Jun 072014

edcampdoe logo

Community, above everything else, is the goal for which our schools should strive. Every conversation I experienced at #EdcampUSA looped back to the idea that schools need be communities of practice. Having a community focus creates more opportunities for student achievement, better professional learning, and truly progressive and innovative practice because the environment is safe, supportive, and focused upon the needs of the community members. A strong community is resilient against the shocks of individuals leaving and is better equipped to accept and assimilate newcomers.


The first session I attended was facilitated by Susan Bearden entitled How Should Schools be Evaluated. The group spent most of the time, however, defining what schools should value. It was a necessary first step to a huge topic. I honestly wish we had all day to discuss it for both the importance of the idea and because Susan is a great facilitator. As we defined what a school should be and evaluated upon, it became apparent that many of the suggestions were trying to overcome the problems with the way we do education now, but wouldn’t exist if we did it differently. If schools were judged upon their ability to foster community, many of the other concerns – student engagement, staff buy-in, behavioral issues – would fall away naturally. This was supported by a number of personal experiences shared throughout the conversation.


Session two, facilitated by Jared Wastler, was all about innovation in school. What does it look like and how do we foster it? There was a recognition that innovation is scary because it “destroys” as much as it “creates”, especially if it is happening above the classroom level. Innovation renders practices and positions obsolete while creating new opportunities. Again, community is the foundation upon which innovations may be built. The community supports innovators both when they succeed and fail, provides feedback for better outcomes, and mitigates the destructive effects of innovation by finding new roles for people affected in a secondary / tertiary manner. You want innovation? Build a strong community of trust first.


During block 3, I facilitated a session called Scheduling: The Only Technology that Matters. It was a cheeky title aimed at a group that places high value in electronics but, a topic that I feel carries significant truth. The schedule, more than anything else, facilitates or hinders a group’s ability to build a community. The schedule determines who is with whom, where ,and when. Look at a traditional schedule from the people perspective – One teacher, with disparate groups of students for specific periods of time, all day long. It makes collaborating a hassle to be overcome. As a point of comparison, I shared the schedule for a program my colleagues and I built called simply The Learning Community (LC for short, in the link above). Typically in the upper grades, the schedule is organized, with near ubiquity, around content delivery  – Algebra, English, World History, Biology, etc. Everything after that requires serious contortions of the schedule to achieve. Our system, however, focused upon the types of social interactions we wanted to see – inquiry, collaboration, and above all, community. We achieved this through cross curricular team teaching and a daily, community wide, 20% time called Advisory. Through this we achieved a system that is nimble and flexible to meet the needs of all community members. Students have a significant safety net with at least 2 and sometimes as many as 5 adults to lean on at any time. Advisory affords time for peer teaching, small group instruction, and processing time. Having all of the adults together created a level of consistency in methods, curriculum, and expectations that would be impossible to achieve otherwise. The team teaching also created all day opportunities for peer coaching and over 6 hours a week for PLC type activities all within the contracted work day. Community flourished all because we committed to one change – rethinking the schedule.


For the final session, David Timony facilitated a session called Kicking Against the Goads or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Rebellion. The premise of this session was to find ways to encourage people to do the right thing even though it may be personally painful or damaging, in other words, to kick back against the piercing goads that are driving us towards malpractice. Let’s be honest, there really is a lot of bad ideas, damaging ideas, coming from legislatures, “advocacy” groups, and various Departments of Education from around country. Rather than push back, many districts choose acquiescence. Individuals who instead, choose to reject these bad practices to protect students, the profession, and in some cases, democracy in general, find themselves alienated within their own districts, maybe even fired. Again, the one thing we kept touching upon was the need for strong community. It provides support and empowers individual to stand against the nonsense that is being imposed around the country.


So, in summary, my big takeaway from Edcamp USDOE is that if we want to move schools forward, then we need to focus on building schools into communities first!

 Posted by at 12:17 pm
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.

Sep 052011

21st Century Educator

Questions about Edcamp & professional development – Perspectives

May 242011

As I said in my previous edcamp post, the movement elicits a lot of emotions and with those emotions come opinions, many positive and some not so. A common criticism is that “Edcamp sessions never bring me to the point of mastery of a topic” or as Bud Hunt puts it:

While Bud asserts that he was merely asking a question, his statement above is also an indictment of the Edcamp model, essentially that Edcamps are vacuous pursuits, devoid of substance. The implication here is that mastery learning does occur at other conferences but not Edcamps.

I’m calling shenanigans! That’s right! Shenanigans!

I find these statements to be either superficial or, to some degree, disingenuous because the dirty little secret of most conferences is that they have very little to do with learning something while attending. In general, conferences are really about networking, sharing ideas, fostering future collaborations. We go to specific sessions to determine whether we would like to follow a particular person’s work more closely, form a collaboration with them, or find ideas to explore further. Any learning that occurs can hardly be called mastery. (See References Below) The Edcamp model is honest about this. It recognizes that conferences are really about finding and planting the seeds of learning, finding individuals to serve as informal mentors, foment future collaborations, or test our own ideas.

To base judgements on Twitter twaddle or the lack of artifacts of mastery learning is to miss the the point. The real meat of an Edcamp, just like any other conference, is people, not content. The big difference is that the egalitarian nature of Edcamp shifts the focus from the presenters to the audience because they are one in the same. It is no longer a one way relationship. For many educators, Edcamp is the first PD experience where they matter and that’s your sizzle.

*I recognize that conferences sometimes have workshops attached to them where content and learning is the focus. It is completely reasonable to expect mastery learning to occur here. I have not included them in this post because these workshops cost an additional amount and are not open to general conference attendees


1. Berry, B., Daughtrey, A., & Wieder, A., (2010). Preparing to lead an effective classroom: The role of teacher training and professional development programs. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, Center for Teaching Quality, Retrieved from ERIC database.

Research has found that when educators possess self-awareness and engage in a professional network, they are more likely to deepen their pedagogical expertise and closely monitor student learning (Berry, Daughtrey, & Wieder, 2010, p. 6; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, and Yoon, 2001, p. 920).

2. Boyle, B., While, D., & Boyle, T. (2004). A longitudinal study of teacher change: What makes professional development effective?. Curriculum Journal, 15(1), 45-68. doi:10.1080/0958517042000189470.

A body of literature has emerged focusing on descriptions of, and definitions for, ‘effective’ professional development for teachers. The international literature indicates that traditional approaches to professional development, such as workshops or conference attendance, do foster teachers’ awareness or interest in deepening their knowledge and skills. However, these approaches to professional development appear insufficient to foster learning, which fundamentally alters what teachers teach or how they teach. (p. 47)

Thank you to Chrissi Miles for providing the research. It is nice having a smart lil’ sis.

May 232011

Edcamp elicits lots of emotions. For me, I love meeting members of my PLN in a casual setting. I have made personal and professional connections and even genuine friendships. Like so many others, I come away from an Edcamp day feeling energized and invigorated. I also have the added layer of pride seeing something that I helped to create grow at an almost exponential rate.

Map of Edcamps To Date

Map of Edcamps To Date

The thing that I really enjoyed about Edcamp Philly 2 was seeing how the topics have matured. I participated in a presentation by Brian Jeans, a trainer from Comcast, where he discussed how the company prepares its army of 100,000 technicians to install and troubleshoot equipment in a timely manner. Where trainers once adopted a top down, trainer driven, transference of knowledge approach, they now build peer-to-peer learning networks. Brian explained that does this because the trainer driven model did very little to prepare the technicians for the unique situations presented by each home that they entered. It gave me insight to how things are done in the private sector and re-assured me that what I had done with the Integrated Studies Program was the right thing to do. (Whew, I am not crazy!)

I then presented Integrated Studies to a group of about 20 folks. They asked tough questions. They made me defend my ideas and actions. They made me a better educator for it. I hope that I inspired some of them to take the leap into progressive education. At the very least, I made a number of connections and hope to the continue the conversation.

At the grand finale of Things That Suck, Dan Callahan facilitated a large group discussion centered upon sensitive school issues. We blew off steam, we commiserated, we challenged each others perceptions all in an open and respectful manner. Even though Dan has retired his series of Things That Suck, I hope that it becomes a staple of edcamps much like smackdowns.

I caught the tail end of David Timony’s talk on resident scholars. He discussed the need for schools to diversify the learning experience by providing space for outside experts to work on the campus while in exchange for working with the students. The example that I have heard him discuss in the past is the collaboration between Miro Dance Company and Girard College. It is a fantastic way for students to truly explore passions and also breaks the echo chamber that many schools become.

Finally, I listened to Kim Sivick share her amazing experiences in global learning through her collaborations with a small village in Uganda. She talked of the struggles, the conditions, and the strong community ties that people experience there. She told us about her one contact to whom she sends funds so that he may climb half way up a mountain for a few minutes of internet service to have conversations with her classroom. Her story is truly touching.

All and all, Edcamp Philly 2 was even better than the first. The conversations, connections, potential for future learning, and inspiring work of the attendees all give me hope for the future of schools. We have a long way to go but there are people pushing in the right direction. If you are considering attending an edcamp, DO IT! Go, bring a friend, and share your ideas. Put yourself out there. You won’t regret it.

My Edcamp Reflections Part 2 – Dirty Little Secrets coming shortly.