This is probably my favorite week of the year. Tuesday I’ll be reporting from MacWorld in San Francisco and then I fly to New York to spend the rest of the week at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference (IAJE).

Both events amplify the ingenuity, creativity and improvisation that America presents to the world. As a twenty-one year Macintosh owner, MacWorld is like Christmas. Steve Jobs excites the faithful with announcements of exciting new products and then I spend the rest of the day wandering the exhibit hall looking for gadgets I can’t possible live without. In past years I’ve found products I can’t live without, including Delicious Monster Library, PDFPen, ProSoft Engineering’s lifesaving data backup and recovery utilities, my indispensable Boombag (luggage with a mixer, amplifier and speakers in the case) and a bunch of MIDI instruments I promise to use someday. I’ve learned my lesson and will not run six blocks to the San Francisco Apple Store to purchase the (rumored) new iLife ’07 and iWork ’07 software. The store employees tend to be surly and know nothing about what was just announced at MacWorld. Worst of all, they may not have inventory.

Apple is hinting at major announcements to coincide with their thirtieth anniversary. So stay tuned…

Steve Jobs at 2006 MacWorld

I “plan” to blog from the Steve Jobs keynote Tuesday morning (10 AM Pacific). Check back here to learn about the exciting new products announced at MacWorld. Rumors suggest that the Apple phone, iTV media device and new iWork & iLife software will be announced this week. Many of these products have implications for K-12 education. I’ll let you know about the coolest stuff I see on the show floor as well.

Steve Jobs’ evangelical performance is just a warm-up for four days of world-class concerts and master classes by many of the world’s finest jazz musicians at the IAJE Conference. The conference program features sessions from 9 AM with the last session starting at 1 AM!

Colleagues from 10 – 80
Dozens and dozens of professional musicians donate their time to perform at IAJE, often as guest soloists with student ensembles from around the world. Educators and students are able to learn from and with their musical heroes in both formal and informal settings. Imagine a conference where more than 3,000 of educators, artists and children learn together with no discussions of standardized testing or how their principal is a jerk.

One of the highlights of IAJE is the annual Jazz Masters Award presented by the National Endowment for the Arts. A gala concert features great performances and vignettes highlighting the contributions to culture made by seven artists. Dozens of past recipients representing the living history of American music attend to welcome the new inductees. It’s a rare treat to witness the camaraderie displayed among the living legends.

nea jazz masters
Living NEA Jazz Masters Pose for Family Portrait at IAJE 2006

Last year’s NEA Jazz Masters Inductees included Chick Coea,, Freddie Hubbard, Ray Baretto, Buddy DeFranco, Bob Brookmeyer and Tony Bennett. As the evening concert drew to a close the great trumpet player, Jon Faddis, invited the assembled jazz masters to sit in and play with the assembled all-star big band. Chick Corea, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath and Paquito D’Rivera took the stage to solo on Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.”

As the band began to play I noticed something extraordinary. A little kid, actually 10 years-old with a trumpet in-hand was struggling to climb up on the stage. Jon Faddis looked down at this kid standing next to him and asked, “Are you a jazz master?” The kid replied, “What key is this in?”

Faddis shook his head and continued leading the big band. Once Paquito D’Rivera finished his solo, Faddis gestured towards the little boy since in the jazz community you are expected to play if you have the
audacity to be on the bandstand. The child began to improvise on chord changes and the crowd went wild. After playing too many choruses, Faddis jokingly grabbed his trumpet and yelled, “Go to bed!”

The “other” jazz masters soloed and the performance culminated in a standing ovation.

Jon Faddis, kid, Jimmy Heath, Paquito D’Rivera

You can tell by the photos below how delighted the professional musicians were to share the bandstand with the fourth grader. He was not playing at being a musician. He was a musician participating in the
community of practice unencumbered by grade levels, standardized curriculum or assessment schemes. The boy was evaluated based on his ability to perform.

nea jazz masters
kid, Jimmy Heath, Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera
kid and Jimmy Heath

I could not imagine having the courage to perform in front of Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Roy Haynes and Freddie Hubbard, but this young musician sensed that he was welcome on stage with his new colleagues.

Jazz musicians, like many other artists, give their time generously and share their gifts because they care about the continuum of culture. They are passionate about the arts continuing to flourish after their playing days are through. One look at saxophonist Jimmy Heath, eight times the age of the young trumpet player by his side, and you remember what learning and teaching are all about.

Originally published, January 8, 2007 in The Pulse Education’s Place for Debate

I can’t wait to return to my “second home” in Melbourne to keynote the 2010 Australian Conference on EducationalACEC 2010 Computing Conference, April 6-9, 2010.

2010 marks an important anniversary for me. It represents twenty years of working in schools across Australia. I recently reflected on my the experience of leading professional development at the world’s first two “laptop schools” Downunder in 1990, in Hard and Easy: Reflections on my ancient history in 1:1 computing. That early work was also documented in the book, Never Mind the Laptops…

In 1992, I delivered my first keynote address at the biennial Australian Computers in Education Conference in my beloved Melbourne. That’s why it’s so exciting to be a keynote speaker at this year’s ACEC, April 6-9, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia! I will be presenting a brand new keynote designed specifically for the Australian audience entitled, “You Say You Want a Revolution?”

Sylvia Martinez and Alan November are two of the other keynote speakers.

I will also lead a Q&A session following my keynote and participate in a panel discussion, Diverse Tales from the Digital Crypt – What Effective Computer-Using Educators Know about Teaching: An International Perspective.

Tuesday morning I will host a ticketed breakfast session on creativity, computing and leadership.

The following is the abstract for my new keynote address:

You Say You Want a Revolution?
This keynote will explore the notion of the digital learning revolution and its assumptions while addressing such questions as, “What happened to the last digital revolution in Australia?” Were there lessons learned? If not, why not?

Who are the combatants in this latest revolution? Will children, democracy and creativity be the first casualties.

Gary Stager will reflect upon his experiences of working in Australian schools for the past twenty years and insights gained from similar top-down “reform” efforts being imposed across the United States.

Gary will remind ACEC attendees why he is still excited by the potential of computers in education as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression and challenge the audience to raise their game in order to realize the opportunities computing affords learners. This of course will be accomplished with humour, candor and provocative examples of student learning.

Resources related to my upcoming keynote address:

Picking up lessons for schools in three-quarter time

Lifelong learning. I decided to try it. So, I packed up the car and drove to Palo Alto to participate in the annual Stanford Jazz Residency. This immersive institute welcomes adults and talented teens to spend a week playing, studying and listening to jazz.

This was no fantasy camp. Everyone was treated as a jazz musician and faced with the responsibilities commensurate with that honor. Musicians, ages 15-82, from all over the world formed a powerful learning community. There was perfect attendance, no age segregation, no discipline problems, intergenerational collaboration and achievement unlinked to grades.

A mother younger than I am yelled “Nice job!” to me across a parking lot, as if I had just kicked a goal in peewee soccer.

Each 15-hour day consisted of a theory class, an instrumental master class, an assortment of fascinating guest lectures, combo rehearsals and an evening concert followed by two late-night jam sessions. I went from not playing the trumpet in 15 years to four straight hours daily.

Although I’m still grappling with all I learned, here are a few lessons for schools.

Rethinking Tracking
The success of the residency caused me to rethink my long held position against educational tracking. After all, don’t combos need to be comprised of musicians with similar talents? How can you teach a group of musicians with different levels of ability?

My combo was comprised of two 15-year-old saxophonists, a young bass player, the father of another residency student on guitar and a teenage refugee of the White Stripes Fan Club on drums. While similarly talented, homogeneity remained an elusive fantasy.

Despite the range of attitude and experience present in the combo, you might still be able to make the case for tracking. However, I was in another group as well. The Latin Ensemble had no audition requirements and was open to any student. Everyone played a selection of compositions and improvised on each song.

From my perspective both the educational process and the product (the concert) of the “open enrollment” Latin Band was every bit as good as the combo. In fact, one could argue that playing with musicians better than yourself might provide just the spark needed to advance to one’s playing to the next level.

The Critical Role of Expertise
Regardless of ability, all Stanford jazz students did the real work of musicians for the week.

There are ample opportunities for young children to be mathematicians, engineers, historians or artists. The dogma of sequential curriculum needs to be challenged.

There is much written about the social nature of learning and how it best occurs in a community of practice. Schools have done much to embrace this concept. This residency was distinguished by the quality and quantity of world-renowned expertise available to enthusiastic amateurs. Legendary musicians spent the week teaching classes, leading combos performing nightly in spectacular concerts, sitting-in at jam sessions and just hanging out with students.

Access to experts inspires, enlightens and challenges the members of a learning community. The gifted faculty possessed a remarkable ability to articulate their thought processes and make “just-in-time” recommendations specific to each student. These experts were reflective, passionate and driven.

Regardless of the expert’s personality or approach, the students wanted to learn from them, play like them and be close to them. Tacit and explicit knowledge was gained by proximity to genuine expertise.

Since the beginning of time, the richest learning experiences have come through apprenticeship–working with and alongside the master. Too few teachers have experienced such joyful learning and fewer students are in the midst of experts. Even when teachers are expert in “teaching” they too rarely welcome students into their deliberations or think out-loud. Without such transparency, the expertise is invisible to students.

Schools must do everything possible to make demonstrable expertise available to students. The subject of the expertise is less critical.

I wish that every teacher and student could have such an intense learning experience at least once.

Originally published in the November 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine

At last evening’s “Meet and Greet” following the fantastic live Pee-Wee Herman Show in Los Angeles (ends February 7th), Pee-Wee said that he emailed the video to THE Steve Jobs and was thrilled to receive a response until he opened the email message containing only 🙂 (a smiley).

I saw the new show twice and highly recommend it for children of all ages! The video above is a lot more risque than the stage show.

I was excited a few years back when Texas legislators suggested using textbook funds to purchase student laptops. I languagepolicewas less thrilled with the subsequent announcement that the laptops would act as digital textbooks. It is a profoundly bad idea for powerful technology to provide life-support for such a deeply flawed invention as the textbook. Textbook euthanasia is in order.

Textbooks were created before the knowledge economy, and they are based on a distrust of teachers, watered-down standards and a Shock and Awe approach to pedagogy. They are written by anonymous committees and designed for incompetent teachers to use as a script. Literature is bowdlerized, history is sanitized, mathematics is stripped of meaning and science is presented as a bunch of facts. Surely, schools committed to the future can do better.

Textbooks are designed for incompetent teachers to use as a script.

Don’t agree with me? Take a peak inside conservative education critic Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003):

Textbooks are very important in American schools, especially in history. In most history classes, they are the curriculum…

Today’s literature textbooks are motivated by a spirit of miscellany. … Even when the entries are well chosen and enjoyable, the textbook pokes the reader in the eye with pedagogical strategies. … They are puffed up with instructions and activities that belong in the teacher’s edition. The people who prepare these textbooks don’t seem to have much faith in teachers. The books strive to be “teacher-proof.” They leave nothing to the teacher’s initiative or ingenuity.

Ravitch’s book offers a detailed exposition of the high-stakes world of textbook adoption replete with outrageous censorship, political correctness and dumbed-down, lifeless content. The book is as hilarious as it is horrific.

We can stop censorship. We must recognize that the censorship that is now so widespread in education represents a systematic breakdown of our ability to educate the next generation and to transmit to them a full and open range of ideas about important issues in the world. By avoiding controversy, we teach them to avoid dealing with reality. By expurgating literature, we teach them that words are meaningless and fungible.

… As they advance in school, children recognize that what they see on television is far more realistic and thought-provoking than the sanitized world of their textbooks.

Isn’t it ironic that American taxpayers will pay for new Iraqi school textbooks in order to replace one set of simplistic propaganda with another?

Read a good textbook lately?
Ask yourself if a reasonable person would read a school textbook if not compelled to do so. Then go to your local bookstore and marvel at the wonderful selection of books written with passion and clarity by experts on the topic of your choice. How about building a course around a great book on mathematics rather than a math book?

In the information age, students have unprecedented access to primary materials, including low-tech gadgets like great books and Web sites containing up-to-the-minute information. Any kid worth his or her diploma should be able to find a variety of reliable perspectives and data points online, in the library and at their local bookstore.

The Web offers amazing access to primary sources, yet online textbooks diminish both the Internet and the noble textbook. Every attempt at online textbooks I’ve seen are terrible, and I do not expect they will get much better. McGuffey’s digital brethren tend to offer random links to factoids available on a bunch of pages unintended to connect in any narrative form. Online curriculum publishers often sell content readily available and owned by uncompensated authors. These “texts” manage to be less thoughtful than print textbooks and that is an awfully big concession on my part.

The obsession with textbooks is another indicator of even the most enlightened schools’ preoccupation with information rather than the construction of knowledge. The most noble and effective use of computers is for computing–not looking stuff up. This will require rethinking the nature of learning and teaching, not just adopting a new textbook.

Yes. This will require courage and even more creativity. Breaking textbook addiction with primary sources and activities that engage every learner is cheaper, lighter and pays much higher dividends.

Originally published in the June 2003 issue of District Administration Magazine

Eight or nine nights each week for the past several months my family and were caught up in the American Idol phenomena. 38 million Americans watched the show’s season finale. I am encouraged that it is still possible to bring generations together around a wholesome event. In addition to being wildly entertaining, American Idol offers many lessons for educators.

All sorts of kids have talents we have yet to discover
The extraordinary drive and talent of the young adults participating in American Idol should remind us of the untapped potential in our students.

Hard work pays off
The American Idol contestants worked their tails off to prepare for each week’s show. Teachers involved in the performing arts know how hard children will work to prepare for a performance and similar opportunities need to become the norm in other subject areas.

Learning occurs best with an audience
An audience for one’s work gives that effort greater purpose. It not only motivates the learner, but also provides occasions for authentic assessment.

You need to be well-rounded
American Idol contestants needed to sing, dance and speak articulately. Only folks possessing the whole package would advance.

Cooperation is valuable
Nothing is learned in isolation. While American Idol was a competition, the finalists were required to perform together. This cooperation gave the performers greater respect for one another and taught valuable life lessons for the future.

Achieving ones goals is not a zero-sum game
I believed the “idols” who said that participating was reward enough, even if they did not win the competition. The television show sustained this community of practice by having the “losers” in the top ten return frequently for choreographed ensemble performances. Some of the “losers” have embarked on successful careers due to this exposure and their willingness to give it their all regardless of the situation. Clay seemed genuinely happy for Ruben when he was named “The American Idol.”

There are no makeup tests
You get one chance at the plate and have to hit it out of the park every time. When Clay forgot the lyrics to a song in the final rounds, he had to recover with grace and move on.

Talent trumps superficiality
I was impressed by how often the viewers rejected “sexier” contestants for those with more talent. This is all the more remarkable when viewers are picking a pop “idol.” Perhaps folks aren’t as shallow as we thought.

Education is growth
The contestants actually improved each week. That demonstrates their willingness to incorporate advice, experience, talent and risk-taking in order to improve their future performance.

You need to be able to take a punch
Responding to the audience may enhance all human expression. Some of Simon’s critiques were brutal, but honest. The successful performers respected that criticism. learned from it and responded in productive ways. This helped them improve.

A life in the arts is full of rejection, not often so lovingly offered. Students need to recognize the difficulty that lies ahead while not abandoning their dreams or desire to bring beauty to the world.

You learn by working outside of your comfort zone
While it was clear that some idols were better dancers than others, each contestant did their best to improve in areas outside of their comfort zone.

Master as many genres as possible
The requirement that contestants perform in a number of different genres leveled the playing field while causing the singers to stretch. You don’t have to like everything asked of you, but you must do your best. Flexibility and versatility are extremely desirable virtues.

Respect history
While you can hardly consider Bee Gees or Neil Sedaka relics, millions of American youngsters were introduced to their songwriting talents. Great songs are timeless. The American Idol contestants benefited from the wisdom dispensed by these elders.

Production values don’t matter
Educational software and television producers believe that kids won’t watch anything without the latest in 3-D special effects. Great storytelling or music trumps production values. The American Idol set was ghastly and the background videos were distracting.

Teaching is storytelling
Part of what made millions of viewers tune into each show was the compelling use of storytelling that held your interest, recapitulated what you may have missed and introduced you to the lives and work of various musicians.

You care about great characters
The biographical profiles of each finalist and footage of them clowning around allowed viewers to identify with the contestants and get behind their favorites.

You must be graceful in defeat
Perhaps the most astounding part of American Idol was that seconds after being eliminated, that youngster needed to put on a happy face and belt one more song out for the audience. This demonstrated a remarkable level of graciousness, professionalism and poise.

Young people are willing to vote
…but apparently only if they like the candidates.

Americans are ahead of the media on race
I was frankly considered that America would not choose an overweight African American as their American Idol, regardless of his talents. The selection of Ruben Studdard proved that Americans were a lot hipper and talent than the national media whose magazine covers screamed, “Was American Idol Fixed?” following the final episdoe.

Originally published in the August 2003 issue of District Administration Magazine

coloringHas anyone else noticed that there’s a whole lot of coloring going on in schools? I’m not talking about primary grades. I see an alarming number of high school classrooms decorated with colored reproducible maps, hastily drawn crayon posters substituting for literary analysis and that old kindergarten favorite-the magazine photo collage. This “work” doesn’t represent the efforts of slacker students. It actually satisfies teacher (and curricular) requirements.

I have a hypothesis or two to explain the explosion of primitive expression in our secondary classrooms. It is unreasonable to expect teachers with 150 to 200 students to read, edit and provide feedback for that many written pieces. As a result, student work does not endure a rigorous editing process and its quality suffers. The last thing an overworked teacher wants to do at night is read poor writing. Dumbed-down alternative assignments result.

Anxiety Transmittal

Writing is a skill developed through modeling, apprenticeship and practice. It also needs an audience. It is no secret that teachers are reluctant writers. National contest prizes requiring teachers to submit a simple essay or lesson plan often go unclaimed due to teacher insecurity. Teachers uncomfortable with their own writing skills transmit that anxiety to their students. Since the product and process of writing is learned by observing and reading the efforts of others, too many students are deprived of this vital experience.

Here’s a rule. If you can’t remember when to use commas, your sentence is too damn long.

I experienced an epiphany while trying to teach a sixth grader to write a poem. The rapid give-and-take led me to realize that you can only really teach one child at a time. The quality and quantity of feedback necessary to help the student express herself to her potential required all of my attention.

The insatiable demands for accountability (testing) forces teachers to emphasize rules and isolated vocabulary memorization at the expense of creative expression and voluminous writing practice. Even when schools focus on low-level mechanics, they are hopelessly out of-step. My twelfth grader is still required to indent paragraphs and insert two spaces after each period years after the real world and APA have abandoned these protocols.

The problems associated with writing instruction are not limited to class-size, teacher ability or testing. Curricular notions of writing need to be revised in the digital age. While kids should certainly learn to express themselves in all forms and genres, we may need to replace a few sine qua non assignments with procedural description; acrostics with proposals; and sacrifice a haiku or two in order to learn how to write a manual. An occasional letter to the editor would be great, too.

Below is a list of teaching felonies for which you may be sentenced to a lifetime of lunch duty.

  • Requiring students to conjugate words unworthy of such effort. I evaporate. They evaporate. We used to evaporate. He evaporated at four o’clock. She will evaporate tomorrow at 3 p.m. You get the idea.
  • Counting words. One of the great lies of writing instruction is that more writing is better writing. Most professional writing is concerned with the process of communicating your ideas in fewer words.
  • Requiring students to write their autobiography year after year. When I mentioned to a teacher that my daughter had written an autobiography as her major writing assignment for six consecutive years, she replied, “Did they write a 10-chapter autobiography last year? I do not think so!”
  • Teaching comma rules. Here’s a new rule. If you can’t remember when to use commas, your sentence is too damn long.
  • Not completing the writing process. Equal emphasis needs to be placed on each stage of the writing process. Some teachers seem to stop at invented spelling or lose focus after brainstorming.

In an age when people communicate via e-mail, teachers are forced to write grant proposals for basic classroom materials and coherent manuals are in abundant demand, adults in every profession are writing more than they ever anticipated. Schools need to prepare students for that world.

Originally published in the May 2003 issue of District Administration

Maine’s great laptop experiment should not be picked at, but applauded

In September, every seventh grader in Maine–and their teachers–will be given their own iBook and free 24/7 Internet access. The following year, every eighth grader will get an iBook. Two years ago, Maine Governor. Angus King caused an eruption of debate when he proposed this laptop plan. At the time there was little if any legislative support. Today, it’s the law of the land. King hopes this initiative will serve as a catalyst for reinventing public education and as a means for maintaining his state’s quality of life.

The majority of children, teachers and taxpayers support the idea.

While a bit of nervous anticipation is expected on the part of Maine teachers, the American education computing community seems to be in a state of panic. At every education computing conference one can overhear gossip about Maine. Some of the buzz is supportive, but a great deal of discussion suggests that the laptop rollout is a bad idea. There hasn’t been this much hysteria since kids were given their own floppy disks.

An autoimmune response triggers the instant some members of the ed-tech intelligensia hears of Maine’s plans. “I hope they get the professional development right!” I respond by asking, “Do you mean the two-hour afterschool workshop or the three-hour workshop?” Are the P.D. addicts suggesting the imposition of one-size-fits-all training statewide? Educators should be focused on making the learning environment richer for kids. Professional well-educated adults should figure out what to do with their laptop. To many, the primary goal of professional development is to produce the elusive “buy-in” among teachers who have yet to notice the presence of computers in everyday life. The great thing about Maine is that the “buy-in” battle has been won. If you teach seventh graders, every one of your students will be wired … in the good way. The laptops will be falling from the sky.

I suggest the “failure” of computers to “deliver” in schools is based on there being too few computers rather than too many. Maine offers the chance to finally test this hypothesis.

Ed-Tech’s Dirty Little Secret
The dirty little secret is that despite a substantial investment in hardware and software, many kids never use a computer at school and many more never enjoy the experience of doing something powerful with a school computer. Few American “laptop schools” have embraced personal computing as a vehicle for radical learner-centered school reform nor have they embraced ubiquitous computing as a vehicle for social justice as advocated by King. In far too many schools, laptops are a marketing tool, like a mascot or high standardized test scores.

We pay a lot of lip service to concerns about the digital divide. Yet, when Maine eradicates that divide by entrusting every kid with a personal laptop to use at home and school, we shake our heads. Some suggest using laptop funds to reduce class-size. Even if that were a priority in rural Maine, lowering class size does little to produce models of new classroom practice.

Why would computer-using educators be opposed to democratizing computer use? How could it be bad for all kids to have access to a world of ideas and a computer for creating a few of their own?

One answer may be economic. We don’t employ pencil coordinators and may not need tech coordinators when the schools have professionally installed wireless networks, laptops with great repair contracts and high expectations for staff. You won’t need computer literacy workbooks when kids have actual computers. National standards for technology use become irrelevant in one fell swoop.

Another cause for alarm could be more Freudian in nature. You may no longer be the district’s one and only computer expert. The focus of schools can shift away from developing teachers to developing children.

Peers suggest that Maine’s laptop investment will be a disaster. I just don’t see it. How could dosing the digital divide and treating children like responsible members of a learning community be a bad idea? Experience through–out the world teaches us that teachers with laptops see themselves as more professional. It would be a disaster indeed if we as professional educators did not learn all we can from Maine’s bold leadership. We might even wish to help them invent a better future for us all.

Originally published in the July 2002 issue of District Administration Magazine

I’m writing this column because I’m embarrassed. Joe Hanson

Two recent issues of District Administration have carried columns by Gary Stager that have attacked aspects of the educational proposals/decisions of both presidential candidates.

As editor-in-chief, I feel that I erred in permitting publication of these two articles in the months before the presidential elections. The article in our August issue (Gary Stager on Kerry’s Education Plan) makes an argument against merit pay for teachers. That’s certainly a valid matter for discussion on our editorial pages. What does not belong are Stager’s comments such as, “… the Kerry proposal could suggest either a generous desire to increase teacher pay or a cynical scheme to pander to the electorate.” In another paragraph he paraphrases Seymour Sarason, “… members of both parties seem to increase in ignorance proportionate to their proximity to schooling decisions. After all, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsored No Child Left Behind.

In our October issue (Gary Stager on Direct Instruction), Stager condemns a reading program called Reading Mastery and its inventor, Sigfried Engleman. The article contains some strong arguments against the “controversial pedagogical approach” (although it fails to discuss it’s effectiveness or lack thereof.)

Unfortunately, Stager devotes most of his column to attacking President Bush: Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration’s radical attack on public education. He goes on, Engelmann’s publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. … The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige. The same company’s former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, and continues with phrases such as The War on Public Education, single-minded test-prep factories and magical voucher.

When Stager asks, “Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, “Is your school better off than it was four years ago?,” he crosses the line between clever compendium and outright bias.

Stager writes a regular opinion column in District Administration. His opinions are his own. As long as he’s writing about educational matters, I’m delighted to keep running his arguments but we will make every effort to avoid running material from him, or anyone else, questioning the motives of elected officials or candidates.

I take full responsibility for running these two columns. Stager has been a valuable contributor to DA for about five years. I took my eye off the ball.

As always, we at District Administration value the open exchange of ideas about improving public education. I invite you to share your thoughts with me.


Originally published in the Novembe 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine.

On the front seat of a New Orleans taxi was a television the cabbie managed to watch while driving. The TV was tuned to an infomercial for a miracle home food dehydrator. The show demonstrated all of the ways in which this amazing technology would revolutionize your life. The host actually made the following claim, “You can save hundreds of dollars per year on jerky alone!” I thought to myself, “How much money would you need to spend on jerky before you could save hundreds of dollars? Are folks blowing their retirement savings on wrinkled meat?” When I blurted out, “Better living through turkey jerky,” the driver shook his head and replied, “Yeah, technology is getting crazy.”

The high-tech industry is ruled by the quest for the “killer app,” the next big thing that will change the world and create enormous wealth. Word processing, spreadsheets, desktop publishing, e-mail and the Web are considered good examples of the killer app. Interactive television, videophones and Internet appliances once hyped as the next killer app, have failed to excite the consumer, let alone change the world.

Since the beginning of time charlatans, snake oil salesman and preachers have preyed upon the hopes, fears and insecurities of their fellow citizens. Human nature holds out hope for the quick fix when challenges seem daunting. Since there may be no more complex endeavor than the education of children, it should surprise no one that educators are bombarded with promises of get-smart-quick schemes.

The simplest ideas are easiest to sell. They offer us comfort and speak to our fantasies. This is as true in education as at the supermarket. Consumers want a quicker, easier way to do housework, and educators want a painless, simple way for all kids to learn. When high-tech meets education, noble goals perpetuate simplistic illusions like the notion that drill and practice, whether on flashcards, CD-ROM or the Web, will revolutionize education. I don’t happen to believe that computers can teach, but those who do must acknowledge that most learning software does no more than test kids on previous knowledge.

Show Time
The modem analog of the carnival sideshow is the conference exhibit hall. Corporate jugglers, magicians and free tchochkes are used to lure attendees to high-powered sales pitches for the next killer app.

It is my obligation as a journalist to share with you two amazing products sold at a recent national conference. Either of these products could revolutionize education.

One corporation with an impressive name has manufactured personal desktop-size erasable whiteboards. The salesperson explained how this remarkable technology would be used. An innovative teacher asks the class a question. The students then calculate the answer before writing it on their personal markerboard. Each student then holds the board up so the teacher can see who has the correct answer and their peers can learn who is stupid. Erase your board and await the next question. This product is rated PG for pre-Gutenberg.

My favorite contender for education’s killer-app is the new $25 digital hall pass. When a kid takes the hall pass, a dock on the pass and the teacher’s desk cradle keeps track of the elapsed time spent away from the markerboard lesson. Be AWOL too long and face the punishment.

A recent editorial predicts that education’s killer app will be customized learning. While educators should do everything possible to create a learning environment that meets the needs of each learner, customized learning is a terrible idea. Customized learning suggests that an anonymous cartel of know-it-ails can design activities for every learner.

This egocentrism points to a disturbing trend in our discourse about education. We remove agency from the learner as learning is increasingly referred to as a noun, i.e…. We need to improve the learning. Instead of learning being viewed as an active process, our rhetoric suggests passivity.

You can’t customize learning because you do not learn for someone else. Learning is a continuous process engaged in by the learner, not the teacher, superintendent, politician or salesman. Learning results suggests a terminal condition. Learning reflects lifelong growth, curiosity and creativity. I offer a simple message to the hucksters, opportunists, demagogues and the educators confused by their rhetoric. The real killer app will place the child at the center of the learning process.

Originally published in the May 2002 issue of District Administration