Educator perceptions of district-mandated Edcamp unconferences

"Do I have to go?"
"No, you GET to go!"

For several years I have been exploring the Edcamp format and learning about Open Space Technology and unconference-style professional development. Personally, I believe there is tremendous potential for the format to build more robust professional networks, propagate ideas through an organization, and contribute to individual professional growth.

In 2016, some brave colleagues agreed to use the Edcamp format for a district PD day bringing several schools together for a day of open conversation and collaboration. Part of the challenge was the captive audience. The rapid and widespread adoption of Edcamps around the globe could be attributed to the self-selected, highly motivated individuals who volunteer to give up a Saturday to pursue professional development. The Edcamps we were proposing, on the other hand, would be attended by educators who were required to be there. The preparations and planning that occurred beforehand are the subject of an upcoming article.

The feedback gathered at these events form the basis of a new research article by me and my colleague Dr. Jeffrey Carpenter titled, "Educator perceptions of district-mandated Edcamp unconferences." (This link will give free access to the article until August 1, 2018 after which it will be available to purchase or with institutional access.)

The data gathered at these events are a rich trove of information which is illuminating the affordances of the format, the things that participants value, the skills needed to fully participate, and how organizers need to structure the experience to maximize value in the day for the participants, for the organization, and, most critically, for the student population being served.

This article represents a first wash through the data and explores participant experiences, highlights the salient elements of an Edcamp for participants, as well as opportunities for improvement based on participant suggestions. In light of the Edcamp Foundation's recent (4 months ago, at the time of this writing) announcement of their Edcamp District Initiative, these findings are particularly timely.


Edcamp unconferences are a non-traditional participant-driven form of educator professional learning. Although Edcamp participation has typically been voluntary, this mixed-methods paper presents participants' (N = 252) perceptions regarding their experiences at Edcamps run by their school districts and where their attendance was required. The majority of participants rated their Edcamp experiences positively. Many participants compared the content and format of their Edcamps favorably to the professional development available to them. Participants also offered feedback regarding how their Edcamp experiences could have been improved. We discuss these results and their implications for the Edcamp model and educator professional learning.

Our Low-Budget Cardboard and Glue Makerspace Experience

Earlier in the year, some students were struggling when putting together a Chinese Dragon for a social studies presentation. They wanted to find a way to attach a large fabric sheet to a cardboard box in a way that allowed for adjustability and easy removal, but secure enough to hold everything in place for the performance. They rigged up a solution similar to a cotter pin using binder clips, pencils and elastic bands. We saw the value in that kind of problem-solving and recognized maker spaces as a way to engage everyone in design challenges.

Too often, though, maker spaces are associated with pricey gadgets, apps, and materials, and while there can be value in using technology, we felt that there was more value working from the ground up. Earlier in the year we had students craft primitive tools from scratch and then use their own tools to perform tasks and create additional tools.Their appreciation for the very basic technologies that contribute to human achievement was obvious in their struggles and pride in their accomplishments. It also doesn't hurt that this approach is possible with an almost $0 budget.

My teaching partner and I identified some core principles for our project: that students would identify an ill-defined goal, understand problems and design solutions in an iterative process of testing and revision. We kicked off the endeavour with some "Paper Olympics" challenge where students had to design solutions to simple problems - spanning a gap with and without supports, strengthening materials, achieving buoyancy, etc.

We also watched the now-famous "Caine's Arcade" video with our students. The students were completely intrigued with the interactive arcade games so we brainstormed a range of familiar arcade and carnival games. Together we identified some criteria and constraints. The arcade game had to have at least one mechanical component, be intuitive to use (no instructions required), and have a "fun factor". Students were limited to using the contents of our home and school recycling bins, and some basic office supplies (paper clips, binder clips, elastic bands, string, etc.) and we offered a variety of adhesives. The most expensive part of the whole project was the large box of hot glue sticks we consumed!.

As subject generalists in the context of a middle-years homeroom setting, we look for curricular integration opportunities. The math element is pretty straightforward - nets of 3D objects, volume and surface area, Pythagoras for sloped surfaces. For the English Language component, we embraced the inventor's notebook. We explored some of da Vinci's notebooks to see how the Renaissance polymath thought, reflected, designed, revised, documented, and explored ideas. Throughout the project, students sketched their plans, described their intentions, designed and tested prototypes, documented their trials, and explained the thinking behind, and details of their revisions.

Some observations: When students hit a roadblock to their design process, they often resorted to decorating or playing their games. We advised students to do so mindfully - think about the gameplay, the impact of the design. It was also common for students to get frustrated after a "failure". We talked a lot about gradual improvement, about not "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" when one element wasn't working as desired. Students also enjoyed checking out each others' projects. We encouraged them to offer suggestions, to compare notes, and to recognize the innovation, creativity, and effort that went into the work so far. It became a pretty supportive and enthusiastic workspace very quickly.

This little 30 second Spark Video lists some of the key elements of the project over short clips of the students at work.

Mandatory Edcamp Experiences

The Edcamp model is creeping into districts looking to offer PD experiences that leverage the wisdom of the group, that facilitate the exchange of ideas, and that build professional networks throughout the organization. I've been involved in a few such events and have done some preliminary research on the topic. Now, a colleague and I are gathering data in a more formal and focused study of edcamps where attendance is mandatory.

If you are planning such an event, or know of someone who is, we'd appreciate connecting and exploring the possibility of administering our survey with the participants. milestomes(at)gmail(dot)com

What is an Edcamp? A Brief Introduction.

Do the practices we adopt reflect the values we espouse?

Knowledge for action: A guide to overcoming barriers to organizational change

Knowledge for action: A guide to overcoming barriers to organizational change

Practice and Values

Our practices should reflect our values, but they are not, themselves, our values. The way we do things can change, indeed, they often have to change. Values, on the other hand, are closer to the head and heart and are less likely (but not impossible) to change.

“That’s just the way we do things here…”

If you’re going to hang on to something, hang on to a value over a practice. Your values guide how you approach a changing world and new ideas. The practices you adopt should embody the values you espouse. Appreciating the difference between values and practices can alleviate some of the fears associated with change; we are not giving up who we are, nor what is important to us when we shift our practice. Rather, we are exercising our values in a different, possibly more effective way.


Argyris, C. (1993). Knowledge for action: A guide to overcoming barriers to organizational change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Why change? A short video on 21st Century Learning and Curriculum Innovation

The what's and why's of 21st Century Learning

Pedagogical Frameworks

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative Learning - This web site offers an in-depth exploration of what collaboration is, how it works, how to implement it, and some resources for getting started.

Ideas Into Action: Promoting Collaborative Learning Cultures - This PDF document explores the value of collaborative learning, offers up a selection of research that supports the approach, and provides a framework and strategies for implementation at a systems level.

Project-Based Learning

Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning - This article describes some of the essential elements of project-based learning (PBL).

Teacher's Guide to Project-Based Learning - This PDF is a comprehensive guide to PBL that includes examples, the research base, strategies for implementation and integration as well as forms to guide planning.

Online Resource for PBL - This website has a wide variety of resources for designing, sharing, implementing, and supporting PBL initiatives.


Getting Started with Student Inquiry - This PDF offers a framework for understanding inquiry describing what one would observe from students and teachers.

Inquiry-Based Learning - This PDF is part of the same series as the item above. It describes the rationale for using inquiry, the key concepts, and the guiding philosophy.It also offers very practical implementation strategies including conversational phrasing that evokes deeper thinking.

Cognitive Frameworks


There are two aspects to self-regulation: one is the individual's comprehension of their own physical states and their ability to manage it; the other is the individual's management of their own efforts in terms of purpose and efficacy.The two are intertwined but it is helpful to appreciate each individually. is a website that focuses on the physical aspects offering explanations and resources for understanding and developing physical self-regulation.

Calm, Alert, and Learning - This PDF explores the impact of self-regulation on learners along with some frameworks for understanding the component parts of self-regulation.

Encouraging Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) - This PDF surveys the research into the cognitive aspects of SRL and offers specific skills that can be developed to increase the efficacy of an individual's efforts.


Thinking Metacognitively - This PDF offers a brief overview of metacognitive practices, some strategies for implementation, and phrasing that evokes metacognitive thought.

Metacognition - This web page defines, and offers a research base for pursuing metacognitive instruction. It also outlines a framework for implementation and links to external resources and supports.

Early Human project evolution: project based, self regulation, understanding by, as told in design Microsoft Sway

The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge: An Executive Summary with Discussion Questions (PDF)

Those were the days: my great aunt's recollection of school in the 1920s

My Great Aunt Doris was a school teacher. She has long since left us, but she wrote a short booklet of family memories back in 1983. One of those recollections, titled, "School and Careers", always struck me as both funny and sad and I have always wanted to share the story with others. Here is a little video I made of the story - they are her words.

We certainly have come a long way in how we treat children.

Reforming the Annual Reflection on Professional Learning

The Annual Reflection on Professional Learning (ARPL) is, I believe, a colossal waste of effort, but not for the reasons you may think...

Knowledge Building

Schools are filled with very creative and insightful professionals who, every year, craft statements or artifacts that reflect on, and make sense of key learning and experiences in their professional lives. The reflections exemplify key components of instructional leadership, namely reflective practice and a focus on learning for both students and educators alike. As a form of knowledge building, these documents offer valuable insight into the ongoing development of educators at every point in the profession from first-year through to retirement.

And what happens to all this knowledge?

It sits in a central office filing cabinet somewhere never to be seen again.

Lost Opportunities

As a policy tool, the ARPL successfully engages educators in reflective practice but misses the mark when it comes to Public Practice. Instructional leadership requires communication and translation of knowledge from the knowledge creator to the knowledge consumer. Without knowledge translation, the ARPL is little more than an exercise in compliance.

So, do we give up on the ARPL?

Absolutely not - but we do need to approach it differently.

The Profession is the Audience

What if the ARPL was approached as a knowledge building activity - still reflective and still personal, but it would be understood that they would be made public. The audience for these reflections would not be simply the central office or school administrator, but The Profession. We reflect and record our experiences making that learning accessible as a contribution to the betterment of teachers everywhere.

Writing the ARPL in this context connects us as professionals. We become part of a larger community of contributors to the profession, not just practitioners. In submitting their reflections, educators would supply a list of key-words and themes so they can be tagged for easy retrieval. They can also specify whether or not they want their names attached to the published content after they have been reviewed by administrators. The ARPL maintains its policy objective of encouraging reflective practice while gaining tremendous value as a knowledge building and translation tool.

What do you think? Would you approach the ARPL differently if it was going to be shared? Would you be interested in reading others' reflections? Do you think there is value in sharing our professional learning?

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