“Most PD stinks.”

That was not the answer I anticipated when I asked Dan Callahan, one of the founders of the edcamp movement in the United States, to what he attributes the growing phenomena of edcamps across the nation.

“May I quote you on that?” I laughed, then shared with Dan that my department and I were in the midst of planning a PD day for 500 teachers. I wasn’t offended. I knew Dan’s perspective was spot-on.

“PD is something that should be a powerful experience to help people improve their craft, but it’s got a really bad rep now,” he said. “Teachers are looking for professional development that meets their needs and interests. Frequently, professional development provided by school districts does neither of those things.”

My own thinking about professional learning—I don’t like to call it professional development any more—has changed dramatically over the past year. Planning an unconference with a diverse group of educators from around Cincinnati was one catalyst to my thinking shift.

Unconferences are part of the learning revolution. They’re participant-driven professional learning gatherings. The “un” refers specifically to the fact that there is no top-down organization, no high registration fees, and no vendors. Organization is democratic.

In the edcamp movement, the agenda is self-organizing, formed on-the-spot the day of the gathering. That’s the beauty of it, and also what makes people – especially some administrators – so nervous about it. How can you show up the morning of conference with a blank agenda and create what participants say is “the Best PD ever”?

How unconferencing works

I call it magic. But magic it’s not: it’s what creation and collaboration look like as you watch the process unfold before your eyes.

Photo credit: Ann Leaness (edcamp Philly)

It looks like magic because as adults we are so unused to seeing democratic, generative thinking, live, in action. Participants enter the room to a blank grid set up with time slots and room assignments. In edcamp Cincy’s case, the question that propelled the process was, “What do you want to learn? What do you want to talk about? Who can share?”

I remember Mary Ellen Wilson saying, “I want to learn about LiveBinders.”

“Put it on a post-it note,” I said.

“But I’m not an expert. I’m still learning.”

“Doesn’t matter. Can you lead an exploration?”

Up on the agenda grid the sticky note went, and from there many others were added.  The sessions moved, modified, and mixed. One hour later, participants headed to their first session.

“It surprises me every time,” says Dan. “You walk in and that schedule board is empty and by the end of an hour it is full of more stuff than you can get to, that you want to go to.”

Six months later, Mary Ellen is still talking—raving would not be hyperbole—about how much she learned that day at edcamp. She has 30+ years in education.

A shift in thinking

At a recent citywide math & science consortium meeting, the director talked about the financial constraints in providing future quality professional development opportunities. With the current economic crises in our state (and around the nation), and with grant opportunities drying up, paying thousands of dollars ($50,000 in the example the consortium director offered) for an out-of-district “expert” is no longer an option for many.

When I raised the possibility of “unconferencing” to the team, I might have been speaking Greek. I explained the workings of an unconference—allowing our teacher experts to teach one another. Some people visibly tensed.

“Because edcamps are seen as unstructured, even chaotic, schools and district offices think there is no validity in them,” says principal Eric Sheninger. “I would like to see schools and districts give up that control.”

I agree. But imagining quality learning in an unstructured environment is new thinking. I want to change people’s minds.

The shift in thinking can be mediated by seeding the conference with pre-proposed ideas or inviting teachers to facilitate a conversation. For example, in my district we’ll have our first unconference format for 150 elementary reading teachers at next week’s professional learning day. My colleague Cheryl Turner put out the invitation and volunteers stepped forward to lead 60-minute sessions in rotation.  How many will show up for each session? I can’t predict. But I can predict that teachers and principals will love the sessions and it’ll be hard to turn back to other more regimented formats.

This advance-planning format  mirrors the TeachMeet style of unconferencing, popular in the UK. Jason Bedell, founder of the TeachMeet movement in the US, says

The difference between TeachMeets and edcamps is simply in the planning and execution. Like edcamps, anyone can come free of charge. Like edcamp, we believe all teachers have something to share. With TeachMeet we work more beforehand to establish a schedule, although our presentations tend to be shorter. The purpose is to offer a breadth of ideas. We give teachers the ideas, the tools to learn on their own, and the connections to make the learning happen after the conference.

Creating an unconference

Though “planning” and “unconference” may seem contradictory, setting the stage for a successful unconference (of either type) requires intention. The original edcamp Philly team had 9 members who helped find a venue, determine logistics and get the word out – and also provided hospitality. Co-organizer Mary Beth Hertz (who teaches at a large K-6 elementary school in West Philadelphia) has created a step-by-step template to help the bold-but-inexperienced plan for a successful edcamp.

In the midst of our edcamp Cincy planning, I remember expressing anxiety. Mary Beth was quick to respond. “If you build it, they will come.” She was right. Over 24 edcamps have been held or planned in North America in the past year.

You’ll find a wealth of resources here on how to create an unconference in the edcamp model.

And you can learn more here about the TeachMeet format.

Listen to this great podcast about unconferences with Patrick Larkin, Eric Sheninger, and Andrew Marcinek or catch the excitement in this Animoto from edcamp Cincy, October 2010.

Photo credit: Karen Blumberg (edcamp NYC)

Why unconferencing matters

Some people offer the unconference model as an answer to budget constraints. That’s a powerful selling point, and it may provide the necessary leverage for schools and districts to embrace the idea. But I think the model’s power is about much more than finances.

Unconferences matter because they harness the power of authentic learning.

Here’s what I know:

The learning revolution is about moving from expert-driven learning to self-authorized learning.

The expert voices are already among us.

Differentiation is as important for adults as it is for students.

Powerful, adult learning occurs when it is personal, social and voluntary.

“Unconferences matter because for a lot of teachers it’s their first experience of taking control of their own professional development,” says Dan Callahan.

“For me, a teacher-driven conference is just extremely exciting,” says Valerie Burton, edcamp Louisiana organizer. “I can’t wait for us to get together. I can’t wait to open up eyes to what we can do if we connect with one another. I can’t wait for the opportunity to fellowship and network.”

“I can’t wait.”  When is the last time you heard that about PD day?
______
M.E. Steele-Pierce believes that tending to the adult learners in our schools helps assure healthy teaching and learning for our students.

About the author
M.E. Steele-Pierce works at the intersection of policy and practice as a district superintendent for West Clermont Schools in Ohio where, she says, it’s all personal. An alum of the Harvard Change Leadership Group and currently a member of Powerful Learning Practice, Steele-Pierce considers herself a creative bureaucrat interested in how individuals and systems change. She is a contributor to the blog TLC: Teaching. Learning. Community. and is on Twitter at @steelepierce.