There’s a conference coming up ... You really would like to get the most out of it but perhaps it’s your first conference and you simply don’t know where to start. Or perhaps it’s a case of you being at a lot of conferences lately so are feeling a bit jaded or just lacking a bit of enthusiasm.
Here are ten challenges you can set yourself to ensure you come out the other side feeling inspired, recharged and ready to innovate.
Tick them off as you do them:
1. Go to a talk about a topic you know nothing at all about
Maybe you’re a EAP teacher and you find yourself skimming every conference programme you come across for sessions about teaching academic English. Or perhaps you’re passionate about the Lexical Approach and gravitate towards any talks about lexis.
Going to talks where you’re motivated to learn can be a great thing but after a while, you might find the experience repetitive or you might realise that you already know a lot of what the speaking is saying.
So pick a talk – just one talk – that is about something that you’re not at all familiar with: maybe it’s a new approach to teaching, or a new educational app or software, or a teaching tool that you’ve never been interested in using before. If you’re a young learners teacher, go to a talk about teaching Business English with an open mind. You might not be the target audience for this talk, but you just might get something out of it.
2. Get to know to someone you don’t know
It’s always a relief going to a conference and knowing that your colleague or friend will be there. After all, nothing is worse than standing in a room full of strangers and feeling awkward. So we end up sticking to the people we know and not venturing further.
There are always many chances to get to know new people at a conference: sipping coffee at coffee breaks, queuing for food at lunchtime, collaborating in talks or workshops, or sharing a laugh at the plenary. And if you already know one or two people, speak to the people your friends are talking to and get to know them.
If you are one of the lucky ones who know quite a few people at the conference, then you’re in a good position to spot the newbies who might feel a bit self-conscious. Invite them to join your group of friends and ask them how the conference has been for them so far. Your friendly gesture will be more appreciated than you think.
3. Find something practical you can immediately apply
There is always a sense of fulfillment coming back from a conference bursting with ideas about what you are going to do in your classroom the following week. While there might be many enriching conceptual takeaways, having a practical activity you can carry out in class without too much preparation is always a bonus.
What is going to be the activity you will find from this conference? Or perhaps it’s a practical tip that you will try when you get to class/staffroom this coming Monday?
4. Flick through the new publications
Most conferences have an exhibition area or a place for publishers to display their books and journals. While the exhibition area is a good place to meet up with friends and make new contacts, don’t forget to have a look at the new coursebooks, teacher resources, methodology books, journals and magazines that are out.
Most publishers have done extensive research on the market and have an understanding of where the industry is at and where it is headed. You can benefit from this research by spending a little bit of your time looking at their products. A skim-through of the latest publications should give you a feel of the latest trends and innovations that might just change the way you do or see things.
5. Participate actively in sessions
Gone are the days where conferences are mainly about passive input. Many conferences now provide sessions where delegates are given a chance to participate actively. The coming Pavilion ELT Live!, for example, features a ‘Solution Room’ – a session of peer learning and targeted problem solving, and mini-closing plenaries that are led by audience participation.
We constantly emphasise to students how they can best learn by doing … so it is now our turn to put our money where our mouth is and ask more questions, volunteer in sessions, come up with ideas and make each session as memorable and beneficial as we want them to be.
6. Go up and chat to one of the speakers after their talks
Naturally, not every session you go to is going to fill you with inspiration and ideas. But there often is one that leaves you teeming with questions and/or comments that you’d like to share with the presenter. Some of us are afraid of bothering the presenter with our thoughts and opinions especially when we see them being swamped after their presentation.
However, bear in mind that most presenters like getting feedback on their talk and appreciate your thoughts on the subject. While they might be in a rush after their talk to get out of the room in order to make way for the next presenter, you can always catch them for a chat when things are a little calmer. Approach them during a coffee break or if you see them attending another talk that you are attending too. It’s also a good way to expand your network and get to know someone new (see 2).
7. Find something you’d like to research or experiment with after the conference
Some of us are keen to develop professionally but we are not entirely sure which area we’d like to focus on or how we can go about developing. Conferences are often good places to get inspiration for the next stage of your exploration.
Find a specific area you’d like to improve on or something that you’d like to know more about. Make a decision to look into this area after the conference, and make a plan as to how you might go about doing this. Perhaps you would like to read more about the subject or speak to people who know about the topic? Or perhaps you prefer to be a bit more systematic and would like to carry out some action research to investigate more.
If you’re interested in conducting your own research, Chris Farrell’s talk at this year’s Pavilion ELT Live! will look at how we can become teacher-researchers in our quest to develop professionally.
8. Spot a trend
Some conferences have a theme, and many conferences have talks that follow a similar thread, whether intentionally or unintentionally. As you attend the different talks and workshops, and as you chat to the fellow delegates, see if you can spot a trend or two. What do people seem most interested in? What are most publishers talking about? What seems to be the most controversial?
9. Share your experiences on social media
While some of us are lucky enough to be able to attend the conference and attend the talks in person, others might only be able to benefit from it vicariously, learning about what happens through social media channels online.
If you’re the sort of delegate/audience member who finds it useful to take notes during talks and workshops, consider taking those notes in the form of tweets that you can then compile using a hashtag.
If you’re a visual note-taker, consider sharing your piece of artwork with others on LinkedIn or Instagram.
If you’ve taken photos to capture the spirit of the conference, share them on Facebook or Instagram.
Just be sure to find out if there’s a conference hashtag you can use to reach the delegates and the people following the conference from a distance.
10. Find a way to cascade your takeaway
How can you maximise the learning you’ve experienced at the conference? How can you make it unforgettable? The best way to consolidate your conference experience is by reliving it for the benefit of others.
If you are representing your school or organization at the conference, you might already have to make a presentation summarising what you learnt. And if you are not obliged to do so, suggest ways of cascading the information to your fellow colleagues. Perhaps you could deliver a teacher development workshop on something that you learnt. Or maybe you could start up a reading group to research a topic you developed an interest in. Alternatively, offer to write about the conference in a staff newsletter.
If you are at the conference because you are investing in your own development, consider blogging about your favourite talks or starting a discussion online about something that has inspired you.
After all, as Confucius once said,
“I hear and I forget;
I see and I remember;
I do and I understand.”
How many of these things do you already naturally do when you attend a conference? How many do you need to remind yourself to do?
With this checklist of challenges, you will hopefully find every conference an investment well made.
For more on the upcoming ELT Live! conference, click here.