I have a confession to make, and I suspect I’m not alone among educators and education policy types in harboring this sentiment. I detest conferences. There. I’m glad to get that off my chest. A combination of factors makes me dread these all-too-frequent events on my calendar: the coma-inducing windowless hotel ballrooms and stifling “breakout session” rooms; the poorly facilitated panels where slide presentations and droning panelists lull everyone into a nearly catatonic state; the mounds of cookies and brownies and sugary soft-drinks that tempt you whenever you step out of a session to wake yourself up. There’s one conference, though, that is so unique and so stimulating that I can’t wait for the invitation to appear in my inbox each summer. It’s EdVenture, the annual summit put on in early September by America Succeeds, the national nonprofit that mobilizes business leaders to help improve public education. The third EdVenture just wrapped up in Boise, Idaho, where it has been held all three years. This was my second consecutive EdVenture, and, like last year, I came away feeling energized, reinvigorated, and even optimistic about efforts underway to transform our education system, and to bring the business community effectively into the mix.
What Makes EdVenture Different?So what makes EdVenture so different, and why do influential educators, advocates and business people clamor for a coveted spot at the small (100-person), invitation-only gathering? I can think of three unique elements. The Power of Play First, and to me most important, organizers understand the power of play in building community and getting people engaged. That’s why EdVenture dedicates most of one afternoon to small-group networking in the form of recess. Yes, you read that correctly. Each participant signs up for one of a variety of recreational offerings, which gets them away from the hotel and, in most cases, into the great outdoors of Idaho. This year’s offerings included mountain biking, trapeze flying, paddle boarding and paintball. For indoor adventures, there was glass blowing and an escape room—small teams working together to solve a series of brainy puzzles and thinking their way out of a locked room. The opening speaker at EdVenture 2016 was Jill Vialet, CEO and founder of Playworks, a national nonprofit that promotes play as a key learning tool in schools. Amid engaging conference-goers in a series of interactive games, she imparted some wisdom about play that set the table perfectly for recess. Notice, Vialet said to the group, that when playing her games, everyone was completely present. During a typical conference session, if you look around a room, many if not most people are checking or writing email, perusing Facebook or Twitter, texting, or nodding off. “By and large we operate in a didactic knowledge acquisition system,” with a teacher or presenter talking to (or at) a group assembled before her. But playing “builds a bridge into possibility that learning happens in a group,” Vialet said. Healthy play also bonds people, she said, making them feel safe, cared for, seen and heard. It also accelerates the process of getting to know people. That was certainly my experience playing Paintball with six companions, all male (big surprise there). Earlier in the day I had listened to Rich McKeon, director of the Career Readiness Initiative at the Council of Chief State School Officers, speak eloquently about different post-secondary options for young adults for whom college might not be an immediate option. Now, crouched behind a stack of tires in a rubble-strewn battlefield, I spotted Rich, transformed into an enemy combatant, lying prone, turning his paintball gun on me. He fired off several rounds, all of which by some miracle missed. In a near-panic I swung around and fired a few shots. One found its mark and took him out of the game. Back home in Denver I know Luke Ragland as Colorado Succeeds’ whip-smart vice president of policy and an effective lobbyist. On the paintball field, though, Luke was a fearless and fast-moving assassin with a deadly accurate shot. Ed Shark Tank The second unique—and fun—element of EdVenture is the Ed Shark Tank. Modeled after the hit TV show, this version of Shark Tank features three philanthropists listening to pitches from education advocates hoping for an infusion of cash to launch or expand an innovative initiative. The panelists grill the hopefuls, who are selected from among those who have submitted two-minute videos in advance as part of an initial vetting process. EdVenture participants enjoyed the spectacle while lounging on couches or sitting at high tables, sampling desserts and drinks from an open bar. Jamie McKee and John Denning, senior program officers at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Jamie Scott, president of the Idaho-based J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, pondered pitches from nine innovators, all but one of whom asked for the maximum $50,000. Shark Tank provides a unique way to learn about some exciting initiatives taking place, or in the planning stages, around the country. These same ideas, presented during a panel discussion, could easily escape the attention of conference-goers busy tapping away at their laptops or cell phones. Instead, reframed as a high-stakes contest, the pitches held everyone’s attention for 2-1/2 hours. In the end, three initiatives came away with a total of $220,000. If you’re keeping score at home, you’ll notice that “Sharks” were so impressed with some projects that they forked over more than the requested $50,000. That’s a first in “Ed Shark Tank” history. A Compelling Story Finally, EdVenture presents speakers who don’t necessarily have a direct connection to education, but have a compelling story to tell that offer lessons to the field, even if obliquely. This year’s most riveting speaker was Eric Maddox, a former Army Ranger and interrogator whose unconventional, empathetic interrogations resulted in the capture of Saddam Hussein. Maddox’s lesson for education lay in the struggles he faced trying to change a highly resistant system. The military believed in one particular interrogation method, and didn’t take kindly to his approach. Fortunately, his direct superior had the courage to allow Maddox to follow his instincts. The secret to successful negotiation, Maddox told the rapt audience, is to meet the needs of your adversary. Only then can your needs be met as well. “You all have got to fix education in the United States,” he said. “That is a heck of a lot harder than finding Saddam Hussein.” Many EdVenture participants ended up at the Boise airport on Friday afternoon, heading home after two fulfilling but exhausting days. I saw a lot of high-fives and hugs, promises to stay in touch, and to work together. What was the last conference you attended where any of that happened?
Photo of Eric Maddox, an army interrogator whose empathetic techniques led to the capture of Saddam Hussein, at the America Succeeds EdVenture conference in Boise, Idaho, courtesy of Alan Gottlieb.
Alan Gottlieb is a veteran Colorado journalist who has covered education at the Denver Post and as the former editor and co-founder of EdNews Colorado and Chalkbeat. He's currently a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant at Write. Edit. Think.