How do you make professional development genuinely meaningful?

Guest blogger Greg Klerkx shares his learnings from the Oppi education festival.

5 October 2016

Picture credit: Matty Swan (Greg is far left!)

The ingredients that make up powerful professional development are both simple to list and maddeningly hard to turn into something that feels genuinely meaningful, even transformative. The basics go something like this: start with a large helping of relevance and context; mix in generous opportunities for sharing skills and knowledge, and bind it all together with skilful session leadership.

Alas, I’ve been to many professional development sessions that have all of these elements, and yet I’ve emerged deeply bored, or stunned by too much information, or a feeling of an overwhelming sense of irrelevance (or in the worst case, all three).

So how do Suklaa, the folks behind the Oppi Festival, the international education event I attended from 22-24 September, manage to get it so right?

The fact that I’m framing this blog in the context of cooking and food hints at an answer. The most memorable session I attended at this year’s Oppi – it’s the third one – involved nearly three hours in which I learned to make pasta, orchiette (‘little ears’) to be precise. It was great fun; it was also messy, repetitive, and sometimes more than a little frustrating (I won’t be giving up my day job).

The pasta-making session was ripe for conversations stuffed with metaphor and allegory – the raw materials for learning, the moulding and shaping of young minds, etc. Instead, we simply made pasta. And talked: about life, about the state of the world, about why we work in teaching and learning, whether as teachers, academics, or in my case as a hybrid of producer, writer, facilitator and trainer. There were some grand people in our little pasta-making group, including eminent educators from the UK, the US and elsewhere. But with our hands covered in sticky semolina, we were as one; bound to a simple/not-so-simple task and having a fantastically rich, multi-layered learning experience in the process.

Picture credit: Matty Swan

So, some further suggestions for creating professional development that rings like a bell in the hearts and minds of participants, even nearly two weeks after the event itself.

  • To the basic recipe, add a soupçon of provocation, to ensure that participants actually participate, rather than just observe (but not too much, lest people feel compelled to perform or hide).
  • Allow plenty of time for the whole thing to rest, the better to allow space for genuine conversations to happen, and connections to gel.
  • Add in frequent dashes of playfulness, whether in the form of singing, dancing, or general hanging about.
  • Ensure good coffee, food and wine in abundance
  • ·Find a beautiful place in which to have all of the above. This year’s Oppi was held at H-Farm, a gorgeous business/social enterprise ‘accelerator’ just outside of Venice.

The weekend after I returned from Oppi, I struck up a chat with a friend who’d been on a two-day professional development programme the same time I’d attended Oppi. She said that each day began at 7 a.m. sharp (breakfast lecture!) and ran until midnight: what came between, other than brief breaks for lunch and dinner, was a non-stop barrage of workshops, presentations, and lectures. She returned home with a heavy sack of brochures, business cards, and presentation papers, but without a shred of inspiration or motivation. She felt mainly exhausted.

My friend is Italian. When I described Oppi to her – particularly the pasta making – she simply sighed with longing. ‘All such events should be like that,’ she said. Indeed they should.

Greg Klerkx is co-founder of award-winning cultural producing and training company, Nimble Fish. For A New Direction, they are leading this year’s Cultural Learning Community programme and are also curating AND’s 2016-17 INSET programme.