Kim Cofino recently convinced the Head of her international school to blog. Kim reached out to lots of folks and asked them to comment on his first post where he asked for advice. Since I was asked, I shared some of my views on school leadership for the future and on educational technology.

After my comments (below), I add some thoughts I should have included regarding the limitations of blogging. As always, your comments are welcome.

Dear Mr. Macdonald,

Welcome to blogging! Now you are a blogger! That was no big deal, right?

Blogging IS no big deal. It is just writing, but on the Web. Sometimes there is even an audience for what you write. I suspect that you will never receive as many comments as for this post and you may not even get as far as mine. Regardless, I took my assignment from your colleague Ms. Cofino seriously.

Blogging (and its social media cousins) are useful if you have a confessional nature and feel like sharing your thoughts with the world or if you need to have a question answered. It may also serve a utilitarian function in easily communicating with your school community. Blogging, like nearly every other school use of the Web, is essentially a literacy activity. One challenge for school leaders is finding ways to use computers to enhance the rest of what it means to be educated.

For example, Is “math” taught in a Pre-Gutenberg fashion at your school or has computation and the social sciences’ need for number transformed kids’ experience as it has radically reinvented real mathematics?

Regrettably, much of what is done in schools in the name of edtech or ICT is really just a form of “computer appreciation” The true power of the computer lies in its power as a computational instrument for constructing knowledge, the concretizing of formal ideas and the creation of artifacts in intellectual domains that would otherwise be inaccessible to children. This ability to use the computer to amplify human potential is only possible with awareness and teachers’ ongoing development of expertise. Leadership is critical for setting high expectations, asking “so what?” questions, supporting continuous growth of teachers and creating an atmosphere where the technology functions in the ways children expect – free of counter-productive, expensive and hysterical IT practices.

Leaders in the digital age need to redefine “new” and “progress.” New isn’t about what you buy as much as what your students DO. Progress isn’t measured by bandwidth, but when classrooms are less mind-numbing, soul-killing and time-wasting. Leaders need to recognize that young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity and find ways to make school more intense, without making it more chaotic.

So, blogging at least familiarizes yourself with an activity required of students. That’s the first step towards making sound educational decisions. Too many school leaders mandate that children do things that they themselves would never do or may never have even attempted. That isn’t leadership. Leaders also recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants and that computing offers yet another attempt to realize the ideas of Dewey, Papert, Malaguzzi and other progressive educators.

Now, on to the actual nature of your questions…

The greatest challenge facing school leaders is to abandon the notions that 1) education is based on scarcity and 2) learning is the direct causal result of having been taught.

In the 21st Century, there is no reason for school to be concerned with creating winners and losers. Sorting, ranking, grading, labeling and classifying of students are destructive artifacts of a bygone era when access to education was scarce and limited to a privileged few. This is no longer the case. I won’t go into proving the plethora of examples to support this argument. I suspect you can find them yourself.

School in itself is a technology with benefits and consequences – affordances and constraints that dictate the experience of its inhabitants. In the future, your school will NOT have the monopoly on children’s time you currently hold. The challenge is to answer the question of why your students and teachers are co-located in the same space for X hours per day?

Leadership requires serious reconsideration of heuristics like homework, testing, grading and age segregation. These discussions need to be public and your constituents need to know where you stand or how you are thinking.

International schools are blessed with an embarrassment of riches and resources that most educators would covet. However, international schools also suffer from a number of self-inflicted constraints that are on the wrong side of history. Despite their independence, wealth, talent and outstanding facilities, many international schools refuse to innovate because they THINK it will be bad for business. That’s why they too many have discriminatory admissions policies, promise every parent that their six year-old is Harvard-bound and chase IB, AP and every other curricular fads that makes their schools indistinguishable. The prevalent assumption of international schools that kids with mobility will not miss a single day of the US, British or UK curriculum is folly and a noose around the neck of innovation. (The best schools have already abandoned centralized inflexible curricula like the AP while less secure schools grab on with both hands.)

Reflective school leaders know that this homogeneity of approach is ridiculous, unrealistic and ignores the diverse needs, interests and talents of children. Ultimately, it is also bad for the business of international schools.

In many places, you are in the catbird’s seat. If a parent needs a school for their English-speaking child, you may be the only game in town. Yet, far too many international school leaders lack the courage necessary to articulate a unique educational stance and say, “we do things differently for the following reasons…” If you have a waiting list, you do not have to pander.

I truly believe there is a significant market for schools that are not Oxford/Harvard Prep and designed for the children who are good at “doing school.”

Being a franchise of Oxford/Harvard Prep is no way to do good or to do well. That model makes your school more easily replaced by YouTube videos and online testing.

At the very least, school leaders should recognize that people learn differently and invest in some “school within a school” programs where alternative models may be offered to children and parents. Boeing spends billions annually on planes that never fly while schools spend almost nothing on R&D despite the constant rhetoric about innovation. My experience is that whenever parents are offered a chance at a different educational experience for their child, they will seize it. Alternative programs within your school serve as incubators of innovation and may drive future practice in ways you can’t possibly anticipate.

In summary, What if the policy of your school was to make every day the best seven hours of a child’s life?

Best Wishes on your journey,

Gary

I wish I had pointed out that it may be difficult for a new blogger to assess the expertise, point of view or bias of a commenter he/she doesn’t know. I should have warned the new blogger about the torrent of clichés and meaningless platitudes that fill blog comments just as they bog down most contemporary discussions of education. I should have warned of the “attaboy” responses awarded for simply blogging.  I should have mentioned that most commenters have little or no interest in the thoughts of the other respondents. Most of all, there should have been a discussion of whether or how much the blogger should respond to reader comments.

Education is in desperate need of real dialogue. Social media may be an imperfect vessel for mindful discussion.

I just posted the following a comment on Will Richardson’s blog post, How Can You Not Be Angry?

Dear Will,

I salute you. Stay angry!

You may remember that my New Year’s resolution was to swear more. That resolution was only partially tongue-in-cheek. We need to scream, swear, pull our pants down, wear costumes and whatever else it takes to save our public treasure (schools) from becoming the plaything of Gates, Murdoch and Broad. We are in deep trouble (kids are in worse trouble) if we don’t drop teacher civility and continue to be victimized.

As for swearing, Bill Gates called constructivism – a scientific theory as valid as gravity or evolution – bullshit IN PUBLIC AND IN PRINT. The quote appears within a few sentences of my comments in a recent Wired article. If Bill Gates calls the work of me and my colleagues, mentors and friends bullshit, how should I respond? Set up a VoiceThread? Make an Animoto? Decorate my bulletin boards with orange construction paper?

I always cite Abbie Hoffman as one of my heroes. Satire, mockery, outrageous behavior, civil disobedience and the courage of patriots helped end segregation and the War in Vietnam.

Teachers have changed the world, occasionally even in the United States. In 1964-65,  African Americans in Alabama considered voting rights the folly of young people. It wasn’t until the TEACHERS of the Selma area refused to accept second-class status and joined the movement that African American adults across the state not only took the issue seriously, but were mobilized to take action. This led to Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettis Bridge and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Some people, like Congressman John Lewis, had their skulls bashed in so that the rest of us may live up to the promise of America.

Watch http://amzn.to/pSXLZQ and learn how fearless college students changed America, jeopardizing their degrees and risking their lives. Buy the DVD and show it everybody you know.

Apartheid began to unravel in South Africa when thousands of students walked out of school because they were being miseducated (taught Afrikans instead of English). Some children were killed but Apartheid ended less than twenty years later. When countless American urban schools are entirely segregated and the students are fed a steady diet of test-prep, it may be time to end Apartheid education in this country as well.

Frankly, I didn’t give much thought to Saturday’s March on Washington because progressive educators can’t normally organize a softball game, but I plan on being there Saturday. I also signed-on as an endorser.

I will travel cross-country because of the unequivocal DEMANDS listed at http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/about/guiding-principles/ It is so refreshing to see educators start demanding what is right, not looking for compromises when none are warranted, ala Barack Obama.

If children cannot count on each and every one of their educators to stand between them and the madness, who can they count on?

Okily Dokily,

Gary

On June 26th, The Constructivist Consortium hosted the Fifth Annual Constructivist Celebration prior to the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia. In addition to multiple meals, participants enjoyed a day of creativity, collaboration and computing thanks to software and project-based support from representatives of Tech4Learning, LCSI and Generation YES.

The day culminated with a 37-minute conversation between Will Richardson and myself. I am most grateful to Will for his generosity and participation!

Here is video of the conversation. Regrettably, the first few seconds of the conversation were not captured.

A Conversation with Will Richardson from Gary Stager on Vimeo.


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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.