“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 learningâ€”I don’t like to call it professional development any moreâ€”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.
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 talkingâ€”raving would not be hyperboleâ€”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 unconferenceâ€”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.
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.
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Great article! You’ve got some great quotes from first-hand experience. Thanks for spreading the good word about unconferences!
What a fantastic article … thank you so much for so artfully capturing the essence of the edcamp movement!
In case you and your readers have not seen this video … it is an excellent two-minute overview of EdCamp Philly 2010, and, by extension, all EdCamps!
We are busy planning EdCamp Philly 2011 – and we hope to continue building momentum as more and more people see what this PD model can do for them … and their districts!
EdCamp Philly Co-Organizer
Great article. I’m looking forward to hearing how the day turned out!
This is a fantastic post; I had just promised a Twitter friend that I’d write one explaining the whole edu unconference thang, and now I’m just going to point everyone I know to this great piece! Thank you so much.
It’s exciting to be a part of a shift like this; your point that folks may find it hard to go back to more traditional top-down PD after experiencing an unconference was particularly resonant for me.
Thanks Mary Beth, Kevin, Art, and Shelley. This movement is about allowing educators (and all adult learners) to be self-authoring. It’s terra nova for many policy makers and admins to trust that indeed “the experts are among us” and to understand what connected learning is. How do we redefine and reclaim professional development? How do we help people make the thinking shift from push (top-down) to pull (self-generative) PD? M.E.
I think several readers are eager to hear more about your own first “unconference.” Can you share some juicy details and reactions?
John, Having developed many agendas in my professional life, my favorite unconference moment was watching the agenda unfold. I wish I’d created a time-lapse photo video to capture it. Maybe next time!
I’ll defer to other edcampers to share some of their juicy details (calling all edcamp Cincy folks…).
I always say that it’s not what occurs at the workshop that matters, it’s what happens AFTER the workshop that counts. The best “reaction” for me is the ongoing connection and camaraderie post-edcamp…sustainable support and connected learning. I’m a happy camper. M.E.
Perfectly stated article, M.E.!
Edcamps give teachers that feeling of “Ooh! I can’t wait to get back to my building to try some of these things.” It’s an excitement that most of my professional development sessions failed miserably at.
It is almost a giddy excitement, isn’t it? I think that’s because we’re so not used to that kind of learning empowerment. I love what Dan Callahan and others recently posted on twitter: “Edcamp. Ruining professional development since 2010.” I believe that we have the power re-frame PD around the globe. M.E.
M.E. thank you very much for your excellent posting!
The idea that resonates with me is “… imagining quality learning in an unstructured environment is new thinking. I want to change people’s minds.”
In many schools, teachers are used to “one-size fits all” PD models but I believe that implementing the unconference style can have enormous consequences in schools.
One that I envision is making teachers comfortable about sharing their passions and learning from one another. Imagine the ripple effect it might generate as teachers feel more comfortable moving from the ‘sage on the stage’ modality to having a collaborative space where the students voices are heard and respected. I can see teachers as co-learners with their students just in the same way as we act as co-learners in unconferences.
Thank you also for the great resources!
Love the idea of co-learning with our students, Dolores. I wonder what could happen if we invite students to unconference with us?
M.E., thanks for highlighting this type of learning in your post! The most meaningful aspect of attending these types of gatherings, for me, is definitely the connections made with other fantastic educators. It’s so meaningful to have the chance to converse face-to-face with many members of my network with whom I’ve been interacting for so long.
It’s also excellent meeting new faces at these events.
However, I do think those of us that try to attend regularly should put more effort into trying to bring new colleagues to share in the experience. I have been trying to advertise upcoming events in Phila. and encourage my teachers and fellow principals to attend. I think it’s sometimes easy to get too comfortable in our own learning, especially when surrounded by 100 like-minded folks.
We need to keep spreading the word as you have done here! I don’t think the title much matters- unconference or no unconference – if we’re bringing people together, focusing our conversations around teaching and learning, leaving with some new ideas, and then working to IMPLEMENT those ideas to make change in our organizations, then we can call the event a success. 🙂
Our “unconference” PD day on Feb. 25th was “unbelievable!” Local “experts” led 18 different sessions, allowing teachers to choose sessions that met their needs. This model of self-selected learning created an affective shift for the participants… it became something you could see on their faces & feel in the halls.
I get it now… just like students, adults also need to own their learning.
Lyn, You are spot on that we need to continue to bring colleagues and newcomers to the table so that we don’t close down our networks. Have you been able to use the unconference format in your school or district?
Cheryl, I agree. The shift is visible. That affective shift is a huge step in changing the culture of professional learning in our schools.
Great question! While not necessarily an “unconference,” after reading Daniel Pink’s Drive and being inspired by one of my Connected Principals colleagues Chris Wejr’s post here: http://www.connectedprincipals.com/archives/1430 we held our own “Fed Ex Day” this November, where teachers were given learning autonomy for the day. They chose with whom they wanted to work, the task, and the final product/idea, as long as they “delivered” a product or idea to me by the end of the day. What a powerful day! We had some amazing work done and ideas shared, and teachers were very positive about the day! I summarized our day here: http://lynhilt.com/?s=inspiration+delivers
Recently, I had the opportunity to plan a district-wide technology integration in-service day for elementary staff. I knew immediately that I wanted to model this day after an “unconference.” We did plan the sessions, but all sessions were run by teachers. I surveyed staff in the months prior to find out what topics they were interested in learning more about. Then I sought out teacher leaders that were experienced in those areas and who I knew would do a fabulous job. It was an awesome day! I opened the day by explaining how the unconference model inspired our day, and that it was all about their learning. I encouraged them to attend sessions of interest and, if they found the session wasn’t relevant to them or their students’ learning, to find another session. We ended the day with team time so teachers could share what they learned. The feedback from teachers was very positive. They want more of this type of PD! Really looking forward to offering this type of opportunity in the future. Thanks for asking!
I regularly attend TeachMeet in the UK and am always fascinated by the ‘unconference idea! One of our Non-exec’s Ewan McIntosh set up TeachMeet and I’d certainly suggest his blog http://edu.blogs.com/ to look at if you don’t already.
Thanks Peter. I tried to find this McIntosh connection re the UK origins of TeachMeet. Appreciate the link.
This post not only highlights the importance of an unconference model, but addresses what educators have been wanting for years: meaningful, thought- provoking immersion with our practice. It is time to stop thinking of the unconference as innovative and new and start addressing it as the norm. Leaders must see this model and understand that it can not only save their district money, but also create more energy and buy in towards professional development.
I would also like to see more teachers and administrators carrying this model home with them from edcamps, ntcamps, etc. While these forums are a great resource to our educational practice, we need to work hard to bring in new voices. This is why, after attending edcamp Philly last May, I decided to start an unconference for new teachers (ntcamp). The model would mirror edcamp Philly, but place our focus on university students, graduate students, pre-service teachers, and first year teachers. We have since expanded this scope to promote the idea that we should all see ourselves as new teachers every year or every new semester. We must never be complacent with our material. The world we live in is changing at a dramatic pace and we must continue to change our classrooms to keep up.
I’d like to see more of us who attend edcamps, ntcamps, and teach meets regularly to bring in new voices. The next time you register for an event, bring three colleagues with you. In the past two weekends I organized ntcamp Burlington and attended teach meet New Jersey. At both of these events I connected with new teachers that I had never met before. Those connections are meaningful and important. The edu-twittersphere can be an intimidating place at times, and having that f2f meeting helps segue a new voice towards social media. I love these events because they allow for that social connection beyond the veil of social media. To use social media, but not be social is not very good practice.
“It is time to stop thinking of the unconference as innovative and new and start addressing it as the norm.”
You’ve made three great calls-to-action here, Andy:
1) Move the model into schools and districts.(I’ve already had two districts ask about using this format for their teachers’ PD days.)
2) Bring three colleagues to the next camp or TeachMeet. Expand awareness and build critical mass.
3) Deepen the connections we make via social media. 21C learning is social…we don’t grow in isolation.
How do we build momentum? How do we create sustainable models that become the norm?
This is a great article. Such a great concept that is totally logical. I went to a conference last summer and the best day of it was the last day, where the topics we talked about were generated from the people that participated and not the “speaker.” I learned a lot from the conference but most of the time they I felt like they were presenting things that I should’ve already been doing. They would always say, “Successful teachers always to this…,” am I unsuccessful if I don’t do that. It’s just not the best learning friendly environment.
The best parts of learning are collaborative, this whole layout allows for educators to really explore areas of interest. What makes this so powerful is that the educators are in charge of their own professional development and choosing topics important to them. Hmmm, what a great idea for the classroom!
“The best parts of learning….” I agree with you, Holly. We adults deserve differentiation and thrive on connection and collaboration.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to share. I guess I gushed with enthusiasm. But I know that unconferences will give us all a chance to meet, greet, share and learn.
Thanks for understanding that it is important for us to do what we think is best for us.
The title of this post caught my eye in the twitter stream – I was so pleased to see you wrote it. I love your goal “imagining quality learning in an unstructured environment is new thinking. I want to change people’s minds.” I hope this piece makes some converts.
Coincidently, I blogged a parallel theme today, “Innovations in Teaching and Learning: Top Down or Bottom Up?” http://bit.ly/h2jpLV
I have attended an unconference the past the past few years that our district has hosted along with another. It is called iConnect iLearn (http://iconnectilearn.ning.com/)and it has been a great experience. I have developed several wonderful projects specifically due to the “unstructured” time I had to flesh out ideas that were presented. Unconferences have spoiled me and made all other regular PD conferences even more difficult to sit through.
I just love your shift to an unconference philosophy. In Ontario we have an annual ed-tech conference (www.ecoo.org) and one of the things that seems to be gaining popularity is something that @peterskillen and I have organized called Minds On Media. It’s not nearly the unconference event, because it’s quite organized, but with the aim of empowering the teacher through professional learning.
We’ve also had enthusiastic feedback…so much so that we had to kind of organize ourselves a bit: http://mindsonmedia.ca
We’ve had requests to move the model to school districts and we are in the process of figuring that out – a big part of our belief is that experts dwell among us, so we are interested in helping districts build their own capacity within – that starts with teachers who are excited about their own learning!
My wife and I attended EdCampPhilly this year and loved it. To spend a day talking with educators with a similar vision to your own is refreshing. We liked the “Law of 2 Feet” concept. If this is not the session for you or you want to jump into another is great. Not know the what the sessions will be can be unnerving at first but once the board starts to fill up that feeling quickly passes. We both would like to see our systems adopt this PD instead of our current models.
We look forward to attending next year.
Thank you for sharing. I realize I am coming to the table late, considering how old this post is.
However, I am still inspired by it and have been trying to do similar in nature things in the adult learning space.
My experience has shown me that 9 times out of 10, I can spend less time preparing and delivering, and more time in real education by allowing class participation and drawing upon the collected wisdom and experiences.
Excited to see there is a bigger movement, even in the traditional educational arena where stiffness and traditions starve education in a lot of ways.
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