Information Age Education
   Issue Number 70
July, 2011   

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 http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter.

Some readers may be interested in a recent IAE Blog posting that discusses a free book about high stakes testing in education. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/a-free-book-about-high-stakes-tests.html.

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 extensively.

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 promised.

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.

Sectional Sessions

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 face-to-face conversation.

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 theirs.

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.

Speaker Contacts

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.

Participant Contacts

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.

Exhibit Area

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.

The Community

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 similar interests.

Nothing New

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 discovered.

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 programs.

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.

Final Remarks

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.

Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. Please refer to the form below.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

To subscribe to this twice-a-month free newsletter and to see back issues, go to http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html. To change your address or cancel your subscription, click on the “Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this e-mail message.