By Jessica Liew (she/her) and Blair Miller (he/him), teachers, Vancouver
We’ve all been there: you leave your professional development (PD) workshop feeling totally inspired and ready to transform your teaching. Then the practical realities of your job take over again, those great ideas fall to the wayside, and you never find time to integrate them into your practice. When we decided to organize a conference, we wanted to end this cycle.
We hosted the Perfect Blend Conference in February 2022 to help teachers explore the ways that effective blended learning can combine online and offline learning experiences to help increase meaningful human-to-human interactions in the classroom. It seemed only natural that our conference would have a blended format. We hosted the keynote and workshops live online, but we encouraged participants to sign-up in groups and tune in together, so they could also enjoy the collegiality of an in-person conference.
To create space within the day for teachers to integrate their new learning with their current practice, we made some key changes to the typical PD format:
We offered fewer workshops
Many conferences consist of three to four workshop sessions, but we only offered two learning sessions, so teachers had time to dig deeper into their learning.
We switched up the format
Instead of moving from workshop to workshop with no time to process all the new information in between, we created learning sessions that began with a one-hour workshop, followed by a break, then 45 minutes of exploration time.
We created playlists for self-directed exploration
During the exploration time participants used the conference website to access a digital playlist of activities related to the workshop topic. The list consisted of four self-paced, differentiated options designed to help participants deepen their understanding, practise new skills, or apply their learning directly to their teaching practice. These activities ranged from group discussions with colleagues, to listening to a podcast, to planning a lesson.
The teachers who attended the conference really enjoyed this approach. On the feedback survey all the questions related to the format received an overwhelmingly positive response. We had worried that offering fewer workshops might leave some people feeling short-changed, but, as one respondent pointed out, “too much choice is paralyzing.” Someone else reminded us that it can be “too much info and too busy if there are four sessions in one day.” Participants also valued the time that we created for applying what they learned to their teaching, saying, “I loved the playlist for exploration afterwards,” and, “I like that there was dedicated time during the day for exploring the material.” Reading these responses, we knew we had discovered a PD model that met teachers’ needs.
While our conference took a full-day, blended approach, we believe this model is flexible enough to be used for single workshops and half-day events that are offered wholly online or in person as well. If offered online, participants could access a digital playlist for deeper exploration. If everything is taking place in person, attendees could choose from different stations as a follow-up activity, or they could return to their own classrooms to put their learning into practice.
If you will be organizing PD for your colleagues this year, and you think this format might be a good fit with what you are offering, we also want to share some of the pitfalls we encountered, so you can avoid them:
Consider your audience
For some of the beginners in attendance, the workshops felt rushed, and some weren’t ready to move on to independent exploration when the session ended. This format may not be appropriate for introductory sessions or more complex topics.
Make time to curate good playlists
The exploration sessions will only be as good as the play-lists that support them. Keep playlist creation manageable by limiting the options to three to five choices. Not sure what to include? Ask the presenter for suggestions or take a closer look at the resources you will share with participants. Could you leverage these into exploration activities?
Prepare to help those who are unfamiliar with the format
Even if you provide links and instructions ahead of time, many attendees will be unsure how to access or use the playlists. Remind participants about how the exploration sessions will work at the end of each workshop, and prepare to field questions from confused attendees during the transition time.
Once you have navigated these bumps in the road, we’re confident that participants will appreciate this new approach to professional learning, and we encourage you to try it the next time you organize a PD session for your school or district.