Challenging crusty conference conventions: Youth disrupt global health education


Emily Kocsis, Palki Bhatt, Afnan Naeem & Sarah Ibrahim

We’ve all heard of the movers and the shakers of the business world, the visionary companies that disrupt a market and effect profound change: Uber, Netflix, AirBnB….the list goes on. While the headlines largely focus around the products and services we consume on a day-to-day basis, innovators in the field of education are starting to similarly apply such “disruptive” principles to learning spaces.

For the 4th annual GHSYPS conference, disruptive education was the order of the day.

Students take the floor

Although the conference had all the typical fixtures: plenary speakers, workshop sessions, and a poster showcase, the planning committee strategically integrated a number of non-traditional sessions that aimed to flip the typical conference model on its head.

Rather than positioning summit participants as passive recipients of information, this year’s GHSYPS was designed to “give SYPs the floor”, so to speak. Recognizing that conferences are so much more than just one-way, didactic presentations from senior-level experts, the planning team added several elements that celebrated, and gave space to participants’ unique experiences and expertise in global health.

GHSYPS-Open-Session-2This pedagogical shift manifested in a variety of different ways, including: an interactive, group-based brainstorming session that had participants break into groups and discuss various global health challenges; a simulation experience that had participants role play a particular position to collaboratively respond to a global healthGH emergency; and lastly, the open spaces session, a participant-driven session that gave attendees the opportunity to lead their own discussion.

Each of these sessions encouraged participants to self-determine their learning process, and in essence, the educational outcomes that would be drawn from it.

Open space sessions

While many sessions had this “unscripted” feel, perhaps nowhere during the day was this felt as palpably as during the open space sessions. Similar to the open space methodology that was used at the 2016 Ontario Coalition Institute, open spaces at GHSYPS were used to facilitate organic discussions between participants, and empower attendees to take the lead.

Despite being somewhat of an ad-hoc session, the open spaces required careful planning to implement. Here’s how it worked: attendees were encouraged to send in their idea for an open space they’d like to host. To our amazement (and delight) 10 individuals volunteered within the first 72 hours of releasing the call advertising this opportunity. Topics ranged from the specific (how eHealth technologies are being used by the Tula Foundation to improve maternal health in rural Guatemala) to the general (the need for community engagement in global health).


On the day of the summit, participants had most of the morning to reflect on which open space they wanted to participate in. When it was time for open spaces, the topics were announced, and individuals joined the session that appealed to them. The individual hosting the open space guided his/her group of 5-12 individuals, letting participants share their experiences, and contribute to the organic, open-forum discussion.

Because this style of learning relies on active engagement from participants, it was, understandably, a riskier format to use for a conference of more than 150 attendees. While there were certainly some tense, hectic and sometimes unorganized moments at GHSYPS, overwhelmingly the participants blew us away with their willingness to engage, share and learn from one another during this session. This session illustrated how critical it is to disrupt the typical learning models used at conferences, and indeed, the need for such disruptions to celebrate and privilege the knowledge and expertise of the learner.

Global health simulation

The Global Health Simulation provided another effective opportunity for students to engage in active, non-traditional learning at the conference. This workshop allowed students to ‘learn by doing’, far beyond what a didactic model could provide.

This immersive and flexible learning model was used to introduce participants to the complexities involved in global health crisis, while allowing them to bring their own experiences and perspectives to the collaborative process. As the 30 students took on roles as various stakeholders in response to a humanitarian refugee crisis, they came to face the challenges involved with navigating through the political, social and economic climate. They explored the biases, perspectives and values of government institutions, international and local NGOs, local health experts, rebel groups, media, and a number of other stakeholders that play integral roles in the setting of crisis.

This simulation, as a mode of experiential learning, forced participants to quickly become aware of the nuances of facing such scenarios, and confronting the often uncomfortable aspects of negotiation and compromise in the efforts to prioritize public health.

Canadian SYPs move beyond ‘health’ in global health education

More than ever we are seeing SYPs taking the lead in the field of global health. The passion and enthusiasm of the attendees at GHSYPS is an excellent example of this trend.

We must nurture and support them in their efforts to bring about change.

Keynote speaker Hon. Keith Martin opened the conference by explaining that global health isn’t reserved for healthcare professionals. Rather, he told us that it is imperative that a variety of disciplines play a role in order to effectively take action, and taking action, according to Hon. Martin, means getting political.

The work of global health is situated in complex structures of power and privilege (Nixon 2017). As the field of global health matures in Canada, training SYPs in a variety of backgrounds, it is necessary to ensure ways in which we can engage with one another, share experiences and ideas, and build relationships. We must also use these spaces for dialogue on some of the toughest questions and problems we face in our work, going beyond good intentions and creating a “rigorous critique of the systemic issues into which our work is inserted” (Hanson, 2017).

The GHSYPS conference showcased just how attuned and attentive SYPs are to the ever-changing face of global health. They brought both provoking questions and insightful solutions; productive collaboration and respectful dissent—and demonstrated that they are not satisfied with ‘good intentions’ and are up to the challenge.

Emily Kocsis, Palki Bhatt, Afnan Naeem & Sarah Ibrahim are on the SYPN Executive team and were involved on the GHSYPS 2017 planning committee.