Walter McKenzie

ASCD Affiliates Unconference

ASCD affiliates, we have been exploring ways to revolutionize the ways we serve their affiliate members. Why? The writing is on the wall that today's educators have different needs and expectations. It's difficult to get out of the classroom to attend conferences, and when educators can get away for professional development they want to be actively engaged in acquiring meaning and building understanding. One concept I have asked affiliates to explore is the deconstruction of conferences, workshops, and seminars into a newly emerging kind of professional development: the unconference.

Why unconference? It's a back-to-basics movement—a new minimalism—wherein the participants define the learning and then contribute to its success. There are no keynote speakers, no concurrent sessions, and no matrix schedules. They can be held anywhere you can find conducive free space, so there are literally no overhead costs. And the payoff is that those who attend get to connect, learn, and network for follow-up discussions after the event is over. Sounds intriguing, but scary! As one affiliate board member remarked to me at its summer retreat: "No headliners? No identified agenda? No pre-registration? What if nobody comes?!"

"Take a chance!" I replied. "If nobody comes, then nobody will know it flopped!" The room laughed nervously. But the truth is, to make revolutionary changes in how we serve educators, we need to take risks. Every affiliate with which I have discussed unconferencing has been fascinated with the idea. It makes sense to them, especially as they consider the needs of educators under 40. They're not joiners. They don't want to sit and be talked at. They want opportunities to apply themselves and be leaders among their peers. They need places where they can make that happen. What we need are some early adopters.

We do have a number of affiliates seriously planning their first foray into unconferencing. This past fall I attended the first of a series of unconferences to be held by South Carolina ASCD (SC-ASCD) on project-based learning (PBL) at a middle school in Columbia, S.C. Executive Director Charlene Herring invited me so I could provide an additional layer of support as her team began this new professional development (PD) experiment.

Because there was no published schedule or agenda, only an open-ended theme, the SC-ASCD team had no idea who would actually show up or what would happen when they did. As educators rolled in, they slapped on a self-signed nametag and went to one of three whiteboards at the front of the room and wrote what they knew about PBL and what they were seeking to learn at the unconference. There were few solo attendees (most educators came in teams of two to six people) and they sat wherever they found seats. What struck me most? Of the 40 people who came to participate, more than 30 of them were young educators. The over-forty attendees were administrators who brought their young teams to contribute and learn. And the teams did not stay in teams for long. People were quickly talking across teams to share and learn and exchange contact information. It was purposeful and powerful in how it took on a life of its own.

Several teams emerged as having experience and expertise that everyone else in attendance wanted to hear about. There were elementary people picking the brains of secondary people and vice versa. At some points, people met in quickly formed groups to discuss PBL planning, implementation, or assessment concerns. Then the room would shift as groups of educators sought to discuss ideas by grade level. By the time it was over, SC-ASCD's first unconference was a high-energy success, with everyone parting full of ideas, strategies, and new contacts with whom they could continue the conversation. The entire event lasted three hours and didn't cost anyone a penny. It was relevant, engaging, and satisfying for everyone involved.

Could it be more than 40 attendees? Absolutely. But it was a great turnout for a first-time event with no defined parameters. More importantly, it was a big step for an ASCD affiliate offering a new kind of professional development to its membership. Yes, edcamps and unconferences are already tried-and-true PD formats in ed tech circles, but ed tech educators are typically early adopters and innovators by trade. I am very proud of our ASCD affiliates for serving as innovators in their own right. We can build on our successes and learn from our efforts. The point is, ASCD and its affiliates are committed to remaining relevant partners to educators, providing rich resources and rewarding experiences that make a difference in their work. Thank you to the SC-ASCD team and its members who partook in last fall's PBL unconference. And here's to more groundbreaking innovation for our affiliates in the months to come!

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at

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