Last weekend I had the privilege of working with Julie and Vicki (and Andrew, Bernajean, Frank, Simon, Madeleine, Ann, Billy, Tom, Steve and the amazing UNI “Panthers” team) at the second Flat Classroom Conference at Beijing BISS International School in Beijing (pictures here, tweets here: #flatclass2011).
Although there were a number of challenges, I continue to believe that this is the future of conferences. Let me tell you why:
It’s the students: The most amazing thing about this conference is that there are an equal number of students and adults (this time around we had 100 students and 100 adults!). How often do we sit in the same room with students from various schools as our peers, learning, thinking and exploring together? The energy in a room full of teachers and students collaborating is phenomenal. This is the kind of environment we need to be cultivating. Not teachers talking about what we should do with students. Just doing it. Together.
It’s the action: Both the student and leadership strand focus on actually producing something during the 3 days of the conference. The students develop a solution to a global problem (this time we focused on the environment and challenges of urban living) and the teachers develop a globally collaborative project they can implement in their schools. Both teacher and student projects are shared with all of the attendees and “judged” to provide authentic and timely feedback.
It’s the leadership: Everyone at this conference is walking the talk. Almost every presenter or leader at this conference is actively engaged in working with students on a daily basis. They all have real-world, everyday, practical tips for making global collaboration happen. Although we may have very specific views on what should happen in the classroom, we’re all actually working to make it happen – not just talking about it.
It’s the flexibility: Even though Julie and Vicki planned each day to the minute, they were always ready to take suggestions, accomodate for the needs of the participants, and generally completely mix things up at needed. The ability to go with the flow and make sure things are working for all involved (although it entails some long hours) helps ensure that everyone’s (facilitators and participants alike) needs are met.
It’s the approach: Facilitating at this conference is pretty much just like the way I teach. I love being in a room full of students and teachers engaged in their work, I love seeing their ownership over their process and product, and I love seeing how much they can learn in such a short time. This is why we’re teachers – our conferences should reflect the structure and environment we strive to create in our own classrooms.
I am so fortunate to have been involved in this experience (not just a conference) for the second time. The first time was in a workshop format (basically the same thing, only smaller), and in comparing the two, I see a few areas for improvement:
Cohorts not Strands: During the conference we had a Student Summit (all of the students working in teams together) and a Leadership Summit (all of the adults working in teams together). Although the strands crossed paths several times for the pitching (2 rounds of students pitching to adults and 1 round of adults pitching to students) and the Web 2.0 Elevator Speeches, I think we were too separate. It was easy to see that the highlight of the conference for everyone was in those mixed-Summit groups.
So, as Julie suggested in a “debriefing” session in Beijing, if we can split the attendees into cohorts, mixed student and teacher, I think we’ll get that amazing glow and energy the whole time. Just because we’re in the same room doesn’t mean we can’t be doing two slightly different things, but physically being in the same space makes a big difference.
More Time: I know this is always going to be a wish, no matter how many days we get, but I think just one more full afternoon will make a big difference. The students were introduced to the format, concept and goals of the conference in one very short evening session where they were given only about 20 minutes to get to know their teammates and brainstorm possible projects.
If we could extend that time a bit for students so we can be more clear in exactly what the end product will be and we can facilitate a more in-depth team-building activity, I think it would make a huge difference. At the same time, we could also have the teachers go through some specific tool-based sessions so they are ready to go with their projects the following day. A little bit of extra time spent getting the practicals under way will make a big difference in the teachers productivity the following day.
Structured Planning for Presenters: One thing I loved about Learning 2.010 this year was that we had one full day before the conference started to plan together as presenters. Considering we were all coming from different parts of the world and not everyone had worked together before (let alone met each other), it was so helpful to have that very structured time set aside for planning. Of course, not everything gets done in one day, but all of the specifics can be nailed down and a really cohesive workshop can be developed.
I really am honored to be able to participate in these Flat Classroom events. Even with the variety of challenges (hello, a conference supported by web 2.0 tools hosted in China?) we faced, it is always an amazing opportunity to learn and collaborate with some absolutely amazing people. Not only was it fantastic to be facilitating with all those geniuses listed above, but I also finally (finally!) got to meet Dave Truss before he leaves Asia, and spend a little bit of time with Colin, Ann, Heather, John, the fabulous BISS staff, and some great friends from ISB: Margherite and Martin.
If the power of conferencing is in the networking and the collaboration, for us as adults, won’t it be the same for our students? I sure hope we see more experiences like this focusing on bringing together teachers and students in a project-based, technology-rich environment.
What do you think? Have you attended similar events? How were they more or less valuable than teacher-only conferences?