This past weekend I attended my first unconference, and I hope it won’t be my last. It was a one-day professional development meeting called EdCamp Tulsa, attended by about 150 public school educators from some 50 school districts in 4 states. This is not the first edcamp ever held, but it represents a little known but growing movement with a purpose to encourage teachers to take charge of their own professional development.
As a teacher educator and university professor, I confess I felt a bit like a fifth wheel. It wasn’t that I wasn’t welcome—I was—but I haven’t functioned in the perspective of most of the attendees for some time. This was one of the reasons I wanted to go; I think it’s important for those of us in colleges of education to leave the “ivory tower” and mingle with the folks in the trenches to keep abreast of what’s going on in schools. I think this is the only way to keep my own instruction fresh. I learned about edcamps through Twitter posts from a previous edcamp in Oklahoma City. The excitement of the participants literally radiated from those tweets, and I knew I had to go to EdCamp Tulsa when it was announced.
So you are probably asking, “What is an unconference?” And I can’t wait to tell you. It starts with a group of people who decide to organize it. They locate a site, not necessarily a large one, and invite teachers and others who want to come for a day of teacher-led learning. Attendance is totally free. Perhaps I should repeat that—it’s free! The organizers can offer it for free because there is very little overhead. They arrange to have required supplies donated, usually for a PR plug in a tweet or on the back of a t-shirt. There are also no expensive speakers for plenary sessions, as is obligatory at regular conferences. (Remember, this is an unconference.) The organizers do not set up sessions ahead of time, so there is no cumbersome and lengthy proposal process. Instead, the participants come with an idea about something they would like to learn more about or discuss with colleagues. Others come with ideas and topics they want to share and discuss. In the opening session, both groups fill out cards indicating what they came to do. The organizers then review the cards, set up the sessions, and provide a room for each. The schedule is posted on a large easel, where attendees, whipping out their cell phones, take pictures of it to use to guide their choices of sessions to attend. The rest of the day is spent in interactive sharing and discussion in individual sessions. The session “leader” may start things off but definitely doesn’t do all the talking. It is totally informal, and if a session is not meeting your needs or expectations, you can get up and walk to another and no one gets offended. Wow!
I don’t know a great deal yet about the history of the unconference movement, but it has been developing over the last couple of years. A great deal of research has been done on traditional professional development (PD), and the top-down procedures involved have been found wanting and typically ineffective. Generally speaking, when a district or an administrator (or some authority higher up) determines that teachers need to be changed (that, after all, is the real purpose of traditional PD—changing teacher behavior), they organize a “training” to introduce it to teachers and expect them to fall in line with their clearly superior ideas about how teaching should be done. It’s no surprise that teachers are typically skeptical and unengaged through these sessions, and rarely is there real change in teacher behavior, despite the thousands of dollars spent. Part of the problem is the top-down approach. No one likes to be told how they have to change, even if it’s done with peaches and cream and pretty please!
Creating professional learning communities has been offered as an alternative to traditional PD. These are small groups of teachers who meet to discuss solutions to particular problems. Unfortunately, few schools have been able to keep such communities viable and useful, and they either die out, or are taken over by an authority figure who returns them to the top-down approach.
Most teachers know full well that they need help and support, and need to continue learning more about teaching, but they’d really like to pursue it on their terms. That seems to be the genius of the unconference. The teachers are totally in charge. The teachers decide what they need to learn. The teachers take an active role in creating a learning opportunity. The teachers share with one another what they are learning and learn from one another. Vygotsky clearly explained years ago that real learning is social in nature. Rather than sitting quietly while they are talked to, the teachers at an unconference are driving the conversation—and learning from one another. They may not make a total transformation in their teaching at one unconference, but that’s an unreasonable expectation of PD anyway. Most change comes incrementally, and teachers need the freedom to make change at a speed they are comfortable with.
I did my dissertation on professional development, and I learned that changing teacher’s teaching is a very complicated—dare I say, ticklish?—process. Much like the watched pot, it can’t be hurried. And teachers need the autonomy to make their own decisions about it. In fact, as professionals, teachers should be accorded that privilege. Certainly doctors, lawyers, CPAs, and other professionals are allowed to choose their own continuing education.
At EdCamp Tulsa I saw teachers who were excited to be learning together, animated to share their ideas and hear those of others. Everywhere I went I heard people exclaiming, “Oh, I’m so glad to meet you! I follow you on Twitter!” because that’s another great place for teachers to take charge of their own PD. If what I observed this weekend is any indication, I think the future of unconferences may be very bright. I’m certainly looking forward to my next one!