Wrap-Around Engagement and Optimal Pathways for Conference Learner Experiences

Last year Dan Meyer, Zak Champagne & Mike Flynn shared a powerful idea about how the traditional conference-going experience wasn’t fully optimized. They have been enacting and refining their thinking by launching ShadowCon, a sub-conference at the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting. Leveraging the momentum of the learning experience, they argued that the conference session should be treated as more of an appetizer than as the main course. This thinking represents a huge shift in thinking about major professional development conferences, and I believe it is an invaluable piece of the professional learning experience.

To dig into this thinking and some new wrinkles in the storyline, I’ll try to build some visuals to help clarify my thinking. Let’s start with a simplified representation of the traditional conference set up.

Traditional Conference Arrangement Map with Strands and Sessions

Current Innovations in Conference Design

Call to Action

The idea presented by the ShadowCon-trio makes a profound adjustment on this traditional conference arrangement. Here’s what they recommend:

Each speaker was required to issue a “call to action” in the talk — a challenge teachers could undertake when they returned to their classrooms. We recruited and assigned a “live tweeter” to each speaker whose job was to tweet quotable lines from the talks for the benefit of participants who couldn’t attend. We also filmed the talks, editing them together with the speakers’ slides, and posted the talks online over the eight weeks following NCTM.

Here’s my visual representation of this “call to action” and online follow-up post-conference:

ShadowCon Arrangement Map with Strands, Sessions, and Follow Up

Keeping in mind the number of strands and sessions is arbitrary at this point, this makes sense to me. I appreciate the idea that there is some action to take and some consideration of engagement beyond that brief time we have together. As Dan, Zak, and Mike say, this is the appetizer version of the session. I do agree with their recommendation to NCTM too:

We recommend that NCTM provides each of its speakers with an anchor for their talks — a webpage — even if initially that anchor is only loosely embedded in the ground. The speakers themselves must voluntarily drive that anchor deeper by adding supporting resources, linking to conversations off site, uploading video or audio of their talks, offering a call to action, and interacting with the attendees who choose to extend their engagement.

And why not? The goal of a conference is to create change in practice and here the use of engagement is a proxy of sorts. It assumes (and likely correct to some extent) that change in practice cannot happen if teachers are not simultaneously connected to new ideas about their practice and a support network — one that helps to increase and improve the reflective process that monitors change. At first glance, I’m totally sold. Let’s never do a one-stop, drive-by session again!

Happy Hour

ShadowCon isn’t the only game in town though. I’ve attended the Twitter Math Camp for the last two years and I started thinking about how the appetizer concept applies to this incredibly rich learning experience. TMC really doesn’t feel like an appetizer but more like the continuation of on ongoing conversation I’ve been secretly spying on via Twitter. I pitched my analogy that TMC feels more like a happy hour than an appetizer on twitter and here’s what Lisa Henry, one of the TMC lead organizers had to say:

A resounding affirmation! Proceed!

So I had to start thinking about another way to extend the visual representation to capture both the pre-conference conversation that has been so amazing about the Twitter Math Camp and the post-conference call-to-action that is getting figured out through ShadowCon:

TMC + ShadowCon Arrangement Map with Pre-Conference Conversations, Strands, Sessions, and Follow-Up

I feel like this is already useful for me as I think about the kinds of conferences I would like to attend and the ones I’d like to be a part of. But if I’m being honest with myself, I still don’t think I see this structure as being one that is likely to create real change in my practice. Though, I especially love attending sessions by my favorite authors — I’m already primed and ready for what they have to say. Perhaps there is something important to be said about knowing that the session you are about to attend will deepen or extend your thinking on a given topic.

The Learner’s Experience

A Skeptic’s Perspective

All this said, I’ve recently thought a lot about the nature of large-scale professional development and I’m starting to wonder if building upon the structure with wrap-around engagement is both necessary AND sufficient. You can read Dan, Zak, and Mike’s post (and 5-page brief) and any of the conversations that have been happening on #MTBoS and see that it is almost certainly necessary in the sense that is useful, contributing in a very meaningful way to the learner’s experience.

Sufficient though? I’ve long been a skeptic of the Conference. Not any specific conference but the conference in a general sense. I treat conferences as a launching point for my own thinking and growth over the course of a year, rarely leaving a session changed. I’ve left inspired, conflicted, interested, challenged — never really prepared to be different. As I think about planning conferences and evaluating their impact, I’m becoming particularly aware of how little real data I have about the usefulness of a session, strand, or conference. (Can someone help me with this?)

While I tend to appreciate and agree with the argument that ShadowCon and Twitter Math Camp contributes something significant to the traditional conference arrangement, this argument is demonstrated through the quantity of Twitter engagements, blog comments, and self-report. I’m not saying this evidence should be dismissed but I don’t think it is enough. Just as we likely believe to be true in the classroom, an engaged (substitute entertained here if you please) student is not necessarily a learning student.

Conference Design

So what are we doing to think more constructively about the learner experience? How are we ensuring that their learning experience is meaningful and valuable both subjectively and objectively? I started wondering if we were missing out on part of the conversation that we should be having. Sure we need to think about what is happening before and after the conference, but what about during?

Twitter Math Camp 2016 Program

I’ve been to a lot of conferences in my decade in education and I can’t remember a conference that wasn’t organized by strand. Look at Twitter Math Camp’s amazing line up this year and you’ll see strands like Algebra, Curriculum, Social Justice, Technology, and more. These are potentially powerful themes that help link the learner experience across the day’s events. Yet, I don’t know many (if any) people who attend conferences and stick to one strand.

There is a sort of exception to the topic-based strands thinking. I was running my thinking by Valerie Mills, the recent President of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, and she was fast to point out that NCSM has strands based on roles. I dig that a lot. I think there is probably something really important to be said about thinking about being an excellent instructional coach and being able to attend a full strand that walks you through any number of critical issues related to that role. I’m not sure that translates well to our conversation about conference and learning focused on teachers, but maybe we can pick that back up in the future and learn from it.

Back to the standard teacher-oriented conference, we tend to bounce around to topics of interest regardless of in which strand they fall. Here’s what that potentially looks like overlaid onto the growing improving Conference Arrangement Map.

Conference Arrangement Map + Learner Pathway

In this visual, you can see the single-session in red extended by both pre- and post-conference engagement and also a random attendee (or learner) pathway through the conference in green.

It raises an interesting line of thinking for me: can pre- and post-conference experiences realistically scale to each of the 25 sessions shown in this imaginary conference and, perhaps more importantly, can it scale to the 5 sessions experienced by our imaginary learner?

Speaking as someone who is already a workaholic and on behalf of every busy conference attendee out there, the answer is NO! I can’t reasonably expect or hope to engage in any kind of meaningful way before and after each of my 5 sessions for every (or any) conference I attend. I don’t think this means the idea is dead in the water, but I’m starting to realize I don’t like it for the same reason I don’t like the “flipped classroom”; if each of a child’s 6–8 teachers did a flipped classroom and expected that student to spend only 10–15 minutes doing stuff at home, the burden on that child is extreme! Not to mention issues about how this scales poorly to families with multiple school-aged children and not enough computers. Okay… back to the point. There needs to be a way to combine the wrap-around experiences and the learner pathway, right?

Optimal Pathways

Increasing Learning and Engagement

One way of managing this overwhelming idea of creating pre- and post-conference experiences for each session is to focus on and leverage the pathways participants actually take. By focusing on learning progressions, we can simultaneously simplify the work of creating meaningful wrap-around conference experiences that richly increase engagement and increase participant engagement (still a best-proxy for changed practice).

A number of questions come up when thinking about this that I’m going to try to address carefully because I think this is really the biggest point of my thinking.

  1. How might we know/predict/influence pathways?
  2. How might we leverage pre/post-conference experiences for communities of learners that are moving along certain pathways?
  3. Are there conferences or other learning opportunities that are structured like this?
  4. Can a solution like this be realistically implemented and is it feasible for the participant, presenter(s), and the conference planners?
  5. What does a prototype of this look like and who wants to help make it happen?

To get us back on track, I have added a few random pathways through our sample conference to help me process what can be done to ensure the wrap-around experience are manageable and impactful. Here, I’ve shown 18 participant pathways through the conference. I tried to show each pathway so that multiple participants going from a certain session to the same next session wouldn’t be lost in the visual.

Conference Arrangement Map + Sample Learner Pathways

Knowing, Predicting, and Influencing Pathways

There are a couple of ways to think about learner pathways, including thinking about what can be known before and what can be known after. I’ll start with after because it feels realistic (and productive) but I’ll quickly tackle before because I think that’s where it starts getting interesting.

The first real step forward in thinking about this from the after perspective is to start collecting data on what pathways participants are actually taking through the conference. If we can analyze data on pathways and think about how those pathways impact the participant’s learning and practice, this could move this conversation forward significantly.

We should work intentionally to create an understanding of and clear guidance on the learning progression of adults, constructing an explanation about how adults come to have a sophisticated beliefs about how their students learn and how certain practices impact student learning, and how they implement and monitor a high-fidelity version of those practices in their classroom.

By the way, this is basically what I’m submitting to NCTM as a possible Grand Challenge. Read the first suggestion about NCTM taking up Grand Challenges here and information about NCTM’s current effort here.

With nearly ten thousand attendees at the NCTM Annual Conference each year, surely there is some narrative in the data that would help us understand the pathways participants take based on any number of characteristics (role, readiness, experience, etc.). With that information, we could predict future pathways and begin thinking about how to leverage it in future years. Which brings me to thinking about the before side of things.

There are two ways by which we can know before the conference what pathways participants will choose: we make really good predictions based on past information (see above) or we actually have people sign up for each session.

We’re not too far off this future. Sure things change for the participant as the date of the conference nears… and all to often, things change for the presenter. Providing participants the ability (if not the requirement) to register for each session they attend has a number of positive implications not limited to more accurate room assignments, more responsive presentations, less paper waste, clear lines of communication to participants about schedule changes or no-shows, and of great importance to this essay, improved ability to serve groups of participants with wrap-around experiences.

Dan Meyer’s NCTM 2013 Schedule

One key idea that comes to mind with the new potential of having participants register for each session is the ability to influence the pathway some choose. Dan Meyer has already dabbled in the influencing pathways game . with this attempt from 2013 that I actually utilized as I planned my conference pathway.

Not only can I imagine finding emerging popular pathways that are most often selected by participants, but in a really interesting and useful way, perhaps, pathways could be influence through curation. If somewhat visible #MTBoS bloggers (Dan, Fawn, and others on the blogroll), NCTM and NCSM speakers and authors, and other mathematics researchers developed specially curated pathways the same way Jamie Oliver teamed up with HelloFresh or, as recommended by my wife, Kate Hudson promotes Kate’s Picks at Fabletics does, I can assure you some participants would at least partially respond. I know I did in 2013 and I think many of us who want to grow as educators are always looking to our ed-heros for wisdom.

Leveraging Optimal Paths

So now let’s imagine that we have some sense of a few emerging communities of learners who are, by and large, progressing through the conference on the same path. At that point, conference planners and the presenters who fall on that path can work to produce useful wrap-around experiences, explore new connections across other sessions, and be more responsive to the actual attendees who will come to their session. Curated pathways have the same opportunity, though they are more optional and perhaps more structured ahead of time.

Conference Arrangement Map + Learner Pathways + Wrap-Around Engagement

In the scheme of a large-scale conference, where 10,000 participants might join, I can imagine launching this work in a really manageable way. By providing just a few curated pathways, we could learn about emerging ideas the pathway teams might have about how to enrich the learner experience. With just a few early attempts, this could translate into protocols that allow for communities to be ad-hoc based on the popular pathways. Volunteer (or paid) Pathway Guides or Coaches could be put in place to help launch and motivate the community.

Importantly, this optional level of engagement for the attendee provides them with an experience I believe to be largely absent from the current professional learning trajectory. Ultimately, I think this structure could lead us to be better suited for studying optimal pathways that lead to changed practice for participants and more.

Other Examples?

My first thought after laying this all out there is whether or not there is something that already does this? Have I missed it because of my myopic focus in education? Think of the great conferences like TED, 99U, SXSW, and even Comic Con; are they doing this well? Do they leverage some components of the appetizer, happy hour, or wrap-around engagement strategies discussed so far?


There is really a great opportunity at this point to push forward with a vision for conferences that leverages technology, our desire to be connected to our tribe, and the new structures for professional learning that is emerging from both ShadowCon and the Twitter Math Camp. We have such a strong desire to be connected meaningfully, both from our perspective as a conference goer and as a conference planner.

To really understand how a model for wrap-around experiences can be prototyped, implemented, and adopted we need to work to refine it. What are the new analogies that will help us more productively consider the opportunities for wrap-around engagement? What are the new technologies and structures that will allow for a more careful analysis of the impact of different learner trajectories that are more likely to lead to the desired outcome?

I hope this exploration brings to bear conversation, research, and innovation in the way we think about planning learning experiences for math educators in the future.

I’d love to hear from you too! Here are a couple questions that are lingering for me:

Q1) What about the proposed structure appears relevant or appealing to you as a teacher, researcher, conference goer/planner, or otherwise? Similarly, what variations would you recommend to make it more relevant or appealing?
Q2) Is there a useful analogy that helps better capture the proposed structure or extend our thinking on a useful structure?
Q3) What conferences exist that might provide insight and what are the first steps we might be able to take to enact a prototype version of this proposal?