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.

Back in the late 1960s, Neil Postman wrote extensively about how educational quality and a healthy democracy were dependent on each citizen having a highly sensitive “shockproof crap detector in their survival kit.” The classic book he co-authored with Charles Weingarten, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, (Delacorte Press, 1969) discusses crap detection as fundamental to learning.

In fact, Postman delivered a paper at the 1969 National Council of Teachers of English annual conference, entitled, Bulls#@t and the Art of Crap-Detection.”

Read the historic speech here

The strangest thing happened today (6/25/09). I was invited to be part of the keynote debate and dialogue at the National Educational Computing Conference in Washington D.C. this coming Tuesday, June 30th. This is a great honor indeed.

My fellow debaters include Cheryl Lemke, Michael Horn – author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” & Brad Jupp, Senior Policy Adviser at the US Department of Education. The session will be moderated by Robert Siegel of National Public Radio. The other NECC keynote speakers are best-selling authors Malcolm Gladwell and Erin Gruwell. (I read Gruwell’s terrific book in 1999 and brought her to my university in 2001)

I have been assigned to argue the affirmative case in the preposterous resolution, “Bricks and Mortar Schools Are Detrimental to the Future of Education.” Teaching online for fifteen years should provide some insight into the topic.

Since I’ve never debated before, I figured why not try it front of thousands of people? After presenting at twenty-two NECC Conferences, I guess the folks at ISTE figured I didn’t need more than a few days notice to prepare.


This opportunity might not have been possible without you and my friends in the “Blagosphere.” You tweeted, sent letters to ISTE on my behalf and signed my shamelessly self-serving petition. Scott Floyd was particularly tenacious and generous in his support. I am most grateful for your kindness and advocacy. Even Satan (petitioner #117) wrote a glowing reference on my behal

There is no way to know if these efforts resulted in my 11th hour invitation, but it doesn’t matter. I am humbled by your support and take my mission seriously

I fell in love with educational computing (not technology) in 1982 because I was excited by how computer programming made me feel intellectually powerful and creatively expressive. I realized in the mid-70s how computers not only held promise to help kids learn what we have always taught, but more importantly created opportunities to learn new things in new ways unimaginable even a few years ago.

Working with brilliant colleagues like Seymour Papert helped me appreciate how computers could amplify powerful principles of progressive education and make school better places to learn

That’s why I pay my own way to attend NECC each year. I believe in the importance of community and know that computers can make a positive difference in the lives of children. I remember when educational computing was inseparable from progressive school reform. I am a romantic who remains optimistic that the largest educational computing conference in the United States can be an incubator of powerful ideas and move make learning more meaningful for children and their teachers.

My well-publicized criticism (and here) of NECC’s parent organization, ISTE, is rooted in my desire to enrich our community rather than vendors and help ISTE realize its potential.

I am not just a cranky critic, although I make no apologies for lamenting the unimaginative nature of the NETs or the escalating fad-chasing exemplified by the NECC program. For several years I edited ISTE’s Logo Exchange journal, was a founder of an ISTE SIG and I recently contributed to an ISTE book about 1:1 computing. You might be surprised to learn that I signed the charter that created ISTE in 1989.

The NECC Keynote Debate will be streamed live on the World Wide Web at 8:30 AM (Eastern), Tuesday June 30th and archived online afterwards.

Please submit a question online for the keynoters to answer. You may direct a question directly to Gary Stager (via the online form) if you wish for me to speak during the Q&A portion of the keynote. You may also ask me questions directly from the floor of the hall at NECC.

I also hope you will consider attending my two NECC sessions:

Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments
Tuesday, 6/30/2009, 11:00am–12:00pm WWCC Ballroom B
Learn how you can transform your learning environments. Learning adventures is a pedagogical strategy for modeling noncoercive active constructionist learning online and in real classrooms. Recommended by ISTE’s SIGIVC

1:1 Critical Debates: Laptops, PDAs, Cell Phones
Panel discussion with Bruce Dixon, Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, Susan Einhorn and Sharon Peters
Wednesday, 7/1/2009, 1:30pm–2:30pm WWCC 207 A
Laptops, PDAs, iPods, Cell Phones–are they sufficient for 1:1? Join the debate on policy, equity, and implementation issues surrounding 1:1. Recommended by ISTE’s SIG1to1

The NECC keynote is unbelievably exciting but, the upcoming Constructing Modern Knowledge institute, July 13-16th promises to be the greatest undertaking of my professional career. There are still spaces for last-minute registrants. Please check out the once-in-a-lifetime program at

The best kept secret this side of Italy
Reggio Emilia has been an Italian success story since it reinvented early childhood education more than 50 years ago.
Learn how it can improve preschool education in the United States

Originally published in District Administration Magazine, August, 2002 by Gary Stager, Ph.D.

Note: Lella Gandini, one of the world’s leading experts on the Reggio Emilia educational approach has been added to the faculty of Constructing Modern Knowledge, July 13-16, 2009.

Imagine walking into a classroom and seeing a three-year-old wearing safety goggles and sawing wood or smashing tiles with a sledgehammer. Once you get over the surprise and realize that this isn’t a mistake, you might start to see the benefits of such an experiment. Welcome to the world of Reggio Emilia.

Reggio Emilia is the name of an Italian city and the informal name for a revolutionary approach to early childhood education. Reggio education, created by Loris Malaguzzi after World War II, is heavily rooted in the ideas of John Dewey and authentic learning. The Reggio Emilia approach is notable in its longevity, and its lack of recognition in American schools.

The early childhood centers of Reggio Emilia focus on the learner, are material-rich and reliant on reflective practice–both on the part of children and their teachers. Children are encouraged to engage in personally meaningful projects, reflect on their learning, and then do it again. Teachers are thought of as researchers trusted with making decisions that benefit kids. Each classroom has two coequal teachers who model all of the cooperative behaviors that they want the children to emulate. Two specialists, the pedagogista and atelierista, support teachers.

The Reggio environment is filled with materials, which the children may explore and use to construct knowledge and explore their world. Reggio schools aim for transparency so kids can learn about the world by being immersed in an open safe subsection of it. Students are respected as capable human beings, not empty vessels to be filled.

Editor-At-Large Gary Stager spoke with three early childhood experts about Reggio education and how it could impact early education here. Lilian G. Katz is professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois [Urbana-Champaign], where she is also co-director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary & Early Childhood Education. Douglas Clements is professor of education at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He is an author of numerous books and articles and an expert on how young children construct mathematical knowledge. Carolyn Pope Edwards is professor of family studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the co-editor of The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach–Advanced Reflections, (Ablex Publishing Corp., 1998) arguably the best book about Reggio education available in English.

How would you describe the current awareness level of Reggio education in America?

Douglas Clements: Unfortunately, it is quite low. American schools and teachers are, tragically, not given the time or culture to learn and reflect on different educational approaches, as they should.

While I realize that Reggio Emilia schools are not part of a franchise, are there Reggio schools here in the United States?

Carolyn Pope Edwards: There are many schools and programs in the U.S. inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. In some cases, the influence is strong and observable, when educators have worked together to study the Reggio Emilia approach and considered how to use ideas in their program.

In other cases, the influence is more partial, when one or more educators mainly focus on one or a few aspects of the Reggio Emilia approach, and how they might be valuable to try to apply in their context. As this approach becomes more widely known here, and as early childhood education professors teach about it in their classes, then its influence has the potential to be long lasting and profound.

I share your fascination with Reggio schools and their educational philosophy. What should American educators know about Reggio Emilia?

DC: “Should” is a strong word, here. Accepting it, however, there is just so much to say. There is a unique intertwining of the culture of caring of the city and the schools that may be difficult to grasp, and more difficult to duplicate. However, there are also many principles that are consistent with other excellent perspectives and research programs on early childhood education.

For example, the child is viewed as capable, competent and self-directed. Children build their knowledge from their own action, and interaction, with others. Indeed, the quality of the emotional, social and intellectual relationships children have with each other and with adults lies at the heart of their development in all spheres.

Children learn by representing and re-presenting their ideas to others and to themselves. Reggio Emilia pioneer Loris Malaguzzi calls this the hundred languages of children. [Children] do this in spoken and written/graphic forms, as well as by dramatization, song and other forms of movement.

What is an atelier?

CE: The atelier is a special part of the preschool that is a studio, workshop and laboratory for all the school to share.

The atelier contains a great variety of tools and resource materials of all kinds [materials newly purchased, recycled from local businesses, found or collected by children, made or contributed by parents]. It also displays the children’s work and project documentaries–all arranged to call attention to their aesthetic dimension and heighten their communicative impact. In Reggio Emilia, artistic activity is not viewed as a separate sideline of the curriculum but as intrinsic to the whole cognitive symbolic expression of the children’s thinking and learning.

The atelierista [`studio teacher’] is the specialist in charge of this area of the school.

What is the role of documentation in Reggio schools? Who does the documenting?

CE: Documentation is a systematic way of making the educational process visible-a subjective interpretation that allows for remembering, comparing, analyzing, discussing, reviewing and decision-making. Formal documentation is usually arranged and prepared by adults, drawing from the works of children and the educational process [photographs, texts of discussions, samples of children’s products]. However, children can also contribute to the record-keeping process and to helping keep permanent traces of the educational process.

How is this documentation different from portfolio assessment?

DC: Children’s documentation of their own thinking and feeling is a part of what adults document, and adults share much of their documentation with children.

CE: Portfolio assessment is a kind of documentation, but not the only kind. Portfolio assessment focuses on the progress of an individual child. Other kinds of documentation [such as displays about ongoing projects or books composed and elaborated by two or more children] are not focused on an individual and that individual’s progress over time.

Lilian G. Katz: The kind of documentation they provide in Reggio is such that it makes it possible for people who were not there to know and understand the experiences that children had been having. It also alerts the teachers to childrens’ progress and setbacks and informs their decisions about what to do next.

If a kid engages in a personally meaningful long-term project, how do you know that you’ve covered the curriculum?

LK: [You know] through observation, collecting and examining the work regularly. I also recommend engaging children in the evaluation of their own work. Not about whether it is `good’ or `bad’ or `right’ or `wrong.’

But encourage children, even the young ones, to develop criteria for evaluating their efforts in terms of whether it is, for example, as accurate as they want it to be, as detailed as they think it should be, as interesting to classmates as they would like it to be, or as clear as it should be. Even young children respond well to this kind of encouragement to look at their own growing mastery on important criteria.

In the Reggio Schools and other environments advocating a project approach to learning, won’t some kids just goof off?

DC: Occasionally, and sometimes that’s OK and a phase in development. More often, it’s a sign that the project was not child-centered or well designed.

CE: Most visitors to the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and to Reggio-inspired schools in the U.S. come away astounded and awestruck by the high levels of symbolic and representational skill that children across the full range of abilities and disabilities come to display when the children become competent and confident in the “hundred languages of children.”

They also find commendable the relaxed and comfortable school atmosphere. Children are provided the long stretches of time they need to work things through carefully and well. They spend long periods of the day concentrating deeply and focusing together on joint endeavors. They also play, eat, rest and enjoy life. The Reggio Schools in Italy are for children from birth to six years old. Are we really concerned that little children would try to shirk and goof off? Happy children are always energetic, involved and busy.

What role do everyday materials play in Reggio schools?

CE: Everyday materials are very important. The classrooms and the atelier always contain ample amounts of resources, carefully arranged and displayed, including found and collected materials.

The physical environment of the school should contain many familiar objects and pieces of furniture to make adults and children feel at ease and at home, and to invite parents to tarry and to want to become closely involved.

Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between adults and children in Reggio schools?

LK: On the whole–and I have visited Reggio Emilia 11 times now–I see the adults are dearly respectful of children. By that I mean that they talk to children conveying the expectation that children are sensible. They don’t use silly little voices or surround them with smiling animals and decorated letters of the alphabet and other ways of “Disneyfication” the environment. They treat children as sensible and naturally responsive to real beauty of form and texture. There is no excessive use of primary colors. The children’s work is carefully and beautifully displayed–because it is important.

Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Professional Media Group LLC

Some of you may know that I earned a Ph.D. from The University of Melbourne. “Melbourne Uni” is one of Australia’s most elite institutions and ranks routinely as one of the world’s top 20 research universities. You may also know that I have been extremely critical of how the politically liberal Australian Federal government is rushing to emulate the worst American education policies of the NCLB-era.

This makes an entry in the most recent Alumni News email all the more extraordinary. Normally such emails are by their very nature uncontroversial since they’re primarily a fund-raising solicitation.

The lead “news story” in this email reads:

Former Dean of Education urges parents to boycott national school tests

The press release from the university says the following:

Former Dean of Education Brian Caldwell is calling on teachers and parents to boycott national student tests so the results cannot be used to shame under-performers in league tables.

Professor Brian Caldwell (BSc 1962, BEd (PG) 1968) has publicly slammed the Federal Government’s push to create league tables to rank schools, claiming they will be used by other parties to shame struggling schools.

Professor Caldwell said league tables would not accurately reflect how schools compared in terms of performance, and would not inform parents of how their children were performing.

He said league tables would stigmatise many schools, particularly those in disadvantaged settings.

Read the news article about Professor Caldwell’s forthcoming speech against such destructive educational policies. Such a story would be unlikely to make a major US newspaper since what counts as education journalism is too often stenography and billionaire Eli Broad holds remarkable sway over media coverage of public education.

Imagine if just one President or Dean of a prestigious American university had the courage to speak out against the draconian policies of blaming, shaming, name-calling, ranking, sorting and endless testing that are destroying American public schools. Who knows? Every American child might enjoy an education similar to that enjoyed by the Obama children, rather than be subjected to Federal policies that are headed 180 degrees in the opposite direction.