A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference for educators. That isn't so amazing. I mean, that I went anywhere is amazing. I'm not much of a joiner. Or a leader. I'm more of an er. But I went.
I went for many reasons, not the least of it was the cost. It was free. For the money, I got nice coffee, a deli based lunch and 4 conference sessions. The sessions were the least tasty but that isn't a fair comparison because that was some mighty fine coffee. This conference was an "unconference." Not only does this mean that it had no caffeine (I drink decaf...it keeps my head clear so I can come up with my 7-Up based jokes) but it means that there was no established agenda or slate of session topics. There was no expert, or set of famous panelists who would push their particular take on things. This kept costs low. Instead, as we entered, there was a blank board with 4 time slots and 4 rooms. We were all encouraged to write down session topics that we would want to lead and put them up on the board. Now THAT was pretty neat. We, as the actual practitioners who bring in the experiences and driving needs are best equipped to steer the event.
The world of professional development has, for a while, been at the mercy of buzzwords and expensive consultants. This model leaves teachers with no sense of input or buy in, and they often walk out thinking "what does this guy know about actual teaching in this school?" This does not enhance professional growth. Allowing a teacher to control what is being spoken of can empower a staff member. He can bring up real and shared events and concerns and explore them in a fresh way. Great, right?
Well, I'm not one to enjoy stuff so I started catastrophizing. It seems to me that the money is always in the crime so I like to anticipate the crime so I can watch others cash in and think to myself "that was my idea; I just didn't feel the need to do it." It's a living. My first concern, and the one most facetious is the fear that this will put experts out of business. I imagine the poor guys writing articles and having no one to read them...holding signs on the street "will consult on educational reform for food"...showing up uninvited to schools and performing walk-throughs simply because hey have no place else to go. Sad, really. Then, out of that desperation, they will start to stalk the unconferences. They will show up, unregistered, possibly in disguise as a local 3rd grade Social Studies teacher, and write in their speaking topics as conference sessions. They will push their agendas under the guise of teacher driven reform and undermine the innovative power base, all in the name of hearing their own ideas. And because their ideas will be as stale and unprofitable as ever, teachers will abandon their sessions and flock to the one session in each time slot no one wants to go to because it duplicates three other sessions that were just offered. Or worse, teachers will simply stop attending. Now this might be fine initially because it will mean more of the deli based lunch is leftover for me, but eventually the unconference will die out.
A next concern is that this depends on the local teachers having something intelligent to say. I know teachers. While a few have thought through the process and challenges endemic to not only their own classrooms, but to the entire educational system, not all have. And because the system is totally open, any one can get up there and lead a session. Heck I led a session. Who am I to say anything? Who is any of us (and I include the "experts" in that)?
The other problem I fear is the unconference's moving into a group gripe. When teachers are given the chance to discuss progress, even if they start with the best of intentions, there is usually someone who will drive the conversation into a complaining session. If the leader doesn't do it (imagine 16 sessions all called "why this all sucks and what we can't do to fix it") one of the participants will. And with no built in hierarchy, who has the authority to moderate the sessions to keep them on task? Opening up the topics and the participation hopes for the best but doesn't accommodate for the worst (and possibly, most real).
But I don't think anyone will have the sense to start co-opting time slots or abusing the system just yet so in the meanwhile, I look forward to the next event. But when it happens, and it will happen, tell your friends that you heard it here first.