EdCamp:  Honoring Professional Learning

Hewlett-Woodmere School District took a bold step by transforming their traditional Superintendent’s Conference Day into an innovative opportunity for true professional collaboration.   Using the model of EdCamp, the entire district instructional staff assembled at the high school where educators were allowed to generate topics for professional development that they believed would be meaningful to them.  Following a flurry of activity, the professional development committee built a schedule of 24 sessions matched specifically to the needs of the teachers in the room.

Too often educator professional development is devoid of best practice in teaching and learning.  Teachers know that students learn better when they have opportunities for choice. Students need instruction that is differentiated according to their prior knowledge and learning styles.  Learners need to be actively engaged, not just passive receivers of information.  Nevertheless, on PD days educators have been known to abandon these best practices in favor of large group lecture, with few opportunities for interaction.

08-structure-01Recognizing that a system’s structure generates its behavior, EdCamp creates structures that promote collaboration among educators.  The EdCamp concept, based on an “unconference,” acknowledges that complex problems are solved and deep learning happens when people have the time and space for dialogue and collaboration.  An EdCamp approach honors teachers’ ability to identify their own learning needs.  Educators are professionals who make critical instructional decisions every day. They are definitely capable of identifying the topics and information needed to improve their practice.

Hewlett’s EdCamp had only two rules: be part of a conversation and feel free to walk.  In other words, if a particular session is not meeting your needs, you are free to move to another conversation.  These guidelines sent a clear message that the learner is responsible for his own learning.  In education, teachers assume all the responsibility for learners, leading to learning environments that are passive and sometimes unproductive.  EdCamp makes a clear point of what should be part of all education: the learner is ultimately responsible for his own learning.


One teacher said, “Once topics started coming in, I loved that we could just go with the ideas.”  Learning at its finest.  Congratulations, Hewlett.  Way to innovate, implementing structures that generate professional collaboration and learning for all.

How A Systems Thinking Approach Can Impact Student Learning

Unstoppable Learning, written by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, suggests that a systems thinking approach is essential to creating and delivering effective instruction.  Teachers work in complex, dynamic systems.  In order to meet the needs of the students in their care, teachers must fluidly and regularly practice the Habits of a Systems Thinker.  “The systems thinking classroom requires educators to consider the elements that impact student learning and design structures to leverage these elements.”

According to Fisher and Frey, systems thinking teachers recognize the preeminence of relationships.  They are skillful communicators who “use language to share knowledge and information with one another and to challenge each other’s thinking.” Recognizing that learners are dynamic, educators must be responsive to the students and their learning needs.  Systems thinking educators create sustainable learning environments that produce life-long learners.

In a recent presentation hosted by the Arizona K12 Center, Doug Fisher underscored the need for an ability to create conditions for learning and accurately assess student learning when he stated, “Telling students what you expect from them is a students’ rights issue.  Report cards change parents’ perception of their children and transcripts affect the choices students have after graduation.”  So how should teachers approach the planning, delivery, personalization, and assessment of learning in order to ensure that their objectives are clear and their assessments are accurate? By using the Habits of a Systems Thinker.

The habits can be used as tools to reflect on decisions made in all phases of the teaching and learning process from lesson design and delivery through assessment and transfer.  They can also be used as a common language to help students and teachers be more metacognitive about their own thinking.   The Habits of a Systems Thinker allow for more reflection, more student conversation and simply put — unstoppable learning.

Exploring Systems Thinking with Science in the Elementary School: Webinar Highlights

In their webinar Exploring Systems Thinking with Science in the Elementary School, Karen Abbott and Kelly Nichols illustrate how systems thinking tools and habits can deepen student understanding of the Next Generation Science Standards. They posit, “Systems thinking tools enable students to delve deeply into scientific concepts while making visible the underlying and often unseen variables that influence behavior.” They also quote Kirk Robbins, author of the blog Science for All. Robbins states, “Systems thinking provides a unifying concept for learners to make sense of the natural world from micro to macro.” Karen and Kelly offer a host of examples to show how the pedagogy of systems thinking provides specific strategies for teaching students the types of thinking required by the standards.

Those familiar with the Next Generation Science Standards may recall that under each performance expectation in the standards there are three dimensions: a science or engineering practice, a core disciplinary idea, and a cross-cutting concept.

Here is an example:

NGSS Lead States. 2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States.

In the webinar Karen and Kelly offer a structural framework that brings great clarity to these dimensions. They make the connection between systems tools and science and engineering practices. In the standards these practices include analyzing and interpreting data, designing solutions, and engaging in argument from evidence. Karen and Kelly go on in the webinar to explicitly show how systems tools provide a specific strategy for teaching these practices. They equate the Habits of a Systems Thinker to the crosscutting concepts in the standards. Again the connection between the language in the standards and the language of the Habits of a Systems Thinker could not be more clear: patterns, cause and effect, structure, and interdependence. With a firm grasp of these concepts and the systems thinking habits the learner has a mindset ready to deeply understand the core ideas from the varied disciplines of science.


A final idea that Karen and Kelly drive home so well is that while the systems thinking tools and concepts are useful in achieving a particular standard, ultimately much of the learning happens in the conversation that occurs between learners. Skilled teachers use these tools to promote this productive conversation and gather critical pieces of assessment information through interactions with and among students.

If you were not able to participate in the live webinar, feel free to access this amazing resource. There you will not only hear more about how these ideas fit together to enhance science instruction, but you will be treated to specific ideas for implementing these ideas as part of classroom instruction. Practitioners may also want to share in the upcoming online collaborative set for March 16. For details about online collaboratives and to learn more about how you can participate, visit this page.