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Good Ideas Snowball at EduCon 2.3

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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On the eve of this year's EduCon gathering, a winter storm dumped a foot of snow on Philadelphia. That didn't deter the 600 educators who trekked in from all corners of the country, and beyond, to take part in two days of heady conversations at the Science Leadership Academy.

What's the draw? Here's one clue. Philly kids had an official snow day on Friday. But as Principal Chris Lehmann noted in his welcoming remarks, more than one-hundred SLA students showed up anyway to host one of the only education conferences that takes place in a school. Getting a glimpse inside this public high school, and perhaps discovering what gets students so engaged, is part of the attraction.

Equally telling is the stream of Twitter comments with the #educon hashtag. Attendees show up for EduCon eager to learn but just as eager to share. They don't have to be sold on using technology to connect with their learning network. And for a weekend, they get to play with like-minded colleagues.

Format for this event is another attraction. The "con" in EduCon stands for conversation. This year's event offered more than 80 well-facilitated discussions -- not presentations -- plus two panels. The only downside is having to choose. (Games for learning or digital writing? Teaching empathy or teaching STEM?) Fortunately, those capable SLA students videotape, livestream, and archive everything online so you can digest it all, eventually. I'll be mulling over (and blogging about) these intriguing ideas in the weeks ahead, but here are just a few highlights from this winter wonderland.

'Change that Matters'

Theme for this third-annual gathering was innovation. It's a popular term. Heard everywhere from the President's State of the Union Address to new car commercials or the latest gadget release, "innovation" is at risk of overuse. Fortunately, an opening-night panel of big thinkers and change agents helped frame the conversation. They defined innovation as a force not just for what's new, but for what's good. "It's change that matters," summed up Aaron Gross, founder of an organization called Farm Forward that promotes more humane agricultural practices.

Thinkers, Doers, Sharers

How can educators create meaningful change, whether it's in their own classrooms, their schools, or the broader system? Among the wonderful din of ideas at EduCon and in the role-modeling by the SLA community, I kept hearing three refrains: think, do, share.

Thinking: Inquiry is a core value of Science Leadership Academy. No surprise, then, that EduCon sessions invite participants to consider difficult, open-ended questions. What does it mean to be literate in the digital age? Do we need a new language to describe the spaces where learning happens? How do we encourage students to innovate? How can we encourage students, teachers, and schools to take risks and learn from failure?

Doing: Active engagement is another hallmark of both SLA and EduCon. Many sessions challenge participants to make something. Using your cell phone to take an "impossible" picture (such as an image that defies gravity) is not only fun, but it opens a conversation about visual literacy. Inventing a better space for learning through the process of design thinking causes participants to put good talk to good use. There's nothing passive about this kind of experience.

Sharing: Science Leadership Academy walks the talk when it comes to collaboration, providing both time and tools to enable staff and students to work together well. So it's not surprising that sharing is a big theme at EduCon. Sometimes, it's about sharing instructional strategies. Karl Fisch from Arapahoe High School in Colorado shared his experience with "flipped learning." Using digital tools, he "offloads" traditional content delivery to online learning. That opens class time for exploring interesting problems with students. Sometimes, it's about sharing stories -- classroom successes as well as flops. Dean Shareski and Alec Couros, two prominent educators from Canada, facilitated a conversation about "The Ethical Obligation to Teach, Learn and Share Globally." To keep the conversation going, they have started a meme called K12Sharing, including a Google doc to capture good stories.

Grow the Conversation

At the start of EduCon, Chris Lehmann challenged participants to "walk out of here with a plan for change." By the end, those action plans were starting to coalesce. I spoke with some participants who are determined to try one small but powerful idea or tool they heard about from another teacher. Others are aiming to shift the direction of a whole school or district. Closing-day panelist Linda Nathan, founder of Boston Arts Academy, urged all attendees to be inclusive in their vision. "Innovation is something we're not allowed to talk about for poor kids, or poor kids of color," she said. Yet at her arts-infused urban school, she watches students and staff think creatively as they "muck about" with authentic math problems or use the arts to represent human evolution.

The danger of low expectations, cautioned Chad Womack, research scientist and founder of TBED21, is that "students will live up to them." Instead, he challenged attendees to imagine learning environments that "foster the creative mind. Scientists and artists share an ability to see what others don't," he said. "In the visualization of the problem, that's where you find ideas."

If you attended EduCon this year, what new ideas did you find? How have new connections and conversations shaped your vision? And how do you plan to keep this conversation going in your own community? Please share your stories!

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Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I've attended all the Educons so far, and it is by far and away my favorite conference. I think everyone- parents, teachers, even "civilians" should get a sense of how much the educators at Educon care about teaching and learning.
Moreover, when they see everything that a school can be, that SLA is on a daily basis, it raises the bar for what you think you can accomplish and expect from education every day. The fact that high school students come voluntarily to school early, leave late, and show up on snow days because SLA is "Their school" and it's a place where exciting learning happens all the time, and its where you want to be. It's more exciting than the street corner. It's more exciting than home. And while there is tech infused into the curriculum at SLA, SLA actually costs, per pupil, about half of what it costs in other public schools to educate the kids. In part, this is because the school is a true community, and when there's work to be done, people pitch in and do it, rather than always waiting from maintenance or someone else to come take care of it for them.
The community itself is what makes SLA so special, and it is a large family that I feel so lucky to know and have as a shining example of what school can be. You are definitely missing the boat if you don't give Educon a try, or at least come to Philly and take a tour. What you see, learn and feel while you're there will change your framework on education, and what's possible.

Jessica Piper's picture

Your article points to a key issue we have in education...teaching creatively to induce innovation. I have blogged on using technology and how to use it effectively to gain the most from our students. There is no excuse in not using engaging technology to let students CREATE their own learning. All of the sites I recommend are sites that are free and easy to use and just things I've learned over the years. I hope I can help another teacher wishing to engage her students=)


Kristin Hokanson's picture
Kristin Hokanson
Technology Integration and Professional Development Specialist, PA

I think that many schools have their kids thinking, doing, and sharing mostly within the walls of the schools. While the reach of SLA sets them apart, I think the other thing that sets this school apart is the deep level of reflection in which their students engage.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

[quote]I think the other thing that sets this school apart is the deep level of reflection in which their students engage.[/quote]
I agree, and would add that SLA staff are equally reflective. So, too, are many EduCon attendees, who have been blogging and tweeting about their take-aways from this weekend.

Bill Fitzgerald's picture
Bill Fitzgerald
Open Source Geek. Educator, Web developer.

Hello, Suzie,

It was great to finally meet you (and Jane) at Educon and connect faces to names.

Educon is a great conference for many of the reasons you mention - a couple others stand out, and make it one of the few conferences I actively encourage people to attend.

First, no vendors. The lack of a vendor floor and a significant vendor presence means that the conversations and sessions are driven by educators, and are about topics that are of central interest to educators, as opposed to canned sales pitches masquerading as sessions.

Second, the students play an active role in planning and facilitating the conference. This tends to slide under the radar, but there is significant student involvement in the planning of Educon. It's not just a conference, it's a project!

And those two things aside, it also has the advantage of the weather. Who wouldn't want to get to Philadelphia in January?



Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Bill,
Great to meet you, as well!
You're right about the student role at EduCon. They're central to everything from planning the event to leading conversations, as well as doing all the video and web work. Plus, they're so available for informal chats. It's all part of what happens when you take kids seriously.

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