July 21, 2024

Recipe for a Disruptive Keynote

Should I be concerned that I got to keynote NECC the very year that they are killing off the brand? Was it something I said?

I admit that I scared senseless when I was invited to be on today’s NECC keynote panel just a few days ago. I never participated in a debate before and not only was this morning’s debate in front of an enormous real and virtual audience, but I was on the silly side of a preposterous proposition. That said, I relaxed a bit yesterday during our technical rehearsal and wrote my 5-minute spiel until after 4 AM last night.

Please read my last post regarding the keynote preparations if you haven’t already done

While cooling our heels in the Green Room, the national debating champ assigned to our team asked if he could read my notes. He was deeply concerned that I would violate many debating rules and several laws of nature. Meeting and “working with” a consummate professional like NPR’s Robert Siegel was a great thrill. They don’t make ’em any better than him.

Once the debate began (did you notice that I wore SHOES?), I relaxed a bit even if I hate relying on a prepared text. I said what I wanted to say and needed to step on some applause in order to keep within the strictly enforced five minute rule. During the early moments of the first combatant, Michael Horn, I noticed that the countdown clock was not working. When hand gestures failed to get the A/V staff’s attention, I text messaged the NECC organizer from the stage – probably a first. I also couldn’t help Twittering during the keynote, but I was encouraged to do so by NECC.

Once again, I am grateful to all of you for your applause, tweets, support and lobbying efforts on my behalf. My grad students woke up at 5:30 AM on the West Coast in order to chat during the session. I am most honored

Most of all, I am grateful to my pal Donella Evoniuk, the Wizard of ISTE, who runs NECC. Her charm, competence and grace are unparalleled. She takes my calls, listens to my complaints and understands that I only want to make the premiere event in our field better. Most of all, I thank her Donella for her behind-the-scenes support when I know that many of her colleagues view me as kryptonite or an escaped mental patient!

So as promised, the following is the text of my opening remarks during this morning’s keynote debate.

I want to thank ISTE for this great honor.

It is not the brick and mortar schools that are the problem. Glibly dismissing schools as irrelevant does great violence to the millions of children who lack any alternative.

The problem lies with the philosophy that built and manages so many brick and mortar schools.

We can do better.

Things need not be as they seem.

This community and this conference were once synonymous with progressive education, but sadly that is no longer the case. Too many of us have spent the past eight years reacting to mean-spirited political fantasies while blindly using technology to support No Child Left Behind and other medieval educational practices.

We took our eye off the ball by focusing on nonsense like data warehousing, checklists and computerized testing.

We know better. Wondrous things occurred when creative computer-use bestowed agency upon learners.

We were once excited by the remarkable opportunities computers offered for children to learn new things in new ways unimaginable even just a few years ago.

However, depriving children of the richest possible educational experiences when we know better shows the bricks and mortar of our souls.

Every technology has its affordances and constraints. You might think of the classroom as a technology consisting of a box containing 25 little desks and one big desk.

If it is indeed true that schools will have less of a monopoly over children’s time over the coming years, then it is critical that we identify what physical schools ARE good for.

Perhaps school is where you find world-class science labs and pottery kilns and electron microscopes and great orchestras, theatrical productions and dance classes while stuff you can do at home is done at home. Unfortunately, the very things that make physical schools viable in the future are the first things to be stripped from the curriculum.

Much of what is called virtual education is really just bad teaching done on the cheap. Most of what I have seen offered as online courses for students doesn’t rise to the level of a mail-order correspondence course. There may be no lectures, but there is no deep learning to be found either. Teachers don’t know their students and the pedagogical emphasis is on product over process.

Don’t tell me that online education delivers individualization. The concept of delivery is itself the enemy of learning. Individualization is not customizing the pace of the multiple choice tests, but knowing the child well enough that you can build upon their interests, passions, strengths and desires.

Don’t tell me that socialization will be jeopardized if children learn online when the number one infraction in schools is… talking. Schools can be the most anti-social or non-social environments while online environments often pit students against curriculum without any socialization whatsoever.

Don’t you dare tell me about your online field-trip to Belarus when your students no longer visit the firehouse. If your idea of project-based learning is students burping into Voicethread because that’s all they can accomplish in a 42-minute period, then you are not ready for the virtual world.

I’ve spent the past FIFTEEN years teaching online and I constantly strive to create learner-centered, project-based, collaborative, non-coercive environments in which students learn through a community of practice. I will be sharing strategies for teaching online in this room at 11 AM. My students create extraordinary work and learn tons from each other and the world, but only because I am committed to creating the sorts of productive contexts for learning online that existed once upon a time in the best primary classrooms. This requires a willingness to change everything.

19 years ago THIS week I began leading professional development in world’s first laptop schools. The point of giving children personal computers and teaching them to program in Logo was to decentralize knowledge, demonstrate how children can be sophisticated learners and to change the relationship between teachers and students. Age-old curricular structures, bell schedules, teaching roles crumbled when teachers saw what kids were capable of through the screens of their students.

I never imagined that 19 years later we would be fastening giant pre-Gutenberg technology to classroom walls. The priest chants while the monks take dictation on their tablet PCs. Don’t “interactive” white boards require bricks and mortar while reinforcing the dominance of the front of the room?

My friend and colleague, Seymour Papert wrote….

The phrase, “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a skinner box.

Papert’s words are as true today as they were when he wrote them in (Teaching Children Thinking) in 1971. Without dramatically higher expectations and the creation of more productive contexts for learning, there will be no difference between brick and mortar schools and whatever the future holds. That would be a shame and our children will be the losers.

Prepared portion of my closing summation:

I just found this 1983 issue of The Computing Teacher, the predecessor to Learning and Leading with Technology. The complexity and sophistication of the articles is astonishing. I can’t believe that we got teachers to do this stuff.

I know what you’re thinking. How many teachers actually did that stuff? Probably the same percentage who can figure out how to use their clickers or white boards today.

If the level of resistance to change remains constant, no matter what we ask of teachers, then shouldn’t we raise our expectations substantially?

Our network policies treat teachers and children as either imbeciles or felons. How many of you are unable to use your classroom computers in educationally sound ways because of a network policy created without your input?

We install iPod labs so that children can be marched down the hall once a week for iPod lessons. We chain laptop computers to desks and don’t allow children to take them home. That’s the point of a laptop. You cannot blame such stupidity on four walls of brick and mortar. The blame lies within the bankruptcy of our imaginations.

Note: There is a ton of other “stuff” before the video of the debate actually begins. I may put a properly edited version online in the near future.

23 thoughts on “Recipe for a Disruptive Keynote

  1. Gary,

    I’m not often in complete agreement with your points (or way of making them), and wasn’t in regards to this debate either, however you did a great job in making your points and did so with great passion. Just wanted to give credit where credit is due and tell you good job today! Thanks for always leading me to think more deeply (especially when I don’t agree with you 🙂 )

  2. When I read “giant pre-Gutenberg technology” described I thought – right on the button. We continue to create new ways of doing the same old things rather than look at using technologies with imagination, and with a deep understanding of learning. In the end it is about the way we interact with each other and use technologies to build deep thinking around our relationships. This requires high levels of professional learning and development to help us reflect on our assumptions and beliefs about learning.

  3. I teach at a public virtual school that is far more than online correspondence even though the provincial model is still stuck in that mode. However, the provincial education goals are based on increasing test scores and increasing the number of students who graduate grade 12. There is little interest and even less support for any improvement to the system that does not directly relate to these two goals – test scores and credits.

    Moving forward to offer individualized, collaborative and engaging online learning experiences to secondary students is challenging in this environment of putting data collection before student learning, but there are many of us out there fighting to make this the priority (www.virtuallearning.ca). If the number of students still emailing me now that school is out to tell me about what they are reading and to share information on issues they studied is any indication, we are having some success.

  4. Gary, loved your words…in fact, you might as well have been up there on the stage by yourself! I appreciated your plain-speaking ability.


  5. Gary,
    Seldom do I read something so quotable. I wish I was there.
    The big message for me: Decentralize Knowledge and ‘strive to create learner-centered, project-based, collaborative, non-coercive environments in which students learn through a community of practice’… and yes we can do this within our Brick and Mortar schools… with the right vision and management/leadership.
    Very well said!

  6. Gary, your comments made me sit up and listen to that debate on Tuesday. More importantly, it gave me some things to think about. Thanks for posting the opening remarks and summation so I can point others toward them.

  7. @ Gary
    Thank you so much for this post. I find you courage and willingness to confront the forces that prevent progress to always be refreshing and inspiring. You do great work!

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