Solutions: How to organise a conference in the age of online learning

The recent Ark Curriculum Plus event demonstrated exactly what the CPD conference still has to offer in the post-Covid digital age, writes Caroline Doherty

The recent Ark Curriculum Plus event demonstrated exactly what the CPD conference still has to offer in the post-Covid digital age, writes Caroline Doherty

13 Mar 2023, 5:00

Many a CPD conference blurb promises ‘practical interactive sessions’ and exciting opportunities for ‘professional networking’. In truth, teachers often spend their breaks trying to find a quiet spot to ring school, or start catching up on work when the content gets a bit dry.

In a world where meeting online is so much easier and cheaper face-to-face events owe it to teachers to do better. The organisers of last week’s Ark Curriculum Plus conference at Twickenham Stadium set out to do just that, and the result was a captivating event full of great professional development.

Less is more

The organiser’s temptation is to generate excitement by cramming as much as possible into their programme, but an overly packed agenda can leave people’s brains frazzled by choice alone – let alone processing all they’ve heard.

Curation is critical.  Oliver Caviglioli, a master of conveying information effectively, exemplified this when he implanted a thought-provoking idea in all our heads in a handful of sentences. He told us that learning doesn’t just occur in the brain but involves the body too. The mere act of writing information down or using gestures can reduce cognitive load in a way that supports working memory.

I suspect I’m not the only audience member who then ordered the suggested further reading, but more than that: this nugget was referenced by others throughout the day, proof that the quality of input trumps the quantity of time given to speakers. In fact, because there are so many ways to catch up with content on demand via podcasts and videos, the team specifically reduced the amount of time delegates spent hearing passively from speakers in favour of well-facilitated workshop sessions.

Be bold about breaks

It takes a lot of nerve to counter the urge to squeeze yet more content in, but proper breaks mean everyone can relax rather than don queue feverishly for a drink or the bathroom and there is time for longer and deeper conversations. At this conference, 25 per cent of the timetable was given over to lunch and coffee breaks and ultimately more peer-to-peer learning.

Most of the delegates I interrupted chatting happily away had never met before and had gone straight into tackling big issues around planning, curriculum and assessment. I witnessed two delegates who had sat together by chance redesign their key stage 3 subject plans while sucking lollipops. You can’t force that kind of serendipity, but you can make it more likely.

Shared expertise

As well as the separate subject streams, the delegates had a shared language as they all use at least one of the Ark Curriculum Plus programmes. This gave them a quick route into key questions about classroom practice. They were also sat in small enough groups that they could all hear each other and contribute.

Creator of Maths Mastery, Helen Drury pointed out that teaching is actually a very solitary profession; teachers are surrounded by young people but don’t get much time with peers. Schools and trusts are also bubbles governed by particular orthodoxies and policies. As much as hearing new content, CPD should give participants space to critically examine their own practice with other professionals. It was great that facilitators were able to let these fascinating conversations run little bit longer rather than racing to get to the end of their slides.

Presence and fun

I popped into a session with about 100 primary maths teachers getting their hands on Rekenrek’s, many for the first time. The curiosity and joy in the room were palpable.

The key challenge with online CPD is the temptation to mute your mic, turn off your camera and get on with other work, but face-to-face organisers mustn’t assume physical presence negates all of that in and of itself.

Senior leaders will worry that their school might have caught fire in their absence. Over-worked teachers will think their time might be better spent planning or marking. But with fewer, more sharply presented insights, a little physicality and plenty of time for fruitful conversations, days like this can truly deliver on the blurb with memorable CPD that has a lasting impact.

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