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Thursday, July 4, 2013

We Need To Avoid the Calculus Syndrome, Thoughts After ISTE 13

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The post-ISTE13 comments and blog posts I've been seeing have me worried.  There are many educators who are now questioning how basic some of the sessions were and how we need to ensure there are discussions and not just presentations in the sessions.  I think it's time for a quick reminder of where we have come from and how, extremely, far we need to go with conferences and educational "events" like edcamps.

When I hear some of the brightest education stars making these comments I am reminded about how most schools treat their calculus teacher. The best and most experienced math teacher on campus earns the right to teach calculus. And, because of this, the students who need to have the best teachers miss out on quality instruction. What needs to happen is that the best teachers need to be teaching Algebra 1 so that the foundation of math for the high school years is set.

Similarly I see the best educators, with the greatest ideas on ways to improve education, hanging around with the other best educators. Those teachers who need to hear great ideas and might be wavering on staying in the profession aren't hearing from these great teachers. We need to be increasing the number of edcamp-style events, shifting professional developments to a more conference or edcamp feel, and we need to be creating financial incentives to get teachers to the more expensive conferences.

ISTE13 was my first ISTE conference. I have been to NCTM conferences (both national and regional), I have been to a FETC conference when I was living in Florida, I have been to TCEA conferences,  I have been to an EDUCON in Philadelphia, and I have both put on and attended edcamps.  In addition, as a teacher in the New Tech Network I have attended their annual conference, NTAC, each year.

Almost all of those conferences, with the exception of the NTAC's, I have had to pay the bill or have had to sneak into the event to be able to be around what was going on.  Yes, I have found ways to get around the entrance fee at some of these events. I'm not really proud of that but I do what I have to do to be able to afford the conferences. Once inside, I am able to stay in the areas where people hangout and I can be a part of the conversations.

For me, the conversations at conferences and edcamps are where I get the biggest bang for my buck.  There are many educators who are discovering this and are finding great value in the discussions going on in areas set up as Blogger Lounges or some other catchy name.  There are usually comfortable chairs, good wifi, and power plugs. And the people who congregate here will usually have interesting things to talk about.

But that is exactly the problem and the reason for me writing this post. The most "famous" and knowledgeable educators are hanging out together in the blogger lounge. New teachers can feel intimidated by the number of people and the feeling that everybody knows everybody else "in there." Believe me, I am just as guilty as everyone else. At ISTE13 I stayed in the blogger cafe almost throughout but I was also at the conference on my own dime and so I was in on a free vendor-area badge.

We need to remember that the majority of teachers have not heard of ISTE, or FETC, or Educon. And a majority of those who have heard of the conferences, I just mentioned, won't attempt to go unless it is nearby to where they live. The cost is too much or they just have better things to do like spend time with their families. So we get down to the small percentage of educators who are, not only, familiar with the conferences but they have ways to fund attending the conferences. Again, we are talking about a very tiny percentage of educators attending these events.

So, when someone attends their first ISTE, FETC, or Educon we need to have plans in place to make them feel as comfortable as possible. ISTE has the Newbie area and they start the conference with an overview of what will be going on each day.  That is a huge help. Then we need to have more of the power hitters attending some of the basic sessions to help with the discussions. Of course some of the presenters in these sessions might be presenting for the first time. They may not be comfortable, yet, in this setting and the last thing they need is someone hijacking their session.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think conferences and edcamps need to start thinking about having a nice blend of both basic level sessions and "advanced" sessions which are more discussion-like with the session leader being more of a facilitator than a presenter. I know I hope to do a session at the next Edcamp on PBL with the discussion topic of "So PBL is the answer to all of our needs.  Is it really?" Or I'll come up with something better by then. But I know that someone will come up to me and ask me to do a "PBL Session" and I know that what they mean is I need to go through what the PBL process looks like. It will be very basic and it will be Standing Room Only - guaranteed.