I’m in the Sierra Mountains skiing where the altitude has replaced sleeping with hallucinating.

So, unable to sleep, I read Will Richardson’s latest blog post at 4AM. Will expands upon a blog post by David Weinberger in which Weinberger asks breathlessly,

“Why did the world shatter at the touch of a hyperlink?”

Weinberger is a Web philosopher, so one can expect that in his world view, the universe is made of “the Web.” It is the answer to every question. He also makes the mistake (IMHO) in believing that human behavior, culture and institutions may be reduced to information access.

Weinberger, admittedly one of the smarter “Web philosophers,” nonetheless uses the bits vs. atoms analogy first expressed by Nicholas Negroponte in his 1996 book, Being Digital, not to predict technological innovation, but in order to paint a dystopian vision of the present in which “every discipline” is now “a fiction.”

Will Richardson expands on Weinberger’s theme and writes the following:

“And I’m wondering, deep down, have we known all along that this idea of an “education” was really a fiction, something we created out of necessity with the implicit understanding that in a world limited by atoms, it was never really the end all, be all, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances? And if we didn’t know that, can we admit that now?

The circumstances have changed. We’re no longer constrained by atoms. For 125 years we’ve been making the learning world small, and now the world is all of a sudden big…huge. All of a sudden, the walls have been obliterated. Learning is unbound, and “an education” is next.”

I fully appreciate Will’s impatience with the educational landscape, but I think I disagree with his thesis.

There was no omnipotent power forcing us to make learning small. Besides, some pretty great freakin’ stuff was invented over the past 125 years – including the World Wide Web. Diseases were eradicated and great social movements triumphed. The past century gave us Dewey, Patri, Papert, Malaguzzi, Piaget, Kohl, Kozol, Kohn, Sizer, Littky, Meier, Holt, Postman and countless others who reinvented education.

The 1826 book, “Last of the Mohicans,” was the most popular book in America at the time of its publication, but is barely readable by literate Americans today. 100-110 years ago, millions of Americans could read and play Ragtime sheet music on their piano. That feat surely “atomizes” the ability of a lot fewer people to demonstrate a whole lot less talent with a much simpler instrument like Garageband today.

We might turn President Obama’s recent proclamation, “We do big things,” into the question, “We do big things?

It’s weird playing the role of the conservative, but isn’t there a hell of a lot we (all) can do to make schools more productive contexts for learning? Can’t we teach interesting things in meaningful ways? Can’t we develop genuine expertise and share it with our peers and the next generation? Can’t we be receptive to the intentions of young people and learn from them – if not skills and facts, perhaps intensity?

It seems to me that the “blow up the past,” “extinguish everything that brought us here (good and bad)” stuff is really a cheap parlor trick – pure rhetoric.

Kids may discover how to play with a cello on the Web, but they’ll never become a cellist that way. We see how well factual knowledge is obtained when half of America is sympathetic to birtherism. We live in a society where most Caucasians don’t know someone of a different race, yet we embrace the “diversity of the blogosphere,” which is less diverse than a public bus. How does culture sustain itself and progress? Democracy?

So many questions…

Why do we congratulate ourselves for using Skype? Why do we limit children’s computing to keyboarding instruction, Internet research or burping into VoiceThread? Is nothing fixable? Do we need 21st Century skills to supplant time-honored intellectual processes?

Why do we so lack the capacity for self-correction. Why is it safer and more comfortable to behave in a way contrary to the interests of ourselves and the kids we are supposed to serve? Why has the slightest act of disobedience against the curriculum or administrative edict taken on biblical significance? What’s wrong with US?

Who can we trust to invent a future when so few of us have the courage to teach as well as we were instructed the first night of teacher-ed? The only reason for despair is if we are truly “the change we’ve been waiting for.”


If you’re interested in learning more from the wisdom of our predecessors about how to “educate” better, check out this collection of books provided by The Constructivist Consortium.

You should also check out The Daily Papert and Constructing Modern Knowledge!

The future is the last refuge of a scoundrel
(Gary Stager, 2010 – with apologies to Samuel Johnson)

I go to a lot of education conferences, a dozen or more per year, read lots of “edublogs” and listen to lots of speakers. The future is a popular topic of discussion.

The most common interchangeable keynote speaker regals his audience (it’s always a HE speaking) with the number of cellphones in the world, the number of FaceBook pages, how kids think email is old-fashioned and how we need to fear The Holy Roman Empire, Japan, China, India, Singapore and Finland.

The wisest of all keynote speakers tell their audiences that the world has changed and that education has not kept pace. A few brave well-compensated speakers even go out on a limb and strike a courageous stance in favor of creativity! Sometimes corporate videos or zany YouTube videos are shown to accentuate their point.

I marvel at these presentations because:

1) They leave the audience unchallenged and unprepared to act in any way that would improve education.
2) The breathless “discoveries” from the future are available to anyone sentient being capable of reading a newspaper, watching Oprah or talking to a teenager on a public bus. Regular reading of Parade Magazine would make the sorts of revelations shared in many education keynotes seem ho-hum.
3) The future is spooky.

Recently, I saw one well-respected academic show this incredibly long Microsoft video predicting “life in 2019.” That video was followed by a statement about how in the year 2000 “none of us” were able to predict all of the technology we now have available in 2010.

Allow me to respond in three ways.

1) The Microsoft video offers almost nothing substantively different in its vision of the future from the Knowledge Navigator film John Sculley produced at Apple Computer in 1987. The only difference between the two films is 13 years and interface elements. (I’ve been known to ask grad students to cobble together their own Knowledge Navigator as a collaborative project.)

2) What do videos like the one produced by Microsoft have to do with education? I get it. Things will be cool in the future. What should I do Monday? How does what I do Monday lead to preparing my students and colleagues for the “Someday” presented in the video.

3) It is preposterous to claim that we could never have predicted the technological progress between 2000 and 2010. I cannot think of a single technology that has changed the way I work or live that I currently own that I was unable to imagine or even own in 2000.

In 2000:

  • I had a cellphone (Perhaps even with email access. I can’t remember precisely when my Sony Ericsson phone provided that)
  • I had a laptop
  • My kids had laptops
  • My mother-in-law had a Kodak digital picture frame we were able to send photos to via a dial-up net connection
  • I had an MP3 player approximately a year before the iPod and then I had every model of iPod since
  • I had wireless Internet access at home and work
  • I had high-speed DSL acces in my home
  • I made digital videos and composed music online (that goes back to the late 1980s)
  • I flew on airplanes
  • I had cable television (My family got HBO in 1973)
  • I owned a digital camera
  • I owned a digital video camera
  • My personal web site had been up since 1996
  • I could burn CDs
  • I had access to portable video projectors
  • I was in my 17th year of email and Internet access
  • I ran my first online collaborative learning projects with children eleven years earlier
  • I participated in my first online “un-conference” in 1985 or 1986
  • I had been working in 1:1 schools for ten years
  • I had been teaching online for five years
  • Our third class of online Masters degree students were nearing graduation
  • I flew in airplanes over great distances
  • I  loved Pop-Tarts then. I still love Pop-Tarts!

Even if the technological progress gap between 2000 and 2010 was enormous, there is almost zero evidence that it has made an impact on education. Yeah, I know. “Blogging changed your life. Your PLN saved you from social isolation…” Social media just doesn’t feel that new to me and I challenge you to argue that it has had more than an infinitesimal impact on classroom practice.

Future fetishism is just the flip-side of nostalgia…

Here are some thoughts by another education pundit…

Suggestions for school improvement:

  1. smaller classes
  2. a curriculum related to real life
  3. better teacher education
  4. teachers make room in the curriculum for the folk-tales of children’s ancestors
  5. parents encouraged to visit the school
  6. more intimate contact with people outside of school and cooperating with the entire neighborhood

New “Literacies”
We must keep the three Rs, but they must change with the changing social needs… Have we the courage to change our class education into democratic education?

The Need to Rethink Teacher Education
Train teachers differently… Can the training include the direction of young children in club life… the study of the home and street life? Should the training school period include work in the hospital for children, so that the teacher may actually learn what the physical needs of the children are and where to go for help?

Site-based Decision-Making
We must break the deadening influence of a too strongly centralized system; we must individualize the schools rather than mass them… What the school system needs to understand is that its strength lies, not in the strength of the central organization, but in the strength of the individual school, not in making one school like another, but in making each school a distinct unit.

Real-world Learning
We must change the notion that the school is a cloistered institution, by breaking down its walls and having it come into direct contact with people… It must use the factory, the stores, the neighboring parks, the museums, not incidentally, but fully and with deliberation.

High Standards/Learner-cententered Education/Personalized Learning/Differentiated Instruction/No Excuses/Global Competitiveness/Emotional Intelligence/PISA Scores/Accountability
We must change our attitude toward the child… I feel that the attitude toward the school and the child is the ultimate attitude by which America is to be judged. Indeed, the distinctive contribution America is to make to the world’s progress is not political, economical, religious, but educational – the child (is) our national strength, the school as the medium through which the adult is to be remade.

Angelo Patri wrote those words in A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A progressive educator’s pioneering vision for urban schools. The book was published in 1917! You should read this book. Teacher and school principal Patri, identifies and solves most of the problems facing education today in a book he published in 1917.

Recently, one edublogger suggested that “we should stop talking about 21st Century Skills and start talking about 22nd Century Skills!” That’s a swell idea. Now educators can wait 190 years before being expected to change their practice! That’s some balloon payment!

I have a suggestion. Let’s stop talking about the future and start doing something now! Generations of children have missed-out on rewarding educational experiences while we worry about how corporate meetings will be conducted in 2019. Sheesh!