@OxfordAustralia – A note for conference organisers

Warning: This post is, in large part, a review of/rant about a conference I recently attended that was hosted by Oxford University Press. The TL;DR is “The conference was about 60/40 interesting/crap and I feel the organisers didn’t understand their audience well enough. I’m available as a consultant for the development of future conferences.”

Professional Development in education is an issue that is not exactly controversial, but certainly the subject of much controversy. Within schools there is the controversy of all staff having equitable access to TPL activities (and the flip side of that is people feeling resentful about being ‘forced’ to go on such activities), and then outside of schools there is the controversy over quality and cost of teacher training activities.

First, a bit of background:

Anyone working outside of the public education system may not realise what a big deal it is to get access to professional development activities.

The last time anyone gave me any hard figures, each school’s budget includes an amount of money that is intended to be used for teacher professional development, and it works out to be around $750-800 per teacher, per year (these figures are from memory, and anyone in a better position to know is welcome to correct me – especially as, as far as I’m aware, the money is not ‘earmarked’ for TPL activities, meaning it can and sometimes does get spent elsewhere, and can also be supplemented from other budget areas).

Even if we worked off of these figures, it means that a school of 80 staff might have a budget of $64,000 at $800 per person.

Now if a teacher goes on a professional development activity, the cost of a casual teacher to take their classes can cost around $350 per day, and then the courses themselves often cost around $300 dollars per day, or more if it is a specialist activity. It’s not uncommon for a single day-long professional learning activity to cost a school around $700.

By comparison, someone I know personally works for a small subsidiary company that exists to provide a service to their large parent company, and this persons’ job is to oversee the staff training of employees within the subsidiary. With less than 50 staff in the organisation, this persons’ annual budget for training activities is $300,000.

So anyway, professional development activities for teachers in schools are at a premium, and because they are at such a premium, the quality of services from external providers becomes a bit of an issue, and that leads me on to the main thrust of this post.

The problem with corporations organising teachers’ professional learning activities is that they usually have very little idea what teachers actually need or how to provide it to them. Arguably the most successful companies I know that offer courses for teachers operate on the model of hiring teachers to write and delivery courses for that very reason.

When teacher professional learning activities are developed by people whose experience lies outside the classroom, or even outside of school operations, they so often miss the mark by either being too high concept and lacking in practical application, or being so simplistic in nature, that most teachers in the room feel like a short pamphlet would have been more valuable (and a hell of a lot cheaper).

Simply put, most organisers don’t know their audience well enough, and end up missing the mark.

On Friday 24 May I had the mixed blessing of attending the Oxford University Press’ conference on the Australian Curriculum.

The brochure and the concept for the conference seemed promising. The title of the conference: The Australian Curriculum: New thinking and learning opportunities, Keynote speaker: Edward De Bono(!), The blurb:” The Australian Curriculum is a profound educational reform. It represents a singular opportunity to improve teaching and learning outcomes, and Oxford University Press is delighted to host this event, designed to support the New South Wales educational community in realising implementation from 2014.”

How awesome does that sound?!? A chance to listen to the insights of a man voted as one of the 250 people who has made the greatest contributions to humanity as he talks about opportunities for improving thinking and learning in the new curriculum.

Second Keynote speaker: Howard Kennedy, Assistant Director of National Programs at the Board of Studies. The blurb for his session was a little less inspiring, however it promised some insight into the implementation of the new syllabus documents; it read: “This session will explore the implementation of NSW syllabuses that incorporate the Australian Curriculum. The focus will be on what this means for teachers and schools, expected time frames, implementation schedules, forms of implementation support available and opportunities that the new electronic NSW syllabuses afford, including helping to inform and inspire curriculum planning and individualised learning. “

And then there were three workshop sessions with many options focussing on subject specific materials and other, more general topics.

I chose the session on the new English syllabus, then on teaching literacy in the 21st century, an then one on the Self-Transforming School, but more on those later.

As you can see, the conference promised great things. Who would be interested in going to this conference? Beginning teachers fresh out of uni? Maybe, especially if they had a strong interest in thinking skills and new opportunities in the curriculum. Experienced teachers who were looking for more ways to extend their practice and engage students in more complex and meaningful thinking and learning? Certainly. Floundering or disengaged teachers who hadn’t bothered to pick up their new syllabus yet? Probably not. Unfortunately, the conference kind of targeted all three groups, making for a rather varied experience throughout the day.

Personally, I would say that about 60% of the day was of value to me personally, and the other 40% was so mind-numbingly dull and pointless that I found it difficult to sit still. I feel sorry for anyone on the other end of the scale for whom that 40% might have been valuable, useful time, but who found the other 60% to be too much for them. Maybe no such person existed and I’m just being elitist… can’t rule out any possibilities 😉

So why did the conference have such a varied success rate? Because the organisers didn’t know their audience.

Now, in fairness to the organisers of the conference, when Edward De Bono’s health prevented him from travelling at the last minute they did offer everyone the chance of a full refund, though it was made clear that de Bono was filming a video especially for the conference.

De Bono’s video, which ran for 20 minutes, provided some thought provoking ideas about the role of thinking in school curriculum – the key message being ‘most schools do it wrong’ (or as he more positively puts it, ‘EBNA”, ‘excellent, but not enough’), but then he was gone all too quickly, and his original topic of Creativity and Innovation barely touched on.

His replacement as keynote speaker: Sir Bob Geldoff.

Here’s where things started to get questionable.

What does Bob Geldoff have to do with thinking in the new Australian Curriculum?

He’s an inspirational figure with a history of great charity work for some of the world’s poorest people, sure. But will he really have the knowledge and expertise to help teachers embed more meaningful learning activities into their classroom?

He spoke for about an hour, 40 minutes of which felt like he was doing material, telling stories about his life and his journey from being a poor Irish boy to an international rock star to a global humanitarian and philanthropist. This was mixed in with a fair dose of political ideology, particularly about the wealth divide and the impact it has on poor countries. There was a loose educational theme running through his speech, and the other 20 minutes were more explicitly focussed on the educational aspects of his experiences.

Overall, while entertaining, charming, and eye opening in some places, it didn’t feel like a presentation that belonged in a conference devoted to “thinking and learning”.

During Bob’s tales of being a young man trying desperately to get laid in London, I couldn’t help but wonder, was it more important to the conference organisers to have an international celebrity, than someone who could have delivered a meaningful discussion about thinking and learning? Were there other political factors at play? Was it just that Sir Bob was in the country and available on that day?

Given that the conference contained people of an age young enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised if they asked ‘Who is Bob Geldoff?’, were the organisers a little generationally out of touch? Or just ‘playing to the base’?

Anyway, it was an entertaining hour before morning tea, after which Howard Kennedy took the stage.

He started with a joke about how his wife had made fun of the fact that he was following de Bono and Geldoff. I could sympathise with the joke, but given that he was a man in the know with the intentions and goals of the new Syllabus documents teachers have to work with, surely he could really bring some of de Bono’s high concept ideas home into a practical form and highlight areas for growth represented by the new curriculum.

Sadly, no.

Kennedy, by poor choices or uncertainty, instead delivered a presentation that was worthy of his wife’s scorn.

Keep in mind that the new syllabus contains, for the first time that I am aware of in Australian educational history, an explicit requirement for teachers to teach critical and creative thinking. All teachers, in all classrooms, in all subjects, must incorporate lessons on critical and creative thinking into some part of their lessons throughout the year.

How relevant to the conference topic would that have been? How great an opportunity to discuss subject integration! Or even to discuss some of the research and expectations behind this cross-curricular priority.

Instead, Kennedy’s presentation consisted of such insightful gems as:

  • An overview of the process of development
  • “Here’s our new website, oh wait, the internet isn’t working properly, where’s the tech guy”
  • “Ah, the tech guy’s here”
  • “Here’s more of our website”

I feel like Kennedy missed a big opportunity, but probably more correctly, the organisers at Oxford University Press probably didn’t set out a clear enough mandate for presentation content early on, and so left it to Kennedy to devise what he thought was a relevant presentation.

And, to be fair, if I was a floundering teacher who did not regularly look at the BOS website or engage in the educational community, his presentation probably would have been much more useful. But then I probably wouldn’t have been at the conference.

After Kennedy was the first of the workshop session, and the one I attended on the New English Syllabus, run by another member of the Board of Studies, followed right in Kennedy’s footsteps.

Literally, in some instances, repeating similar information he had offered – such as ‘Look at our new website’, ‘here’s what’s inside the new syllabus for those who can’t read’ and ‘have you seen our new website’.

Again, I suspect the presented could have delivered a much more engaging presentation if given a clearer mandate. How does creative and critical thinking feature into English? How do the changes in syllabus outcomes promote greater thinking in the classroom? There was a lot she could have covered.

But didn’t.

The final two sessions of the day were salvaged largely by the fact that they were presented by university lecturers who were presenting research and conceptual discussions about issues relating to the new curriculum.

They also both got my attention by making clear statements about the lack of educational validity of NAPLAN (though both were careful to divorce themselves from political commentary).

The session on literacy in the 21st century was mainly communicating the message that the concept of literacy is changing drastically, and I found the second half of that hour to be much better than the first half.

The final session was, in part, a sales pitch for a book being release in a month or so – hardly surprising given that the conference was organised by a publishing company – but he material was interesting, an overview of research of the factors that made a school successful and the need for schools to take greater control of their own curriculum and delivery to suit the needs of the community. Within that concept was an implicit need for a high level of resourcing.

So, if I was to graph the conference it would look like a bathtub. High at both ends, with a rapid decline/incline from a very low bottom.

The fault of this variety in efficacy I lay at the feet of the conference organisers. As I said at the beginning of this post/rant, knowing your target audience is an important part of arranging such TPL activities, and I don’t think the Oxford University Press group really had a clear sense of who would be coming to their conference and how to provide them with a satisfying experience.

For a publishing company, I would think that hitting the mark just right would be of crucial importance as it was clear that the secondary (possibly primary) purpose of the conference was to sell their new Australian Curriculum textbooks that were on display. Making sure participants felt inspired by the conference and enamoured of the organisers insights into education would seem a high priority for such an event.

Sadly, it was not to be so, and I for one wasn’t feeling inspired to rush out and commit any part of my faculty budget to Oxford University Press textbooks.

What’s the takeaway message from all of this? Maybe I’m just complaining too much, or maybe I should be organising conferences, seeing as I seem to know so much about it.

Either way, I think there’s a lot of room for companies offering services to teachers to step up their game and meet the needs of their market, or more teachers might just start organising their own events instead. To get a sense of the feasibility of such a proposition, one only has to look at the rising number of TeachMeet events, or similar teacher training events organised loosely under the ‘un-conference’ model of conference organisation where a bunch of people get together and, in an organised way, share what they each know for the benefit of all.

In the mean-time, I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is and work as a consultant for any company organising their next conference. With my varied background in Educational Psychology, Wedding Management and Directing Theatre, maybe I just have a rare combination of skills (or arrogance) when it comes to making something engaging and meaningful to the target audience.

On a final note, the photo below was shared by another teacher attending the same conference: It doesn’t say great things about an educational publishing company, but I think it’s a great metaphor for the conference as a whole…

Oxford Conference Sign

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Filed under Lifelong Learning, Reflections and Musings

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