NAIS and PETE and C

February and March are hotbeds of activity for state and national education and technology conferences. Next week I’ll be at both ends of the U.S. at two conferences of interest to educators interested in technology.

NAIS is the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference. Private schools have been on the forefront of the laptop movement both in the US and around the world. The 2010 conference is in San Francisco Feb 24-26,¬† and I’ll be there with the Constructivist Consortium. This is a group of small companies who promote constructivist use of software in schools for creativity and student-centered learning. Generation YES is one of the founding members and we’ll be at booth 239 – come by and say hello!

PETE&C is the Pennsylvania state technology conference held annually in Hershey, PA. Yes, that Hershey, and yes, it does smell like chocolate! Running Feb 24-27, this conference is all about technology and education. Pennsylvania’s education reform program, Classrooms for the Future (CFF) has created a strong network of educator-coaches who support innovative programs statewide. Building internal leadership like this is a terrific idea, and Pennsylvania is certainly reaping the benefits of investing in their own people.

At PETE&C, I’ll be doing a session on Feb 23 on student leadership and digital citizenship – if you are going to PETE&C I hope you’ll stop by.

Student leadership is a topic that might not on the surface seem to be technology related, but schools hoping to increase their authentic use of technology need to be thinking about. The guiding principle of putting power into student hands can be both concrete (actually handing them equipment) and abstract (giving them responsibility and agency over their learning). Both support each other, and schools that give students responsibility and guide them as they learn to use it gain so much. Students who believe that they have a stake in their own education will contribute to the effort to make education better for all. Schools that take this  empowerment to heart help create the citizens, learners, and leaders we need in the world.

So say hello in person or on Twitter! I love to meet friends new and old!


The people in the room are the right people

Last week I was the closing keynote at NEIT 2008, the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) Education and Information Technology conference. It was an “unconference” and used a structure called “Open Space” to plan and manage the meetings. Other than the two keynote “anchors”, there were no planned sessions.

Open Space Technology is “a simple way to run productive meetings, for five to 2000+ people, and a powerful way to lead any kind of organization, in everyday practice and extraordinary change.”

At NAIS 2008, I found it very successful, and at the same time, a powerful metaphor for learning.

At the beginning of the conference, everyone is free to step up and propose any session they want. Not just ones they want to present, but anything they want to know more about. And then as these suggestions begin to fill the slots, more ideas come forward. After a few sessions, you have another meeting and fill more slots, propose more ideas. (More about how this works)

When it started, it seemed like there were way too many open spots and not enough ideas. People worried that voting would help sort out what to do, that their ideas wouldn’t be popular, that they would miss things, or that we would run out of ideas. But as we heard the Open Space Four Principles and One Law it started to make more sense:

Four Principles

  • Whoever comes is the right people
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  • When it’s over, it’s over

The one law is The Law of Two Feet, meaning, if you want to be somewhere else, do it – just don’t waste the time.

How it worked
Sure enough, most sessions had enough people. Part of the success was due to the facility having many small rooms, enough to accommodate all the proposed sessions. Some had projectors, some didn’t but it all worked out. When we re-gathered for the next planning sessions, people were energized, more sessions were proposed, people decided to continue or repeat a session, and slowly the open slots were filled

I’ve been to other unconferences, and this one was different. Because there was no voting, there was no competitive element and no hidden message that only the most popular ideas or people are important. While I understand that often the physical space is a limitation, I think there must be ways to acknowledge that everyone can contribute.

As I went to various sessions, people were passionate and focused. It’s the first conference in years where I went to every session and wished there were more. Lots of people said the same thing. You know when you go to a conference and the best part is the conversation in the hall? This was all hall.

The kids in the room are the right kids
But really, isn’t this what we hope for classrooms, especially project-based learning environments? Sometimes it’s hard to explain project-based learning. It’s hard to convince others that it actually works, because it’s hard to “see” the learning when the teaching is not continuous direct instruction. You have to trust the process, design situations that will engage students, and then give students time to become immersed in them. You have to trust the students and allow them to take risks, make mistakes, overcome frustrations and work through momentary distractions. You have to believe that your kids are the right kids, that you are the right teacher, and that when it all works, it will be magic.

I took a risk too, I didn’t prepare my keynote presentation until the night before. I felt I wanted to honor the process and trust that the experience of the conference would provide support for my topic of leadership vision to action, especially student leadership. And it did. I liked what I came up with, and the audience seemed to as well. It was videotaped, but apparently only the audio worked. Oh well!

I knew I wasn’t going THAT far out on a limb; I have enough videos and examples that I can pull together fairly quickly. But the theme of trusting the process and the participants ended up providing the perfect context.

Your kids are the right kids, you are the right teacher, and now is the right time. Trust them, trust yourself, trust the process. Now let’s get busy.