This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See
and the end of this newsletter.
We two IAE Newsletter authors have a combined age of well over 150
years. (Look out, Methuselah, we are gaining on you!) This increasing
age has supposedly brought us wisdom. Certainly it has given us
opportunities to deal with the substantial changes in our
professional and personal lives.
Our professional careers have centered on teaching teachers. Together,
we have quite a bit of knowledge in brain science, computers in
education, math education, and science education. We have done over
2,000 conference presentations and workshops, and we have published
This is the first of a series of articles that share some of our professional issues wisdom and experience with you. In these newsletters we are guided by a warning:
"Before you become too
entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me
remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom,
and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need
them all." (Arthur C. Clarke; British science fiction author, inventor,
and futurist; 1917–2008.)
How To Attend A Conference
The conference seemed appealing. It would provide an opportunity to
spend a few days in an intriguing city with a pleasant climate—and to
be professionally stimulated by the program the brochure and Website
The reality was something else. It’s happened to all of us. Sometimes
the problems have nothing to do with the conference itself, but rather
with such things as travel, lodging, and weather. But sometimes it’s a
program problem—the session we especially wanted to attend was
terrible; or it was filled by the time we got there, and folks raved
about it later. Many things can cause us to second-guess our decision
to attend a conference.
We’ve discovered over the years that it’s possible to creatively turn a
potentially bad professional conference into something reasonably good.
What follows are some things we’ve learned from attending and speaking
at hundreds of conferences.
Clarify Your Goals
What do you hope to accomplish professionally, socially, and personally
by attending the conference? What do you expect to learn that is not
online and/or in print? Who do you want to interact with in person whom
you can’t via e-mail, phone, or social networks?
How will it help your professional career if you attend and also
present a paper? How will your attendance help your professional
colleagues, both at the conference and on the job?
Conferences require an investment in time, energy, and money. So weigh the costs and benefits.
Before starting to attend sessions and events, study the program and
make some tentative decisions about what you want to attend.
Select at least two promising sessions for each time slot, and try to
check them out during the break prior to the session. Look at the
handouts and display materials. If you want something specific, briefly
ask the presenter if your issue will be covered. Notice that this is a
way to introduce yourself to the presenter and perhaps have a brief
If you’re not sure which session will best meet your needs, attend the
more promising, and sit in the back at the end of a row. If it’s
obvious after a few minutes that the session isn’t what you had in
mind, leave and quickly go to your second choice. Don’t feel that
you’ve insulted the speaker. They expect this to happen—just as they
know that folks who have left other sessions will shortly come to
A conference is a good place to learn new ideas. Always select at least
one session that will get you into an issue or development that is at
least somewhat new to you. A conference should provide you with
practical information, but it should also get you beyond where you
currently are professionally. Plan also to attend at least one session
of a speaker who you know has a considerably different opinion on an
important issue than you do. It’s important to hear contrary positions
articulated by their most articulate committed proponents.
If you are concerned about specific issues that probably concern few
others in attendance, don’t hesitate to contact the presenter after the
session. Most are happy to speak individually with folks who attended
their session. If they have to hurry off to something else, they’ll
tell you, and will then usually suggest a post-conference e-mail
exchange. Such e-mail correspondence has often given us opportunities to
clarify things we said in our presentation that mystified or disturbed
our correspondent, and it’s allowed them to explore specific concerns
the session (or conference) didn’t answer. Most speakers will suggest
resources and/or send useful materials related to such concerns.
You’ve probably heard the statement, “It's not what you know—it's who you
know.” Here is a different spin on that statement. Part of being a high
level expert in an area is knowing other experts in the area and being
able to draw on their expertise.
The most valuable part of a conference may not be the formal program,
but rather the informal contacts you can easily make with widespread
colleagues during a conference. Realize that all who attend a session
obviously have some similar interests, so get acquainted with those who
sit next to you during the pre-session wait. If you discover a kindred
spirit, debrief the session over coffee. Such a discussion may be as
professionally valuable as anything the presenter said.
Colleagues from the same institution who attend a conference together
may spend more informal time together during their trip, meals, and
socializing than during months on the job. Setting a schedule in which
each colleague attends a different session allows for a rich evening
exchange of ideas in an informal setting removed from job distractions.
The commercial and professional exhibits generally provide
an opportunity to compare a wide variety of resources in areas related
to your professional assignment. Companies tend to staff their booth
with informed helpful representatives, and so the exhibit area
(especially in major conferences) allows you to gather much useful
information in a short period.
In many cases, the exhibits area provides an opportunity to make and/or
maintain contacts with editors from publishing companies. The exhibits
may also allow you to meet and talk with authors and curriculum
material developers. You may get to see some of the latest and greatest
technology relevant to your areas of interest.
Conferences are usually held in interesting communities, and so you
should schedule some time to visit museums and other areas that will
enhance your knowledge of things that interest you. Make the conference
more memorable through such visits, dinners out, and so on.
One can easily get conferenced out over several days of continuous
sessions, so scheduling a recess period for yourself is almost always a
good idea. Consider the local trips many conferences plan, since it’s a
fine extended opportunity to interact with a bus full of folks with
A conference provides an environment in which you can do some
professional self-assessment. You may attend sessions in which you
already know just about everything a widely respected speaker says.
This bothered us early in our careers, until we realized that this is a
reason to rejoice. If our understanding of an issue is similar to that
of a respected scholar in the field, it’s an important personal
validation of our knowledge. The self-confidence it provides is often
important when our beliefs and judgments are questioned back home.
From Receiver To Presenter
A good way to insure that the conference will be first-rate (at least
for a short period of time) is to get on the program. We’ve always been
amazed by folks who complain about sessions they’ve attended, and then
admit, when questioned, that they’ve never submitted a proposal for a
conference session. At some point in your career, seek to move
periodically to the podium. Persist if your initial proposals don’t get
accepted. If you believe that you have something substantial to offer,
you’ll eventually be asked to present your ideas. It’s somewhat
frightening, but also quite stimulating, to stand in front of an
intelligent informed audience and explain what you’re doing, what you
We’ve thus discovered from decades of conferences that we can profit
from sessions that expand our knowledge, and also from those that
validate our feelings of adequacy by repeating what we already know.
Further, we can informally interact with speakers, strangers, and
colleagues, and can periodically escape into the exhibits and
community. Finally, we can strive to become part of future conference
Behind the Scenes
It takes a tremendous amount of work to organize and put together a
conference. Think about becoming one of the volunteers who do this
work. Get on the Program Committee. Agree to referee papers that have
been submitted. Join a Special Interest Group (SIG)—indeed, work to
become an officer in a SIG that interests you. If the conference
includes an overall business meeting and/or business meetings of SIGs,
attend and participate.
What do you do after the conference is over? Share with your
colleagues who did not attend. Follow up with the contacts you made.
Follow up with the ideas you learned. Do a quick mental review of what
went right and what didn’t. File this mental note away so that you can
draw on it as you plan for the next conference you will attend.
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About Information Age Education, Inc.
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