4 critical questions to ask when attending education research conferences

By Charlotte Pezaro with assistance from Marten Koomen

There is nothing more disappointing than spending precious time, and worse, forking out hard earned money, on a dud conference. And I really dislike being sold a conference as one thing, only to find out (sometimes much later) the agenda was something else completely and I have been duped. So, as we are now in the thick of conference season I thought I’d put together a list of questions that might help you choose your conferences wisely (or at least think critically about while attending). If you are about to attend a conference you might like to take this list with you.

1.Whose voices are privileged?  (Whose voices are missing?)

Many conferences have a few favourite speakers on high rotation. You would hope the world had moved on, but there are still the same group of white men, holding traditional views of education, who pop up every year. Sometimes, their views are not based on consilient research, rather they plod out ‘cherry picked’ interpretations of other research, often not in the field of education, to suit their narrative or ideology. Do your homework on keynote speakers.

There may be speakers from out-of-field such as psychologists, speech pathologists, and other experts, but not educational researchers or teachers. They might even hold the centre spotlight.

Conferences also have speakers from organisations and consultancies, rather than research organisations or schools. Some speakers are from “think-tanks,” that may have opaque political alignments and agendas, such as the Centre for Independent Studies, the Grattan Institute, the Institute of Public Affairs, the Mitchell Institute, the Whitlam Institute and Learning First.

So? Why does this matter?

There is nothing wrong with being white, male, holding traditional or conservative views of education, and representing the views of a ‘think tank’. However there is something wrong with having a line-up that is heavy with such views and trying to sell it as a wide-ranging education conference (especially when most teachers and educational researchers are female, come from diverse backgrounds, and probably would not classify themselves as “traditional” or “conservative.”)

Further, there is something wrong with having an education research conference line-up that includes few educational researchers or teachers. Out-of-field speakers can be useful in providing perspectives, but be wary of those given centre stage and guru status. They often are not aware of the competing demands that educators reconcile daily.

Finally, there’s obviously something wrong if speakers with political agendas dominate a conference line-up. Whose agenda is it? Some of these political perspectives may be alien to educators.

If you’re attending a conference, pay attention to the speaker line-up. Whose voices are privileged? Whose voices are missing? Be mindful that education is political.

2.What is being sold as ‘what works’? (Who does it ‘work’ for? Who is selling it?)

 Discussing what works in education is currently fashionable, and many conferences are themed around this motif. There is a general hidden assumption that only achievement matters, and only achievement that can be measured quantitatively, at that. This kind of outlook is known as a positivist outlook. Such conferences tend to be narrow, focused on selling you one main idea or solution, and provide little to no discussion about what outcomes we might want from our educational systems, or why.

So? Why does this matter?

Education is not only concerned with qualifications and achievement. Ensuring that students feel comfortable in their school and community environments is also a concern in education, as is a student’s ability to express themselves and develop their own life project. These matters can often become complex when there are issues at home and as students grow into adolescence. A positivist approach to education has the effect of narrowing the discussion around educational practice, and ignoring the value of social and personal factors and outcomes of education.

Conference organisers may claim that the workshops will help teachers become research informed. Presenting research can be useful, but most conferences are in effect performing a kind of ‘cherry picking’. So be aware of who is ‘cherry picking’. Often, participants become informed only from a certain perspective. Bigger debates in education that revolve around the multitude of available perspectives and sources of evidence are ignored. When ignoring the various perspectives that different research approaches bring to education, the forms of research that are presented can often be simplistic.

Research evidence is collected based on a particular model of education and its purpose(s), so often empirical research is collected as evidence oriented towards reinforcing those models. For example, the internationals tests of TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA all look very different. This is because each educational assessment program has a different framework, or a different model, of what education looks like. Further, they are all based on what can be measured quantitatively and promote narrow views of what counts as research and as evidence, in the debate of what works and what doesn’t. These measures often neglect, for example, the notion of care when discussing educational achievement. More substantive research, which can tell us more about how and why particular educational activities affect children, might be ignored or dismissed.

There are also debates around research methodologies. While quantitative and qualitative approaches are often contrasted, each of these approaches provide useful insights into different aspects of education. Even within quantitative methods there are ethical issues and debates around approaches such as randomised controlled trials, correlation versus causation, effects sizes and so forth. Measurement instruments may also be poorly designed, simplistic, or insufficient to support the assertions made from the data.

If you’re attending a ‘what works’ conference this year, be aware that there is a lot of research that is not discussed, and be mindful that achievement is not the only purpose or outcome of education. (If you’re interested in reading some peer-reviewed literature on this issue, you might enjoy this paper: Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works” won’t work: Evidencebased practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational theory, 57(1), 1-22.)

 3.What narratives are being used to promote the conference or its other messages?

 Deficit narratives can be used to sell education conferences. These narratives can lure attendees by dividing those who attend as ‘in the know’ and those who don’t as ‘out there’. Many conferences perpetuate inaccurate and unhelpful narratives of education as failing. These narratives denigrate those working in the field, are often not based on evidence, and are cast from afar. It is really just a selling point to get you in.

Some conferences are premised on a belief that initial teacher training is failing. (These really annoy me.) Promoters complain that initial teacher education is woefully inadequate, and that content such as Brain Gym and learning styles are being taught across the board. Some conferences use these tropes to denigrate Australian initial teacher education, and education research in general.

Sometimes those perpetuating these narratives have never taught in Australian schools (or have a very narrow experience of teaching in Australia), or undertook initial teacher education outside of Australia. Take special note of conferences imported from the UK or USA.

So? Why does this matter?

Conferences that promote, support, or legitimise deficit narratives continue the erosion of public education and teacher professionalism in Australia. Deficit narratives narrow school curriculums and constrain teachers’ practice. But neither education research, nor research from other fields, should ever be used to prescribe practices to teachers. A research-informed, reflective, and reflexive cohort of teachers must be able to make their own decisions about what works in their classroom, for their students.

Australia has a very complex initial teacher education environment. In Australia, teacher accreditation is a responsibility of the state governments while higher education is a responsibility of the federal government. While these seem intractable issues from afar, Australians working within this environment are generally able to navigate around these constitutional complexities.

Initial teacher education in Australia takes (at least) 4 years. Someone who finishes their initial teacher education graduates with a Bachelor of Education (Primary), or a dual degree in Education (Secondary) and in their field of teaching (e.g. a B.Sc for a science teacher, with a substantial number of courses in their focus area, for example, chemistry). Alternatively, someone who has completed an undergraduate degree in another field can do a Masters of Teaching, a 4-semester course. Postgraduate diplomas are now being phased out across Australia. The purpose of this initial teacher education is to develop preservice teachers’ critical faculties for making professional decisions, using frameworks and theories of both teaching and learning that are derived from the work of researchers in education, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and other fields. This appears to be very different from the UK model of initial teacher training, for example, where many teachers begin their careers with little, if any, formal teaching education.

Universities in Australia are accredited to develop initial teacher education graduates who are ready to make informed decisions about their teaching practice and classroom. More importantly, a teacher’s learning doesn’t stop upon graduation. Teachers continue learning, and improving, through professional development, focused reflection, mentorship, and coaching, all the years of their career.

If you’re attending any conferences where teacher education is on the agenda be mindful that there are ongoing developments in Australia around teacher education, teacher registration, and teacher standards through bodies such as AITSL, and state government statutory authorities. Listen carefully to the narratives being presented about initial teacher education, and professional development, in Australia, and be mindful that some of these narratives are coming from outsiders to the context.

4.Who’s paying, and what are they paying for?

While some conference organisations are advertised as “grassroots,” for example, many other organisations are established with particular agendas. For example, ACER was established in 1930 through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. I’ve attended conferences that are sponsored and promoted by organisations such as The Education Partners, part of the for-profit schools company GEMS Education group, which has an agenda to privatise and commercialise education. This information has not been easy to find out, and I did not cast the critical eye I could have over the event when deciding whether or not to register.

It is unclear who currently sponsors many conferences, even those that participants pay to attend. Often it is difficult to ascertain who is sponsoring which conference. Conferences are a financially lucrative sector for commercial operators. Think tanks, universities, and not-for-profit organisations are generally not politically neutral.

So? Why does this matter?

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Conferences often have some sort of agenda seeking legitimation through educator attendance. There are also sponsorships of products in the form of book promotions and so forth. When conferences are organised by groups with a particular interest it can be difficult to determine if there is an agenda, and what that agenda may be. This can be particularly difficult when there are both presenters with an interest in the agenda and those without. Teachers and principals are often co-opted to provide authenticity.

A truly “grassroots” organisation or conference is one where any decisions are made democratically by a group of diverse and interested parties (more than just two or three people) and all of those people are named and recognised; where there is public invitation for speakers to apply, with transparent criteria for selection of speakers; where the complete interests or affiliations of the speakers are disclosed; and where any sponsorship is explicitly advertised. By this definition, teacher associations, run by members who elect the board, may be considered “grassroots”, while organisations run by just one or two people are not.

If you’re attending the conference this year, be mindful of any commercial agendas; apparent or hidden.

If you’re attending a conference this year…

Have fun, participate in discussions, share your ideas, and challenge (respectfully) the ideas of others. But most importantly, ask the critical questions of who is speaking (and ask about who is not), question speakers about what they’re claiming and the basis for those claims, look at how the narrative of the conference portrays and constructs education in Australia. Try to uncover who’s paying and what they’re paying for.

Ask lots of questions of speakers in workshops. If you get a chance, ask a few very direct questions of the organisers.

“It is… advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticise, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. [S]He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; [s]he must be an intelligent medium of action.” – John Dewey, 1895


Charlotte Pezaro is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). Her research looks at the role that science classroom argumentation plays in the development of particular cognitive processes, understandings, and values for making decisions. Before beginning her research, Charlotte was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland, teaching in remote, regional and city schools. She shares her experiences and expertise in primary science education in a number of primary education courses at UQ. Charlotte has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).

12 thoughts on “4 critical questions to ask when attending education research conferences

  1. Charlotte..well done..This is a thoughtful comment on conferences and valuable to any professional world wide.

    I have also been getting very concerned about who is sponsoring conference in the UK where the government has taken all funds out of this area as well as research. I’d like to let my members know what you have said as it will help them to decide how to spend their limited expense budget.

    I am the founder of the free MirandaNet Fellowship with more than 1,000 members in 80 countries. We have several in Australia.

  2. Thank you Professor Preston, for your response, and for sharing this article with others who may benefit. I agree that there is also value in asking those questions about other aspects of personal and professional life, too. These questions can apply to other activities one might enjoy too… like watching a tv program, or listening to a radio show, or subscribing to a news broadcaster… or even who one follows on social media!
    The sponsorship of conferences is likewise a concern here in Australia.
    Thank you also for sharing the details on the MirandaNet Fellowship.

  3. Rouba says:

    Thank you Charlotte, This is a great article.

  4. My conference criteria:

    1. Is it is cheap or in a nice spot?

    As an Adjunct, I have to pay for conferences myself, so it either has to be cheap, or somewhere I want to visit.

    2. Will my paper be published by a respected publisher?

    There is no point in going to a conference if I don’t get a paper published out of it.

    3. Are there practitioners?

    A conference full of researchers is of little interest. I want some results I can apply. Most of the education research papers are about something which has already been tried and is in use (“We had twenty students use a mobile phone for learning and it worked!”) or tried and failed (“We used second life!”).

    4. Is there a exhibition?

    Trade exhibitions are useful and fun. The one at EduTech 2017 in Sydney recently was educational and amusing: there was a queue of teachers lined up to get their free Google “Glass” from a vending machine.

    An alternative to an exhibition is a separate industry conference nearby.

    5. Are there students?

    Students add vitality to a conference.

    6. Are there people I can visit?

    Are there organizations I can visit along the way and perhaps give a presentation?

    7. Are there other conferences on the way?

    The annoyance of having to change aircraft when traveling can be turned into a benefit if there is another conference I can attend at the stopover.

    An example is the 10th International Conference on Computer Science & Education at Cambridge University. I stopped at Hong Kong of the way for the Second International Conference on Open and Flexible Education.
    Link to Tom’s blog

  5. Thank you Tom for sharing your own criteria for deciding whether or not a conference will meet your needs.

  6. Professor Pauline Taylor-Guy says:

    The article, ‘Four critical questions to ask when attending education research conferences,’ by Charlotte Pezaro and on the AARE blog, presents interesting ideas in relation to conferences and research more broadly, particularly in relation to the deficit positioning of teacher education. As the elected Secretary of the Australian Teacher Education Association for nearly a decade, I am cognisant of the need for all of us to challenge and resist deficit discourses about the profession. I do, however, query the misleading point relating to the work and independence of ACER, the organisation for which I currently work.

    ACER was indeed established in Melbourne in 1930 with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, a grant that continued only until 1939 – information which is publically available on ACER’s website. In the 75 years since then, ACER has grown into one of the world’s leading independent educational research bodies with an expanding international presence, and offices in Adelaide, Brisbane, Dubai, Delhi, London, Jakarta, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. ACER does undertake commissioned research, but where any surplus is generated, this is invested in further independent research and development. This research often provides powerful counter discourses to political debates in education and robust evidence for policymakers worldwide.

    As a demonstrably independent, not-for-profit research organisation, ACER is committed to profiling recent research at its annual Research Conference. It should be noted that, probably uniquely, and as befits a truly independent, not-for-profit organisation, the conference represents a broad range of insights into research and is entirely consistent with ACER’s mission to create and promote research-based knowledge, products and services that can be used to improve learning across the lifespan. The conference offers plenty of opportunity for conversations with keynote speakers and the program includes case study presentations of authentic school-based research partnerships. Registrations are now open for this year’s conference Leadership for Improving Learning: Insights from research at the Melbourne Convention Centre 25-27 August LINK to conference page

  7. Thank you Professor Taylor-Guy for your response, and for sharing further details of the funding, aims, and operations of ACER. Perhaps the information you’ve provided will satisfy the criteria of teachers (and researchers) seeking to invest their professional development funds in the best forum for them.

  8. Marten Koomen says:

    Yes, thanks Charlotte and Pauline, the article wasn’t meant to cast nasturtiums on any particular organisation, group, or individual. It simply encouraging educators to look at conferences more closely. ACER was given as an example because its origins are so well known and in the past, and to contrast those origins with other organisations with more opaque origins and motivations.

    Further, the article raises the questions of elected the boards, and I understand that ACER has one.


  9. Bill Allen says:

    Interesting. First you’ll never have a low-cost conference in Australia. So go to the USA instead. Flight will cost the same as an avarage conference here. Conference fees are about a quarter of the price (AERA – the best conference in the world $300) . Second, as what happens in the classroom is still the ‘engine-room’ of education, that’s still a vital part of worthwhile research. Finally I am just a boring white male, like half your respondents, so probably this doesn’t count. Enjoy your Doctoral study and I look forward to reading your work.

  10. Bill, there are low-cost conferences in Australia and travel costs can be much lower A bus across town is much cheaper than a flight to the USA. 😉

    Also, the classroom may be the ‘engine-room’ of education, but you don’t navigate a ship from the engine room, you do it from the bridge, using computerized navigation aids. Similarly, a classroom may still be used for some education, but that is just part of the process. The students should be doing more outside the classroom, than in it, especially older and more experienced students.

    In the case of conferences I find the people I meet in the breaks more useful than the formal sessions.

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