Sunday, March 6, 2011

Are unConferences A Manifestation of Plato's Allegry of the Cave?

I have no doubt valuable understandings can and do happen at unConferences.  It is a powerful learning format.  I have experienced this, learning about search engines and interesting ways of collecting and displaying web sites. Inherently practical information I will certainly use.  I like the idea of UnConferences, the spontaneity, the potential range of interactions, and the thoughtfulness of the convener who may use a range structures like Spectrograms or Community Mapping,  to solicit and map interactions and responses.

An interesting description of unConferences here states:

The Creative unConference favors a flexible, participant-driven format that values energetic dialogue over talking head presentations. Unlike a traditional conference, where topics and speakers are set by organizers months in advance, unConference participants create the agenda and act as the session leaders. This allows all participants to have their voices heard and engage up to the minute ideas. 
During the unConference, session topics can be added or modified, responding to the needs of its participants in real time. Participants are encouraged to move from one presentation to another, engaging with their colleagues. Simple guidelines put forward at the event help this all happen smoothly.
Hmm. I wonder about those simple guidelines and how energetic dialogue is ensured.  At a session I attended (and left) at an unConference, the discourse resembled teacher room chat at its worse.  I wondered then and now if it didn't also serve to solidify misconceptions, racially charged stereotypes, and poorly imagined practices. And still I also imagine that for the majority of people in the session they might well describe it as energetic dialogue. Yet, for me it was more like Plato's Allegory of the Cave, specifically when Socrates says to Glaucon: “And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

It is foolish to confuse perception with sight. During the session, one teacher spoke of social Darwinism as truth, while another stated that literacy performance was "set" by the age of 5 and there was nothing schools could do to improve the matter. I heard talk about reports that no one in the room had actually read, yet everyone had an opinion, even after admitting to having not read the report.  Allow me to paraphrase some of what I heard before leaving the session:
You know. It's like Darwin. You know him? There's always some kids who just can't get it.

What's bad about teacher evaluation is they're going to put your name on the Internet and how are you going to find another job? They'll know your kids didn't do good.

If you teach in a wealthy school district your kids can learn. If you teach in (insert poor community) we get the kids who can't. Is that fair to us?

I know we all teach exactly the same. I steal their worksheets and use them.  It's the kids you get that make the difference. 

My kid (5 year old) has 1000 books. My neighbor's kid (5 year old) has 1.  You can't make up that kind of difference in school.
The kids come to us blank. They have had no experiences.
The beliefs being uttered and unchallenged were shocking.  When I asked the group to focus and comment on their own practices, they did not do that and I wondered why. Instead they continued expressing their beliefs about NCLB, working conditions, evaluation of teachers, ill preparation of students via their lives, etc.  The discourse exchanged was an embarrassment, personally and professionally, especially as:.
I reject social Darwinism. 
I reject the belief that poor kids aren't intellects and aren't creative.
I reject the belief that even if a teacher uses the same worksheet as another, that the learning in the two classrooms is the same.
I reject the belief that learning potential is ever set, let alone at age 5.
I reject the belief that students arrive at any school day without relevant experiences.
Where is the metalanguage necessary to critique our assumptions, beliefs, "truths" at an unConference?  Is it even possible to re-conceptualize one's practice when situated singularly within one's primary discourse?  I wonder if in the rush to embrace unConference, we may be forgetting the value of juried conferences.  Is there no value in preparing presentations that are informed by relevant and juried research and theory?


  1. Thank you for this excellent post. I have yet to attend an 'unconference' but was wary as to the effectiveness of such a loosely defined idea. I had never anticipated a degeneration into the non-productive chatter that happens in the staff room.

    I also see this same thing happening with a rejection of data-fueled education research. The idea that data is bad and that no one outside of my classroom can have ideas/opinions that are valid.

    A conference like this is extremely dangerous in my opinion as it not only allows teachers to reinforce incorrect and unscientific beliefs but they are able to do that under the guise of professional development.

    Thank you again for an excellent read.

  2. I think that will something to watch out for as we plan our unconference. I certainly don't want to let any of the statements you heard go unchallenged as I believe as you do.

    There is a difference though that I think is worth pointing out. If you had attended a typical conference, those statements would have been left unsaid, but would still have been floating around in the heads of the participants. Without the dialog that happens at an unconference, there is no chance of having anhy discussion about those statements and clearing up misconceptions about student learning.

    Which would you rather have? Some ugly ideas that teachers believe aired out and exposed (and hopefully challenged) or to have those same beliefs stuck inside the heads of the teachers which would guaranteed to be unchallenged.

    What will be important for conference organizers to point out is that we need to challenge statements people make and not turn into a giant echo chamber for bad ideas.

  3. Mary Ann,

    That's an ugly turn in a conversation. But do you think it's specific to the unconference format? Would those same teachers have read those reports if they were sitting in a juried conference?

    I also think that Matthew's comment about participants who believe "no one outside of my classroom can have ideas/opinions that are valid" does not capture the spirit of the unconference, since the work is ALL about collaborating with fellow participants

    I think there's a place for multiple kinds of professional development, from twitter to formal conferences.

  4. Having just participated in my first unconference yesterday, I disagree with some of what was said above. I am in the early stages of creating my PLN, and have been involving myself in both blogging and Twitter for about a month. The ideas I have discovered and the feedback I have received from my "virtual" friends are absent, to some degree, in my professional life.

    That being said, I got to meet many of these "virtual" friends in person, and it was thrilling. To hear them speak and discuss and to engage in those conversations was something I am sorry you did not get to experience. The level of professionalism and collaboration I experienced yesterday was so refreshing.

    David's point above, about the ideas "floating" around and not being said is a great one as well...I much prefer to air them and discuss them. Nothing good ever came from harboring those type of thoughts...

    Finally, to Matt's point: I completely agree that data-based research is necessary. The first session I attended had to do with brain-based learning and how it can impact the classroom. Some of the suggestions were so simple and obvious, but they are based on the research. Kevin Washburn, the presenter, continualy referenced the researchers he was referring to. Now, to Mary Ann's point: I haven't read the research, so it could all be a load of nonsense. However, I gained new information that will allow me to follow up on that research, should I choose to. I was inspired by what I heard and saw; what I heard validated my thoughts and concerns, but I still intend to read up on it for more information. It is not idle discourse...

    I would encourage you to attend another unconference. And, if you have the same experience, I ask that you bring that idea to the table. Shout it out from the mountaintop, so to speak, and discuss what you experience with the participants...and see what they say.

  5. To paraphrase is to restate a comment or passage in different words but to retain the original message. Having attended this session, I believe that a number of the comments above are unfairly attributed with respect to context, content, and intent.

    For example, the comment about a participant's child having a great number of books but a neighbor's child having only one was to highlight that children DO come to school with different experiences, vocabularies, and interactions with text. The point of the comment, which was within a larger discussion, was that there are many factors that impact a child's test scores and which seem to be conveniently ignored by the people who want to evaluate teachers primarily through student test scores. At no time did I hear anyone append to that comment an opinion that literacy outcomes were fixed by age 5 or any other age.

    You knew walking in the door that the conversation was about "ed reform," the creation of education policy by individuals with no teaching experience, and the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. There may have been comments that were said out of frustration more than measured consideration, but I believe your "paraphrasing" to be an inaccurate rendition of the session and paints the participants with too wide and too tar-filled a brush.

  6. You certainly had a very bad experience in that first workshop you attended and left. I would be troubled however, if your entire critique of unConferences is solely based on an partial attendance of one workshop.I certainly agree with your critical points on that workshop.
    What comes to mind however is an alien landing in the middle of the desert and reporting to the home planet that the earth is barren and uninhabitable.
    I have attended 5 unConferences to date and have come away informed and rejuvenated each time.I hope your post doesn't serve as a deterrent for others to attend an unConference near them.By the way I have had similar negative experiences at conventional conferences as well. I think it is more a condition of the individual workshop rather than the overall conference.
    Thanks for the feedback. We can use this to guard against a repeat performance.

  7. Dear Mary Ann,

    Ha! A heretic! Where's the stake?
    *sigh* We have a long way to go.....


  8. I attended TMNJ this weekend and loved it. The sessions I attended centered on technology in the classroom, sharing techniques, projects, and strategies. I was able to speak to teachers and ask them questions about what they were doing in their districts and how they were accomplishing their goals. I loved it and came home energized. I do feel there is a place for the experts and research, but I learned as much from the audience participation as I did from the presenters and standard organized professional development does not allow for this. The one session that disappointed me was too presenter focused but that's not to say I didn't learn anything there. He taught me the benefits of Twitter which I had previously written off. I would recommend an unconference to anyone, it's a shame you left feeling this way. You might have shared your thoughts with the group and seen how the conversation could have turned.

  9. I was in that session as well and I will disagree with many of the negative points you address. I will first disagree with the suggestion that you left based on the content of the discussion. As I recall, you apologized and said that you needed to check on the A/V for your session which was beginning in 30 minutes.

    You noticed, as we all did, that the needs of the room were at times different than the planned content of the session. At an unconference, this is fine as it is participant driven. After a day filled with sessions and hallway and smallway discussion, this type of session may have been what was needed though, perhaps, not by you.

    The conversation took many turns and the facilitator took several opportunities to direct and redirect that discussion. That I disagree with some of what was shared is not at issue. What is at issue is whether it was the time/place for it to be addressed, and if someone cared enough to follow up with those with whom may hold a potentially harmful view of the field. Which are you?

    The context of the unconference creates a safe space for people to share their thoughts and when a teacher shares such strong ideas as some of those you mentioned, it's powerful. Equally as powerful is your observation of these statements, disgust, and your unwillingness to help rather than judge after the fact.

    I would contrast that there were many positive things discussed in that session--you clearly had significant knowledge and experience with the evaluation documents regarding various content areas and were eager to share them.

    The discussant had significant background knowledge of administration and classroom practice. Positive.

    Two union presidents were there to discuss how evaluation models were viewed on difference perspectives.

    Alternatives were discussed for the types of evaluations that are being actively used by teachers themselves without being required by their supervisors.

    Other teachers shared some of their current evaluation settings, past evaluation models, and the implications that they have had and continue to have.

    Some of us in attendance shared contact information so we could continue the discussion after the conference.
    Very positive.

    I would suggest that, at your next unconference, you engage as a participant rather than report as a critic.

  10. Well, I guess I struck something of a chord. I do understand that people can participate in the same event and have different responses. I have no doubt that can and does happen and by the record recorded here, it did happen.

    Asking critical questions about the structure of a forum and its content ought to be accepted, if not applauded. One can be both a participant and a critic.

  11. Mary Ann,

    Thank you for your post. All posts certainly make the reader stop and reflect on what they read. As someone who is currently in the midst of planning an UNconference (EdcampPlano) in North Texas it is a harsh reminder that there are teachers within the profession that simply do not get it. It saddens me to think your experience was tarnished by a few bad eggs.

    As many have mentioned before me, I think bad eggs are bad eggs and regardless of what conference you attend, UNconference or otherwise, they may always be there. It's like going to the sporting event and no matter the venue, there is always one unruly fan. As someone who has worked with each end of the socioeconomic spectrum we cannot control what happens, in homes, but we can teach students to learn!

    Did you by any chance remind the teachers you were eavesdropping on of that? You may have or may not have, and it may not of mattered, but teachers that are so far from the truth need to be shown there is a way. I am sure deep down somewhere, in a place they probably do not recognize they were at this UNconference to learn that. They needed someone to shed light into their opinions.

    As our event is coming up quickly, I will keep your post in mind and possibly find a way to remind our attendees of this.

    Hopefully you will find another UNconference to attend. At the end of the day, i do think both types of conferences have their place.

    Thank you for sharing!


  12. Good luck with your unConference, Matt. For the record I wasn't eavesdropping. Nor did I cite the event. I was alarmed at the comments though and did ask the group to discuss their own practices. That did not happen. I can't tell you why. Two other people also tried to redirect the conversation, but they were interrupted repeatedly by the host. One said to the group that we needed to lift the conversation. I left to get ready for a presentation/hosting and I left because it was an unproductive use of my time.

  13. Mary Ann,
    I think you did ask some important questions in this post, but I'm confused by what appears to be your unfair characterization of the conversation overall. Furthermore, I'm surprised by your deflecting defensiveness about those points. When you have based your critical questions on what seems to be faulty evidence, it significantly reduces your credibility in asking those questions, which makes it much more difficult to accept and applaud your conclusions.

    I've probably spent more time than most people in thinking about the structures of unconferences, and have in the past expressed worry about the need for more diverse viewpoints at these types of events. I don't think that unconferences are a magic bullet for solving all of our professional development needs, but they do provide an important outlet for many teachers to gather with other educators from a diverse range of locations, backgrounds, and types of schools. When you gather a group of people with diverse needs like that, there's a lot that can be learned from the friction that can occur.

    Being an unconference, I'm glad that you chose to leave a session that was not meeting your needs, in the same way that you did not, as far as I'm aware, attend my session and I did not attend yours. At the end of the day, navigating an unconference is about finding the sessions that will be of value to you.


  14. Mary Ann,

    You raise important points, and I understand your frustration with the "negative teacher room chat" you experienced. I'm just not sure what you wrote about had anything to do with it being an unconference. It sounds like you chose a session about education reform, and unfortunately ed reform and frustration currently feel to many like synonyms.

    My first unconference was last week at #NTCamp at Burlington HS. I attended sessions with knowledgeable and most importantly open presenters. I engaged in discussions, and didn't agree with everything, but I certainly learned from the experience. I'm not ready to embrace the unconference model as the best way to offer professional learning in a school-especially an urban school like mine, with so many new teachers. But I will attend #Edcamp Boston to keep learning new ideas to try and to continue to learn about the unconference model.

    I hope you give the unconference model another try. Maybe if you stick to sessions that don't have quite as much baggage attached, you'll find it a more positive experience.

    Thanks for your ideas and for having the strength to put a contrarian view out in the education blogosphere.


  15. I think that with any conference it s important to realize that you are still a learner. Not every experience is going to be the same because not everyone leads the same. We teach our students tontake lead of their own learning we should expect the same or ourselves. The unconference conference that I have attended for 2 years now is amazing. Podstock is more of a familynand I highly recommend you look into it :)

  16. That's good to know Andrea. Dan the session wasn't simply not meeting my needs but more so raised some questions about scholarship and its place at an unConference. Appreciate your POVs.

  17. Hi Mary Ann:

    I'm glad there was interest in your post and I will keep your thoughts in mind going forward. I had a good day at tmnj11. In a couple of time slots I was sorry I could not be in two places at once. Now that I've been to a few I look for certain presenters rather than a topic to guide me. I found a several more good people to "follow" at tmnj11, Deven Black, Gerald Aungst, and Frank Noschese in particular.

    I hope we get to see you again. If I see you leading a group that is discussing this I will definitely attend it.

    Dave Zirkle @davezirk

  18. Thanks Dave. Glad the day was productive for you:)

  19. I was a participant in the unconference session that Dr. Reilly is referencing above and, if I'm to be completely honest with you, I'm still trying to recover from the disappointment of this particular session. The experience made me uneasy and the paraphrasing, while quoted by Dr. Reilly out of context, does not entirely misrepresent the sentiments of the speakers, as I heard them.

    There was a profound difference between this session and any of the other three unconference sessions that I attended that day, which by and large were very good. Washburn's conference, referenced by Tony above, as well as Dr. Timony's own session were thought-provoking, practical sessions that represented the best of what I had hoped to see at the unconference.

    I'm not opposed to open dialogue, and I'm certainly neither opposed to debate nor to challenging one another in an open forum such as this one. In fact, I welcome such opportunities; but, this was something different. At it's core, it was a misinformed bitch session. At one point, a teacher tried to redirect the conversation towards a discussion of solutions and ideas to combat the forces that the group was complaining about, but the moderator as well as other group members seemed uninterested in solutions and determined to keep on a negative, unproductive course of conversation.

    It is all wildly ironic since the moderator had started his presentation with a question: So what are you going to do about it? Apparently, the answer is nothing.

    I think that we need to revisit some basic understandings on the unconference. Just because it's an unconference doesn't mean that there shouldn't be a vetting process for presenters and topics. At my high school, we held an unconference earlier this year and it was wildly successful because the individuals who were running the sessions were well prepared, were sensitive to the needs of the participants, and were actively seeking to make a positive change in the world of education. While I do not doubt that the moderator's intentions were good, it was hard for me to see any of those qualities in his session.

    I understand the feeling of anger, frustration, and ingratitude that many teachers feel out there. These are not easy times for us, as teachers. But I also believe that we owe it to ourselves, to our kids, and to the communities we serve to expect more from our colleagues than to denigrate our profession with such negative, dangerous, and unproductive dialogue.

  20. Thanks for the remarks Mark. Appreciate your comments, insights and suggestions.


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