I had never heard of an unconference until I came to my current school. The unconference had been incorporated as part of our professional development suite, in addition to more traditional kinds of professional learning–speakers, trainings, conferences, etc. The idea of the unconference is that it is participant-driven, as opposed to top-down, and it’s a way to differentiate professional learning. How it works in my school is that during a professional development time (a half-day PD time, or a faculty meeting time), teachers and staff propose session topics (related to school goals, initiatives, pedagogy, or wellness), and everyone else signs up for the session/topic that is most relevant or interesting to them.
I love this model for professional learning, because it capitalizes on the expertise and leadership of many (see previous post, The Future of Instructional Coaches); it recognizes the varied needs of teachers at different points in their practice. I also love the message it sends to participants–you choose what you need right now. Professional growth is not one-size-fits-all, and today we’re not going to make you sit through a day-long workshop that may or may not have any bearing on your current needs or goals. I believe the unconference model, as I’ve seen it play out in my school, leads to increased engagement and agency for teachers and staff.
Just last week, my school partnered with another school in the district for an unconference event, and it was (in my humble opinion) amazing! There were 32 proposed sessions, facilitated by faculty and staff from both schools, and several sessions were co-facilitated by teachers from both schools. Over 110 participants broke off into sessions of three to 20 people, to focus on the ideas, goals, skills, and dilemmas they found most relevant to their practice. Technology was an overarching theme, with 8 sessions devoted to application of tech to education; differentiation of instruction was another popular topic. The feedback from the day was very positive, and I am already thinking ahead to how we might build upon this foundation to sustain and improve this dynamic form of professional development.
In conversations with my principal, I learned that unconferences in the tech or business worlds are often even less structured than ours–topics/sessions are posted continuously, even during the event; you’re not locked into any one session, but you drop in as many as you want, and stay for as long as it’s useful to you. There’s no one ‘facilitator,’ whoever is interested continues the conversation. When I first learned that, I thought, no way could we do that–we’re teachers! We like to plan ahead, we like to know who is coming to our session so we can tailor our instruction, we could never “walk out” on a colleague’s session before it’s over, just to check out something new! But last week, in my role as organizer of the unconferences, I got to experience them exactly that way. I dropped in on every session (almost!), ostensibly to make sure everything was running smoothly, but found myself jotting notes (get that powerpoint! follow up with x about that feature!), quotes, and impressions from each one. I was blown away by the range of topics, and had a blast learning a little bit about a lot of things.
The way we’re doing unconferences is still steeped in the model of a traditional conference. You sign up, you attend, the “expert” facilitates. Yes, there are absolutely differences that increase engagement and empower teachers and staff, and that’s great. But I wonder if we could go further? Especially when thinking about who is still not being served, even with the unconference model–specialists, guidance, school nurses–all those members of a school community who are expected to attend professional development sessions which are overwhelmingly geared towards classroom teachers. If we went rogue, if we tried a “true” unconference model, would that create more opportunities for relevant professional learning for all parties?