Unconferences, peer-driven professional development, and teacher-centered professional development are all things I would like to see become more widely adopted. With the process of meeting and having an unconference becoming more familiar, and with EdCamp, a new flavor of unconference gaining visibility in the space, I've been thinking about ways that unconferences could become more prevalent as a recognized, even mainstream, form of professional development.
As luck would have it, I tend to think when I cook, and this last weekend was prime grilling weather. So, here are some reasonably well-charred thoughts about how I would love to see K12-focused unconferences grow and develop.
Reach out to union leaders and district officials
EdCamp appears to be more popular among the educators already active on Twitter or other social networks, and they occur largely outside the structure of the organizations in which the participants work. As part of an excellent broader post, Dan Callahan provides a brief explanation of the thought process:
[E]arly on in the planning process, we made some serious decisions in support of our vision of what Edcamp is and should be. Foremost among those was the decision to not pursue PD credits for Edcamp. In these early stages that we’re working in, Edcamp needs the high-energy, hungry for participation crowd. Without those kinds of participants, Edcamp falls flat on its face.
While I understand some of the concerns here, I disagree with the conclusions for an unconference at this stage. To start, the "high energy, hungry for participation crowd" will come regardless, because they want what the camp offers. For the first EdCamp Philadelphia, pursuing PD credits would have been premature, as the nature and value of the event were unproven. However, now that there have been two of these events in Philadelphia, and people can articulate the value of the event, it is time to rethink the value of PD credits.
PD credits would help get more teachers into the mix, and if we have confidence in the model we need to welcome other voices with different viewpoints, and different concerns and needs. If what we want is a face to face meeting of people we know via twitter, then PD credits aren't needed - let's just have a tweetup and call it a day. If, however, we want to move beyond a small portion of professional educators, PD credits would help.
Having PD credits available for unconference-style events creates some additional opportunities that would not exist otherwise. As just one example, if an EdCamp was available to teachers within selected districts on a district-wide teacher professional development workday, teachers could opt to attend the EdCamp as one of several choices.
Also, to be clear: the main reason I am advocating for increased outreach to unions and district administrators is not because their approval or sanction is critical to running a successful K12 centered unconference, or even for current models of K12 unconferences to gain increased popularity. The main reason that union leaders and district admins need to get included into the conversation is to educate them about how unconferences work, and how they are an effective form of professional development. A smart union leader would do well to look at the unconference model, as it provides a clear way for more people to understand the value of an experienced teacher. Veteran teachers have a wealth of experience to share, and the unconference format is an ideal way to do it.
And, if reaching out to district admins and unions can save just one school from the drive-by intellectual mugging of a Willard Daggett, then our work is done.
Encourage more sharing of immediately usable knowledge
Gerald Aungst sums it up nicely:
I seem to be missing the steak, and I’ve been wondering why. It got me thinking about why edcamp still feels powerful and important to me, even though I walk away from many sessions feeling as though nothing of substance actually took place.
Given that unconferences are driven by the needs and desires of the participants, this is an easy one to address: if you want to learn about something, run a session on it. Use the session as an excuse to push your own mastery and exploration of a topic you want to know better. A session designed for teachers to share insights on how they structure their classrooms would be incredibly useful, and it would be made more useful by having students join the conversation.
Another way to help get more immediately useful information would be to give every participant a piece of paper on the way in with the question, "What is the single most useful classroom technique you have ever used?" The sheets could be collected after lunch, and conference organizers could collate and blog the responses. At the risk of stating the obvious, if you want different information, ask a different question.
Or, teachers could just blog about the techniques that they have used in the class, with no EdCamp necessary. If EdCamp attendees interested in gleaning practical tips made a point of asking fellow attendees about ideas and tools that could be implemented immediately - and then blogging these ideas - a body of classroom-tested practices would emerge out of an unconference format.
And, of course, if you are in a session and are at a loss about how to connect the abstract to the practical, ask the room to help you do just that. And then blog about it, so other people can share the knowledge.
Don't drink your own kool aid
People are excited about EdCamp, and that's great, but let's not get carried away.
[T]he edcamp philly crew met at a similar venue, Barcamp Philly. I can not say that I directly learned a single usable thing at that conference but going changed my life. It was meeting Dan, MaryBeth, Kevin, Hadley, Kim, Kristen, Rob and introducing them to my sister Chrissi and Collegaue Nicolae that spawned a international movement in education (emphasis added).
As I said earlier, I'm really glad to see people using the unconference model within education. These concepts have been developed and honed within open source, blogging, design, and software development communities, and they receive continual use within these communities because they work. People within education can learn from this pre-existing practice. The EdCamp organizers reference Barcamp as an inspiration, but current barcamps borrow liberally from practices used in Lightning Talks, Pecha Kucha, Ignite, and Birds of a Feather sessions, to name a few. And this is all good, as we all benefit from using different ways of working and communicating with our peers. But it would be myopic to imagine that unconferences would be as accepted within the education world if these other types of unconferences hadn't been happening in other areas.
It's also worth noting that education-related unconferences are nothing new either. Bloggercon, in 2003, addressed education and included a full unconference day. Since at least 2003, the open source labs and meetups that Paul Nelson, Jeff Elkner, Paul Flint, and (starting in 2006) Steve Hargadon, ran at NECC were unconference-like, with the potential for people to engage in inquiry-driven/peer-driven learning. The EduBloggerCons that Steve Hargadon started running - beginning in Atlanta in 2007, and continuing in different forms to the present day - are education-focused unconferences. It's also worth noting that the National Writing Project has been doing unconference-like professional development since the late 70's. Northern Voice has been running strong since 2005.
In short, there's a lot of prior art here. It's all - including EdCamp - good work. But branding something that is both relatively new on the scene, and relatively similar to past and present endeavors an "international movement" is the type of hyperbolic overreach we can do without. Education doesn't need Don King or Don Trump; we need smart people doing good work. Leave the marketing copy for the people who don't have real skills.
Overblown claims diminish credibility. Let the work speak for itself.
Strive for jargon-free zones
I recognize that this is a tall order, but we need to move away from jargon when we describe what we do. We don't need to talk about how we collaborate within our PLN's; we need to describe how we connect and learn from people in informal settings. Retreating into jargon obscures the work and the process that makes the experience valuable.
Along these same lines, any discussion of tools (I love site X or software Y! It's shiny!) needs to be grounded in specific learning opportunities that wouldn't be possible (or as accessible) otherwise. Chasing the horizon is fun, but the run needs to be worth it.
Eliminating jargon and eliminating an initial focus on the tools acts as a sanity check. This also helps make the ideas we are discussing more accessible to a broader audience.
Unconferences will continue to increase in popularity for two simple reasons: they work, and more people are getting comfortable participating within them. With small, targeted adjustments, the current reach of education-focused unconferences can be extended. But, given that the power of the unconference is within the participants, we all have a role and responsibility here. If there is something you want to see happen, step up.