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EdCamps: The New Professional Development

James Paterson

There are two indications that teacher-run, flexible professional development programs through initiatives like EdCamps are working: the Data and their growth.

The data shows teachers feel they learn more and improve their teaching when professional development is a collaborative process – and one where they can choose what they engage in.

And the growth is seen in the increasing number of teacher-fueled EdCamps, the “Non-conferences” for teachers where they choose and lead a fluid set of sessions on issues they care about.

“By our best estimate, there have been over 2,500 EdCamps around the world since 2010,” says Hadley Ferguson, co-founder and executive director at the EdCamp Foundation. “But that is just an estimate because many of them are organized independently. We know they are taking place in 44 countries and all 50 states.”

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The EdCamp Foundation provides boxes of materials to organizers of the sessions, and Ferguson said they provided 450 last year and are on track to send out 500 in 2019.

The foundation grew out of a less formal structure for the sessions, says Kristen Swanson, one of its founders who attended the first one in 2010 from which the movement sprang.

“EdCamps are typically held at the educator level. They group together and decide to hold one,” she says, noting that the first in Philadelphia came together through social media and word of mouth after educators at an “Unconference” on another topic began to think it might be a good fit for them. They got the word out and it attracted about 100 teachers.

Swanson says each one is different, but generally they begin on a big sheet of paper, with a grid – and a discussion about potential topics that can fill the day

“The entire process is positive and organic,” she says. “Occasionally, people who don't even know each other realize they have similar interests and end up running a session together. Other folks come with an idea, throw it out to the group, revise it, and post it with a refined focus. Because anyone who attends an EdCamp event can be a presenter, it's an empowering experience for everyone.”

She notes that once the schedule is determined, participants are then able to move through the sessions at whatever pace they wish and participate as much as they want.

EdCamp Professional Development Data

And what about the data?

Nicole Howard, an education professor at the University of Redlands in California, has studied EdCamps and found in research to be published this summer that about 55% of teachers reported they preferred to select their own subjects for professional development and are better teachers when they do. She also found that about 64% reported that traditional required professional development often does not support them and more than 79% said that EdCamp/unconference-style programs are effective.

Howard says she has discovered it is important that the participants decide on the topics and that there are no designated presenters and those attending can move in and out of the sessions at will.

“For example, at one I witnessed someone writing down ‘restorative justice’ on a sticky note to put on the grid at the start because they truly knew nothing about the topic. Someone who happened to have experience in this area chose to attend the session to learn more from others. By the time the session wrapped up, attendees had collaboratively developed a resource document using google docs, set accountability goals, and shared contact information.”

She says at the start they found and watched video links for the first 15 minutes, then attendees with experience shared stories.

“This flow worked nicely, because those who knew less had some time to begin to build some form of background knowledge before jumping in to discuss how to apply this approach in their own classrooms.”

The whole time, participants moved in and out of the session and the leadership of it changed.

“The power of an EdCamp is primarily in two areas,” says Ferguson. “They build a network of like-minded educators to support their own learning and professional growth, and treat them like the professionals that they are. And in addition, they are a place for teachers to learn from one another, share best practices, and ask questions of people who are also in the classroom. “

Swanson has noted that topics at EdCamps have had titles such as: “Engagement, Respect, and Reciprocity in Public/Private School Partnerships,” “We Taught 6th Graders Quantum Physics with Dance,” “How to Address Privacy and One's Digital DNA,” “Design Thinking and Innovation,” and “Writing in the Digital Age.”

She says the sessions are typically diverse and eclectic because they grow out of the interests and expertise of the participants. She says the quality or quantity of the material can’t be guaranteed, but she has found that teachers who want to learn “Authentic” approaches attend and participate, and it fuels a valuable experience, though she notes that it should be supplemented by the participant’s own study and development.

Swanson has also developed seven steps for the development of an EdCamp that she described in an article for ASCD in 2014:

  • Find 3–5 like-minded educators who are interested in running an EdCamp event with you. Maybe these people work in your school or teach in your area, or perhaps you are connected through a social network, such as Facebook or Twitter. Regardless of where you find your team, as long as they're passionate educators, you're all set.
  • Check the the EdCamp Foundation to learn about other EdCamp events that have happened in your area. Reach out to these organizers through e-mail to learn from their experience. It can also be helpful to attend an EdCamp before trying to run one. This will help you visualize what your event could look like.
  • Find a venue and set a date. This is the hardest step. Most organizers get permission to use their school's facilities. Many places have donated space to EdCamp events, but be sure to check for hidden costs -- for example, event insurance or custodial services. Your venue should have one large space where everyone can gather to build the schedule in the morning and to share experiences at the end of the day. It should also have 4–10 smaller breakout rooms to accommodate the different sessions. Free wireless access for all the participants is also important.
  • Get funding and sponsors as needed. If you need to pay for your event space, then you'll need some sponsors. It's best to start in your community with local education organizations. Organizations or businesses will often donate goods or services such as bagels, coffee, and T-shirts.
  • Tell everyone about your event. Create a logo, website, and Twitter account for your event. Add your event and logo to the EdCamp wiki. You can use Ticketleap or Eventbrite to give out free tickets and track registration. Expect about 40–60% of registrants to actually attend on the day of the event (high attrition is one of the consequences of hosting a free event).
  • Take care of the little things. Find a big piece of poster paper to use as your blank schedule board. Decide whether you'll provide snacks, lanyards, or other goodies for the attendees (often leaders post the grid describing the sessions online in a Google doc or other accessible document).
  • Host your amazing event. It's best to have 5–10 volunteers on hand to help with registration and the schedule as the day gets started. Enjoy the day of learning and growing!