It was April 2017. I was attending (and presenting at) a popular conference for teachers when I realised that I was bored. I’m a learner who is happy to be passive.
Copy notes off the board? No problem. Read the textbook? Okay. Fill in the blanks in the worksheet? Righto.
But at this technology-driven conference, I was bored. It was boring to hear about how I ‘should’ be leading active learning in my classroom while a speaker pontificated from the front of the room. Why was it that what the speakers were advocating was so out of step with how they were advocating it?
As a member of both regional and national networks of teachers, I have been a part of organising conferences for teachers for years.
There was, for example, the first #EdchatNZ conference (2014, with the second in 2016), organised entirely through social media and online networking tools by a group of people who met face-to-face for the very first time on the morning of the conference proper. There were several #WellyED unconferences (2015, 2016, 2017): with a schedule planned in advance, but with the content entirely emergent from the teachers and educators in the room on the day.
Despite these experiences I was still left wondering: Why are conferences the way they are? Who decides? And, most significantly: How might we do a conference for teacher professional learning and development (PLD) differently?
Need to know
These questions bugged me sufficiently that in 2017 I began a PhD based around exploring these very issues. One of my first forays into academic territory saw me exploring the history of conferences. I read with especial interest about the history of the lecture, which still strikes me today as clear forerunner of the keynote speech. I puzzled over the enduring nature of the lecture, from Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde to TED talks on YouTube. What did these phenomena have in common? Partly, they are educative in intention: somebody deciding to share what they’re interested in, in the hope that you’ll find it interesting too.
For my next foray as a novice PhD student, I reviewed the literature around teacher PLD. I learned that the conference as a professional learning event continues to be a common way of accessing PLD, even though research suggests that it has little impact on teacher practice or student outcomes (see Garet et al., 1999; Porter et al., 2000; Timperley et al., 2007). Additionally, the literature about the models of teacher PLD is not complimentary to one-off learning opportunities such as the conference. These tend to be positioned as ‘sit and get’ sessions led by an external expert informing teachers about what they need to do to improve their practice. From Timperley’s (2011) view, PLD like this is driven by the expert’s “desire to tell”, rather than the teacher’s “need to know” (p. 14).
It seemed like there were resonances here, particularly around who gets to decide what others ‘should’ or ‘need’ to know. And it struck me: conferences are always designed by a small group of people for a large group of people. The small group gets to decide what the large group ‘needs’. So what if we flipped the script? What might happen if teachers designed their own conferences for their own PLD needs?
I literally dreamed up my PhD research project. Clearly my subconscious had been working overtime. I woke one morning after a vivid dream, grabbed my notebook, and sketched out a game board and some possible rules. I now knew what my research was going to be: drawing on literature and teacher voice, I would design a board game-like collective activity whereby teachers would be supported to design their own conference.
There are four layers to the d.conference collective activity, known as Plan D. In the first layer, teachers consider what they already believe about effective PLD. In the second layer, teachers consider their professional learning needs, and the learning needs of their students in order to decide what the purpose of their d.conference is. The third layer gets more ‘nuts and bolts’: who will speak at the conference; what the schedule of the event will be; what the learning at the conference will look like. Finally, in the fourth layer, teachers reflect on the decisions they’ve made whilst playing, and commit to sustaining their professional learning beyond their d.conference.
Why ‘d’? This was a nod to both Illich’s deschooling and the d.school (design school) at Stanford University. In his text, Illich talks about providing “a simple setting for encounters which are both autonomous and anarchic, focused yet unplanned and ebullient” (p. 41, emphasis is mine). This sounded exactly like what I wanted to do. Transgress the norms of the conference for PLD: the model of knowledge transference; the positioning of teachers as empty vessels waiting to be filled; the authoritative role of the expert. In other words, to both go rogue with my PhD and to empower teachers to go rogue with their PLD.
Playing as an act of transgression
This is the prototype of Plan D. It’s cardboard, putty, cut up kebab sticks, envelopes with bits of paper, ribbons.
And it’s an invitation.
A game consists of various elements: the game board and pieces, the players, the rules, and the interactions that happen within and amongst all of these elements. What happens above the board is at least as important, if not more important, than what happens around the board (Bolstad, 2018). It is what happens as the teachers interact with the game and with each other that I am interested in. Interactions are the life blood of a complex system. Their role in sparking, establishing, and cultivating change in a system cannot be understated. Interactions open up a space of possibility (Davis & Sumara, 2006; Salen, 2014) and give rise to emergence. What might emerge from a complexity thinking perspective, is unpredictable and unknowable in advance. Thus playing Plan D might be a way for teachers to “produce [create] different knowledge and to produce [create] knowledge differently” (St. Pierre, 1997, p. 175). It is also an act of transgression: by designing their own d.conference for their own PLD needs, teachers are challenging convention, being subversive, going rogue.
Do they go rogue?
Plan D has been trialled by one group of teachers at the time writing. I/we have noticed the notion of space and time emerging. The teachers appreciated the time and space given to them from their school principal to plan their d.conference, an in-service or teacher only day. They reflected on the times they enjoyed going to conferences and the ‘buzzy’ feelings they walked away with. They wanted to gift time and space to their colleagues during their d.conference in the hope that they too might experience ‘buzziness’. They noticed the way that playing Plan D opened up time and space for them to think, reflect, chat, laugh, share.
And as for going rogue? One teacher said this of playing Plan D: that it gave the group “permission to try something a little bit different.” Another noted this:
“…it opened the door to the other teachers saying, ‘This is something we want to do.’ They were ready to do something different for their professional development. And they may not have known all the ways to get that done, but because you [Philippa] sat there in silence, and you threw all those provocations out on the table, and just let us go for it, that, I think, was one of the most powerful things that happened.”
The next iterative version of the Plan D prototype will be played by another group of teachers in March, 2022 (online – thanks Covid). Will they too feel the permission / need / obligation / responsibility to go rogue? Only time (and space) will tell, but perhaps there is something about the playful, mischievous, experimental, and transgressive act of playing and designing your own conference for your own PLD that has the potential to spill over and spark change.
Philippa Nicoll Antipas is a PhD candidate, Teaching Fellow, Research Assistant, and Kaiārahi at Te Herenga Waka | Victoria, University of Wellington. You can mostly find her on Twitter: @AKeenReader. She also responds happily to email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 thoughts on “Going Rogue: Teachers designing their own conferences as a transgressive act (Philippa Nicoll Antipas)”
I found your post rather interesting – the process that you describe is close, but not quite to the process we followed when creating MYFest (https://myfest.equityunbound.org). Instead of teachers we are a group of professors, instructional designers, and educational technology specialists. We are ‘going rogue’ and planning the PD we want for the summer. We’ll see how it goes.
Thank you, Rebecca. I went and checked out MYFest, and it looks like a neat event. I like the way participants can ‘choose-their-own-adventure’, as well as the ongoing nature of the learning. I’d be interested to know more about the process you followed when creating the event, and how you came to that process.