The ability for anyone to publish on the Web is a good thing. Many voices can contribute to the marketplace of ideas when they may have otherwise remained unheard. However, the democratic promise of blogging is often illusory or counter-productive.

Anecdote 1

For several years I spent several nights and hundreds of dollars to attend a public affairs lecture series sponsored by the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. I saw Bill Clinton twice, Al Gore and a host of Israeli Prime Ministers speak (my least favorite sessions). The best evenings were spent when multiple experts shared the stage. Some of the most memorable evenings included:

  • Newt Gingrich and John Edwards
  • James Carville and Mary Matalin
  • Bill Maher and Dennis Miller
  • Ann Coulter and Al Franken
  • Simone Peres and Henry Kissinger (Kissinger was profoundly boring and Peres quoted President Polk in a sentence)
  • Bill Maher and Tony Snow
  • Wolf Blitzer, Cokie Roberts, Charlie Rose and Tim Russert
  • William Bennett and Mario Cuomo
  • Arianna Huffington, Paul Begala & Tucker Carlson
  • Maureen Dowd, Donna Brazille, Michael Murphy
  • Anderson Cooper and Walter Cronkite (Cooper was a buffoon)
  • Prime Ministers Jose Maria Aznar (Spain), Ehud Barak and Sir John Major
  • Terry McAuliffe (DNC) and Ken Melman (RNC)
  • Gwen Ifill, Judith Miller, Cokie Roberts and Helen Thomas
  • Bill O’Reilly and Alan Dershowitz

Aside from the opportunity to hear experts and leaders speak, the format of these events made them quite special. Each speaker had 20 minutes to speak and then they sat down together for a conversation, often moderated by the President of the university who asked the sort of questions one might expect from a Talmudic scholar. When the university received complaints about the off-color language used by Bill Maher and Dennis Miller, a University spokesman quoted a disturbing Pew poll indicating that a majority of Americans thought it was fine for government to censor newspapers and affirmed the university’s commitment to presenting ideas in the authentic voice of the speaker.

Anecdote 2

As a keynote speaker, I take my obligations to entertain, inspire and inform quite seriously. That is why I decided a few years ago not to take questions at the end of my keynotes. I urge conferences to provide a space for me to engage in conversation with attendees for as long as they’re interested after the keynote, but in a separate venue. My experience led me to conclude that taking questions during the keynote results in one of the following undesirable results:

  1. The “my principal is a jerk speech”
  2. Insane pronouncements like, “The Jews were responsible for 9/11,” from the floor
  3. The deadly sound of crickets as nobody speaks up

Any of these outcomes has a deleterious effect on the session and is the last impression left with audiences.

So, what do these two anecdotes have to do with social media?

Plenty!

Read MacArthur Genius educator Deborah Meier’s brilliant essay, More Villainous Than Hypocrisy, in the Bridging Differences “blog” she writes with Diane Ravitch each week. Bridging Differences routinely includes the most thoughtful discussions of education policy to be found anywhere. Ms. Meier, one of America’s leading educators and successful urban school reformers, deserves a lot more credit for the role she played in Dr. Ravitch’s recent conversion.

Like a great lecture, play, film, concert or art exhibition, Meier’s recent essay provides enough “food-for-thought” to nourish you for a week – that is until you click the “comments” link on her blog post. The potshots, political manifestos and attacks leveled at the author and her ideas is nauseating and adds nothing whatsoever to the issue.

Education Week provides a great public service by publishing Bridging Differences. They would provide an even greater service by allowing the work to stand for itself and turn off comments.

The lesson I learned during the fantastic lecture series discussed above is SHUT UP! Let the experts speak and converse without being interrupted by crackpots with an ax to grind. You are not their equal just because you bought a ticket or can use a Web browser. A handful of miscreants do not have the right to diminish everyone else’s experience.

Even if not disruptive, most blog commenters (IMHO) offer very little value to the “discussion” or consider the comments of others. Flame wars are much more likely than insight.

I first sensed that blogs were BS back in 2003 when I found myself sharing absolutely brilliant, earth-shattering, election-winning advice for Governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. With each passing day, I was increasingly disappointed to not receive a phone call from the candidate or have my suggestions result in dramatic strategy changes.

Then suddenly I realized why nobody was reading my profoundly erudite blog comments. I wasn’t reading any of the other thousand commenter’s brilliant comments. Nobody else was either.

If you wish to critique something someone else published on the Web, perhaps you should share your views on a personal blog and let the work of others stand for itself.

What do you think? You may flame me below. Riff-raff welcome.

Feeling overwhelmed by unrest in the Middle East, the economic crisis, threats of nuclear annihilation, teacher layoffs, union-busting, the firing of the Aflac duck or potential for a President Donald Trump?

Well, I’m here to spread the good news and tell you that there is something you can do to help yourself and return balance to a troubled planet. Yes, you my friend can take two minutes and vote for Gary Stager in a Tech & Learning Magazine poll!

Never heard of Tech & Learning Magazine? Nobody else has either. But, through the power of social media you can make a difference and help me win what many people refer to as the Nobel Prize for educational technology. I recently had the courage to write an article for this fantastic magazine urging readers not to buy interactive whiteboards, the magazine’s number one advertiser. Surely, that deserves my vote!

I need your help! Heck, I’m not too proud to beg for your vote!

If you care to learn more about me, check out this recent bio.

When you vote, please enter the following information or make up your own crackpot reasons for electing me.

Gary Stager

Executive Director: The Constructivist Consortium

feedback2@stager.org

Reasons for voting:

  • Pioneer in 1:1 computing & online learning
  • 29 years of work in edtech
  • Fearless
  • Committed to creativity, computing and children
  • Charming
  • Using computers to amplify human potential
  • Carries the torch for progressive education
  • Gary creates unique learning experiences for teachers, such as Constructing Modern Knowledge
  • The devil made me do it

If there’s anything social media teaches us, it is that we have entered an era of mob rule. No mob rules more than my Twitter followers and their several thousand friends!

Fight truth to power! Stick it to the man! Waste a few more minutes online! Whatever you do, VOTE FOR ME!

On behalf of a grateful nation, I humbly thank you for your support!

Gilbert & Me - 3/3/11

Yesterday, Wes Fryer published a blog post, Digital Citizenship Lesson from Gilbert Gottfried: The (former) Voice of the Aflac Duck.

While I understand Wes’ desire to teach kids (via their teachers) that they should be careful what they say online, I take great exception with the conclusions drawn in the post.

“…it highlights the very REAL consequences rash words can have, shared on Twitter or elsewhere.”

Wes suggests that Gottfried’s tweets were “rash.” I disagree. Gilbert Gottfried is a professional comedian who entertains his audience via Twitter, clubs, televised roasts, films, The Howard Stern Show and many other venues. All of this builds his brand and enhances his professionalism.

“It also brings up issues about professionalism and image, for individuals as well as organizations. Like it or not (and since he was apparently pulling in a six figure income for his work, I’d say he liked it) Gilbert was officially representing Aflac.”

Ok, where to start?

  1. Mr. Gottfried has a right to earn a living. In fact, I paid to see him live earlier this month and have purchased multiple copies of his DVD, Dirty Jokes, for myself and friends.
  2. He does not represent Aflac. He is the voice of a duck in its commercials. He is not the duck’s voice in Japan, the subject of his comedic, to some unpleasant, tweets.
  3. 99% of Aflac’s customers have no idea who voices the duck. In fact, the sort of person who gives their money to Aflac probably believes that ducks actually do talk.

Wes Fryer ends his post by asking, “What discussion questions might be good to use with students for this “teachable moment?” While I disagree that this story is about digital citizenship, here are some of the lessons I might share with students.

  • Gilbert Gottfried is a comedic genius – one of the great artists of our time. He is considered a “comedian’s comedian” and held in great esteem by his peers.
  • Aflac became a household name and likely earned billions of dollars due to Gottfried’s ability to quack the company name.
  • Gilbert Gottfried should be admired and respected for his drive and determination to become a working comedian who can support himself and his family. He began working as a comedian forty-one years ago at age fifteen.
  • Gilbert Gottfried’s comedy brings great joy to countless people.
  • Humor is a great way to overcome tragedy.
  • Humor is subjective.
  • Talking TV ducks are not real.
  • Adults are allowed to enjoy things not suitable for children.
  • We live in an age of fake outrage where people’s livelihoods and reputations may be threatened my much less talented or accountable executives. Want to see a more disgusting example of this, see how the jerk who runs TED decided to smear comedian Sarah Silverman. Apparently, he lacks the digital citizenship required to “use the Google” before booking one of the nation’s most popular comedians for his annual smugfest.
  • Gilbert Gottfried doesn’t go to the Aflac offices to tell executives how to rip-off consumers. What qualifies an Aflac executive to determine what is or isn’t funny?
  • Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Surely they teach that in Sunday School, right?
  • The Aflac executive who fired Gilbert Gottfried called more attention to the tweets than they would have received otherwise.
  • It seems as if every infraction, not matter how minor, has become a death-penalty offense.
  • Rich people and corporations have ultimate power and can break contracts with impunity.
  • I just saw the new Aflac commercial where they capitalize (profit) on the firing of their duck voice.

Since Wes Fryer connected the tweeting duck controversy to digital literacy, perhaps students should use the Google and investigate Aflac. Doing so could lead to quite interesting G-rated discussions:

Does Aflac pay insurance claims to customers?

  • Do Aflac employees have to pay for their own training, supplies and offices, often with no income or health insurance? (Here and elsewhere)
  • Why do Americans need what Aflac sells?
  • Are the numerous attacks on the integrity of Aflac found on the Web truthful? How would you verify them?
  • Why do Americans spend so much on health insurance?
  • How many Americans have no health insurance?
  • How many of your classmates cannot afford medical care?

Uber-edublogger Will Richardson recently published a blog post entitled, Valuing Change. In the article, he reiterated the frequent lament that teachers don’t “consider” or “value” change especially when the Web allows students to “connect outside of the classroom.” The who, what or why of connecting isn’t discussed.

Will’s article illustrates a teacher’s unwillingness to embrace change by showing how a topic like gerrymandering could be made more engaging through the use of information technologies. Will recognizes the challenges facing teachers and offers an olive branch by suggesting that we can “do both” – teach what will likely be on the test and do so more meaningly.

It should come as no surprise that I disagree, especially given the example used.

As I write this, there are two dozen comments in addition to the few I contributed. Either blog commenters don’t consider the ideas of other commenters or my argument was not clear enough.

Perhaps, as much as you would like it to be otherwise, the incrementalism of “doing both” is really the problem.

Why would you Skype someone involved “in the process?” What process? Who? State legislators? What are they likely to tell a student that can’t be found out in a book or article?

The connections you speak of, now matter how much you yearn for them may be as inauthentic as the task itself. Perhaps they just make a task nobody cares about even more arduous. The “you can use Google ____ or Skype with someone” suggestions have become as automatic and meaningless as when a politician says, “We need to pay teachers more, but hold them accountable.”

One of the lessons I learned from Seymour Papert (http://dailypapert.com) was that you cannot transform school just by changing teaching practices or even the technology used. You must rethink, challenge or reinforce the content of the curriculum. The “what” has a great deal of impact on the how and the why of learning something.

Papert once asked me, “What are you thinking about doing with the students next?” When I replied, “We were thinking of doing some geography…,” he shot back with, “And what can they DO with that?”

“Whatever you ‘teach’ kids should have a high liklihood of leading to the construction of a bigger question or a larger theory (NOW – not later), otherwise, why bother?”

Like so much of schooling, the topic of gerrymandering is really just a vocabulary exercise. Memorize the definition and move on. I’m not sure you can put lipstick on that pig.

I do not believe that it is possible to make schools more productive contexts for learning (the how we teach) without calling the curriculum into question (the what we teach).

When Will requested “The Stager Plan,” I replied…

If I wasn’t clear enough above, a substantial aspect of “The Stager Plan” includes expending some serious effort at every school to determine what is worth being taught.

Pedagogical strategies should reflect the content and the learning styles of students.

The ideas proposed for making gerrymandering more engaging only add false complexity to what is a vocabulary term, likely taught in isolation as the curriculum whizzes by.

My other concern is how we tend to reduce education to information access (or trading information) and how the emphasis on using computers as information appliances reinforces the status quo while depriving learners of authentic experiences.

In addition to commenters reminding us of the wonders of Web 2.0 technology, the author repeates the familiar cliché, “We need to use technology to get kids engaged in the curriculum, not just in the technology.”

Why is this so? Should teachers be so compliant and teach anything they’re told to, regardless of context or value?

Also, why is engaging with the “technology” so quickly dismissed as being inferior to the curriculum?

Here’s a thought experiment…

What if we DID do everything in our power to engage kids in the technology? (I don’t think you can engage someone else, but I’ll leave that aside)

This might be the first real engagement kids experience.

Learning computer programming might actually lead to different thinking, different thinking about thinking, student agency and provide a window for teachers into the intellectual capabilities of kids.

I wish there was a way for me to run a hands-on workshop for every teacher in the world during which they could experience the intellectual rigor and creative joy experienced while computing. Not only is this workshop necessary for teachers who don’t use “technology” in the ways Will’s post urges, but educators excited by Web 2.0 would do well to expand their computing fluency as well.

Educators interested in spending four days on creative computing projects with a world-class faculty and amazing guest speakers this summer should check out Constructing Modern Knowledge. Act quickly, this very special event may sell-out!

Before accepting over-testing as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students!

Please subscribe to my very occasional newsletter!

Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.

Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.

Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.

Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.

Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”

The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”

In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.

Getting Active
Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.

Anti-testing books

I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).

I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?

One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?

It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.

Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

There are but a few reading memories I have from my childhood. I loved McCloskey’s Homer Price, The MAD Adventures of Captain Klutz, Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and was rather fond of the Uncle Remus “trickster” fables. There was a big brightly illustrated picture book series by Miroslav Sasek called, This is Australia, This is Stamford… that made me dream of travel to faraway lands. I also remember using Battle for the Planet of the Apes (the novelization) when my 12th grade English teacher required oral interpretation of a novel.

Fourth grade was a year of revelations for me. I realized that if I painted everything black I could get the child study team to come in and evaluate me on a regular basis. Rorschach Tests were MUCH more interesting than copying lists of spelling words. I also continued my crusade to become a G-Man just like my boyhood hero, J. Edgar Hoover. If forced, I might have chosen to grow-up as Evil Knievel, although there were more jobs for crime-fighters than daredevils.

There was a series of books in the school library that captured the imaginations of my boyhood friends and me. I remember what the books looked like. Most had red covers with black and white photos consuming the bottom half. The author was C.B. Colby. Thanks to the World Wide Web’s ability to archive bizarre ideas and products I’ve been able to track down a few of the actual titles of these literary masterpieces.

  • Bomber Parade Headliners in Bomber Plane History
  • Chute!: Air Drop for Defense and Sport
  • Submarine Warfare: Men, Weapons, and Ships
  • FBI: The G-Mens’ Weapons and Tactics For Combat
  • Six-shooter: Pistols, Revolvers, And Automatics, Past And Present
  • Two centuries of weapons, 1776-1976
  • Jets of the World: New Fighters, Bombers and Transports
  • Fighter Parade: Headliners in Fighter Plane History
  • First Rifle How to Shoot It Straight and Use It Safe
  • Musket to M-14 Pistols, Rifles and Machine Guns
  • Leatherneck : The Training, Weapons and Equipment of the United States Marine Corp
  • Fighting Gear of World War II Equipment and Weapons of the American G.I

And my personal favorite… Art and Science of Taking to the Woods

I checked these books out of the library by the armload although I’m not sure I actually read them. The photos contributed to my world of fantasy play. Being seen with the texts of Mssr. Colby was as important to gender identity as were water pistols, cap guns, plastic guns that fired rubber pellets and the Boy Scouts – all military artifacts which I enjoyed as a child.

One can imagine the smell of C.B. Colby books being incinerated by schools in the post-Columbine era. I don’t own a gun, despise the stain on American history left by J. Edgar Hoover, am a champion of civil rights for all and have shot very few people despite having read the violent manifestos of C.B. Colby. I must have turned out alright because Marilyn Manson and the web didn’t exist when I was a child. Or perhaps it was because I had adults around who I could talk to?

© 2001 Gary S. Stager

Originally published in the June, 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

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My latest book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.”

Bio

“Some people think outside of the box. Gary is unaware of the box’s existence.” – Futurist, Dr. David Thornburg

 

Gary Stager, an internationally recognized educator, speaker and consultant, is the Executive Director of The Constructivist Consortium. Since 1982, Gary has helped learners of all ages on six continents embrace the power of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools (1990), has designed online graduate school programs since the mid-90s, was a collaborator in the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group and a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Team.

When Jean Piaget wanted to better understand how children learn mathematics, he hired Seymour Papert. When Dr. Papert wanted to create a high-tech alternative learning environment for incarcerated at-risk teens, he hired Gary Stager. This work was the basis for Gary’s doctoral dissertation and documented Papert’s most-recent institutional research project.

Gary’s recent work has included teaching and mentoring some of Australia’s “most troubled” public schools, launching 1:1 computing in a Korean International School beginning in the first grade, media appearances in Peru and serving as a school S.T.E.M. Director. He was a Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University and Senior Editor of District Administration Magazine. His advocacy on behalf of creativity, computing and children led to the creation of the Constructivist Consortium and the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

In 1999, Converge Magazine named Gary a “shaper of our future and inventor of our destiny.” The National School Boards Association recognized Dr. Stager with the distinction of “20 Leaders to Watch” in 2007. The June 2010 issue of Tech & Learning Magazine named Gary Stager as “one of today’s leaders who are changing the landscape of edtech through innovation and leadership.” CUE presented Gary with its 2012 Technology in Learning Leadership Award. A popular speaker, Dr. Stager was a keynote speaker at the 2009 National Educational Computing Conference and at major conferences around the world. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Melbourne’s Trinity College on several occasions.

Gary was the new media producer for The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project – Simpatíco, 2007 Grammy Award Winner for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year. Dr. Stager is also a contributor to The Huffington Post and a Senior S.T.E.M. and Education Consultant to leading school architecture firm, Fielding Nair International. Gary also works with teachers and students as S.T.E.M. Director at The Oaks School in Hollywood, California.

Dr. Stager’s latest book, Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom was published in May 2013 by Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

About Gary Stager – The Stager Difference

Contact Gary Stager
Speaking, consulting & professional development and mentoring services by Gary Stager
Reviews of Gary Stager’s recent work
Please subscribe to my very occasional newsletter!

Gary’s Web Sites

Follow me on Twitter

Gary Stager Videos

Popular Resources

Do The Real Thing Less talking “about and more doing! (2013)

What is CMK About?  (2013)

Curriculum Not Required Hugo’s learning story (2012)

Gary Raises Serious Questions About the Flipped Classroom (2012)

Breaking Bread (2012)

Technology is Not Neutral (2012)

This is What Learning Looks Like A collection of learning stories and resources (2011)

Gary Stager is in this book!

The Best Education Books in recent memory Three must-read books and some other suggestions (2011)

Dumbing Down (Computer Literacy) (2012)

Mission Accomplished (rethinking Accelerated Reader) (2012)

Choice, Duh! An article detailing the critical elements for successful project-based learning (2011)

My 1:1 Toolbox (2011)
Creativity software I recommend for student laptops.

Where is the List of Tech Skills? by Gary Stager
My response to the quest for measurement of student “tech skills.”

BYOD – Worst Idea of the 21st Century? (2011)

The Computer Lab as Learning Hub (2011)

Super-Awesome Sylvia in the Not So Awesome Land of Schooling (2011)

Curriculum Not Included (how to create problem solving classrooms) (2012)

Sites of kids mentioned during keynotes:

More articles:

Passport to The Best Educational Ideas in the World (2010)

Radical Reformer, my 2005 interview with Dennis Littky

Award-winning radio broadcasts by an at-risk student

Wanna Be a School Reformer? You Better Do Your Homework First (recommended books)

Seymour Papert’s Eight Big Ideas Behind Constructionism

The five TED Talks I would share with children

Recommended Tinkering books

My provocative article about interactive white boards

Huffington Post article, Who Elected Bill Gates?

The Year of the Laptop (new article 10/10)

The truth about India’s “$35 Laptop”

Assessing Technology Literacy: The Case for an Authentic, Project-Based Learning Approach (PDF)

Seymour Papert’s long-lost 1990 speech (transcript) on school transformation, Perestroika and Epistemological Pluralism

The Original Twenty Things to Do With a Computer (1971) by Seymour Papert

Teaching Children Thinking (1971) by Seymour Papert

A New Paradigm for Evaluating the Learning Potential of an EdTech Activity by Gary Stager

Gary’s Latest Newsletter (including summer reading suggestions)
Archive of previous newsletters

The 1996 Whitepaper by Gary Stager mentioned during his presentation.

The Book Every Educator Should Read (2/28/2010)

Books for Combatting Current Education Policies

Want to know who is trying to takeover public education? Read Gary Stager’s cover story, School Wars, from GOOD Magazine

Gary Stager’s recent spotlight presentation from the National Educational Computing Conference (high-quality video) – Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments

Gary Stager’s keynote debate from NECC 2009 – Recipe for a Disruptive Keynote

My manifesto for excellent teachers and principals

Computing and the Internet in Schools: An International Perspective on Developments and Directions
From the archives, a monograph written by Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. in 1996

Learning Adventures: A new approach for transforming real and virtual classroom environments

- Paper for ACEC 2008

Daniel Pink’s book, “A Whole New Mind,” Worst book of the 21st Century (review by Gary Stager)
high school student discussions of the book with Gary Stager, period 4 and period 5

Laptop Woes
Bungling the world’s easiest sale
An abridged version appears in the October 2005 issue of District Administration

Why Thomas Friedman Does Not Compute
Gary’s critical review of The World is Flat and the education community’s knee-jerk reaction to it.
Published in the December 2005 issue of District Administration

A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools (book from 1917) by Angelo Patri

Gary Stager’s role in the history of classroom-based “laptop learning” is documented in the book, Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers and the Transformation of Learning, by Bob Johnstone.

Gary Stager’s article about Australian Deputy PM Julia Gillard’s education adviser, Educators can learn nothing from Chancellor Klein’s visit (from Crikey)

Books Discussed in Some Presentations

I have Computers in my classroomBy Bob Johnstone
Foreword by Gary Stager

I am beyond thrilled to share the stage with Dennis Littky at this weekend’s TEDxNYED.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dennis Littky and his amazing work as a true school reformer and briliant educator, an interview I conducted for District Administration Magazine in 2005 is below.

After you read Dennis Littky’s book, The Big Picture: Education is Everybody’s Businesss, you MUST read Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School. This recently republished book by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first education thriller ever published.


Radical Reformer

Dennis Littky drew on his 30 years of education innovation to create a new school model.

By Gary Stager – November 2005

Dennis Littky may be America’s most important educator. After three decades of leading major school innovation in New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, Littky, along with co-founder and co-director Elliot Washor, seems to have found the holy grail of school reform in Providence, R.I. Not only have they created a radical school design–Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a network of six small schools across three campuses that personalizes each student’s education and prepares all 700 students for collegiate and professional success–that has enough success to prove that it works, but they are successfully “scaling up” this model in communities across the United States. As of last school year, there were 26 MET schools in operation and Thayer High School in New Hampshire was the first school in the Coalition of Essential Schools while Littky was its principal.

If all of this were not enough, Littky recently wrote a book, The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business, (ASCD 2004). In the book, Littky, 60, reveals the MET model through the profound learning stories of the students it serves. The book is a passionate testament to learners, learning and human potential. The author’s breezy style makes the powerful ideas he shares easily accessible to education stakeholders.

“I think it’s a comment on the world we’re in that simply by being kind and knowing the kids and greeting them is something that stands out.”
Fast Company magazine recently named Littky its No. 4 Entrepreneur of the Year and the Gates Foundation has provided a nearly $10 million grant to help create 38 small, urban high schools in the next five years based on the Big Picture principles and pedagogy. Business leaders embrace Littky’s educational vision without requiring him to pander to their notions of schooling.

Editor-At-Large Gary Stager spoke with Littky recently, covering his philosophy, his future plans, how he operates in this day of NCLB and liability concerns, and whether his schools offer extra-curricular activities. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

How would you describe the MET in 30 seconds?
Littky: The MET is the school that truly takes one student at a time. An incredibly respectful place, meaning not just being nice to kids but [also] in the way it respects whatever they’re interested in.

The family is part of making decisions, whatever the kid is interested in, it starts from that kid. So in that sense I think it’s different than any other school and we do not believe that there is one curriculum that everyone has to know. A lot of people argue about that.

And then the structures are set up with a teacher following a kid in a small group for four years so you really get to know [the student] well. And we push that all the work be real, so it’s not [pretending] you’re interested in writing a paper on horses. It’s working with somebody around horses and finding something real that can be done. So I think it’s the deep respect allowing the kid in the family to build their own curriculum, follow their own interest and passions and to do it all in a real way so it’s not fake.

So how do you know they’re done–prepared for college, life or jobs?
Littky: That’s a great question because they’re never done, done with a project or done with school, ready to move on. You know in few of the ways we are pretty traditional, I mean there are kids who come to us that are very skilled, kids who come to us that could spend eight years with us. … Some kids do something very different their last year. … I was just with a kid yesterday who is doing a documentary as a senior project. I almost don’t consider our stuff school.

So it partly is the longer we can stay with kids, helping to support their learning and letting them grow is good. Kids ready to move on whenever they want to move on, they move on.

We don’t leave our kids after they graduate. One of the main things we do that we don’t even talk about that much is that I have a transition counselor. I involve the advisors after [graduation].

Last week we had an empty nest meeting with the parents of the kids who left because many of them are single parents, their best friend just left for school [college. They've] never had anybody in school. So your kid messes up. What do they say? “Come home honey.”

We’re with them forever, I have 10 kids now working back in our school in some capacity who graduated over the last four or five years.

So how do you convince colleges or employers that they’re ready?
Littky: Well, ready, of course, is relative, but because our kids are dealing with the adult world from freshman [year] on–having lots of adult mentors, making their phone calls, talking to customers, making presentations, they’re way more ready for the work world and getting stuff done.

The only way they’re ready for college is that the hope that most of them have this love for learning and want to continue. People ask me how do our kids function once they get in regular classes? The kids take college classes all through, they know some are [lousy], they know some are good. They’re pretty independent in their thinking and working so they don’t need to be guided. So, the good part and the bad part is there’s less tolerance of [lousy classes].

You know, we grew up to accept bad teachers. On one end you hope they put up with it and don’t drop out of school, on the other hand you want them to acknowledge that they’re being mistreated and disrespected.

You make the point in the book that the MET is not vocational. So with all the emphasis on internship and real-world things how does it remain non-vocational? How do you resist that temptation?

Littky: I believe that everything is hands and eyes, I’m not sure there is anything vocational anymore, things are changing too fast. And the reason we use the internship is not to prepare the kids to be an architect or a car mechanic. It is to find something they love that can engage them and get them to think and to explore new bigger things.

I have a quote in [the book] saying–and I love the quote–”The way to really teach people to be good thinkers is to let them learn anything in an in-depth kind of way. And if they do that then you change,” so that’s why it’s not vocational.

I don’t care what the kid’s going to do, but whatever they love, now that’s what I care about.

So what does a day or week look like at the MET?
Littky: Tuesday and Thursday the kids don’t come to school, they go right to their internship and for the advisors it’s not a time where they are in meetings or doing other things. The teachers are on the road during that time also. They’re visiting that kid at the architect’s office. They’re visiting that kid at the zoo. They’re trying to find the work that’s real work. They’re trying to make sure that every kid has their own learning plan. They’re trying to make sure that the goals they set are being met by the environment.

So in those days if you came to school and we took you to the hospital you would see kids doing blood tests, or see kids following around a doctor. At a computer place, they’re developing some programs for one of their customers. So really in the best-case scenario, they’re real workers in places where they’re not just filing.

How do you convince the partners, the mentors of that?
Littky: It’s been way, way, way easier than people expect! One, adults love to have some teenager that loves what they love and they don’t they have to take home at night. And their own kids don’t give a [darn] about what they do, so they become very attached to our kids. Mentors who have been there for four years are given an honorary teaching degree at graduation. They’ve really been there [for the students] so that has not been the problem really.

Then Monday, Wednesday and Friday kids come to school in the morning and we all start the day with what we call a “pick-me-up.” Our schools are only 120 kids each and the whole school is together and you may have someone reading poetry, you may have a kid talking about their trip, you may have someone showing a video they made. There’s something to broaden the kids and start the day in an up way. Then they go to an advisory, every kid belongs to one to 15 in our case, one to 17 in California, a group that meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for four years.

And that advisor/teacher is really in charge of their whole program. So on that day they could be reading a paper about what does it mean that Arafat died, what does that mean for us? They’ll be talking about the election … The main textbook is each kid has a calendar book, they’ll be walking around, “What’s your schedule for the week? Who are you meeting with? When are you working?’ So that advisory period goes on about a half hour. Then the kids are kind of on their own, small groups, individuals having their meetings, teachers moving around helping them saying, “C’mon I want to edit that paper with you. Jimmy go work with Sam on this.”

And the paper is related to the internship?
Littky: That’s right, the projects are all related to a Hispanic kid, his writing, doing a brochure in Spanish for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. There are a lot of Spanish people in Providence. Somebody else is doing a presentation at CVS Drug Stores, they’re doing PowerPoint. Somebody else is researching a project for an architect. So, in the best-case scenario, I describe it like looking like a newsroom. People moving around and working.

To me that’s what’s so exciting. When I bring people to school I say, “Look, you don’t see teacher out here,” the kids are on the computer, they’re moving around, kids are asking for help because they have something real that’s got to get done. Then they have lunch together in a regular way and then again they’re out doing their individual small group work with a teacher moving around and then they come back together at the end of the day for a half hour, kind of summing up what they’re doing, making sure they know what they’re thinking about doing at night.

The teacher doesn’t assign homework, it’s on the individual, “Hey I got to present this manual to the guy at the hospital tomorrow, how do I do this?” So that’s kind of the week and the exciting part, which keeps our attendance the highest in the state in all our schools is it’s different every day. You know there’s something new all the time.

And the kids collaborate?
Littky: The kids collaborate so they have other teachers work with them, like they say, “I don’t know much about this area.” “Go see Rachel over there so.”

The expertise is distributed.
Littky: It truly is a learning community. It’s about using lots of adults. We have six schools there. Yesterday I was at the Oakland school and there’s this group pushing kids to get a voice through reading and they were all running book groups, so the teachers didn’t have to do that. They were working on something else.

So it’s looking at what a kid needs, looking around and saying, “How do we get them there?” A lot of our kids take college courses; you find an interest.

So how do you deal with the more mundane things like liability, ADA, certifying that they’re ready to graduate; all the sort of legal stuff that everyone gets hysterical about?
Littky: Well the world has become a tougher place to do our work since No Child Left Behind. You do whatever you need to do. We don’t have grades. Students do an hour-long exhibition every quarter, ninth grade on. Teachers write a page or two narrative on it, kids write notes and self-evaluations. But then when it’s time to go to college we translate that into a transcript. So we’re not stupid, we know colleges aren’t going to look at 16 narratives.

And our transcript has our four English classes. They’re just done in a different way, so as long as you can translate it. … You force your state to be a little more performance-based within as much structure as you need. If you’ve got to call the morning advisory something else, you call it something else. You’re covered by child labor laws and our kids are working regular internships in places It’s not so difficult.

So do you think there are lessons in MET for elementary schools?
Littky: Yeah, absolutely.

The thinking is always that the high school has so much to learn from the elementary schools.

Littky: Yeah. The best kindergarten class is built around kids’ needs. Find out what that kid needs, getting along with others, learning how to do blocks, learning how to read and then we seem to forget and everybody is the same in third grade. I think elementary schools need to look at [what they do] too.

But again, how do you make it real? We have a few elementary schools and we started a charter school in Providence. How do you make it real for a third grader? It’s like a visit to a fish place, it’s like going to a museum, how real is your community? But again, you know those young kids have creative, great ideas for inventions that do stuff; they just get it knocked down. And if you do it right, I mean and in the younger grades this is even more important. Kids got to learn to read and so you’ve gotta just keep pushing that, but if you find stuff kids are interested in then that’s how you teach them to read. I think our ideas are applicable all over the place.

Where do you get teachers from?
Littky: Well, that’s a hard one because our teacher training institutions are obviously not training teachers to work in Big Picture schools.

What are they training for?
Littky: They are training them to stand up in front of a room and lecture for high schools. And they’re spending time on how do you discipline kids? How do you control the class? Making sure you know all this content. … So most of our people who’ve gone through teacher training programs are not very well trained for, “Stop a second. Listen to the kid. Look at the kid. What connects? What kind of project?” So one, we do a tremendous amount of training ourselves. Every summer we have something we call working camp where we bring the freshman in.

You’re working them two, three hours and then you’re understanding what does it really mean to follow your passion, what does it really mean to get an internship? When we bring the whole staff together for another two weeks, we have every month a day where we step back and really look with a couple meetings during the week. So it just becomes this ongoing teacher-training piece and sometimes some of your good people didn’t even come from teaching. They come from other places that think about kids and have that respect for kids.

Our teachers need to be people who have a lifelong learning within themselves, an excitement about learning because they’ve got to be excited about helping you go further. They’ve got to be smart enough in the broadest way. So it’s mostly trying to find the kind of people that feel this in their heart and then we have to train them through the years.

So how many MET Schools are there now?
Littky: Twenty-six.

How do they get started?
Littky: One starts one by finding somebody with the power who says, “I want one of these.” We start them all different ways. So it could start from the superintendent in Oakland saying, “I want one of these,” or it could be somebody saying, “I’d like to start a charter school like this.”

Somebody said they want to do a charter and use our materials. If they get that charter and have a building, they can come to us. We’ve been going to a lot of districts that say they want us. And then we together select a principal. We feel that’s the key and then we train that person. We have what we call “TYBO,” The Year Before Opening, and we train those people on and off for a year. So it’s not like, “Okay, August, congratulations you’re on, let’s go.” A year beforehand we’re visiting the school, I’m working with some people.

Go observe a learning plan, then go out and do your own. Get ready to teach your own staff. How do you recruit back in your area? How do you get a building so we [can] work with people for a year getting them ready to go. Then we send coaches out, we’ve got materials online, we’re now starting video conferencing. But it can also start with women in Santa Monica just started following Elliot and I around. You know we kept putting them off, putting them off and then we’re talking about starting a school there.

So what is your goal?
Littky: Our goal is to have no more than 50 schools and to try to build a network so they can support each other and be here in 20 years and be a model for others. Not that someone has got to do the exact thing, but if you were designing a school you may say go there and look at how they do internships. We can’t do this, but let’s make our senior year [different]. So we’re looking to change the world in the way of having a model design that can help people as you say go further and further in their work.

What’s the involvement of the Gates Foundation?
Littky: Well, Gates has given out money to start schools so we’ve been very fortunate to use their money to hire coaches to develop our Big Picture Online and to train principals. They’ve made it possible to do it.

I am very grateful to Gates, I think we should all be very grateful to Gates because in these tough times they have been one of the lone few that have supported something very different than the mainstream in this country. So the fact that they’ve given out $600 million, or however much it is, to people to do small, personalized schools is real positive. My worry is always about quality and sustainability.

You know we’re in our ninth year at the MET and just getting to our full capacity, we just got our buildings a year and a half ago, so this stuff takes time. When people used to look at me and say, “Oh you’ve got such small schools, how are you going to attack the districts?” I felt like saying, “It’s taken a hundred years to screw up our education system, it’s not going to be cured overnight.” Now I can do this 100-year plan that says, “Of course none of us are that patient, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Funding the Big Picture is at odds with current educational practice.
Littky: Correct.

So is that an accident or does the Gates Foundation have an actual dog in the fight?
Littky: No, I think two things that are rather interesting; I think Tom Vander Ark who was given the right even more so at the beginning to go find the movers and shakers to do this, had the right philosophy and found the right people regardless where the world was going.

He sought out people who were doing this kind of stuff, pressures of the world might be starting to change that, but I think it’s no accident that there are a lot of good groups that a lot of my friends, colleagues, got funded during this time. I don’t think it was an accident.

So how does your school deal with things like extracurricular activities and the other stuff that becomes synonymous with secondary education?
Littky: The baseball team is 0 and 30. No we don’t have it, and I get asked for one every day. And we do have proms, I guess everyone’s got their line you know. There are things that kids really connect to a high school in a way and really want and if you feel it will not take away from the main reason you’re there, then we go with it. The yearbook is something that’s very important to us. A prom was something very important to us.

Those are both things you see at the school all kind of run by the kids. Big-time sports, which were important to me personally, are hard to do when kids are working late, with internships etc. So we have managed to do intramurals. We have managed to have kids that want to play in a city league come at 6: 00 in the morning and practice. And if a kid wants to play big-time sports because that’s their passion, and we usually have one a year, they’re allowed to play at another school.

You know we talk about school going on all the time, so everything a kid does counts in a way. So we’re doing a thing this year, I’m struggling with it, but I’m keeping ninth graders till 5 p.m. So rather than going after school I just extended the day so there’s more of an option and time to do stuff.

Why are you doing it?
Littky: Well, 3 to 5 is the most dangerous time of the day. Ninth graders are usually pretty bored. So it’s just extended time to be able to either play with tutoring, to be able to give them a support environment, to do dance, to do those kinds of things. But I kind of look if they’re playing on a church team, that’s part of it. If they’re taking dance lessons someplace, go for it. We’re trying to get our kids to be active learners and engaged as much as possible.

You told a story in the book that resonated with me. I’ve seen variations on it a hundred times. You became nationally famous because you and your teachers greeted kids in the morning. Can you share some of your feelings about the reaction to such a gesture?
Littky: Well, I always say it’s pathetic–the standards we have out there. There was somebody, I think it was one of the Disney Teachers of the Year on one of the talk shows …

The 75 rules?
Littky: No, no, this one was somebody said, “I know every teacher’s name in high school.” “Oh my gosh that’s fantastic!” or “I know all my kid’s names!” “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, it should be the other. “Oh my gosh we’ve been talking about it.” And so it’s just I think a comment on the world we’re in that simply by being kind and knowing the kids and greeting them is something that stands out. You know it’s like school has gotten to be such an impersonal place, the people have no idea how learning is connected to understanding who the kid is. So it’s laughable actually.

How did we get to this place?
Littky: I’m not that old but I think, I don’t know. The first page of my book I define what is learning. And I was thinking about it in terms of that’s the difference? We don’t have a definition in this country on what is learning. There is the famous quote that Bush’s grammar was a little incorrect when he said, “He wished–no he used instead of he and she he used he and her, but it says he wants kids to learn to read so they can pass the literacy tests.

So that has become our goal, not to read well, not to use what you read, but to pass the literacy test. So, I think until the country either gets a little more together on what they think is important for human beings, how to help people be mindful, or to have enough choices so people can decide this is who I want my child to be so I want to send her there, we’re in trouble.

Gary Stager, gary@stage.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

Explaining MET

  • Each MET school consists of no more than 120 students in advisories of no more than 15 to 17.
  • Each student works with the same advisor and peers for their entire secondary education.
  • Two days each week, MET students do not go to school. They do community-based internships with mentor experts in the student’s area of interest. The curriculum for the remaining three days is based on whatever the student needs to learn in order to succeed in their internship.

MET facts

  • The Met’s math scores jumped from a three-year average of 38 to 68 in 2004, a 79% increase.
  • The Met’s English/Language Arts scores rose from a three-year average of 64 to 79, a 23% increase.
  • The Met exceeded the No Child Left Behind goals set for Rhode Island in 2007.
  • On average, The Met had 18% more students profi cient in math and 14% more students proficient in English/Language Arts than the three largest Providence high schools. 94.2% graduation rate (one of the highest in the state) The state average is 81.3% and the Providence average is 57% for the city’s three largest high schools 93.3% attendance rate (one of the highest in the state) The state average is 89.5% and the Providence average is 77% for the city’s three largest high schools #1 in the state Parent Involvement1
  • The Met: 88 State Average: 41 Measures how involved parents feel in the school and how comfortable they are with teachers and school environment #1 in the state School Climate
  • The Met: 79 State Average: 68 Measures school safety, respect between teachers and students, student behavior in class #3 in the state Instruction
  • The Met: 61 State Average: 38 Measures teachers’ skills and support from school #1 in the state Teacher Availability (academic)
  • The Met: 76% High School State Average: 46% Percentage of students who feel they can talk to a teacher about academic issues #1 in the state Teacher Availability (personal)
  • The Met: 63% High School State Average: 18% Percentage of students who feel they can talk to a teacher about personal or family problems 1 Data on parent involvement, school climate, and instruction (from 2004), highest score = 100

I am honored to be invited to speak Saturday as part of TEDxNYED and thrilled to be on the same program with one my heroes, Dennis Littky.

I’m terrified by the format and the fact that it requires a completely new talk that I will never present again, but I’ll give it my best. I think my message is important and hope it will be well-received.

I am not sure if TEDxNYED will be simulcast on the Web, but am confident that all of the videos will eventually make it online. Perhaps mine will go viral, like a kitty putting on a hat.

My latest article is in The Huffington Post. It’s called, “Who Elected Bill Gates?

The article is dense, but that was required to support my my indictment of his dangerous  influence and educational cockamamie schemes. I was thrilled when my article appeared originally  below one by Bill Gates and above an entry by his former deputy, Tom VanderArk, on the Education page of The Huffington Post.

It’s sad to watch a once smart and talented man go mad right before our eyes. There needs to be an intervention for Bill Gates. I fear that he has taken leave of his senses and finally jumped the shark…

…You would think that nothing else could surprise me, but now, Bill Gates has descended into the delusional world of Charlie Sheen.

Read the rest of the article here. PLEASE comment and share the article. It’s important that The Huffington Post know that like-minded folks are out there reading!