Why Professional Development Should Be More Like Edcamp

I didn’t have any pictures of our edcamp, so I took some of another edcamp I wish I could have attended. photo credit: rwentechaney via photopin cc


Most of the time, I leave conferences frustrated by the sessions. I find myself feeling frustrated by the irrelevance of sessions. I get bored with the sit-and-get style. My eyes grow blurry from the steady flow of slides. The exception is edcamp. In this model, teachers vote on the most popular sessions and then people lead them in a discussion-based format.

Every time I have experienced this type of professional development, I have left with more ideas than I would typically have in a conference. I also feel more validated professionally, because I had a chance to share my expertise. And yet, I didn’t have to “prove” myself to the crowd, because I was, at best, a facilitator leading a discussion. Sessions were practical, philosophical, idea-driven and, at times, a safe place to be vulnerable.

It makes sense. If you have teachers together face-to-face, why not let them talk about what works? Why not let them ask questions of one another? Why not use the best medium available, the human voice, to learn from one another?

It has me thinking that our weekly professional development ought to work in an edcamp model. By this, I mean offer multiple choices, keep the groups small and then lead a discussion. It could be a book study or a week-by-week discussion on a topic. It could be a new set of topics each week, depending upon the desires of the teacher.

An edcamp model would empower teachers to share their expertise democratically.

Ultimately, the value of edcamp is in the sharing of ideas and in the validation of one’s professional identity. Too often, that’s not happening at the weekly professional development that teachers attend. Yet, in a more democratic model, teachers begin to see that what they believe and what they know actually matters.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think democratic PD should be the only model we use. There is a value in presenting information in a class-like format, where a teacher has prepared in advance. There is a value in doing Ignite-style sessions. I think the coaching model, job-embedded planning model and elective-class / multiple-week model all have value. So, why not embrace the edcamp model as part of a holistic plan for professional development.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

14 responses

  1. I just went to a Tech Play Date today. I loved talking and sharing with other teachers. We realized we were doing great things in our classrooms but few of us were using the same tools. We were sharing apps, websites, projects, and activities. It was inspiring to learn new ideas but also validating to hear your ideas are exciting too.

    1. Sounds cool!

  2. I think that this is going from one side to the other. I love the analogies that you make here and think that there is a lot of benefit to the edcamp model but I also like the "traditional" model as well. There are times that I want to just sit and listen to a great speaker. Sometimes they are great and sometimes they are terrible but the same can happen from the edcamp model. Some are great and some can be bad. The whole notion of "walking with your feet" is nice but a lot of people still won't do it in an edcamp session and there are a lot of people who will walk out of a keynote. I think that we have to start looking that there are values in different options (which you have written about before many times and I appreciate) and this would be one of them.

    You always push my thinking John…I really appreciate it.

    1. Thanks for the necessary pushback. I added an additional paragraph that provides a little more nuance. I see value in a well-crafted workshop led by an expert. I want the models to co-exist in an integrated framework.

      I think my point wasn't necessarily that this model works better, but that it often allows teachers to feel more like professionals – something necessary in an environment and context where they are often not treated that way.

    2. Unfortunately I have not seen many great speakers at our Professional Development. I think the Ed Camp parallels what Daniel Pinks write in his book "Drive" There should be more autonomy in our PD.

    3. I wonder if teachers, rather than administrators or central office people or policy makers, appreciate this model because of the autonomy afforded to teachers. We have so little autonomy in our professions, and the EdCamp model delivers it to us.

  3. Thanks for writing this John!

    I'm in Calgary and we're getting closer to EdCampYYC on April 19th. It's currently really close to filling up which is so encouraging. Its's great to read your post as it confirms the power that Edcamp can have on us as teachers.

    I was trying to encourage this with my colleagues without much luck. It seems many are not ready to make a change. As someone reminded me on Twitter, being a change-agent is not the easiest but it will be certainly worth it in the long run!

    Thanks again for confirming what everyone is saying about EdCamp!

    1. Thanks! Good luck on your Ed Camp.

  4. How does this model suit shy or introverted participants? How does this style work with a group that is primarily extroverts? Instead of comparing it to conferences, how does it compare to standard PD sessions (often not unlike conferences, but with less or no choice of which session/speaker to attend or the option to vote with my feet)? Lots to consider as we gain a wider number of approaches to our learning. I think the edcamp model has a lot of possibility, but how well are we exploring and documenting a range of approaches within the overall model?

    1. I think that's why we need balanced, blended PD. I think it could work really well for both introverts and extroverts if given some modifications (weekly chats to build a sense of community, quiet reflection time, etc.)

  5. Greetings to John, and to my colleagues,

    Generally speaking, the Edcamp model of PD enjoys a great deal of praise from educators, who like John, would like more of it. I can explain why educators want more Edcamp, with a personal anecdote, if you will bear with me:

    I recently suffered through an entire day of "sit and get" mandatory training on "Bullying", a very important topic, you will no doubt agree with me. Now, the trainer was a highly qualified expert on the topic.

    However, as Power Point slide after slide followed the other, with no attempt made to involve the teachers in any kind of constructive, sustained or significant way, I mentally left enough brain power active to be able to respond adequately if I were called upon (I wasn't).

    With the remaining 95% of my brain power I went to sleep – with my eyes wide open – and an interested, serious look – frozen on my face. (The expert had conveniently provided all teachers a handout of the exact same Power Point slides that were being read to us with some commentary from the expert's experience. So, as you can see, I wasn't missing anything that I couldn't read later for myself.)

    When I contrast that experience with Edcamp, obviously Edcamp comes away smelling like a Rose. And I want my PD to be like roses, sweet-smelling roses, not the cow dung smell of uninspired, mind-numbing PD that I have just described, out of personal experience, unfortunately for me.

    Having shared this story, I admit I prefer Edcamp over traditional PD. Nonetheless, I do not think it would be wise to eliminate the traditional conference from the PD landscape, not even voluntarily, as individual educators. Yes, I know Edcamp makes us feel good about ourselves, to enjoy learning even.

    However, traditional style PD has its place. Its survival through the past century and through the present one, despite the universal acceptance of learner centered pedagogy, makes it obvious that it is serving a systemic purpose, or purposes even, in the plural. I won't try to identify what those purposes might be.

    If you are still reading, you have already been generous to me with your time, and I thank you kindly. I'm looking forward to Edcamp Chile, coming up on March 9th, only two weeks away, which I already know will be an amazing, satisfying, extraordinary Professional Development opportunity. But I'm comparing roses to cow dung, so why shouldn't Edcamp Chile be thoroughly fulfilling?

    Kind regards,

    Thomas Baker
    Co-Founder & Co-Organizer
    Edcamp Chile

  6. This has been a conversation among many of the students (and some of the professors) in my current pre-service teacher-prep program, in relation to PD and to our own classroom at the university. We talk about democratic classrooms, yet we often teach teachers in ways that are not democratic. We talk about cooperation and collaboration among teachers, yet rarely provide spaces and opportunities for teachers to practice this work. Thank you for your relevant and timely thoughts on this topic!

    1. Exactly. If we want democratic classrooms, why not create democratic PD as well?

  7. Thanks John, this makes perfect sense, the professional developments I get the most out of are those with opportunity to share with and learn from other teachers or school leaders. Our peers and colleagues are our greatest resources.

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