal, and she refused to send any of her staff members to conferences because she felt it wasn’t a judicious use of time or money.  I think that says it all.

Something significant happens when a person attends a conference.  All the daily noise of the routine gets silenced, and there comes a great sense of focus.  By being away from the classroom for a couple days, and away from the demands of everyday life, a person can truly become immersed in learning more about the profession to which they are so dedicated.  Conversations take place, connections are made, and a great deal of thought is given to what it is that’s happening in their own professional practice.  It’s incredibly refreshing, to be honest.

One interesting movement in the current conference model has taken form the past several years, and that’s the idea of a virtual conference.  The K12 Online Conference is a good example of this.  The idea is to encapsulate all the good that occurs during a conference and make that available to people anywhere at anytime.  I think it’s a noble effort, and I think some very good content has arisen from this idea, but I don’t think it will ever really be what some hope it could be.  While I know there are a great number of people who have gained excellent insight and value from the K12 Online Conference, I know there are a greater number who have never tapped into the potential learning opportunity the online conference presents.  Which is rather unfortunate, because there are some excellent thoughts and ideas coming out of the conference that are not being heard by enough people.  The problem with a conference format like this is that the attendees lack that away from the routine focus that occurs by leaving town and going to an event.  I think it’s a rather difficult sell to get teachers to really buy into the virtual conference idea.  I believe if you’re looking to try it, though, this is an excellent way to start.

I believe there’s one more element that a virtual conference misses.  The face to face human element.  There’s something so entirely unique about getting to sit down and talk with people in person, and the connection allows you to apply more accurate context to a person who you’ve only met virtually.  I know that I can’t avoid adding my own interpretation of a person’s personality while reading their communications online.  I’ve found that every time I meet someone I follow on Twitter, I end up paying closer attention to what they are saying, and I have a better context to apply when reading the words they write.  And I think this is one of the greatest parts of attending a conference.  The connections that are made.  It touches such an important part of who we are as social beings, and so often, the connections turn into the most invaluable of resources.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to attend a professional conference, remedy that as quickly as possible.  Take the time, be open to new ideas, be prepared to be somewhat to entirely overwhelmed at points, and don’t be surprised if it changes you in ways you never expected.

Thanks to supervillain for the Flickr image.


  1. JenW
    November 30, 2008

    You will get no argument from me on the value of F2F.

    Without a doubt……it has changed entirely how I view certain members of our network…….who I will continue to follow and who are just fluff.

    It has enabled me to put realism with someone who might just be a great blogger yet does nothing else — and also put acceptance on someone who might have been quiet but in actuality HE/SHE is the one I should be listening to.

    But honestly, my favorite part of F2F is NOT always at the conference. It is at the excursions away from the conference. The dinners out, the quick lunch conversations, the drives in the car or train or shuttle, and yes, the moments before a session and the reflections right after.

    I crave for F2F and will do all I can to accomplish F2F as much as I can throughout the year. With twitter, plurk, F2F, and K12 (as well as other online venues) I get a chance to capture a glimpse of people. F2F….lets me see them close up.

    Good post, Ben!

    PS: I look forward to meeting you F2F this February.

  2. Karen L.
    December 1, 2008

    The first thing I noticed was the photo composition: mostly white men. What does that tell us?

  3. Hank Thiele
    December 1, 2008

    @Karen L.

    It depends – is this a picture of an ed-tech conference? Or is the point that this is who you typically see at an ed-tech conference?

    I agree that many of these conferences are man-fests. However, that is slowly changing. Although there may be some that still promote the men’s club, I am all for getting the best people together to learn from.

    That is why social networking is so important to pair with your F2F network. It is much easier to build a diverse voice from which to gather ideas. You can then decide who is essential to meet with F2F.

  4. Patricia Haughney
    December 1, 2008

    I am hesitant to post this but I’m often in the role of devil’s advocate. While I also feel most professional development at the district level disintegrates to a sit and get level, I’m not certain that conferences are the best opportunity either. While the majority of attendants are diligent about attending and work hard to bring back important information, there is a temptation to become distracted in the conference setting. At a personal level, I got overly involved in the back channel discussions at IETC and had to force myself to pay attention to the speaker. That was ok when the presenter wasn’t holding my interest but even in really good sessions…..I kept hearing that siren call of the back channel. Had someone answered me? Was there fascinating repartee occurring while I was off line? Was I missing a chance to connect with a new expert? Similarly, I would get involved in a good face-to-face discussion and not want to break away to attend a session that I had previously planned to attend.

    So, I suppose my question is how do we balance these conflicting demands on our time to maximize our conference experiences? We do have to accept that it’s an expense for our districts, especially when they’re out of town conferences, and I believe we need to apply a little cost-benefit analysis to the different forms of professional development.

  5. Educational Insanity » Blog Archive » Conferences, Presentations, Etc.
    December 4, 2008

    […] Ben Grey very recently wrote about the power of conferences. […]

  6. Steve Ransom
    December 8, 2008

    I would agree that conferences have the potential to reinvigorate, recharge, renew, challenge, facilitate new networks, etc… But, I think one must attend conferences precisely for those reasons. One has to choose one’s conferences carefully. And, as Patricia mentions, one has to be ready to engage rather than session hop, handout grab (thankfully, handouts are going paperless), shop, eat, bring the family for a vacation, and vendor shmooze. I can see why perhaps administrators could view this type of conference activity as less than cost effective in the sense that attendees may or may not bring back any new ideas, renewed passion, or transformative practice. A virtual conference certainly helps with much of this and I think that the K-12 Online Conference has been a wonderful addition.
    I think it is also highly beneficial to attend conferences that perhaps are not immediately within one’s narrow scope of interest – like EdTech conferences. I have found that I am often most challenged when I get out of my own echo chamber and hear fresh perspectives and new, complex and challenging ideas. For me, that is where I am most challenged. My latest post describes a recent disappointing echo chamber experience.

  7. Ben Grey
    December 8, 2008


    I’m looking forward to meeting you at ICE as well. One thing I failed to mention in this post is the importance of buy in from participants. Just like what Steve said, it’s too easy for people to come and “handout hop” or too readily give up on a session. Everything I wrote was within the context of assuming people care about the conferences they are attending. If they don’t work to glean critical information from the sessions, then their time is reduced to a glorified vacation, which does not help promote the cause of the conference.


    Extremely interesting observation. To be honest, I just grabbed that picture from Flickr because it was just about the only interesting image I could find representing a conference. I actually wanted to get a picture of the crowded halls at NECC from this summer, but I couldn’t find a good one. Your comment does bring up a very interesting conversation, and Jen and I are working on a blog post to be published at some point in the near future regarding your observation.


    I always appreciate good comments that work in the phrase “man-fest.” Absolutely right on about building up your network beyond just the virtual.


    I think there’s a point where a participant has to make his/her own choice. If there’s too much noise, maturity dictates that you turn down the backchannel or avoid running in a crowd with friends so that some focus can be attained. Think of how many people have had the same experience you’re having, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, because they haven’t been offered a way to multi-task and fully engage.


    I wish I could find the article I used several years ago for my Masters action research project about professional development. It was essentially an administrator’s guide to promoting productive participation at conferences. It had several good ideas for ways to both validate and hold teachers accountable for what they experience at a conference. I think just like utilizing a backchannel needs to be done with some boundaries, so does sending people to attend professional conferences.

    Your observations about NYSCATE on your recent blog post is a whole separate issue. That gets to the heart of choosing the right kind of conferences to attend. Planners of the event really need to be thoughtful when coordinating speakers and presenters, and participants need to be critical when looking over the conference program. It’s unfortunate that some of the larger conferences aren’t able to send out the program prior to the registration deadline. As I said, that’s a whole other issue.


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