Rufus T. Firefly
President: Huxley College

I often explain to graduate students that I don’t play devil’s advocate or any other clever games. Just because I may say something unsaid by others, does not mean that I don’t come to that perspective after careful thought and introspection.

Being an educator is a sacred obligation. Those of us who know better, need to do better and stand between the defenseless children we serve and the madness around us. If a destructive idea needs to be challenged or a right defended, I’ll speak up.

My career allows me to spend time in lots of classrooms around the world and to work with thousands of educators each year. This gives me perspective. I am able to identify patterns, good and bad, often before colleagues become aware of the phenomena. I have been blessed with a some communication skills and avenues for expression. I’ve published hundreds of articles and spoken at even more conferences.

People seem interested in what I have to say and for that I am extremely grateful.

The problem is that I am increasingly called upon to argue against a popular trend. That tends to make me unpopular. In the field of education, where teachers are “nice,” criticism is barely tolerated. Dissent is seen as defect and despite all of my positive contributions to the field, I run the risk of being dismissed as “that negative guy.”

Recently, I have written or been quoted on the following topics:

I’ve also written against homework, NCLB, RTTT, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, Joel Klein, standardized testing, Education Nation, Common Core Curriculum Standards, Accelerated Reader, merit pay, Arne Duncan, union-busting, Cory Booker, Teach for America, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, mayoral control, the ISTE NETs, Hooked-on-Phonics, President Obama’s education policies, etc… You get the idea.

The “Jetbow” sandwich at NY’s Carnegie Deli

These are perilous times for educators. When once bad education policy was an amuse-bouche you could easily ignore, it has become a Carnegie Deli-sized shit sandwich. Educators are literally left to pick their own poison, when choice is permitted at all. If I take a stand against a fad or misguided education policy, my intent is to inform and inspire others to think differently or take action.

So why, pray tell am I boring my dear readers with my personal angst? An old friend and colleague just invited me to write a magazine article about the “Flipped Classroom.” Sure, I think the flipped classroom is a preposterous unsustainable trend, masquerading as education reform, in which kids are forced to work a second unpaid shift because adults refuse to edit a morbidly obese curriculum. But….

The question is, “Do I wish to gore yet another sacred cow?” Is speaking truth to power worth the collateral damage done to my career?

In the 1960s, the great Neil Postman urged educators to hone highly-tuned BS and crap detectors. Those detectors need to be set on overdrive today. I’m concerned that I’m the only one being burned.

What to do? What to do?

I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I’m against it!

Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!

Whatever It Is, I'm Against It
by Harry Ruby & Bert Kalmar 
From the Marx Bros. film "Horse Feathers" (1932)


peter-garrett1In the current world of education policy, nothing succeeds quite like failure.

Traditionally, Australia’s newly elected Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, “should” be pro-teacher and public education, but in a strange twist of politics much like the way Obama treats public education, she too will do irreparable harm in the name of meaner tougher “reform” and greater accountability.

Gillard LOVES all of the failed educational policy fantasies of her buddy and mentor Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools – merit pay, Teach for Australia, standardized testing, public reporting of deeply flawed teacher accountability measures, insulting and shaming educators.

Now, just like President Obama, Prime Minister Gillard has now pointed someone with dubious credentials to lead the nation’s schools. Arne Duncan played basketball for the Launceston Ocelots and other defunct Australian basketball teams and Australia’s new education minister is wait for it – Peter Garrett.

If that name sounds familiar, you may recognize Education Minister Garrett in this video.

Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, reports the following about Garrett’s appointment and qualifications.

THE minister pilloried for mishandling the $2.45 billion home insulation scheme, Peter Garrett, has been rewarded.

Julia Gillard has handed him the prestigious education portfolio.

Despite expectations Mr Garrett would be dumped from cabinet, he received one of the biggest promotions in the ministry, progressing from being an environment minister with diminished responsibilities to become Minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth…

The school sector was cautious over the appointment, with some concerned Mr Garrett’s environmental stance would align him with the Greens, who oppose government subsidies for private schools; others questioned his ability to manage the schools portfolio, given his problems with the home insulation scheme.

Opposition frontbencher Peter Dutton said he was “absolutely amazed” Mr Garrett had been rewarded. “He’s presided over deaths and fires in a program that probably has been mishandled like no other since federation,” he told Sky News.

Doesn’t this sound eerily like Arne Duncan being promoted to Secretary of Education after the spectacular job he did of “turning around” the Chicago Public Schools?

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following is the abstract for my new keynote address:

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

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

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

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

Resources related to my upcoming keynote address:

Greetings from Australia!

Karl Fisch’s latest blog, Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?, and a horrific current event inspired me to mine the Stager Archives for another old article (originally published in 2007).

I witnessed a horrific spectacle last night. Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister, Julia Gillard, was a contestant on the Aussie version of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Yup, that’s right – an accomplished attorney and Deputy Prime Minister was a shameless combatant in this nationally televised trivia porn.

You MUST watch this 10-second clip!

I know what you’re thinking, my fellow Americans. Does Arne Duncan have what it takes to demonstrate his intellect on pressing questions like, “Which wood is cricket bats made of?” (That was in the 5th PLANTS category)

Is Plants an actual subject area and if so, is it important to know how cricket bats are made?

Deputy Prime Minister Gillard is another in a long-string of accomplished thoughtful professionals whose intelligence drops in half when it comes to matters of education. Ten months ago I wrote about her crush on American public education saboteur in the Australian publication, Crikey. Educators can learn nothing from Chancellor Klein’s visit Gillard is pushing a national curriculum, standardized testing, data-driven decision-making, school ranking and other equally despicable fantasies across her nation in the name of educational quality. She embraces the worst of American trends in public education with two fists.

I will be enormously sad if the Australian teacher unions capitulate on such matters of importance as have their American brethren.

Gillard is also advancing a plan called The Digital Education Revolution under which Aussie schoolchildren may or may not gain access to a personal computer. The most objectionable aspect of this plan is the fact that I am less than an hour’s drive from one of the first schools in the world where every student got a personal laptop computer nearly 20 years ago. In fact, I led professional development at that school 19 years ago! It was the stated policy of the state government in 1990 that by 1991, every child would have a personal laptop computer.

It’s depressing that every 20 years we need to have a revolution to do what we promised to do 20 years ago. Such bureaucratic amnesia proves Stager’s Second Law of School Reform:

Educators will continue to invent what already exists, each time with diminished expectations.

In any event, here is the February 27, 2007 article I wrote for The Pulse.

Is Your State Commissioner of Education Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

Tonight, the Fox Television Network will perform a great public service. TV will demonstrate to millions of households what some of us have known for years. Much of what school teaches is utterly useless nonsense.

Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, Susan Ohanian and Alfie Kohn have long proposed that politicians and business leaders imposing educational standards and high-stakes tests on children should be forced to have their (current) scores on the same tests published in the newspaper. Quick! Name an official with the courage to do so!

While the Miss Crabtree generation laughed at a pie in the face. Fox hopes that the MCAS/FCAT/STAR/TAKS generation will yuck it up to Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader; a light-hearted confection celebrating the humiliating prospect of an adult being “outsmarted” by a kid. If the show is successful, it will be expose the dirty-little secret of American education – school curricula is focused on trivia.

Trivia is the fuel that propels game shows. Some game shows are based on chance or physical prowess, yet some of the most enduring ones are based on “knowledge.” Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy “test” the knowledge of contestants, but what sorts of knowledge are being assessed? Successful contestants combine rapid twitch reaction with spelling, vocabulary and memorization of esoteric factoids. Understanding, experience, talent or effort is not required and therefore unmeasured. That stuff may not be quick, relevant or prone to multiple-choice questions.

The appeal of Game Shows is that the viewer thinks, “I’m smarter than that guy!” Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader ingeniously plays on our fear of appearing stupid and the schadenfreude we enjoy when someone else looks like a buffoon.

I can hardly wait for “State Department of Education Week” or “Business Roundtable Showdown” on Are You Smarter that a 5th Grader!

sample question from the program web site

Do we agree on what it means to be “smart?”

There is an unfortunate paradox in play here. What many of us see as the dumbing-down of American education is now being sold to the television audience as intelligence. Where American Idol (the lead-in to …5th Grader) celebrates perseverance, talent, individuality and personal expression, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader rewards being a smart-aleck and implies that education is a zero-sum game.

The incessant quest for one hundred percent of students to be above the norm reduces schooling to a contest with lots of losers and no exciting cash and prizes. Teachers who camp out in-front of conference booths selling multiple-choice clicker systems hoping to use such technological goodies in their classroom should think about the consequences of their lust. Classrooms are not game show sets and teachers should be more than game show hosts.

However, it should be noted that Jeff Foxworth, host of …5th Grader, is an accomplished artist who has spent more than twenty years perfecting his craft and entertaining millions. Regardles of whether you enjoy his brand of humor, he has a unique style and a strong sense of self. No memo will cause him to change his style or tell a joke he doesn’t think is funny.

By the way… Have you heard the latest Jeff Foxworthy joke? You might be a redneck if you let some anonymous bureaucrat bully you into what and how you teach.*

Oh, I love that joke!

Game shows are one way we escape from thinking. Is the same true for 5th grade?

*That’s not really a Jeff Foxworthy joke and should not be construed as a slur against rednecks. I made it up.