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Conferences Open Minds and Doors

Stephanie Hirsh image
Stephanie Hirsh

While a steady diet of conferences is not the professional learning we recommend, conferences can be valuable for particular purposes. With Learning Forward's Annual Conference about to begin, here are ways attendees at any conference can integrate their event-based learning into a comprehensive professional learning plan.

Although many people attend such learning experiences as a team, others venture out on their own. These tips can be helpful for people in both circumstances.


Be open to new ideas.

Conferences are successful when they stimulate cognitive dissonance and allow us to test assumptions, learn more deeply, and identify opportunities for growth. With that in mind, look for the chance to learn from people who are working on something that challenges you. 

While onsite and online learning are ideal for going deep in particular subjects, particularly when there is feedback and support to change practice, conferences are a great venue to sample new concepts. Most conferences offer a wide variety of speakers and ideas. With an open mind, learners can gather new ideas, examine other points of view, test assumptions, and consider possible changes for the future. 

I also suggest that participants engage deeply in each learning experience and interaction. Everyone has something to teach us. And in that same spirit, attend every possible session -- you can sleep when you get home.


Grow your network.  

Use every means, virtual or face-to-face, to connect with other attendees. Make a commitment to have quality conversations with three to five people each day and add them to your network. Sit with new people at meals and hear what they have to say about their successes, struggles, and questions. When possible, attend formal networking sessions to meet people who work in positions similar to yours or with similar challenges.

And don't miss out on virtual connection options. If the conference has a mobile app or Twitter hashtag, use it. These options can extend your networking beyond the dates of the conference and introduce you to other new colleagues.


Investigate new partners.

Conferences are filled with people who offer a variety of ways to support you in your work. Don't pass up times to visit with technical assistance partners or vendors.

With many former practitioners among their staff, these vendors have had a variety of experiences and can offer perspectives, support, and resources to assist you. Exhibitors and vendors bring the latest resources and materials in your field.

Most exhibit halls are set up as learning laboratories and are an extension of the formal learning program. Consider ahead of time what your needs are and ask exhibitors to tell you how they approach them. Think of all the free advice you get by beginning a conversation this way. 


Tell your story. 

Somebody contributed time and money for you to attend a conference. They carried an extra load while you were away. Remember to say thank you.

For those who helped to pay for such an experience, let them know what you learned and how you intend to use your new learning. Perhaps you were the team member whose turn it was to attend a conference. What can you share with your team to enhance their knowledge and skills? Perhaps you will bring home new understandings that can help community members understand the value of different types of learning experiences.

What do you do to get the most out of conferences? I'm eager to hear your ideas.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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