I spent this past Saturday at edcamp Philly. Edcamp is an unconference: a gathering of professional educators that is deliberately structured differently than your typical professional conference. Instead of a set schedule of presenters and vendors, predefined and preselected by a committee, the attendees create the schedule on the fly by proposing their own sessions.

The topics at this year’s edcamp Philly ranged from “Models of 1:1 Computing in the Age of Consumer Electronics” to what was billed as the last-​ever “Things That Suck” by Dan Callahan (sorry, Dan, you may never get away from the connection). The tone of the conference and the sessions is almost self-​consciously casual and irreverent, culminating in a “Smackdown” where participants came to the podium and shared in rapid-​fire succession a web site or app they thought was particularly useful, powerful, or simply cool.

This is my third unconference (fifth if you count Educon, which has a similar feel, but is more structured). The first time I attended one, I left feeling like my head was going to explode from the sheer volume of ideas that had been generated over the weekend. Since then, I have had similarly powerful responses and believe there is something to this that could be translated into more traditional professional development arenas. That was, in fact, one of the sessions I attended on Saturday, and there was some powerful conversation around the idea of districts adopting an edcamp-​like model for some of their internal training.

But I can’t help but think that there ought to be more to this, also. I’m wondering of some of the energy is simply from the new-​ness of doing PD differently. There was a conversation on Twitter last night (in which I did not participate) prompted by a very fair question by Bud Hunt:

Have been checking in on #edcamp tweets off & on today. Still waiting for the useful bits. What’d I miss? Worth your time to go to #edcamp? I see plenty of statements regarding the awesomeness of #edcamp, and plenty of smart people involved, but no steak to match the sizzle.”

I have to agree with him: I seem to be missing the steak, and I’ve been wondering why. It got me thinking about why edcamp still feels powerful and important to me, even though I walk away from many sessions feeling as though nothing of substance actually took place. On reflection (which isn’t done yet, by the way), I’ve come up with some reasons that edcamp is still worth the time:

  1. It’s about the relationships. The greatest thing I have received from each of the unconferences I’ve attended is connections with other educators. I have made some very good friends through the conversations and collaboration that has developed from each edcamp I have attended. I have found people who have similar beliefs and interests, and in many cases we have extended our work beyond that day.
  2. My batteries get recharged. Each and every time I attend one of these, I am suddenly immersed in a deep pool of people who care deeply about education. In my everyday work environment, I am extremely fortunate to work with several others who are as passionate about education as I am, but even so, it is a powerful thing to walk into a room where there are over a hundred people who have voluntarily chosen to use their weekend talking about work. It is next to impossible to walk away from that environment without feeling energized and renewed.
  3. My map gets bigger. It never fails that in every session I attend at an edcamp, I am exposed to a thought, idea, tool, resource, or connection that I wasn’t aware of or hadn’t considered before. I find out that someone has already been doing something that I was considering, and now I have a place to go for advice. I learn about a tool that will solve a problem I’ve been having, or I add a resource to my collection and now have more ways to approach something.

Edcamp sessions never bring me to the point of mastery of a topic, and often we are no closer to a solution to the problems facing education than we were at the beginning. There are no deliverables at the end, there isn’t often a great deal of measurable growth or action.

I’m beginning to realize, though, that edcamp and similar gatherings can’t and won’t be the entire meal. It is more like an amuse-​bouche: a tantalizing, bite-​sized taste, designed to prepare the mouth for the later courses, to excite the taste buds and waken the senses to embrace the entire experience of the meal to come.

Should more substance, more meat, be brought into the mix? Should the organizers of edcamps think about how to begin growing the model out of its infancy into a more sophisticated thing? Should there be outcomes and evidence of real learning at the end of the day?

Perhaps. I leave it for another day to ponder how that might happen. But for now, I’m content knowing that edcamp has a very valuable and worthwhile place in inspiring me to keep working hard at making things better for kids, not only in my own district, but as part of the larger education community.

How about you? What other reasons is this kind of unconference still worthwhile, even if the meat isn’t there yet?