The Scheduled Unconference

I recently attended EdCamp NEO, hosted in the fantastic new Paradigm facility at Mentor High School. I’ve been to about a dozen EdCamps now. It’s always fun to watch the schedule evolve as the event goes on, and people create the conversations that are most relevant to them.

edcampneoThis event had about 100 people, which is the perfect size for an EdCamp. All of the usual topics were discussed, and people left feeling excited and energized about genius hours and maker spaces and Google tools and learning apps. Most of the participants seemed to get a lot out of the experience.

But they don’t come back. It’s something I first noticed in 2013. In just about every EdCamp I’ve attended, someone asks during the welcome session how many people have never been to an EdCamp before. Usually, about 2/3 of the hands go up. The leader then explains how EdCamps work and encourages people to actively participate in scheduling, facilitating, and participating in sessions.

But if 2/3 of the people are new to EdCamps, and they don’t seem to grow much beyond about 100 people, where is everyone going? Why is it that they leave with a sense that it was time well spent, yet many of them never return to another one? Of the 30 or so veterans, about half of them are the die-hard leaders who go to every EdCamp. These people are engaged in professional learning networks. They engage with others in a variety of online and offline formats. Attending an EdCamp is just one piece of an ongoing dialogue about learning that transcends any particular event.

But that means there are only a handful of people who have been to a few events without fully engaging in a PLN. With the overwhelmingly positive reaction that most EdCamps get from the participants, there should be a lot of people coming back for a second or third time. But there’s a huge gap between the value teachers claim to derive from an unconference and their willingness to repeat the experience.

If I compare that to other conferences I’ve attended, the difference is enormous. The people who attend OETC or the IdeaStream conference or NEOTech seem to go year after year. Sure, there are always new people. But many of those attending have done so repeatedly.

Maybe it’s because it’s free. Nobody has to come. We don’t get time off to attend. Nobody has to pay anything. Once that registration is submitted, there’s no down side to not showing up. I guess that’s part of it. We don’t value the things that we don’t have to pay for.

Maybe it’s that they’re repetitive. We do see the same kinds of conversations, with the same questions, the same responses, and the same roadblocks. Maybe we can’t get beyond that because nobody has good answers to the tough questions. The room is always smarter than the individuals in it, but even the collective intelligence can’t have all of the answers.

Or maybe it’s a lack of faith that participation in a learning community is is actually beneficial. We’re living in an era of standards. We have to be very clear about our instructional goals. We spend an enormous amount of time getting to consensus on what we’re going to teach in every class at every grade level. The structure of education is the organization of content to be covered. That’s a good thing. A student who has successfully completed 7th grade science in Cincinnati should have the same basic skills and knowledge as a student who successfully completed 7th grade science in Ashtabula. So if there’s a professional development event with no clear objectives, it has a diminished value.

Last fall, I attended a one-day conference for school technology professionals organized by ITSCO. Their approach was a hybrid between a traditional conference and an unconference. They had a couple general keynote sessions. Then, there was a series of breakouts. Some of the breakouts were pre-scheduled, with leaders that were selected in advance who were prepared to speak about pre-selected topics. But they also had a few rooms available for unconference sessions. At the opening session, attendees were encouraged to propose ideas for these unconference rooms. This gave the conference the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the audience, without entirely abandoning the concept of pre-planned, organized conference breakouts.

I think we’re going to see more of that as we move along.

Photo credit: Jeremy Shorr, using Vicki Turner’s phone.

5 Things We Don’t Agree On

One of the frustrations with the current conversation in public education is that we’re not all talking about the same thing. We’re all experts in education, because we’ve all spent thousands of hours in school. But when it comes to some of the fundamental questions surrounding education, we’re not all on the same page. Here are five things we don’t agree on:

7632212948_5a2ca26f59_n[1]What’s the purpose of education?
Some make the argument that education is all about providing a basic level of literacy to the populace. We should teach our kids to read and write and do basic math. We should give our children the basic skills they need to function in daily life. Others point to career readiness. The point of education is to prepare learners to succeed in real jobs that will give them enough income to live without being a burden on society. Others point to higher education. K-12 education prepares students for college or technical school, which in turn prepares students to get good jobs.  A few idealists point to lofty goals like passing along our culture — our civilization — to the next generation, or to creating an informed, functional citizenry. But your view of education, including the degree to which the U.S. system is successful, will depend on which lens you’re using.

What do we mean by “learning”?
When I was a kid, we were told that knowledge is power. If you have the information, and you control access to information, you’re more powerful than those who don’t. That may still be true to a degree, but for the most part, everyone has the information now. If school is all about disseminating content to children, we’re wasting our time. They already have the content. Now, what can we do with that content?

We’re moving further up the Bloom’s pyramid than we give ourselves credit for. But if we want to measure this kind of learning, we have to ask better questions. We have to challenge students to think in new ways, to combine ideas from different areas, and to create something new. If you want to measure whether students have developed their problem solving skills, you have to give them problems that they haven’t seen the solution to. I’m not sure our high-stakes testing and assessment system will let that happen.

What’s the right balance between local and centralized control of education?
Whenever we don’t like something we’re being told to do, we drag out the old “local control” argument. Traditionally, education has been a local responsibility. We decide what to teach our kids, and how to do it. The government stays out of it. At the same time, though, we seem to welcome centralized standardization when we agree with it. If you have too much local control, then you find creationism showing up in the science curriculum, global warming being taught as a debateable theory, and any novel that encourages students to think and speak for themselves being labeled as subversive trash. The common core is not a bad thing, and most people who object to it actually object to the way it’s measured more than the standards themselves. If we do have standards, we ought to be able to leverage collaboration to make implementation easier for all of us. Part of the friction here comes from fundamental disagreements on some of the questions I’ve already mentioned.

Whose responsibility is education?
This is different from the last question. In the 19th century, American communities decided that it was the responsibility of the community to create and support local schools for the education of their children. Education was entirely local and community-driven. As time has gone on, the community has assumed a smaller role. Education is the government’s responsibility. Education is the parent’s responsibility. Now we end up in all of these convoluted strategies to try to make education relevant to the community as a whole. “Why should I vote for the school levy? My children are grown. I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford higher taxes.” We need to invest in education because it’s the right thing to do. We need to invest in education because it will benefit our society and our country in the long term. There’s no short term return on investment. Support schools for the same reason that you still plant trees, even though you may not live to see them fully grown. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, grandparent, child, or community member, education is YOUR responsibility.

How does the U.S. stack up against other countries?
Education in the United States is better now than it has ever been. That’s not news. It doesn’t generate the same response as the reports claiming our kids don’t know basic math or that Finland provides a better education at a fraction of the price. But if our schools are changing — if we really are re-examining what we mean by “education” — then the scores our students earn on traditional knowledge-based tests are not going to improve. If we look at the tests that we’re using to measure students around the world, I don’t think we’ll find that our students are doing worse than other countries on the things we actually care about. Which takes us back to the questions on purpose and learning.

We skip these questions. Even in conversations about Next Generation schools. Even in discussions about appropriate professional development programs to transform learning. Even in deep, thoughtful reflections on what we’re doing in public education. We can spin our wheels around these things for hours without getting anywhere. But until we start agreeing on the basic parameters of what we’re talking about, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Photo credit: NikitaY on Flickr.

Listen: We Need a Community

It’s a funny thing about social media. Sometimes, it can be kind of social.

That’s fantastic. It’s great for democracy. It’s a monumental shift in how information is managed. It changes the structure of power.

Everyone has the means to widely disseminate ideas. Everyone has the ability to engage in the conversation. Everyone can reach a global audience.

The gatekeepers are gone. No one is determining which ideas are good enough for wide distribution. No one is controlling the message.

The problem, though, is now that everyone has a voice, some people are choosing to use it. That, in itse

lf, is good. But we’ve lost much of the civility of engaging in the community. Somewhere along the way, everyone started talking and stopped listening.

A year or so ago, a social news experiment called Patch started to catch on. The idea was to fill the local news vacuum in small communities. Local editors were recruited to attend city council and school board meetings. They wrote of short pieces of a hyper-local nature. Readers were encouraged to participate. There were lots of open-ended questions and prompts for discussion. Residents could share their news as well. The editor curated the content, and through the comments, the whole community could participate.

Originally, Patch had a policy that required people to use their real names. They wanted you to participate, but they also wanted you to be accountable for your words. So users with anonymous handles were politely asked to add their names to their profiles. As time went on, this became harder and harder to enforce. At some point last summer, a policy change allowed people to be anonymous on Patch. Since they couldn’t enforce the rules, they changed them. Participation soared. Advertising revenue (I’m assuming) went up. All was good.

But the level of discourse took a nose dive. No longer hindered by their reputations, users migrated to extremes. The comments quickly devolved into pointless vitriol and personal attacks. I stopped commenting. Then, I stopped reading. It turns out that the allure of the anonymous megaphone is strong enough to overcome any sense of civic responsibility to the community.

We see that in other places as well. In January, I attended my third EduCon conference in Philadelphia. This is a co

nference of conversations, centered on getting smart people in the same place at the same time to discuss big issues in education. While the sessions are carefully planned by the facilitators, they involve an enormous degree of interactivity. There are no audience members. Everyone is a participant.

This year, for the first time, I saw participants with megaphones. Rather than respecting the norms of the community and participating in civil discourse around the topics of the sessions, a very small minority brought their own agendas, and attempted to steer every conversation toward their theses. Pearson is evil. Common Core will destroy American education. The Internet is full of predators and too dangerous for children to use. Fine. Bring your arguments. Let’s have a conversation. But it got to the point where nearly every session devolved into soapboxing by the same people on the same topics. That’s not respecting the community.

And now, this brings us to EdCamp. In a few weeks, we’re hosting this opportunity for anyone interested in education to come together to discuss the topics that are important to them. The attendees will determine the schedule for the day. You’ve probably already heard all about it. If you need more info or want to come, check out the web site.

But I’m worried about conversations being hijacked. EdCamp is a community of convenience. It’s not a place where the same group of people has been interacting and has formed a community with standards of behavior. Maybe it will become that some day, but right now, it’s just a diverse bunch of people. There’s already some evidence that a vocal minority is bringing megaphones to EdCamps with the goal of preaching their own personal Gospels.

We’re doing a few things to try to give everyone a voice. The web site is featuring a series of Participant Perspectives, highlighting people who are coming to EdCamp and giving some background about who they are and why they’re attending. The goal is to raise the level of discourse, and to highlight the diversity of the attendees. There are also some posts that go into more detail on what an unconference is, how the day will be structured, and what people can expect when they come. The idea is to build some expectations among the attendees, who are ultimately the only ones who can ensure that everyone has a voice. Finally, we’re not going to build the session schedule ahead of time. Over the last year or so, several EdCamps have opened the board a day or two in advance, so people can start scheduling sessions. This just encourages people to bring their leftover presentations from other conferences. While we may solicit ideas for topics ahead of time, nothing is going on the schedule until the day of the event.

All of this involves listening more than talking. The most important part of the conversation is not what you’re saying, but how you’re reacting to the things that others are saying. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose the conversation skills when there are so many megaphones around.

I hope that the education community can reach a level of civility and discourse that’s not being modeled in the wider society. I’m sure we’re up to the task. But we have to start by listening.

Photo credit: The Infatuated on Flickr.