TechCamp Philly 153

Local educators and community members work to create solutions for education in Philly at the TechCamp Philly hackathon.

Just last week I helped organize and attended Edcamp Philly at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the conversations in which I took part was about what works when planning and implementing professional development. It was moderated by Kristen Swanson and Tom Murray. We were split into two teams to create our ideal professional development day. As my team discussed the format of the day, I began to reflect on the hackathons that I have attended and helped organize over the past few months. I began to see a correlation between the way hackathons are organized and how we as educators could learn from the intentional structure for doing and building that hackathons are based on.

First, you ask, what is a “hackathon?” While the name makes them seem nefarious, a hackathon is simply a group of people who come together for a shared purpose with the goal of building or creating a product, idea or solution. Hackathons have their roots in computer programming and coding, though I have attended hackathons where no technology was present, and I have attended hackathons during which teams form and create technological solutions. Hackathons, like telethons, are usually non-stop and last a few days (usually Friday to Sunday). This is not a requirement, however, as some hackathons may last only a day or even a few hours. The main purpose is to bring people together to come up with innovative solutions to every day issues in a short period of time.

This is why we need more professional development to look like hackathons. Some of the biggest criticisms of professional development is that it is often not interactive enough, that it cannot be applied to the classroom, or that there is no “end product” or “deliverable.” If we model our professional development after a hackathon, we have already squashed all three criticisms.

Our team came up with this model as our nearly perfect professional development day:


Hold edcamp-style workshops where participants self-organize around topics that interest them.



Groups form based on the morning’s conversation with the goal of really delving into the topic deeply and fully understanding it in preparation for implementing aspects of the discussion and learning into their classroom that week.

Each person in the group stands up and shares his or her plan for implementing what they have learned and discussed that day with the rest of the group.

Follow up

Teams will reconvene briefly to revisit their goals and plans and share their progress at the next professional development meeting.


While not all professional development can be replaced by this format, the idea of self-selecting an area of focus and leaving with a concrete plan that has been shared with our colleagues creates a culture of learning, growth and even accountability to each other.

This format could even be used to come up with solutions to school-wide problems and issues such as bullying, scheduling or parent engagement.

How do you see hacking professional development working in your school?



  1. Reply

    Our PD is very much so controlled and run by “the man”…admins. Teachers do not even realize that that should have a voice and I hope that some will attend the Edcamp near our community this summer just so that they can get a feel for what “should” be.

    With that said, having these conversations implies knowing your weaknesses & strengths…self assessing. It also requires school administrators to give up control. If and when that happens, we can get to a place where THIS model is possible…getting there

    • marybeth


      Great point, Rafranz, that self-assessing is very important. We can’t assume that everyone knows how to effectively do this (I’m not sure I even do!). No one is saying that participant-driven PD will replace traditional PD, so maybe knowing that will make this kind of approach more comfortable for many administrators and school leaders.

  2. Reply

    Great post! I love how you have combined concepts from the edcamp movement with hackathons. Drawing ideas from how outside industries create and innovate is a powerful way to break new ground in education. Well done!

    • marybeth


      Thanks, Dave. Sometimes we can learn a lot from looking outside of education for ideas. (and sometimes we look too much at ideas outside of education!)

  3. Reply

    I love the re-branding of staff development! Plus, “hackathon” is fun to say. I also love that you use words like “nefarious”! Keep keeping it real, Philly Teach!

  4. Reply

    I had so much fun learning from other educators in that session. I really like the idea that your team generated, especially the targeted time to learn from each other during the afternoon. I think that “experimental lab time” is really critical so that the learning moves beyond conversation to action. Also, I think the concept of hacking fits perfectly with the idea that major changes (not minor shifts) are needed to truly move education forward. Great stuff.

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