I’m a curious guy who wonders a lot about the forces and rhetoric influencing education. At the risk of kicking a hornet’s nest and incurring the wrath of being flamed, I wish to raise what I honestly believe to be an important issue. If you are unfamiliar with my work, outspoken opposition to the standards movement, commitment to equity or embrace of computers in education, I humbly ask you to consider the questions posed in this blog post in the spirit with which they are intended – to stimulate thoughtful professional dialogue or at least Google my body of work.

A handful of educators have been blogging now for more than a decade. Countless others have fallen in love with social media. They make conference presentations showing viral YouTube videos and lead Twitter workshops. There is more than an air of grandiosity that accompanies the use of the tools known collectively as Web 2.0. This self-importance is manifest in two ways.

  1. Frustration that every educator hasn’t joined the PLN/PLC/social network/Twitterverse/blogopshere, because “if they only knew what I know…”
  2. A few gazillion blog posts and tweets proclaiming the use of Web 2.0 as either already having transformed education or the prediction that it will transform education. A variation on this theme is the threat that social media will destroy, replace or delegitimize formal education.

Don’t shoot the messenger,  but I have a very serious question to ask.

In this era of heightened educational “accountability,” why are there so few, if any, demands being made for evidence of Web 2.0’s efficacy in schools?

I have my own hypotheses, but I would prefer to read some of yours.

Last evening, Charlie Rose interviewed Jack Dorsey, Chairman and one of the three co-founders of Twitter. Dorsey also spoke about his revolutionary new company, Square. I highly recommend you take the time to watch the interview linked below.

Many of you know that I have been teaching children to program since I was a teenager myself. Learning to program at around the age of 12 made me feel intellectually powerful and creative in profound ways. It wasn’t until I learned to compose and arrange music a few years later where I ever experienced similar life inside my brain. Being able to solve problems in more than one way and make something out of nothing but ideas was personally transformative.

My work in educational “technology” (really computing) has been driven by a desire to empower others and light a spark in the minds of children so they too could feel the exhileration that accompanies programming. I recently spent time teaching first graders to program on their personal laptops. I fight on against the anti-intellectualism of the culture, the shocking devaluation of computing by the edtech community and schools whose misguided priorities jam a kid’s day with less fruitful pursuits.

I’ve observed how programming has been relegated to quaint antiquity like butter churning and the edtech community shifted its focus away from empowering smart kids and towards smart furniture. Computer and the its active forms compute and computing have been stricken from the educational conversation; replaced by information and technology. The active has been traded for the passive.

Seymour Papert  said that there must have been a secret meeting (I’m guessing around 1988-1990) at which it was decided that we should deny children any working knowledge of the computers and related technologies so central to their lives. The Computing Teacher became Learning and Leading with Technology. Classroom Computer Learning became Technology and Learning, now Tech & Learning. (See how even the words become more diminutive?) ISTE dropped the C in its earlier title and the National Educational Computing Conference is gone too. Worst of all, we have gone from arguing over the best programming language to teach children to a generation of youngsters who have no agency whatsoever over the computer.

Everyone wants their child to make Bill Gates’ money, but they don’t want them to learn to cut code.

Programming has at best a mad-scientist patina painted on it by the popular culture, or at worst the misanthropic portrayal in The Social Network.

Despite it’s curricular invisibility, it’s impossible to argue that computer science has not had an enormous impact on every other field of endeavor or aspect of our lives.

The edtech community’s love affair with social networking has not made it easier for those of us advocating computer science experiences and S.T.E.M. for young people. I do not ascribe a sinister motive to any person or community. It’s just a reality that 1) the education community seems to have great difficulty thinking about two things at once 2) people enjoy talking to their friends and colleagues online 3) schooling is at least 90% focused on language arts 3) too many believe that education is about the transmission of and access to information 3) blogging and tweeting are simply easier than learning to program. New pedagogical strategies and teacher expertise are also required.

Not only that, but becoming a good programmer is like becoming an artist, musician, dancer or scientist with all of the effort, deliberate practice and investment of time we associate with those pursuits.

Back to the Jack Dorsey interview…

Did you notice that I said that being a good programmer is like being an artist or scientist? Whoa! Wait a minute! Hold on there! What would Dan Pink say?

In the worst book of the 21st Century, Dan Pink asks readers to suspend their disbelief and accept a premise that science and technology are not only the enemies of creativity, but American superiority. In his dumbbell theory of left brain vs. right brain we are urged to take a stand against the dominance of analytical thinking in favor of creativity – as if they are mortal enemies. Anyone who has ever engaged in serious acts of creativity or scientific inquiry, knows that the cognitive processes are indistinguishable. Merely declaring “Thinking is good” would make for a very short book.

The notion that the focus of schools has been lopsided towards science and mathematics is pure bullshit, but that doesn’t stop from Pink urging his readers to right the ship of education before Liechtenstein takes all of our jobs.

It is the creativity of engineers and scientists that makes the mass-customization of products and innovations, such as Twitter, possible.

Jack Dorsey’s interview is just specimen #397,214,862 disproving the claims of Pink and other phrenologists. Dorsey is the complete package – a good looking, well-spoken, thoughtful, rich (we LOVE those qualities) programmer (sound of breaks squealing) who has changed the world.

In the Charlie Rose interview, Mr. Dorsey speaks poetically about his love for programming and how it not only allows him to create new products like dispatch systems, Twitter and Square, but also helps him make sense of the world.  His interest in the life of cities as complex systems led him to programming and programming led him to create Twitter.

Two critically important ideas emerged during the Rose/Dorsey interview.

The first powerful idea is that computing (programming) requires and develops computational thinking. Computational thinking – the ability to approach complex problems from a variety of perspectives and express solutions formally through code and to engage in debugging processes when things don’t work as intended – should be a major part of every young person’s education.

The second powerful idea Dorsey addressed was elegance. Great artists are known for their embrace of elegance and stripping away of the superfluous. Elegance is mission critical for programmers and computer scientists. Once a programmer solves a particular problem, the artistic side requires them to make it more elegant and the engineer side requires greater efficiency. The “hacker ethic” challenges programmers to make their programs shorter or reduce the number of instructions. The limitations of memory and processor capacity also require such elegance when performing a task a nano-second faster can pay enormous dividends or mean the difference between success or failure.

CHARLIE ROSE:  And your strength is writing programming?  

JACK DORSEY:  My strength is programming.  I also think my biggest
strengthis simplification.  That’s what I love doing.  I love making
somethingcomplex.  I love taking everything away, taking all the debris,
the conceptual debris from a technology away so that you can just focus
on what’s most important.  

So I see myself as a really good editor.  That’s what I like to be.
When I edit a technology, I want to edit a team, I want to edit a story
so that we have one cohesive product that we tell the world...

...So edit that to one, to get rid of all those inputs and edit to one
cohesive story, one single thing we’re saying to the world and that’s
what we do with product.

Wow! Storytelling AND programming AND design AND business savvy. Quick! Someone resuscitate Mr. Pink!

Twitter succeeds because of such elegance being brought to the user experience as well as behind the curtain. There may be no better way for children to develop an eye for such elegance than by learning to program computers.

Towards the end of the interview, Charlie Rose asks Jack Dorsey to make a Pinkian choice in declaring his identity. Dorsey will have none of it.

CHARLIE ROSE:  Are you by -- at the core, primarily a software
programmer or are you primarily an entrepreneur who’s simply wanting
to ask the right questions which will lead you to the next business?  

JACK DORSEY:  I think I’m a mix.  I love building technology, I love
programming.  I love building teams.  And I also love building
beautiful things.  I love art, I love design, and I love seeing that
intersection of technology and the teams that work on it.

What are you and your school doing to create more learners like Jack Dorsey?

There is a lot of other good stuff in the interview, including Dorsey’s refusal to talk about “devices” interchangeably or predict that “smart” phones will replace laptops, but you can watch for yourself.

Click to watch the entire interview

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National Public Radio’s terrific talk show, Talk of the Nation, interviewed US Education Secretary Arne Duncan this morning and sent out a tweet asking for questions worth posing to the Secretary. I immediately tweeted back a barrage of questions and the host asked a paraphrased version of one the most innocuous questions I submitted.

If goal is raising opportunities & achievement for all kids, isn’t RACE for the top an unfortunate metaphor? (1 winner, many losers)

Engaging in critical debates about Federal education policy in 140 characters is a challenge, but not impossible.

The following are the other questions I “tweeted” to Secretary Arne Duncan (in reverse chronological order) via NPR’s TOTN:

How would Sect. Duncan to respond to the report card given him – A for efficacy and D for policy?

Isn’t firing all of the teachers and charterizing public schools a right-wing utopian fantasy?

Where does Sect. Duncan think the magical teachers & perfect schools will come from after he fires teachers and closes pub schools?

Did you ask Duncan what he thinks of Diane Ravitch’s research disproving the basic assumptions of Obama education policies?

Given the Gates Foundation’s expensive school reform failures, why do they have so much influence within the Dept. of Education?

If you’re a parent in Harlem, should be concerned that nearly all of the local public schools have been turned into boutique charters?

Why should public school facilities be surrendered to private charter school operators?

Which is true: a) The Chicago Public Schools are a mess & failing children b) We should trust Sect. Duncan to do the same for America?

Should Americans be alarmed that most major city districts and the Dept. of Ed are now run by unqualified non-educators?

If goal is raising opportunities & achievement for all kids, isn’t RACE for the top an unfortunate metaphor? (1 winner, many losers)

Why has a “Labor” administration worked so hard to bust the teacher unions across the nation?

The New York Times article, Who’s Driving Twitter’s Popularity? Not Teens, punches another whole in the ageist nonsense known as the digital immigrant/digital native BS. That bogus theory fetishizes youth culture and allows middle-age adults, primarily educators, to say, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” in an act of self-loathing and anti-intellectualism.

“The traditional early-adopter model would say that teenagers or college students are really important to adoption,” said Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis at comScore. Teenagers, after all, drove the early growth of the social networks Facebook, MySpace and Friendster.

Twitter, however, has proved that “a site can take off in a different demographic than you expect and become very popular,” he said. “Twitter is defying the traditional model.”

In fact, though teenagers fueled the early growth of social networks, today they account for 14 percent of MySpace’s users and only 9 percent of Facebook’s. As the Web grows up, so do its users…”

I wrote about this issue long ago in Tech Insurgents: Do your teachers need a computing IEP? and Digital Native Theory Further Disproved.

However, billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban had the definitive word on the alleged digital generation gap.

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