Kellogg School District leaders had an unusual set of goals for their most recent round of professional development: get educators to “unlearn” what they thought they knew about professional development, participate in a collaborative learning experience, and transfer the experience to their classrooms.
The result was the first Kellogg “Unconference,” an innovative, collaborative approach to professional development that’s changing minds and instructional practice in the district.
A new kind of conference
Simon Miller, Kellogg’s technology director, took inspiration for the Unconference from the Edcamp movement. In this nationwide professional development series, participants volunteer to facilitate conversations about topics they are interested in, rather than listen to pre-scheduled speakers present specialized knowledge. Miller had attended a San Francisco conference using the non-traditional format, and wanted to replicate the experience in his district.
“I couldn’t wait,” he said. “I knew there was no reason we couldn’t do it in Kellogg.”
Miller worked with Kellogg Curriculum Director Jan Bayer to plan the event, which they dubbed “LOL: Love of Learning,” and scheduled, fittingly, for Feb. 14. From the start, Bayer and Miller wanted the training to go beyond teachers’ expectations for what professional development could look like.
“We wanted them to look at professional development positively,” Miller said. “They get ‘sit-and-get’ so often. We thought if we could change the way staff viewed PD, they would get used to driving it.”
Bayer and Miller also wanted the training to affect classroom instruction. “Ultimately, we wanted staff to take ownership of their own learning,” Miller said. “If we could get them to ‘unlearn’ how training is done, they could transfer that model to the classroom.”
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“We wanted their classrooms to become ‘unconference classrooms.’”
Banishing the ‘P’ word
On the morning of the event, teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals signed up for topics they wanted to learn about, such as Google Docs, iPad implementation in elementary classrooms, digital citizenship, and math instructional strategies.
Before the event, Miller and Bayer used surveys to compile some topic ideas, which were listed along with blank sheets for topics that had not been included. Each participant signed up for four sessions. “They really stepped up to the plate,’ Bayer says. “We initially offered 28 topics, but halfway through the day participants wanted additional topics, so we tweaked the board to meet their needs.”
In keeping with the spirit of the Edcamp format, participants learned from each other rather than from outside speakers. “We wanted to tear down the ‘we’re the experts’ mentality you usually see at conferences,” Miller said. “Instead of having presenters show what they know, we wanted to have everyone be able to learn from each other.”
Part of the unlearning process included getting participants to reframe how they thought about teaching. Miller and Bayer wanted them to go beyond merely presenting information, and to instead facilitate dynamic conversations about learning.
“We banished the “P” word — presentation,” Miller said. “We told them not to fret about the details. Know your stuff, and be prepared to facilitate conversation, not to present. Then, when you get back to your classroom, move away from presenting. Start facilitating student-driven learning. It’s going to be messy — but that’s part of learning.”
The organizers acknowledged they weren’t sure how the “messy” approach would work out. “I was very nervous because I like to have everything planned and practiced,” Bayer said. “It truly was a leap of faith, but it was more important to change how our professional development was going.”
“We all went out of our comfort zones,” Miller adds.
A changed dynamic
Bayer and Miller saw an immediate impact from the event; educators changed the way they view professional development’s possibilities. “Participants were saying, ‘I never looked at it this way,’” Miller said. “They figured out that professional development could be fun.”
Bayer received an email from a longtime teacher thanking her for the best professional development the teacher had ever attended, and expressing appreciation for being given a choice in topics and the opportunity to collaborate.
Miller also sees a change in how staff members work together: One administrator has “flipped” his staff meetings, sending out relevant materials beforehand to maximize meeting time for discussion and collaboration. “They are working in ways they’d never done before,” Miller said. “It’s changed the dynamic.”
Kellogg has already scheduled its next “Unconference” for September and the organizers are excited to see the new approach’s continuing impact.
“I think there’s nothing but potential,” Miller said.