Petri Dish PD


I’ve been to professional development events that follow a variety of formats: assemblies, braindumps, cattle calls, chats, computer camps, conferences, convocations, deliberations, dine-and-discusses, edcamps, flockings, forums, gabfests, groupthinks, hangouts, huddles, make-it-and-take-its, meet-and-greets, meetings, peer-coachings, podcasts, powwows, retreats, roasts, scrums, seminars, summits, symposia, think-ins, train-the-trainers, tweet-ups, unconferences and webinars. Almost any way you can re-package professionals getting together to interact and exchange, I’ve been there and done that.

And now I can add Petri Dish Professional Development: PDPD.

Since I joined the ASCD team in 2010, the Leader to Leader (L2L) conference has evolved from content-and-connections to, this past weekend, Petri Dish PD. Morphing to become more and more leader-driven, we broke new ground last year by including an inaugural (albeit more structured than naught) unconference experience around KnowledgeWorks’ Recombinant Education concepts. The leader work that resulted from that experience was energy-charged and forward-thinking.

So this year we opened up L2L even more, giving our leaders the floor to identify concepts, initiatives, frameworks, models, programs – whatever they deemed worthy of their focus – that they developed over the past three days and are now taking back to implement with educators on the ground wherever they lead. We encouraged all of our leaders: affiliate, connected community, emerging, professional interest community and student chapter, to self-select groups across their leadership roles and find common ground upon which they could develop their ideas.

This was not only the least-structured L2L ever, it was a Petri dish containing the natural diversity of age, agendas, attitudes, experience, expertise, ideas, skills, values and vision. It was a raw, messy, unpredictable petri dish of potential. Individuals were attracted by big ideas to form groups large and small. Some leaders found it difficult to break away from the teams that defined them back home. Others struggled with the lack of structure. Some groups took off like a shot, with enthusiasm and definite ideas of where they wanted to go. Others charted a trajectory but found it difficult to break free of gravity. Groups formed and reformed, collaborated across groupings, and thrived on the resulting synergy. Regardless they engaged in exhausting work and got the job done.


As staff preparing for and hosting this loosely structured L2L, it was the most collaborative experience we have ever had. You can only plan so much for the unknown. What is the right tone to set for optimal outcomes? How many groups will form? What ideas will emerge? How can we anticipate all the possible scenarios so we can be agile and responsive? How much content is enough content? How much process is too much? What kind of support will leaders need to keep the focus on developing their ideas and not the trappings of catchy presentations? How will we emphasize the value of input, feedback and reflection? We put in place the tools and parameters we thought would foster ideation and collaboration, and went into this year’s L2L feeling out of our own comfort zone, too. It has been the most nerve-racking, exhausting, rewarding L2L yet….for both staff and leaders in attendance.

What do you get when you place such a natural diversity of matter into a Petri dish and stand back to watch it combine and react? You get unleashed energy and potential. And assuming you are not repeating a familiar professional development trial with already known outcomes, you get unanticipated results. Could it have blown up in a combustible cloud? Anything is possible. But when you are working with the best and the brightest leaders in education, you have faith that they will show you the way to new and dynamic teaching, learning and leading.

PDPD is not for the faint of heart. I have not worked with another organization of ASCD’s size and reach that has offered this level of high-caliber open-ended professional development. It impacts everyone involved; we all learn and come out better for having had the experience. What is the future of L2L?  Who knows? PDPD is not predictable or prescribed. But one thing is for sure. The projects and initiatives our leaders took with them out into the field now have the ability to impact education far beyond our Petri dish, and we look forward to learning the results of their implementation in the coming months ahead.


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