05/11/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Edcamp — PD for and by Teachers

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Back in early 2010, a group of Twitter-connected educators from independent and public schools had idea for a new kind of conference. Well, not a conference, exactly. More of an unconference — in which the educators would get together with no other plan than to talk about the issues in education that concern them most. These are the sort of conversations that typically take place briefly in the hallways of other conferences. The plan here was to make these conference asides the focus of the day. The educators would meet, brainstorm ideas, pick a few of the more pressing questions, appoint a facilitator, and get to work in breakout rooms sharing their collective expertise and knowledge. No keynote speaker, no exhibit hall, no registration fee. Maybe a few snacks.

The educators called the gathering “Edcamp,” based on a similarly designed event called BarCamp established by technology folk. The first Edcamp took place in Philadelphia in May 2010. At the time, there was no clarity about what might follow, if anything. These educators just wanted to get together to further discuss their professional concerns and challenges and see what happens. But the enthusiastic response from the initial Edcamp attendees and word-of-mouth conversation through social media led to eight more Edcamp events by the end of 2010. Since then, there have been more than 1,500 Edcamps in 35 countries, with the list growing annually. In 2017 alone, there were more than 300 registered Edcamps reaching an estimated 22,000 educators.

In all, a classic illustration of Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point — a good idea going viral.

In order to makes some sort of order out of the potential chaos of so many independent Edcamps, a group of veterans formed The Edcamp Foundation in 2013 to support, guide and encourage these events globally and generate funding for follow-up activities in schools, especially in urban schools where the needs run high.

“All of it has been kind of stunning,” says Hadley Ferguson, the executive director of The Edcamp Foundation.

The foundation’s “value proposition,” Ferguson says, is as an organizational platform to support communities of teachers engaged in peer-led, participant-driven professional learning. In other words, the Edcamp events enable teachers to get together and learn from each other without some outside group dictating the topics and with no keynote speakers and other experts. This sort of learning could theoretically take place online, but Edcamp has proven the value of face-to-face connections. For an event started by technology-inclined educators, it’s a decidedly low-tech event. With support from numerous organizations — most notably The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — The Edcamp Foundation sends out physical starter kits to groups of teachers organizing new Edcamp events around the nation and world. The kit includes sticky notes, markers, index cards, nametags, and a $200 check to cover the cost of “light refreshments.”

An important element of an Edcamp event is that it be free to participants. It’s tough enough living on an educator’s salary, especially in many urban areas, so Edcamp wants it to be as easy as possible to participate. The focus is all on the needs of the participants — on both getting as much as possible out of the day and developing a networked community of teachers who work to help each other strengthen their skills, become change agents in their schools, and stay current in the field — all with the goal of improving student outcomes across all types of schools in all regions of the country and the world.

Hadley Ferguson attended the first Edcamp event as a teacher. At the time, she was a middle school history teacher at Springside Academy, an independent school in Philadelphia, and an NAIS-designated Teacher of the Future. Ferguson says she never envisioned herself running an international foundation, but was such a fan of Edcamp in the early days that she wanted to help spread the word. So she’s taken on the role of chief evangelist today.

“As a teacher,” she says, “I began thinking about the process of establishing more project-based learning in my classroom, ceding some of the authority for learning to the students themselves. But it was a hard process and I needed help.” The early Edcamps helped her make connections with other educators who were also shifting to project-based learning. These intense one-day discussions enabled her to better understand what the steps and processes look like to create successful project-based classrooms. They also gave her a community of professional support to both lean on and share success stories.

Kim Sivick, director of technology at Katz Hillel Day School, an independent school in Florida, was a co-founder of the first Edcamp event in Philadelphia. For a time, she worked for The Edcamp Foundation as the co-director of programs. Sivick points out that independent school educators were involved from the start. Independent school educators represent only about 10 percent of the participants in Edcamps nationally. This number may seem low, but it’s actually a sign of strong interest, considering that independent schools represent less than 1% of the schools in the nation.  Sivick also notes that  independent school educators who participate find them deeply valuable.

Among the values is the opportunity for independent school educators to meet and work with public school educators — a rare thing these days. “There’s a tendency among educators in independent schools to think they have little to learn from their public school counterparts,” Sivick says. “But the public school educators I have worked with are not only smart and knowledgeable and dedicated, they have much to offer independent school educators.”

Overall, across all types of schools, the gains from attending Edcamp are numerous. Attendees say they are more professionally engaged and satisfied because of Edcamp. They say they know more because of the exchange of ideas and feel more supported than previously. According to the foundation, nearly 70% of Edcamp attendees report learning at least four or more ideas they want to implement in their classrooms, and 23% report learning more than 10 ideas. And both administrators and educators agree that the Edcamp model is more productive and valuable than traditional, presentation-oriented professional development, with close to 97% stating they developed beneficial contacts at Edcamp.

A number of independent school educators who were early participants of Edcamp decided to establish an annual independent school-specific Edcamp back in 2014. The event follows on the heels of the NAIS Annual Conference in whatever city is hosting the conference. The first independent school-specific Edcamp took place in Philadelphia. This was followed by Boston, San Francisco, and Baltimore. While attendance at the first two events was strong, attendance dropped for the Baltimore event and the scheduled meeting this past March in Atlanta was actually cancelled for a lack of registrations.

Those events that were well attended went well, says Peter Gow, executive director of The Independent Curriculum Group and a regular at the independent school Edcamps.

What happened in Atlanta? Organizers can only speculate, but the feeling is that it’s easier to pull off these events in larger cities with a higher number of local independent school educators from which to draw. It may also be too much to ask educators to attend a professional development event directly on top of another professional development event.

While the independent school community is still figuring out how best to use the Edcamp model to broadly serve the needs of independent school educators, Gow says that the core idea of Edcamp — as an unconference where educators get together to decide what to talk about — has caught on in other venues. His own organization, The Independent Curriculum Group, has effectively used an Edcamp format for its Academic Leaders Retreat. In a breakout space, Gow says, “you’ll have five or six people (or more, or less) interacting passionately, delighted to find others who share their questions and concerns, and learning from one another like crazy.” Topics, for this group, typically include the concerns of lead administrators: scheduling, hiring, moving beyond AP courses, teacher evaluation, the Mastery Transcript, student stress and anxiety, etc.

In the long run, this may be the lasting legacy of Edcamp — at least for independent schools. In education, one of the growing trends has been to shift more of the onus for learning from adults to the students themselves. The research tells us that children learn best when they have an emotional stake in the learning and when they are active participants. Just as teachers are ceding more control of learning to students and acting as mentors and guides, those in charge of teacher professional development are starting to see the value of letting teachers take charge of their own professional growth.

“Edcamp is a high active professional experience,” says Hadley Ferguson. “And in any setting this is always a good thing.”

Ultimately, though, Ferguson believes the network of professional support may be the most valuable aspect of Edcamp. “Too many teachers work alone in their classrooms and are visited by administrators who come to evaluate them,” she says. “The real support comes for other teachers wrestling with the same challenges. Some of this sharing can take place online. But being able to meet face-to-face strengthens the connections in ways that lead to greater learning and professional satisfaction.”

Kim Sivick says that in many ways Edcamp has changed her life. “By getting comfortable speaking openly in a professional development session with other educators,” she says, “I have found my sense of confidence in what I do and know. With in a few years of attending Edcamp, I was speaking at other conferences and was invited to Microsoft headquarters as an innovator in education. These things would not have happened without Edcamp.”

For more information about participating in or organizing an Edcamp event, go to www.edcamp.org.

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