Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In 'Flow' at Edcamp

This is my second reflective post following my participation and involvement in planning for Edcamp Delta. Having now participated at two Edcamps (Edcamp Vancouver was my first), what has struck me is that on both occasions, I have been in 'flow' throughout the events.

For those of you less familiar with the concept of 'flow', Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to it in his book 'the psychology of optimal experience'.  He summarizes the common characteristics of flow as:

  • …a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing.
  • Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.
  • Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.
  • An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.
Graph of FlowAs learners, we are intrinsically motivated to seek conditions of flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi (see graph), “skills” and “challenges” are the two key variables in the flow experience. As a learner's skills (and knowledge) about a particular topic grow, the level of challenge must increase in order for him/her to stay in 'flow'.

What attracts me to most education conferences is the specific topic and presenter. I approach these conferences with genuine enthusiasm since it isn't everyday I have the opportunity to listen to an expert in the field of education. Unfortunately, in some cases I have come away disappointed. It's not that I've disagreed with the information or advice but sometimes the presenter has provided information I've already heard, strategies that are already part of my daily practice or some combination of information and strategies which either don't apply to my work or which I lack the requisite knowledge to build on.  In other words, I quickly became bored because I wasn't challenged to learn something new or I tuned out because I lacked the prior knowledge to connect the new ideas to. Compounding this is the fact that 'experts' often take a transmissive approach and as a result it has been difficult to interact with the content and personalize the learning to my own context.

Edcamps are different! Participants display an energy and enthusiasm that is contagious. Throughout the day participants introduce themselves to one another, reacquaint themselves with old colleagues and engage passionately in conversation. Sessions do not consist of 'experts' telling passive listeners new information. Rather, edcampers ask questions, seek advice and share their successes, failures, challenges and learning. They contribute ideas and are equally as interested in helping build others' knowledge and skills as they are their own. Participants engage in dialogue and respond directly to one another.  There is a wealth of expertise in the room but there isn't one expert at the front of the room. Because participants have chosen the discussion topics they are interested in, the sessions are lively, engaging and allow each participant to make meaning and contextualize the conversations they've heard.

I have never been bored at an edcamp because the conversations challenge my thinking and force me to reflect on my current practice.  If anything, as sessions conclude I find myself with the desire to continue the discussions into breaks and over lunch.  As Brian Kuhn (@bkuhn) recently tweeted, "Edcamp is like a hallway conversation on steroids!"

The social nature of an edcamp also occurs through a conference backchannel.
The Twitter backchannel at Edcamp Delta was so popular that at one point in the afternoon the hashtag #edcampdelta was trending.

Similar to the face-to-face conversations, participants use the backchannel to tweet comments they've heard, ask questions, reflect on their learning and share resources. The backchannel also allows people who are unable to participate in person to follow the discussion and contribute from a distance.

I'm always shocked when each session concludes and when the day draws to a close at an edcamp. Being so intensely focussed, time seems to slip by so quickly. Because I've been concentrating so hard throughout the day, I find myself mentally exhausted as the day wraps up. However, I also find I'm inspired by the ideas and experiences that people have shared with me during my many conversations.

I'm thankful to have engaged in so face-to-face and backchannel conversations at Edcamp Delta and Edcamp Vancouver and I know they have allowed me to construct meaning and apply my learning to current situations and challenges I face at school.  I'm also grateful to the participants who have peaked my curiosity, led me toward new challenges and kept me in 'flow' at Edcamp!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Edcamp Delta: A Personalized Learning Experience

Recently in British Columbia, much is being said about the need for personalization. The Ministry of Education's new BC Education Plan emphasizes the importance of personalized learning.
We must not confuse personalization with individualization and differentiation.

"Personalized learning is not individualized learning, in which students share the same learning goals but progress through the curriculum at their own pace. Nor is it differentiated instruction, in which students also share learning goals but receive instruction that is tailored to their learning needs.

Personalized learning is an instructional approach that encompasses both differentiation and individualization, but is also flexible in content or theme to match the specific interests and prior experiences of learners."

Personalized learning really takes into consideration that long tail of interest, of prior motivation, of languages. It leverages all the different things that people have in their repertoire to add value to their learning. In any personalized learning model, the student - not the teacher - is the central figure."  Karen Cator

But what does personalized learning actually look like? feel like?

Well, on Saturday January 14th I participated in a personalized learning experience at Edcamp Delta.

For those of you less familiar with how an edcamp works, let me briefly explain.
  • There is no keynote speaker and no set topics.
  • Participants propose discussion topics leading up to and in person on the morning of the event.
  • Participants vote for topics that interest them and based on the popularity of the respective topics, the organizers arrange the discussion topics within a grid and create a schedule for the day.
  • Participants choose to participate in sessions they are most interested in.
  • One or more participants step forward to initiate the conversations in each session. 
  • Participants share ideas, perspectives and experiences with each other. They respond to each other's questions and queries.
So, what key features of an edcamp contribute to such a personalized (not just individualized or differentiated) learning experience?
  • Participants arrive with different goals for the day. Some wish to network, others want to share ideas about specific topics and some want to ask questions.
  • The content is flexible and participants choose discussion topics based on their specific interests and prior experiences.
  • Each participant contributes and adds value to the other participants' learning.
  • Face-to-face and backchannel conversations take place within each session but participants may choose to extend their conversations throughout the day.
  • There is an absence of hierarchy. There is no 'teacher', no 'expert' and no passive attendees trying to soak up information being delivered by the 'guru' in the room. All participants are learners, helping one another.
What transpires from this is truly remarkable. Each participant is deeply engaged and exudes a passion for learning. Being surrounded by such energy and enthusiasm is both motivating and inspirational. And one is guaranteed to walk away from an edcamp event curious about a new topic and wanting to continue a conversation started earlier in the day.

So, in British Columbia as we look to reshape education in a way that supports personalized learning, maybe we should be considering the success of recent Edcamps and borrow key aspects from the 'unconference' model of learning.

Imagine how the notion of school might change if learners had the choice to investigate self-directed inquiry topics based on their curiosity and interests?
Imagine if learners shared questions and problems with their local and global network and challenged each other to think critically and be creative problem-solvers.
Imagine if learning was made more social, with more emphasis on learning together, where learners communicated, cooperated and collaborated in an effort to build shared knowledge and understanding?

Undoubtedly, this would lead to more questions about our current model of 'schooling'.

Organizationally, how might this look in a class? in a school?
How might this impact curriculum? Would this lead curriculum to emphasize skills more than knowledge?
How would this alter the traditional role of the 'teacher' and 'student'?

I recognize these are not easy questions to answer, but neither is the challenge of envisioning a personalized learning system for all students in BC!