JedcampLA: A New Way of Thinking About Professional Development

jedcampla_-_015By Phil Liff-Grieff

Before we jump in, I would like to tell you a little story…

This story actually starts around 1439 CE. Around that year, Gutenberg invented the first European printing press, making it possible, for the first time in Europe, to mass produce printed materials. Suddenly, it was possible to produce thousands of pages in a day, resulting in the availability of thousands of copies of printed works for distribution broadly and cheaply. Previously, knowledge was found in books laboriously produced by scribes and kept in the hands of clerics and members of the nobility. As a result of printing, books became affordable and accessible and, for the first time, literacy became a reasonable option for the masses. The Printing Revolution democratized access to knowledge in the West.

A second chapter in this story begins with the creation of the World Wide Web around 1990. The advent of the Internet provided a new form of opening up knowledge, giving users access to information unimagined in earlier times. As in Gutenberg’s time, this Digital Revolution shifted the ownership of knowledge even further as the hierarchical nature of access to information is flattened even more.

We could argue both the pros and the cons of the fact that all of the world’s information can be accessed from a smart phone in one’s pocket. The one irrefutable fact, however, is that the world is no longer structured in a way to accommodate a strictly “top down” approach to learning. The “teacher-student” model is being supplemented by many other social or collaborative models such as “peer-to-peer learning” as we recognize that this rapidly changing digital world requires new ways of understanding how learning takes place.

With this in mind, changes are underway in professional development of educators as well. While adult learners are accustomed to a “top down” approach found in seminars and conferences, a new “unconference “approach to professional learning has recently emerged in the form of Edcamp. Born in Philadelphia in 2010, there have been more than 250 Edcamp unconferences around the world since then, all based on a simple model: There are no keynotes, no vendors, no registration fees and no “experts” – instead, the people who come to learn are the people who are there to teach.

In September 2014, a small group of educators organized the first JedcampLA, patterned after similar endeavors in New Jersey and San Francisco. We brought together a diverse group of over 40 Jewish teachers – day schools and religious schools; Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist. Reform and none-of-the-above; vocational and avocational teachers-for a day with a few basic Edcamp rules:

  • The day is free and vendor-free
  • The group develops the sessions when they arrive (sessions are spontaneous, interactive and responsive to the needs of those present)
  • Anyone can present
  • Anyone can “vote with their feet” and can choose to leave a session without stigma if it is not meeting their needs

Pretty scary, right?

Well, the September JedcampLA was amazing! When they arrived, teachers posted post-its on a board describing things they wanted to learn or things they would like to share and we took those post-its and created instant workshops out of them. Some workshops didn’t happen due to lack of attendance (“vote with your feet”) and others were packed. The day felt full of energy and sharing. And, when the day was over, the consensus was clear – everyone was learning and growing as a result of the time they spent together.

A second JedcampLA is planned for February 22, 2015. Once again, we are expecting a lively and diverse group of educators to come together to learn and to teach, to share and to grow, even though there is not a paid “expert” in sight. The simple idea that educators can have a quality professional growth experience by learning from each other seems to have taken hold.

Does this mean that BJE is going to abandon more traditional forms of educator training? Not at all – there is still a benefit to be found in sitting with top experts as a way of honing your skills and knowledge. But, JedcampLA is teaching us all that we have much to learn from each other as well and that, by creating spaces where this can happen, everyone in the educational community benefits.

Phil Liff-Grieff is the Associate Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles and Adjunct Faculty at Hebrew Union College-JIR in Los Angeles where he teaches courses on Experiential Education and on Digital Media.