Keeping Up with the Future (2008)

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Keeping Up with the Future

A few suggestions for staying informed and inspired

By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

Originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of District Administration Magazine

It is understandable that educators and policy-makers are concerned with preparing students for the future. That may explain the popularity of deeply flawed bestsellers, like Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat or Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. As I discussed in my online review of Pink’s book, “The Worst Book of the 21st Century,” the most popular business how-to books were written by people who have accomplished little or nothing in the business world and are not taken seriously by successful corporate leaders.

The New York Times interviewed accomplished business leaders and found that they read poetry, philosophy, literature and history. It is the ideals of a strong liberal arts education that fills their lives with pleasure and purpose. Their life preparation avoided the narrow vocational options so many policy leaders propose as the educational path for today’s students.

I wrote in my book review, “Ultimately the success of these [pop business] books is based on the authors’ ability to reduce complex concepts to simplistic binary dichotomies or playground rhymes. Such books are filled with numbered rule-based advice with little room for nuance. Issues are either black or white. The principles apply to any situation.

Of course, these rules apply to any situation, especially a complex system with as many variables and moving parts as public education. School leaders should be secure in their professional purpose and avoid seeking advice from charlatans, particularly gurus touting an ability to predict the future.

What to do?

So, how can an educational leader keep pace with the world around her, continue to grow and create schools that prepare students for a purposeful life? At the very least, whom should she read, watch or listen to?

1.    Read Wired Magazine
This sixteen year-old magazine has been around for about as long as the World Wide Web and survived years of hubris followed by the dotcom bubble. Wired covers all aspects of the digital world; including science, emerging technology, politics, culture and commerce. Even their articles about kids, learning and education are thoughtful.

Gone are the days of 4 page articles filling 38 pages and the snarky “We are smarter than you” tone of its early days. Wired now has adult supervision and is a terrific way of keeping up with the exciting ways in which our world is changing. Best of all, a twelve month subscription costs as little as $10.

2.    Attend TED (virtually)
In 1984, an intimate annual conference was held in Monterey, California. The TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) was a place where scientists, artists, world leaders and cultural icons come together and share powerful ideas. In TED’s early days, each attendee was also a presenter. The rule that every presentation needs to be approximately 15-18 minutes long allows for as many as 50 presentations over four days. There is only one session at a time.

TED is expensive and exclusive. Therefore, your chances of attending are very low. However, TED has begun distributing high-quality video podcasts of presentations recorded throughout its history. You can subscribe to the series via RSS and watch them on your computer or iPod whenever you need a dose of inspiration. TED Talks by Sir Ken Robinson, Al Gore, Dave Eggers and Majora Carter are fantastic. Once you get done watching Bill Clinton or Bono you might want to check out Amy Smith who has dedicated her life to creating sustainable charcoal or see Neil Gershenfeld describe how you may soon email a bicycle. It is the very eclecticism of TED that makes it such a fantastic event. Experts who commit their lives to doing one thing, even a small thing, extremely well, inspire me.

3.    Attend Pop!Tech
Pop!Tech is similar to TED and is held each Fall in Camden, Maine. Each year, Pop!Tech is organized around a particular theme. Pop!Tech has also begun making video podcasts of its presentations available for free download.

4.    Read Angelo Patri
Bill Clinton reminded his audience at last year’s NSBA Conference that every problem in education has been solved somewhere. The recent republication of Angelo Patri’s book, A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools (New Press, 2007), is a must-read! Patri emigrated to the United States from Italy in the late 19th Century and went on to become a teacher and principal in the New York City Public Schools. This incredible book, first published in 1917, describes the challenges facing schools today and offers compelling solutions. Patri knew everything school leaders need to know today and shares it in one incredibly readable paperback.

5.    Watch more TV with your staff
Play an episode of CNBC’s Mad Money, Good Eats from the Food Network or even The Apprentice and ask teachers to identify lessons for improving their practice.

6.    Escape your school
Join a club. Rekindle a hobby. Attend a lecture series. Explore your community’s cultural offerings. Work with kids in a non-school setting. Read a good book. Enriching your own life is sure to make you a better educator.

Resources:

Wred Magazine
www.wired.com and on newsstands

TED Talks

iTunes Store

Pop!Tech Popcasts

Gary Stager’s review of A Whole New Mind

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