In 2006, four friends and I invented a new way of learning for teachers that has since swept the world. Want to know the secret of inspiring your teachers to lead, inspire and change their attitudes to technology and learning? Read the next 1000 words.
In my classroom environment, pre-2005, my professional development was limited to the occasional conference (maybe once annually) and whatever I had picked up at initial teacher education years before. In school, any professional development opportunity seemed seized upon by school management for ‘mandatory training’, of the type that bores mindless, confirms what any teacher worth their salt knew already and that encouraged us all to think not about what we could be learning instead, but rather what administration work we could be doing. Yes. That bad.
Post-2005 a few things happened. YouTube was launched for a start (with the university lecture series through iTunes U in 2006), opening the conference world to me, despite the fact I was budgetless, in Scotland, when all the action seemed to be happening on the East Coast of the US. Soon I was hooked on my weekly dose of the inspirational TEDtalks.
Most importantly, though, I started writing my discoveries on my own blog, which I still continue today, and discovered other teachers doing the same; Will, Dean, John, David and David (and many others since) quickly became friends and all, in later years, became Friends (note the difference). Writing a blog wasn’t egotistical: I wanted to share what I found with anyone who’d be interested in it. I started with two readers (thanks, Mum) and nearly five years on have about 6300 people who are hooked on a daily email dose of whatever I’ve found or want help questioning.
This online community at my finger tips created a desire to meet more regularly offline, preferably in a social space. In Scotland, this means “down the pub”, and thus, TeachMeetwas born in summer 2006. The mix of deep thinking and relaxed social circumstances has proven a potent one for creating change in classrooms and policy the world over.
TeachMeet is an “unconference”, for teachers, by teachers, with no keynotes, no trade show, no assumptions, and aims to provide a relaxed forum to talk about learning. It is not a completely Scottish project. Amongst my compatriots on that original, small TeachMeet in May 2006 were John Johnston (still one of the most inspirational elementary teachers I know),David Muir(a teacher of teachers-to-be in Higher Education), Andrew Brown (currently taking Scotland’s national intranet, Glow, into 2.0 territory) and we were joined by a passing keynoter, some chap calledWill Richardson(arguably the world’s widest read educational blogger – we taught him everything he knows ).
Having created about 30 or so ‘unconferences’ since, including a smaller, in-school ‘Roadshow’ version, I’ve noticed the same recipe of success each time. Not much has changed from my original ‘reference’ post which now guides TeachMeets the world over. Anyone can take this model and empower their coworkers to learn in a more sociable, fun way:
1. Get Started on Your (Cool) Terms)
“Right, if I can have your attention please. Just a minute. Great. Now, I would like to introduce to you…”… Oh dear. We all know it. It’s like being back in the rows at school, waiting to see someone very important attempt to hold our attention for an hour with more bullets than you could point at the Sundance. Learn from the way jazz musicians get started. Make the opening to the evening enticing, using some video from a great YouTube viral or the cadence to some quieter musak you’ve cued up to grab attention or mark the beginning of your spot.
2. Conference Participants, Not Attendees
No more than six weeks before the conference takes place get your tribe of colleagues, friends and blog readers to suggest topics, spread the word and market the conference to their friends, by displaying a logo or taking part in Facebookgroups, for example.
The worst thing that can happen for a conference or training event is for people to go home actively disagreeing with what one (or all) the presenters had to say. The medicine is to is get people up presenting themselves. Back-to-back shorter soapbox presentations are often entertaining, always interesting given the divergent views and let people “get it off their chest”. It also opens up the conversations in the more informal parts of the event, since people know who they want to go to talk to.
3. Make the Conference the Coffee Break
We all know the best parts of conferences are, of course, the coffee breaks and socials, where you get a chance to pore over someone’s laptop for 15 minutes and learn one new really cool thing you can actually use, have late-night discussions over serious stuff, helped along by a few drops of amber. Why not just make this the conference itself? Provide coffee and tea all day long, lots of muffins and biscuits or, if it’s in the evening, open a bar like we do at BarCamp.
4. Flat Pack Your Conference
Let people make up their own conference. One of my favourite parts of BarCampScotland and Reboot9.0 were the large blank sheets of paper as you walked in – the participants plan what they want to hear and when, by putting up what they are going to talk about next to a time and a location in the venue. Make sure you offer a number of large, medium and small rooms for the large, medium and small egos ;-
5. Don’t Hold Yourself to One Sponsor
A good unconference does cost some money although if everyone pulls in it needn’t cost a fortune: food, drink, space, projection facilities, audio visuals, publicity in a major conference’s brochure… Getting one good sponsor might seem the answer to your dreams, but don’t take all the funding from one place, and then be held to their publicity, their terms and their way of doing things. Some BarCamps put an upper limit of £150 ($300) per contribution to have a feast of many, not a gathering for one. The TeachMeet community is currently working on ways to help larger sponsors connect with smaller, local unconferences. More on that on the TeachMeet site: www.teachmeet.org.uk
6. Encourage Speaking at the Back of the Class
It’s important to have a place where people can extend the discussion beyond whatever the current presentation is about. This is called a backchannel. Use Twitterfall on a large projector to display messages published by attendees on Twitter, using the hashtag #tm. Displaying the messages loud and clear behind speakers allows them to take a peak and respond on the spot to criticisms or misunderstandings before they’re picked up by too many other people.
7. May the WiFi Be with You
You need wifi. Ideally you have electricity in abundance, too, for bloggers to blog, photographers to Flickr and for the backchannel to survive. Good wifi is a must, but make sure everyone knows about it so that they actually bring their laptops and cameras.
8. Tag, Tag, Tag — And Tell People About It
Make sure that everyone coming to the conference, and everyone who wanted to and couldn’t, know what the conference tag is, otherwise all that online coverage is going to be lost. Tags need to be short, memorable and mean something to the people there. Try: #tm
Here are some more hints and tips for budding unconferencers:
• The BloggerCon way
• …and, of course,Wikipedia
If you want to chat through some of the practicalities of setting up a TeachMeet in your own neighbourhood, why not join me for my Office Hours: Wednesday, May 26 – 12:00 p.m PST, 3:00 p.m. EST, 8:00 p.m. GMT? Pre-register now, and make sure you’re logged in and next to a telephone about five minutes before we begin.