What are conferences for?
Like most teachers, I get invited to many conferences. I get invited personally. I get invited through randomly generated email lists. I get paper invitations to events that have absolutely no relevance to my life and to conferences where the organisers want £800 for a day listening to 'top people'. I get invitations to things that sound interesting but are irrelevant in my current job ('Implementing a Practical Pay Structure') and to things that are very relevant to my life but sound deadly dull.
Why do we go to conferences?
At a recent conference, I attended a workshop about working with 'non-voluntary adult basic skills learners'. The researcher began by dividing learners into two categories - 'elective' (those who have choice over whether to go) and 'non-elective' (those who don't). She then further broke down the 'non-elective learners' into those who were recruited through the 'carrot' approach and those where the 'stick' approach was used.
It seems to me that we could categorise those of us who go to conferences in a similar way. The 'non-electives' go to a conference because we are told to go. This could be because 'someone has to go' or 'you haven't had your staff development this year and we have targets to meet/an IiP assessment' (the stick approach).
It may be because you might find out more about, for example, LSC funding issues or 'I think you ought to go because you will get so much from it' (the carrot approach).
'Electives' go because we want to go. We may be presenting, in which case we have to turn up and then decide whether to stay for the rest of it. Sometimes we think we will genuinely learn something of interest, or be encouraged to see things in different ways, or we may want to be seen, or we may want to network.
What do we learn at conferences?
More and more, I ask myself - what have I learnt at that conference? And the answer influences whether I will go again. So, for example, several years ago I picked up, from an American academic, a project which became the 'Backpack Project' - working with families on developing literacy through creativity. Or it may be that I was faced with a new way of thinking about something, like the first time I heard about 'Literacy as a Social Practice'. Good, research-orientated conferences should make you stop and think about the importance of research to what you are doing, whether teaching literacy to a group, developing a new programme or constructing a policy. Conference presentations which have stopped me in my tracks include:
- listening to learners talking about their experiences of being in a group;
- a video presentation by young care leavers about the place of literacy in their lives;
- quantitative analysis of data on retention and engagement of adult learners; and
- listening to people like Jane Mace talking about writing.
Don't forget the social side
But we need also to recognise the social side of these things. Conferences are places where you can talk to like-minded people, having the same problems as you are. You can set the world to rights over a glass of wine and go back to work on a Tuesday evening knowing that others are doing the same. You can become re-energised as you see you are part of a bigger whole.
And you can often be surprised and come away with things that are totally unexpected. At a RaPAL conference a few years back, at the end of a workshop, I was offered £70,000 from a national trust fund to develop further work on literacy in communities - with no strings attached.
Oh, and I never have found out about LSC funding issues!