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Monday, June 18, 2012

Why are our Conferences Structured just like the Educational System We Want to Change?

I’ve attended probably a dozen geospatially focused conferences in the last six or eight months. I spent probably 70% of my time at these events listening to people talk while they flipped through PowerPoint slides. The presenters mean well. They put together their slide decks and for the most part speak to the topics they promised to address. But, they rarely asked the audience a question beyond “Can you hear me ok?” Further, they rarely looked up at the assembled audience at all. I wonder what their goal was in presenting the material?

My very favorite high school teacher, Mr. Marks, who taught me both 10th grade and AP chemistry, pretty much taught that way. He stood at the board and wrote equations. He spoke in a very metered way. He pointed to the giant periodic table to his right. He did ask us questions though. “And the charge on sodium is...?” And he looked into our faces to see if we were lost or following. I recall him saying, “I think Adena has a question,” fairly regularly. I know what Mr. Marks’ goal was. He wanted us to learn chemistry. He wanted us to do well and get into college. In my senior year he wanted us to get 4s or 5s on the AP exam. We did learn chemistry and I even went on to major in the subject, alongside geography, in college.

And, as much as I loved Mr. Marks, it pains me to suggest that I learned as much despite his efforts as because of them. It was tough to sit through four hours of chemistry lectures per week. We had labs and tests, but mostly Mr. Marks spoke and we watched, listened and took notes.

Spin back to today and I’m plunked down, in the dark, watching and listening to a variety of topics, some more interesting than others. Back in high school I could not be disrespectful, nor disobey my parents so I grinned and bore it. Besides, I wanted to go to college. It was not until graduate school that one of my professors, and I confess I do not recall the context but he was not angry, explained that if you are in classroom and are not learning anything you should leave. You should not waste your time. “Wow,” I recall thinking, “Really?”

I’ve attend a few “unconferences” in the past few years and there the “law of two feet” is in effect. It pretty much says the same thing Professor Gould said back then. (Peter, not Michael, for those who may be confused.) But we don’t do that at “regular” conferences. No. We sit politely and count the minutes until we can get up, stretch our legs, get coffee and maybe, just maybe, learn something by chatting with others at the event. Why do we continue to allow ourselves to waste time at conferences pretending to watch and listen to un-engaging speakers drone on while we learn nothing and are not invited to contribute in a meaningful way?

Today’s educators are looking to exorcise boring lectures from classrooms for the young (K-12) and old (college and grad school). The move in education is away from the instructor as “sage on the stage” spewing out knowledge, toward the instructor as “guide on the side” enticing students to learn from one another or via hands on activities they tackle. “Boring lecture stuff” is being cut to a bare minimum or pushed out of school entirely in what’s called “the flipped classroom.” Lectures are watched on video at home for homework and fun group learning with hands on projects and collaboration are done in class. Are we ready to have at least some of our sessions at our conferences mimmic this model?

I am. I’ve already suggested that one geo conference scrap its traditional lecture keynote for some group learning.