Reading Time: 4 minutes

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What is Edcamp?  Here is the promotional web site’s “definition”: “EdCamp sessions are NOT ‘sit and get’ presentations. EdCamps are about discussion and thinking and problem-solving. We build the agenda first thing in the morning and then spend the rest of the day talking, sharing, and learning. Come prepared to participate!”

This statement doesn’t quite answer my question. The promotional information listed questions that might be of interest to anyone participating in an Edcamp, such as “What is the future of learning? And what implications does it have for how we do teaching and schooling? What if we didn’t have class periods? How can we help kids think more deeply? What percentage of teachers’ work will be replaced by learning software, online classes, virtual tutors, and/or robots? If we could rebuild from scratch how we do school, what might it look like? What kinds of state-level educational policies do we need? How can we keep from feeling overwhelmed all of the time? What if we didn’t ignore that most of the time students are bored? Is problem-based learning all it’s touted to be? What has to go in order to make competency-based student progression work? In a multimedia world, what is the future of reading? The list continued…

These questions gave me the sense that Edcamp intended to be informal dialogue about almost anything participants cared about.  I decided to participate and see what Edcamp is all about, to observe how participants engage, to check out the learning that occurs, and consider the potential for Edcamp serving as a platform or process for professional development. During the event I heard participants say that they appreciated the great professional development that Edcamp provided and praising the day for offering such dynamic learning.

Participants were invited to identify questions or topics of interest before the event started, and could self-select sessions to attend. The topics I chose to attend were: “Standard Based Learning”; “Teacher Leadership – future looks like?  Impact on building/district”, “Art Teachers!”, and “What’s up with Competency Based Education?” Go HERE to see other session topics offered at the Central Site. Each session had a facilitator who invited everyone to introduce themselves and started the session with an open-ended question.  Facilitators did not appear to have any particular training in facilitation or specialized content expertise related to the topic.

I experienced being among a group of enthusiastic educators who wanted to be in this setting.  I participated as a discussant in each of the sessions, but primarily listened to the dialogue. People asked thoughtful questions, responded authentically to the questions being discussed, reflected on what they had learned as a practitioner, and offered helpful suggestions.  This seemed like a fairly healthy type of discussion for teachers and others to engage in — free flowing exchange of ideas, not filtered by agency administrators, or team leaders, or state policy makers.  There were no expectations for the person speaking to substantiate their idea or recommendation. I had no reason to doubt the credibility of those sharing suggestions, no reason not to believe that the strategies might work – most sounded plausible, but it is “buyer-beware”.  Participants must be good consumers and be able to determine what to value and believe, to judge for themselves if something is valid, has been tested out and proven to be legitimate or effective.

For the most part, the exchanges seemed motivational. The format allows for everybody to talk (if they want), participants are able to get some attention from their peers, and, perhaps, people feel a boost from being in a different setting with some new faces.  I am sure most participants picked up some new ideas or had the ideas they already had validateded by others. On a few occasions, I noticed individuals venting about disappointments and in some instances making sarcastic remarks about their school. No one challenged these ideas, asked for clarification, or expected the negative comments to be supported by facts.

I found myself thinking — Now, there is a bright teacher, or a capable administrator, or well- spoken educator that I would like to get to know. The format doesn’t provide for any sustained interaction or relationship building.  Maybe some individuals will tweet, text, email or call each other again, but that is not the same as the shared collective work that occurs in a community of learners that has a common goals. This didn’t feel like a learning community.  It could be a network, but because the topics were so diverse, it didn’t seem to have the focus of the Networks I have experienced.

I did observe small group dialogue about teaching issues, how time was spent, concerns about case load, questions about procedures, curiosity about new policies and reform agendas, sources for print and technology resources, suggestions came in the form of  what I would call “tips”, “leads”, or “pointers”.  Certainly, these would be useful to teachers who are seeking some fresh ideas to add to their toolkit.  In the four sessions I engaged in I rarely heard specific instructional strategies mentioned.   Obviously, these brief discussions are not intended to offer the depth or the duration needed to change practice.  Will these ideas yield changes in teacher’s practices, in student learning, in the aggregated classroom data, in the school-wide data?  Maybe that isn’t what those hosting the meeting intended as outcomes, but there were administrators there seeking a way to use Edcamp to support district and building-wide PD.  One superintendent spoke to the group during the closing debrief, praising Edcamp as great professional development.

Coming back to the question about purpose — I could see Edcamp being a great format to give teachers a boost, to stimulate thinking, to provide a nice break during a cold and dreary winter.  It allows teachers have a voice among a group of professionals. Those that listened would get a sense about how a subset of teachers from a handful of districts, think about selected issues.  This format might be way to gather perceptual information; similar to a focus group, but issues of representation would be a concern. (Only teachers who were willing/able to come on a Saturday were present – likely a highly motivated group.)

For this to be used as a district or school based PD effort it would need to complement additional, more robust learning opportunities designed to provide the theory, classroom demonstrations, opportunities to practice, collaborative work to plan lessons and use formative data.

The invitation offers –“Join us for what may be your most powerful day of learning all year!” I was motivated; the teachers around me seemed motivated. I imagine the satisfaction levels were high on the evaluation questionnaire.  Was it powerful?  That depends on what you think has the power to bring about learning that makes a difference to teachers and to students.

For more information on Edcamp, go HERE.

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