A New Era of Learning: Reimagining Conferences for Inspired Teaching

Chris McNutt
February 21, 2023
It isn't that education conferences aren't needed, but “I’ve heard this already” workshops and marketing ploys are a waste of time. Instead, our resources could be better spent expanding our professional understanding of related concepts to what we’ve already mastered.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Although understanding trends and modern research are integral to staying up to date, educators are inundated with conference and professional development opportunities that seem to all say the same thing. 

As a result, workshops can feel banal or pointless. How many times do we need to hear about data-driven assessment? About the importance of hands-on learning? On why social-emotional health is key to student success? At a certain point, we’re just confirming what we already know (which has value to an extent, but quickly becomes repetitious).

At the turn of the millennium, the education non-profit ASCD announced its five major strands for its innovative 2000 conference: 

In 2023, a similar program line-up includes 

By simply repeating the same learning over and over again, we’re not necessarily becoming any better at it. Teachers have limited time and energy and it’s important that attending professional development is deliberate practice: where one has a specified goal, some way to showcase what they’ve done, and feedback on how they’re progressing. Over time, “using data to drive assessment” has diminishing returns.

Typically, the latest trends in education are rehashes of older concepts. “Project-based learning” has had various spin-offs: challenge-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-driven learning, place-based learning, and more. Each of these approaches has its own novel spin, but they’re all virtually identical in practice. Experiential learning – no matter how it’s worded – has a general set of practices  that have been followed over the last century. As a result, attending sessions based on new acronyms and educational buzzwords quickly leads to cynicism as it’s something we’ve already seen before.

This is especially true when so many workshops have turned into avenues for self-promotion and marketing. Rather than pitch innovative ideas, edtech companies and professional development services use sessions for hour-long timeshare presentations. There is an economic incentive to selling a new magic potion that solves all of a teacher’s problems, and those solutions are almost entirely spun out of existing pedagogical frameworks. There’s extremely little change to fundamental practice and it feels like we’re changing just for the sake of following a fad. Further, as the education market for conferences grows, some have even developed their own line of merchandise. In these ways, brands are superseding content in the same way that most fast-fashion clothing manufacturers focus on labels over quality, with deleterious results.

It isn't that education conferences aren't needed, but “I’ve heard this already” workshops and marketing ploys are a waste of time. Instead, our resources could be better spent expanding our professional understanding of related concepts to what we’ve already mastered.

Semiotic Domains

Semiotic domains are defined by linguist and video game enthusiast James Paul Gee as a set of practices that utilize multiple modalities to convey meaning. In other words, a semiotic domain contains multiple signs — such as words, practices, experiences and more — in order to create meaning. For example, a teacher may be familiar with terms such as project-based learning, multimodal literacy, Maslow’s & Bloom’s, an “LMS”, or blended learning, but these same terms may have a different meaning outside of the teaching field.

What's intriguing about semiotic domains is that by immersing ourselves in a new, related domain, we can gain a better understanding of our current domain. For example, learning about video game design can help teachers to think more critically and creatively when it comes to designing lessons.

Interestingly, this is the same way that natural language processing is built into ChatGPT and other AI services. For teachers, if we know how to teach high school students, it’s a relatively small leap to teach middle school students. But if we attempted to become a professional blacksmith that would (likely) be extremely difficult. Obviously, our skills transfer based on things we already know. In AI, this is called transfer learning, where an AI is fed information from a related domain to build upon its knowledge more quickly and efficiently than simply scavenging for as much information as possible in a singular domain.

Pictured: A chart showcasing how systems are trained by using related domains as opposed to continually investing in a singular domain. Source: Manning

In other words, just like AI – it’s a lot easier for us to become better at something by learning about related things rather than the same thing over and over again, especially after we’ve been at it for a while.

Breaking Algorithms

It’s never been easier to discover new things. Whether it be music, art, blogs, or the latest educational trend – our digital tools provide us with a constant drip feed of new information. This information is dictated by our personal algorithm, a combination of our interests, demographic background, and previous experiences, all combined to give us the “best possible” option at any given time.

Yet, algorithms have their limitations. Spotify seems to always play the same five artists in “Discover New”, Google News displays a bunch of articles on something that I already know, and social media feeds reinforce existing viewpoints. It is incredibly difficult (and frustrating) to escape the algorithm: there’s so much information out there that we rely on these tools to tailor it for us. This information is also inherently biased – as  algorithms are created by programmers with their own perspectives and purposes in mind. (See Masked by Trust: Bias in Library Discovery on how academic research is warped through algorithmic biases).

In this way, algorithms ironically inhibit true discovery. Instead, we become trapped in a supervised loop of commonly recommended options that algorithmically align with our tastes, demographics, and search history. We are fit into narrow boxes, unable to find something entirely new. (Which will only get worse as AI is improved and “personalized.”) Conferences, like markets, shift based on whatever the algorithm promotes, offering workshops based on what everyone else is doing as opposed to something entirely new.

Breaking the algorithm requires going analog – escaping the recommendations of online services. Just as walking through a vinyl record store allows us to find new, never-before-seen artists, exposing ourselves to new potential artists, venturing into unknown topics gives us a fresh perspective on learning. This doesn’t mean we must find everything new in physical spaces, but that we must be hyper-aware of how much our digital habits shape what we see online.

Finding Better Ways to Conference

In the late 1990s, the loosely organized and participant-led “unconference” model became the solution to overly formal, workshop-driven conferences. Over the last twenty years, unconferences and edcamps have waxed and waned in popularity for many of the same reasons as traditional conferences. There’s nuggets of fantastic, new information that people share, but for the most part we’re all sharing information about teaching and learning that has been relatively mainstream for decades.

What would it look like to embrace semiotic domains as a “new form” of conferencing? Instead of attending educational conferences, what if teachers were sent to learn from community planners, documentary producers, board game creators, or graphic designers? What would it look like to take our expertise as educators, pair it with the expertise of other fields, then connect-the-dots between our fields? This is teaching-as-artistry: being able to flourish in our domain. Consider:

Each of these is tangentially related to teaching: sidewalks mirror school hallways, documentaries change our presentation skills, board games alter our course planning, and graphic design makes us rethink our resources. The experts in these fields don’t need to know anything about teaching. Instead, that’s where we come in. As experts in our field, we will intrinsically see these connections and learn experientially through these related domains.

And more importantly, these connections allow us to discover concepts that we may have never known before. Although some shifts are universal across all domains (e.g. the growth of incorporating artificial intelligence), most have their own ecosystems filled with new content to learn and grow from. This helps us escape our singular bubble of teaching and learning – akin to removing ourselves from a social media algorithm that only promotes certain content that echoes our worldview.

Similarly, these conference gatherings could have educators present on what they find in teaching and learning, offering new connections to be made for professionals in related fields.

Pictured: Human Restoration Project’s semiotic domains overview highlighting how K-12 education fits into other related domains, found in our Design for Change! resource. 

If you're an educator looking to expand your knowledge and try out new classroom practices, now is the time to seek out and participate in creative learning opportunities that offer unique learning experiences. Start exploring random concepts and embrace the chaos that is learning something new. By participating in these creative learning opportunities, you'll not only enhance your skills but also connect with other passionate educators who share your desire to innovate and improve. So, try something new!

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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