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Why the UnPlug’d Canadian Education Summit Matters

Canada’s foremost edu-tweeters spend a rare weekend offline and develop a collective vision for the future of K-12 education in Canada.
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A few weekends ago I had the extraordinary opportunity to participate at UnPlug’d – a PD gathering like no other.  A group of deeply committed Canadian educators converged upon Toronto and rode a train to the western edge of Algonquin Park to share the aspects of teaching and learning that mattered most to them. Throughout the weekend, their pre-prepared essays were peer reviewed, refined, and compiled into an e-book.  The first chapter of this collective vision has since been released and is available at: http://www.unplugd.ca/unplugd11.html

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Photo credit: Alanna King @banana29

Despite the fact that most Unplug’d attendees had never met in person, they all knew each other through longstanding connections formed on Twitter – where virtual networks provide peer support and soothe the sense of isolation that many classroom innovators feel within their own schools. Twitter was the icebreaker that built the level of trust necessary for the deep group reflection that unfolded in this two-day gathering. I’ve now witnessed first-hand how Twitter has the potential to transform the effectiveness of PD in education – so much so that in my opinion, decision-makers can no longer afford to disparage the impact of social media on improving teacher practice.

I assumed that this group of 40 educators – who have attracted thousands of followers to their Twitter feeds – would speak to each other in an unintelligible barrage of ‘technobabble’, but the rich discourse I heard was anything but that – it was about pioneering techniques that increased student engagement and motivation; powerful examples of inquiry-based learning; a shared philosophy of teachers relinquishing traditional power dynamics with students in favour of group collaboration and cumulative learning; how technology helped students with special needs connect to and thrive in their learning; and above all, how crucial it is to bring back the joy in teaching and learning to our education systems. 

I was able to chat with, listen to, and learn from some of the most innovative and inspiring thinkers working to transform our education systems. It was these rich conversations over meals and campfires that put a face to the education sector’s omnipresent ‘21st century learning’ rhetoric – it is happening in their classrooms despite the constraints imposed by the system. These thought leaders were passionate about designing more relevant and challenging learning experiences for their students.  They told poignant stories of the barriers they overcame in doing so, which illustrated the gaping chasm of understanding that persists between teachers’ transformative practices and decision-makers’ implementation-to-scale mindsets.

Many of the attendees are bloggers, so ‘unpacking’ the Unplug’d Summit in greater detail is best left for them to do. Please take a moment to read some of their informal reflections. Their polished essays are being gradually released in the coming weeks and are available on the UnPlug’d website at: http://www.unplugd.ca/unplugd11.html

Unplugging Joy
Daryl Bambic - Montreal, QC
For many, these essays were torturous to write.  How can I express what matters most to me in 250 words?  How can the ‘guts’ of an entire teaching career fit on one page?  The secret was in the story and the conversations that ensued from our shared stories. 

Unplug’d11 – A Uniquely Canadian Education Summit
Bryan Jackson - Vancouver, B.C
We arrived with stories and theses from the edges of our schools, out on the boundaries of learning in our country, and in some ways the gathering served as an affirmation, and inspiration, for those working on the thin edge of Canadian educational change. In one another’s struggles, we were introduced to allies in kind; and in attempting to define the current perimeters of reform, as well as the elemental values by which each of us lives as educators and citizens, we each were refreshed with a glimpse of the hope for our collective future triumphs.

My Geeky Friends – Thoughts from Unplug’d 11
Rob Fisher - Thompson, MB
When I left Thompson, Manitoba, to go to this past weekend’s Unplug’d Canadian Education Summit to be with these people from across Canada, my wife said to me "have fun with your geeky friends!" Now that Unplug’d has concluded, I'm thinking how interesting it was that with 36 other people who are trying to figure out ways to infuse technology and as part of their work achieve Literacy with ICT with their students, that our 3 days spent together really wasn't spent talking much about the technology.