Nov 302011

Edcamp inspires a full range of emotions. Proponents talk about personal engagement, inspiration, and having agency over their learning, to which the other side responds “So what?! Where is the substance?” Opponents dismiss the movement as a bunch of technophiles and inexperienced (ie naive) educators attempting to affect change for change’s sake when they should be “learning to hone their teaching of basic – and not-so-basic – skills and knowledge”. The typical edcamper response is that this type of professional development does not meet their needs as learners. Both sides have a point to make while at the same time overlook the big picture – that traditional PD and edcamp are complimentary to one another.

Resolving this debate begins with the acknowledgement that both forms of PD have their uses and that the criticisms stem from the fact that either the attendees come  with expectations that are incongruent with the purpose of a particular PD offering or the format is misapplied. With the edcamp model still in its infancy, incongruence is to be expected and will be addressed as people become more familiar with the model (hence this post). A person who attends an edcamp expecting specific explicit knowledge to be conveyed by someone who is an expert in that area will be sorely disappointed. Where the traditional PD model performs this function well, the free-form nature of an unconference makes this highly unlikely. Instead, edcamp is about building difficult to define, tacit knowledge of teaching as a whole. Audience members are an integral part of every presentation and the format is meant to promote learning as much as the content of each individual session. The learning is personal; it attempts to fulfill the unique needs of individuals by allowing a high degree of control over how each engages with presenters and one another.

When it comes to the delivery of the majority of PD, the common approach, regardless of the goal, is direct instruction coupled with PowerPoint and handouts. This type of PD works when the priority is to introduce a new topic to a group, a specific need must be addressed, or when the organization needs all members to know the same thing. Traditional PD is meant for the conveyance of explicit knowledge. When direct instruction methods are used to teach more complicated concepts, traditional PD falls flat.  The point I would like to make here is best illustrated by an example. This past summer I attended a two day workshop on student engagement – a broad topic encompassing many esoteric ideas. One hundred thirty seven slides later, I could not even tell you the presenter’s name. By choosing a direct instruction format, the presenter attempted to provide a “paint by numbers” method of student engagement. If only it were so easy. The misapplied format could not convey many of the subtleties of student engagement, made assumptions that disregarded the audience’s prior knowledge on the subject, and looked at a multifaceted concept from only a narrow perspective. If the format had been more like that of edcamp, the attendees would have learned engagement by experiencing it directly. The content of each session does not really matter in this example; the methodologies do. It is the conversations, the meandering nature of sessions, the very unstructuredness that allows this to happen. Attendees differentiate the learning for themselves, their prior knowledge becomes an integral part of sessions, and they are given multiple opportunities to confront and wrestle with their own ideas. This is how tacit knowledge is built. A picture is worth a thousand words, an experience – exponentially more.

When planning professional development, edcamp and traditional models should be seen as points on a continuum rather than an either / or proposition. The goals of the PD offering should determine the format. Explicit knowledge – traditional is more effective, tacit knowledge – edcamp is more effective, continuity of message – traditional, continuity of practice – edcamp, introducing an initiative – traditional, bringing an initiative to maturity – edcamp. Both edcamp and traditional methods have merits, but pair them together and truly effective professional development will be achieved.