The Unconference

I have to admit, that I’ve avoided edcamps and unconfernces for a while, because they have felt to me like group hugs… warm and cozy, but not a lot about moving my learning forward.

However, I participated in the Institute for Innovation in Education (iiE) conference at Vancouver Island University this pass weekend and the afternoon of day 2 happened to be a two-session ‘unconference’. On day 1, I presented with friend and mentor, Dave Sands on:

Facilitating Successful Learning Through Failure

When is failure really a success?
 Our present education system is built around always finding the ‘right’ answer, but when can the wrong answer be valuable? Technology can provide opportunities for students to make mistakes, iterate, persevere and develop alternative approaches to problems relevant to what they are learning. In this workshop, participants will engage in a team challenge and introductory coding activities to explore the value of failure as a key part of meaningful learning.


I think the session was great, and it was an honour to work with Dave and our participants. I continue to see that ‘Failure Always Invites Learning’ and that we as educators need to:

1. Reduce our fear around sharing failure and celebrate what we learn from it.

2. Increase the value of learning through and from failure in our classrooms with students.

I hope to be doing this hands-on presentation again with Dave and perhaps I’ll share more later on the topic, but for now I’d like to talk about the ‘unconference’ afternoon on day 2 at iiE.

My first unconference session was titled “Preserve Artistic energy through funky hidden sandbox provocation spaces.” The title and other session topics were decided in an edcamp style format, but with a twist! We were provided with key words that we had to collaboratively create topics with.


What was unique about this approach, beyond all the fun of fridge magnet poetry without the fridge, was that no one person owned the agenda for the final topics. Edcamps have individuals pose session ideas and the person whose idea gets the most votes becomes a facilitator of that idea (in some capacity which varies according to how the edcamp is run). This ‘fridge magnet’ approach decentralized the ownership of session topics in a way that, at least at first glance, seemed… ridiculous. (My second session title was “Hearing, Dancing, Creatures Combining after Common Spoken and Unspoken Music Story” and the words dancing and music were not even there when I signed up.)

Focusing back on the session, “Preserve Artistic energy through funky hidden sandbox provocation spaces,” I chose this because of my interest in learning spaces, and the idea of spaces as sandboxes.

The topic title and the word ‘hidden’ led me to look up David Thornburg’s Campfires, Caves & Watering Holes. From there, our group dug a little deeper into the idea of hidden spaces.

We thought about the importance of having a space for quiet contemplation, but also for the need to not share everything we do. This led to a conversation about how teachers often under-share because they don’t think what they are doing is all that special. But I love, and shared, this wonderful video by Derek Sivers “Obvious to you. Amazing to others.

We then had a conversation about the need for teachers to share what they do. From this we thought of a sort of a paradox: Create hidden places to promote more sharing (spaces that are safe, limited, not fully exposed). What we were discussing upon reflection was the need to create tribes, and to provide collaboration time and space to experiment and share what we are trying in a safe place.

As a side note, I think that at least part of the popularity of Snapchat with students is that when students don’t get to have a ‘cave’ space at school, and often at home either, they crave a space to share something in a safe way, that is fleeting and not permanent.

We need to create safe environments where people are willing to share, open up and challenge their own thinking, and only when safe spaces are created, will people create things that they are more willing to share publicly.

I took some time to reflect on some of the ideas above after my first session. In fact, I missed about the first ten minutes of the second session so that I could get some point form ideas for what I wrote above (and below) down on my iPad. The reason I did this was because I had a realization about the first session, and about ‘unconferences’ in general, that I wanted to think about and reflect upon. This realization was that professional development doesn’t always need to be about learning more ‘stuff’.

Unconferences are not about adding content to your brain, they are about synthesis of ideas, and about dialogue that challenges you to think about where you stand on a topic. They help you both make and articulate your perspective. They are about listening intently and asking questions. They are about making tangential connections that you might not make without a dialogue on the topic. They are about reflection and learning in a self-directed, empowering way, with a group of people that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

I really like the idea of an unconference being part of, and not the only part, of a professional development experience. I also really like the idea of co-created topic titles and despite the ridiculousness of the session titles, I like that the topics were not personalized and were agenda-less.

I’m not going to be racing out to the next edcamp… but I do have a better understanding of why educators like the format, and I think that the opportunity for educators to listen to others discuss a topic, reflect and synthesize what’s being said is far more valuable than I previously thought.

Day 3 of the conference put us through a very powerful design process. I look forward to sharing more on that in an upcoming post. Thanks to all the organizers of #iieviu, the Institute for Innovation in Education is an amazing tribe of people and I’ m honoured to have joined them in learning… and in friendship!