A Not-So-Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future

© 2004 Gary S. Stager

Published by the NECC Daily Leader conference newspaper on June 22, 2004

The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.”  (Daniel Hillis, 1998)

This is an incredibly dark period for education. Perennial challenges are now accompanied by name-calling and public policy based on “getting tough” with third graders. Perhaps decision-makers just don’t know what learning in the digital age could look like. They need to see how kids not only learn old things in new ways, but construct personal understanding of powerful ideas in a rigorous computationally-rich fashion. Computers are today’s dominant intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression.

Computers offer kids the means of production for learning via previously off-limit domains, including: music composition, filmmaking, robotics, computer science, journalism and engineering.

If only there were a place where compelling models of new educational practice could be shared… Welcome to NECC!

A few years ago, educators ceased talking about computing and started talking about technology. Suddenly computing, this remarkable invention of 20th century ingenuity, capable of transforming every intellectual domain, was dead without so much as an obituary. Conference speakers soon spoke of computers being just technology – like a zipper or Pez dispenser. This rhetorical shift liberated educators from learning to use computers, rethink the nature of curriculum or change practice to embrace the expansive opportunities afforded by computing. Information became the focus, not what kids do with computers.

In the mid-1970s my junior high required every 7th grader to learn to program a computer in nine weeks. The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. I didn’t know what was impossible so everything was possible. The computer amplified my thinking and the habits of mind I developed in Mr. Jones’ class serve me every day.

Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak enjoyed similar experiences. Imagine how the world would be different if some smart adults had not procured a mainframe and some terminals and said to Gates and Wozniak, “See what you can figure out. Have fun. Lock up when you’re done.”

How do your children’s school computing experiences compare? Do all students have access to creative tools anytime anyplace? Does the school culture inspire a thirst for knowledge and support authentic project-based work?

We’ve lowered standards when twelve year-olds in my junior high are NOW being taught to find the return key in a mandatory keyboarding class. Someday they may be “taught” to surf a filtered locked-down crippled Web incapable of downloading, rich media or collaboration all in the name of preparing them for the future. Some future.

Adults talk of how kids know so much about computers, how they are so competent, confident and fluent. Then those kids come to school and are treated like imbeciles or felons. Kid power is a gift to educators. We need to build upon those gifts and channel their students in directions they might not know exist. If kids came to school readers, we wouldn’t grunt phonemes at them. We would read better literature.

When many of us first attended NECC, we viewed the personal computer as not only a window on the future, but a microscope on the past. We knew how all sorts of learners exceed our wildest expectations when equipped with computers and constructionist software. Personal experience illuminated how the existing pencil-based curriculum was failing kids. Optimism filled the air.

Look around and you might conclude that the state-of-the-art includes: classrooms as game shows; data mining to justify standardized testing; reading as a winner-take-all race; and hysterical network security. “Technology” is being touted as a way to centralize control and breathe life into the least effective teaching practices of yore.

Widespread consensus is hard to achieve, especially on complex matters like education. Nonetheless, the educational computing community seems to have decided that our children should look forward to a future filled with testing and Microsoft Office instruction. Tests about Microsoft Office could achieve two national goals.

NECC attendees are pioneers entrusted with helping schools realize the potential of the imagination machine and as Gladwell suggests serve as the 10th Fleet in revolutionizing the context for learning. Go home and share the fabulous ideas you collect here in the Big Easy, but remember that the kids you serve expect big things from you and it won’t be easy.

I’ll be in Philadelphia from June 26-30th for the annual ISTE (formerly NECC) Conference. I have presented at all but one of these conferences since 1987 (also in Philadelphia). Over those 24 conferences, I’ve presented somewhere between 50 and 75 presentations and workshops. Being part of the keynote event at the 2009 NECC remains one of the highlights of my career.

Many of you know that I have been critical of the ISTE Conference program over the years and find the exhibit hall to be a vulgar distraction, but I would not miss it for anything. Why? Because I have dedicated 29 years of my life to using computers in ways that amplify the human potential of each child and this conference is the largest event in the field I love

ISTE is always an exhausting whirlwind. Please stop by one of the following sessions and say, “hi!”

The 5th Annual Constructivist Celebration

June 26, 2011 – 8:30 – 3:30 PM

Maggiano’s Little Italy
For the fifth consecutive year, this day-long workshop combines fun, creativity and computing. For a very reasonable $60, you will receive free creativity software worth hundreds of dollars from the world’s best school software companies, breakfast, snacks and lunch, and a full-day workshop led by Gary Stager and other members of the Constructivist Consortium. It’s always a sell-out, but right now there are still a few spaces left to join in the fun, so register today – you won’t regret it!

At the end of the day, Sylvia Martinez of Generation YES moderate a conversation between Will Richardson (author and king of  the edubloggers) and Gary Stager on “Digging Deeper” which is sure to be fun and thought-provoking.

SPOTLIGHT:  The Best Educational Ideas in the World: High-Tech Learning Adventures

Tuesday, 6/28/2011, 2:00pm–3:00pm     PACC 103BC
Gary Stager, The Constructivist Consortium
Join us on a tour of the best education ideas in the world! Lessons learned en route create the productive knowledge construction contexts required for a rewarding life. This presentation is a sneak peek at a forthcoming book from Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

The Fix Is In: Social Mobilization and School Reform (Model lesson)

Wednesday, 6/29/2011, 10:15am–11:15am       PACC 119B
Carl Anderson, East Metro Integration District 6067 with Scott Schwister and Gary Stager
Citizen journalism is a growing phenomena empowered by Web 2.0 technologies. Learn how to use it in your classroom to empower students.

SPOTLIGHT:  LOL@ISTE: Unlocking Your Potential to Laugh

Wednesday, 6/29/2011, 11:45am–12:45pm   PACC 201BC
Saul Rockman, Michael Jay, Roger Wagner and Gary Stager
The usual collection of punsters, jokesters, storytellers, and really terrible singers strives to explain why technology is so important in education and life.  Recommended by ISTE’s SIGGS

SIGTC Forum: So You Want an iPad? K-20 Implications and Integration

Tuesday, 6/28/2011, 10:30am–12:30pm PACC 103A

Camilla Gagliolo, Arlington Public Schools, and Craig Nansen, Minot Public Schools and Gary Stager will speak. Recommended by ISTE’s SIGTC

This PDF contains a schedule of sessions addressing creativity and computing by friends of The Constructivist Consortium.


I am a finalist to be a keynote speaker at this June’s International Society for Keynote debate at NECC 2009Technology in Education Conference (ISTE) in Denver.

This is quite the honor!

aThe other finalists are Peter Reynolds, Chris Lehmann, Alan November and Jeff Piontek.

Please vote  here (http://bit.ly/3nvfV9)

Voting ends on Friday January 15th. Don’t miss out!

Should I be concerned that I got to keynote NECC the very year that they are killing off the brand? Was it something I said?

I admit that I scared senseless when I was invited to be on today’s NECC keynote panel just a few days ago. I never participated in a debate before and not only was this morning’s debate in front of an enormous real and virtual audience, but I was on the silly side of a preposterous proposition. That said, I relaxed a bit yesterday during our technical rehearsal and wrote my 5-minute spiel until after 4 AM last night.

Please read my last post regarding the keynote preparations if you haven’t already done

While cooling our heels in the Green Room, the national debating champ assigned to our team asked if he could read my notes. He was deeply concerned that I would violate many debating rules and several laws of nature. Meeting and “working with” a consummate professional like NPR’s Robert Siegel was a great thrill. They don’t make ’em any better than him.

Once the debate began (did you notice that I wore SHOES?), I relaxed a bit even if I hate relying on a prepared text. I said what I wanted to say and needed to step on some applause in order to keep within the strictly enforced five minute rule. During the early moments of the first combatant, Michael Horn, I noticed that the countdown clock was not working. When hand gestures failed to get the A/V staff’s attention, I text messaged the NECC organizer from the stage – probably a first. I also couldn’t help Twittering during the keynote, but I was encouraged to do so by NECC.

Once again, I am grateful to all of you for your applause, tweets, support and lobbying efforts on my behalf. My grad students woke up at 5:30 AM on the West Coast in order to chat during the session. I am most honored

Most of all, I am grateful to my pal Donella Evoniuk, the Wizard of ISTE, who runs NECC. Her charm, competence and grace are unparalleled. She takes my calls, listens to my complaints and understands that I only want to make the premiere event in our field better. Most of all, I thank her Donella for her behind-the-scenes support when I know that many of her colleagues view me as kryptonite or an escaped mental patient!

So as promised, the following is the text of my opening remarks during this morning’s keynote debate.

I want to thank ISTE for this great honor.

It is not the brick and mortar schools that are the problem. Glibly dismissing schools as irrelevant does great violence to the millions of children who lack any alternative.

The problem lies with the philosophy that built and manages so many brick and mortar schools.

We can do better.

Things need not be as they seem.

This community and this conference were once synonymous with progressive education, but sadly that is no longer the case. Too many of us have spent the past eight years reacting to mean-spirited political fantasies while blindly using technology to support No Child Left Behind and other medieval educational practices.

We took our eye off the ball by focusing on nonsense like data warehousing, checklists and computerized testing.

We know better. Wondrous things occurred when creative computer-use bestowed agency upon learners.

We were once excited by the remarkable opportunities computers offered for children to learn new things in new ways unimaginable even just a few years ago.

However, depriving children of the richest possible educational experiences when we know better shows the bricks and mortar of our souls.

Every technology has its affordances and constraints. You might think of the classroom as a technology consisting of a box containing 25 little desks and one big desk.

If it is indeed true that schools will have less of a monopoly over children’s time over the coming years, then it is critical that we identify what physical schools ARE good for.

Perhaps school is where you find world-class science labs and pottery kilns and electron microscopes and great orchestras, theatrical productions and dance classes while stuff you can do at home is done at home. Unfortunately, the very things that make physical schools viable in the future are the first things to be stripped from the curriculum.

Much of what is called virtual education is really just bad teaching done on the cheap. Most of what I have seen offered as online courses for students doesn’t rise to the level of a mail-order correspondence course. There may be no lectures, but there is no deep learning to be found either. Teachers don’t know their students and the pedagogical emphasis is on product over process.

Don’t tell me that online education delivers individualization. The concept of delivery is itself the enemy of learning. Individualization is not customizing the pace of the multiple choice tests, but knowing the child well enough that you can build upon their interests, passions, strengths and desires.

Don’t tell me that socialization will be jeopardized if children learn online when the number one infraction in schools is… talking. Schools can be the most anti-social or non-social environments while online environments often pit students against curriculum without any socialization whatsoever.

Don’t you dare tell me about your online field-trip to Belarus when your students no longer visit the firehouse. If your idea of project-based learning is students burping into Voicethread because that’s all they can accomplish in a 42-minute period, then you are not ready for the virtual world.

I’ve spent the past FIFTEEN years teaching online and I constantly strive to create learner-centered, project-based, collaborative, non-coercive environments in which students learn through a community of practice. I will be sharing strategies for teaching online in this room at 11 AM. My students create extraordinary work and learn tons from each other and the world, but only because I am committed to creating the sorts of productive contexts for learning online that existed once upon a time in the best primary classrooms. This requires a willingness to change everything.

19 years ago THIS week I began leading professional development in world’s first laptop schools. The point of giving children personal computers and teaching them to program in Logo was to decentralize knowledge, demonstrate how children can be sophisticated learners and to change the relationship between teachers and students. Age-old curricular structures, bell schedules, teaching roles crumbled when teachers saw what kids were capable of through the screens of their students.

I never imagined that 19 years later we would be fastening giant pre-Gutenberg technology to classroom walls. The priest chants while the monks take dictation on their tablet PCs. Don’t “interactive” white boards require bricks and mortar while reinforcing the dominance of the front of the room?

My friend and colleague, Seymour Papert wrote….

The phrase, “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a skinner box.

Papert’s words are as true today as they were when he wrote them in (Teaching Children Thinking) in 1971. Without dramatically higher expectations and the creation of more productive contexts for learning, there will be no difference between brick and mortar schools and whatever the future holds. That would be a shame and our children will be the losers.

Prepared portion of my closing summation:

I just found this 1983 issue of The Computing Teacher, the predecessor to Learning and Leading with Technology. The complexity and sophistication of the articles is astonishing. I can’t believe that we got teachers to do this stuff.

I know what you’re thinking. How many teachers actually did that stuff? Probably the same percentage who can figure out how to use their clickers or white boards today.

If the level of resistance to change remains constant, no matter what we ask of teachers, then shouldn’t we raise our expectations substantially?

Our network policies treat teachers and children as either imbeciles or felons. How many of you are unable to use your classroom computers in educationally sound ways because of a network policy created without your input?

We install iPod labs so that children can be marched down the hall once a week for iPod lessons. We chain laptop computers to desks and don’t allow children to take them home. That’s the point of a laptop. You cannot blame such stupidity on four walls of brick and mortar. The blame lies within the bankruptcy of our imaginations.

Note: There is a ton of other “stuff” before the video of the debate actually begins. I may put a properly edited version online in the near future.

The strangest thing happened today (6/25/09). I was invited to be part of the keynote debate and dialogue at the National Educational Computing Conference in Washington D.C. this coming Tuesday, June 30th. This is a great honor indeed.

My fellow debaters include Cheryl Lemke, Michael Horn – author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” & Brad Jupp, Senior Policy Adviser at the US Department of Education. The session will be moderated by Robert Siegel of National Public Radio. The other NECC keynote speakers are best-selling authors Malcolm Gladwell and Erin Gruwell. (I read Gruwell’s terrific book in 1999 and brought her to my university in 2001)

I have been assigned to argue the affirmative case in the preposterous resolution, “Bricks and Mortar Schools Are Detrimental to the Future of Education.” Teaching online for fifteen years should provide some insight into the topic.

Since I’ve never debated before, I figured why not try it front of thousands of people? After presenting at twenty-two NECC Conferences, I guess the folks at ISTE figured I didn’t need more than a few days notice to prepare.


This opportunity might not have been possible without you and my friends in the “Blagosphere.” You tweeted, sent letters to ISTE on my behalf and signed my shamelessly self-serving petition. Scott Floyd was particularly tenacious and generous in his support. I am most grateful for your kindness and advocacy. Even Satan (petitioner #117) wrote a glowing reference on my behal

There is no way to know if these efforts resulted in my 11th hour invitation, but it doesn’t matter. I am humbled by your support and take my mission seriously

I fell in love with educational computing (not technology) in 1982 because I was excited by how computer programming made me feel intellectually powerful and creatively expressive. I realized in the mid-70s how computers not only held promise to help kids learn what we have always taught, but more importantly created opportunities to learn new things in new ways unimaginable even a few years ago.

Working with brilliant colleagues like Seymour Papert helped me appreciate how computers could amplify powerful principles of progressive education and make school better places to learn

That’s why I pay my own way to attend NECC each year. I believe in the importance of community and know that computers can make a positive difference in the lives of children. I remember when educational computing was inseparable from progressive school reform. I am a romantic who remains optimistic that the largest educational computing conference in the United States can be an incubator of powerful ideas and move make learning more meaningful for children and their teachers.

My well-publicized criticism (and here) of NECC’s parent organization, ISTE, is rooted in my desire to enrich our community rather than vendors and help ISTE realize its potential.

I am not just a cranky critic, although I make no apologies for lamenting the unimaginative nature of the NETs or the escalating fad-chasing exemplified by the NECC program. For several years I edited ISTE’s Logo Exchange journal, was a founder of an ISTE SIG and I recently contributed to an ISTE book about 1:1 computing. You might be surprised to learn that I signed the charter that created ISTE in 1989.

The NECC Keynote Debate will be streamed live on the World Wide Web at 8:30 AM (Eastern), Tuesday June 30th and archived online afterwards.

Please submit a question online for the keynoters to answer. You may direct a question directly to Gary Stager (via the online form) if you wish for me to speak during the Q&A portion of the keynote. You may also ask me questions directly from the floor of the hall at NECC.

I also hope you will consider attending my two NECC sessions:

Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments
Tuesday, 6/30/2009, 11:00am–12:00pm WWCC Ballroom B
Learn how you can transform your learning environments. Learning adventures is a pedagogical strategy for modeling noncoercive active constructionist learning online and in real classrooms. Recommended by ISTE’s SIGIVC

1:1 Critical Debates: Laptops, PDAs, Cell Phones
Panel discussion with Bruce Dixon, Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, Susan Einhorn and Sharon Peters
Wednesday, 7/1/2009, 1:30pm–2:30pm WWCC 207 A
Laptops, PDAs, iPods, Cell Phones–are they sufficient for 1:1? Join the debate on policy, equity, and implementation issues surrounding 1:1. Recommended by ISTE’s SIG1to1

The NECC keynote is unbelievably exciting but, the upcoming Constructing Modern Knowledge institute, July 13-16th promises to be the greatest undertaking of my professional career. There are still spaces for last-minute registrants. Please check out the once-in-a-lifetime program at http://constructingmodernknowledge.com