Uncommon Value of the Unconference

Screenshot_5_5_13_7_19_AMAs I get older and more crotchety, I find myself walking out of more and more professional development sessions.  I’ve written in the past about the limited value that I place on traditional conferences, but it also happens in school- and district-based PD classes.  I usually just take an extended “bathroom break”, and hang out in the hallway/lobby with my iPad or laptop, seeking out better alternatives.

The reasons that I tune out are varied.  Sometimes, it’s because the PD seems aimed at those with much less experience (tech and otherwise) than I have.  Sometimes, it’s because the instructor is ignoring their own advice and using didactic and demeaning teaching methods to push content into my head.  But, often, I tune out simply because I have no interest in what is being taught.

In most cases, my favorite part of any professional development event is not the sessions themselves but the spaces between them.  These are the times and locations that my most meaningful education takes place.  I choose who to interact with and what to discuss, and I have an opportunity to sit face-to-face with a small group of my peers to explore their perspectives and share my ideas.

This is the heart of the “unconference” model that began with EdCamp Philly some years ago.  At EdCamp events, no one prepares slide decks and there is no conference program.  The attendees arrive in the morning with ideas and questions, and the schedule for the day is born from the collaborative efforts of all who attend.  The sessions are conversations that take on their own life as those in the room explore the various strands that emerge.  It’s both exciting and a bit scary, but always rewarding.

The North Carolina version of EdCamp was born in May 2012 and that iteration had some flaws.  But, this year it really took off and felt like one of the most powerful social learning experiences of my career.  Ironically, one of the best sessions was entitled “What makes PD suck?”, in which we discussed all of the same arguments that keep me from enjoying traditional professional development opportunities, as we contrasted what it often is and what we wish it could be.  How meta is a discussion during a great PD experience about why other experiences stink?  And how awesome!

I want to thank everyone who helped make this year’s EdCampNC a truly transformative experience for me, including @plugusin, @kellyhines, @thomasson_engl, @mrhgaddis, @bethanyvsmith, @PCSTech, @mjsamberg, @twilliamson15, @katiehey, @mj_maher, and others who haven’t braved the Twitter yet.  I look forward to seeing you all next year for more learning that truly engages me.

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