May 25, 2024

Please Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

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!

21 thoughts on “Please Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

  1. And in 2001 I noticed in my new school’s server logs that the most popular sites were Asian Avenue, Black Planet and Mi Gente — ethnically flavored social networking sites. Which struck me as kind of retrograde compared to blogging.

  2. Brilliant!

    “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!”

    I am in 100% agreement with you on this post and this idea. Thanks Gary.

  3. Perhaps we wouldn’t hear so much about PD as a time-wasting activity if your excellent keynote critique spread through the PD circuit. The most effective conferences always find a way to send folks home with an “I can use this tomorrow” breakthrough in thinking, skills, or plans. Thanks for your fine post, Gary.

  4. I think the leaders in educational technology, as a whole, understand preparing children for the future is important. However, I believe we need more of the “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.” idea for the teachers in classrooms in front of kids. They are the ones that have the most impact. Let’s educate them on how to make a difference.

  5. Mary,

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m 1) against PD or 2) Think that a keynote speaker should provide tips and tricks. Neither are the case.

    I believe a keynote speaker should set a tone for a conference, sound a rallying cry and challenge or inspire attendees to continue learning in new ways when they leave the conference. The keynote provides a collective experience or provocation for all attendees.

    Too many conferences today are “headlined” by submarine-driving monkeys from a certain cable channel or the “75 Quick and Easy Classroom Computer Tricks” provider. “How to teach 3rd grade in the 3rd week of March with Print Shop” might be fine as a session at a conference (better at a local PD event), but it is not a keynote address. Practicality should be low on the list of priorities for a keynote. A bit of dreaming is a good idea as long as that dreaming is in our milieu.

    If you want a plate spinner or Pips Tribute Band to perform at a conference, that’s cool. Label it for what it is – entertainment. Put it on after the chicken dinner. It’s not a keynote address.

    I LOVE conferences. That’s why I continue to spend my own simoleons to attend so many of them, but I understand what a chore it is for the average educator to attend and therefore take my responsibility as an organizer or presenter quite seriously. If someone makes a sacrifice to pay their own way, get a sub, etc… the event should attempt to be mind-blowing and life-changing. If the attendees only get to go to one conference every few years, then you better make it good.

    Leave the mediocre authors of pop business books behind and introduce the assembled educators to the smartest most accomplished educators you can find.


  6. Thank you for taking aim at the redundancy of the keynote speakers. I wholeheartedly agree. Additionally, a colleague of mine was at a district training all about “21st Century Skills,” which consisted of a two-hour powepoint culminating in a quote from John Dewey. The fact that Dewey seems forward thinking over a century later tells us a lot about the current climate.

    As to the “22nd Century Skills,” Alfie Kohn wrote a wonderful piece of satire a few years ago on just this idea in Rethinking Schools. It’s behind a pay wall now, but here is the link:

    Great post: thanks!

  7. Andrea,

    I often tell audiences that 21st Century Skills are the skills rich folks wanted for their kids in the 18th Century.

    Collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking were covered in the first night of my teacher education course. When can we advance to the second class?

    As for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, what sort of wisdom should one reasonably expect to result from a “collaboration” between marketing executives at a few dozen competing high-tech firms. The fact that their hooey is so widely adopted by state-after-state is evidence of its banality.

  8. As someone who is ‘guilty’ of what you describe, Gary, I have a few thoughts…

    The first is that, of course we should be focusing as much as possible on ‘what you can do tomorrow.’ Practical job-embedded help always is useful. Depending on the breadth of the audience and/or the topic requests of the hiring organization, sometimes that’s difficult in a 30- to 60-minute keynote. I find, for example, that the narrower my focus, often the narrower my appeal is to the mass audience (which, of course, has a diversity of interests and needs).

    The second, however, is that we can’t just send people off to engage in specific work without also grounding them in the WHY of it all. Unfortunately, your assertion that educators all ‘get it’ by now doesn’t ring true with me. As much as I wish otherwise, I’M JUST NOT SEEING IT with the educators (all across the country) with whom I work. There still are PLENTY of educators (and others) who need the bigger picture, who need more detail about the WHY, not just the WHAT. I also concur with John Kotter’s statements that organizational leaders don’t do enough urgency-building or -SUSTAINING; often my keynotes are requested to follow up on and/or build upon earlier folks like you, Will Richardson, Ian Jukes, etc.

    Third, if I may humbly say so, I believe that your comments about the historical perspective are important but incomplete. Just because folks like you or Papert or Sculley or Patri ‘got it’ long ago doesn’t mean that the vast majority of folks did (or do). Like it or not, keynotes are aimed at the masses, either to get them moving or keep them in motion. Based on what I’ve seen the past 5 years or so, I think you are overestimating the existing knowledge base and/or felt urgency of practicing educators.

    My favorite speaking opportunities are ones in which I have multiple presentations during the day (and I usually suggest that if all I’m invited for is a keynote). I can lead with the big picture in a keynote. Then I and others have a chance to follow up later in the day and make it more concrete – to target in more specific ways to more specific audiences. Those usually are good days…

  9. Scott,

    Thanks for weighing-in. I think we agree on the big points. Allow me to respond…

    1) Nobody suggested you or any keynote speaker narrow their message. I am guided by the notion that I may never see the audience again and therefore have a responsibility to be prepare a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. I also attempt to be as broad as possible, while also reading the audience. That’s why one my most popular keynotes, “Ten Things to Do with a Laptop,” features examples from K-12 across subject areas. So while there is “something for everyone,” I also hope folks will try finding commonalities outside of their silo.

    2) It is folly to think you can “teach” an audience something substantial and practical in the duration of a keynote address. That is unless you think “Tony’s 75 Tips and Tricks” is a good idea for a keynote.

    3) OF COURSE the keynote speaker should share a rationale for what they’re presenting. That’s not what I see when folks show groovy marketing vignettes about the future without a whole lot of analysis articulated. I’m a big fan of theory, even in this age of anti-intellectualism. The keynote address should be ALL ABOUT THE BIGGER PICTURE.

    4) While I’m honored that you see yourself building upon my work, I do not think I share much with some of the other people “doing keynotes” in terms of perspective, experience or aspirations. If I’m seen as interchangeable with too many other people, then I’m not doing a very effective job of communicating my message.

    5) I certainly stand on the shoulders of giants. I have a lot of heros and sheros, many of whom I’ve been able to get to know and some work with. That’s because I bought myself a plane ticket and went to conferences. I know how much it meant to me as a young educator to have my mind blown by brilliant accomplished educators and nothing brings me greater joy than sharing those experiences indirectly by representing those who came before me and directly by creating events like

    6) We can debate/discuss why you’re not seeing folks who know enough about teaching and usually a whole lot less about learning. I fear we have a lost generation of teachers who have had agency removed from them and whose own teacher education focused on the low-level mechanics of crowd control and test-prep. How to fix teacher education is a much bigger topic. My perspectives might surprise you. I’m a mend it, don’t end it guy.

    7) I don’t point out Papert or Sculley or Patri to indicate that some people get it and others don’t or to ignore the enormity of the educational task before us. I do so because as Bill Clinton said, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” We can’t afford to keep ignoring and then rediscovering existing knowledge and techniques if we are in the learning business.

    8) I urge all clients to allow me to do a “Conversation with Gary Stager” session following the keynote at which I extend, defend and clarify topics discussed during the keynote in a more intimate setting. I’ve had these sessions last for hours and I’m always willing to “do the hang” whenever possible by being available and participating in social events. Extra breakout sessions are on the menu as well. I am beyond irritated by the keynote who gets shot from the airport to up behind the podium via pneumatic tube and then sucked out again 45 minutes later without having to interact with the assembled rabble.

    9) I sure wish conferences created opportunities where a bunch of smart people could have a public discussion of serious topics.

    Happy New Year!


    PS: I’m coming to Iowa for the first time next Fall. You’ll be able to see if I live up to my aspirations.

  10. Oh, Scott…

    I left out a very important point.

    Put the URL to the fabulous YouTube video in your online handout and let the audience members watch it on the way home. There should be a very high bar for showing other people’s videos during your presentation.

    It always seems like something a substitute teacher does.

  11. Thanks for taking the time to clarify and extend, Gary. Your responses to me and and Mary Johnson helped me better understand your original post. Much appreciated (and well said)!

  12. Hi Gary, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog posts and tweets. This post inspired me to comment, but I understand your main context might well be the U.S. K-12 system, and education conferences for teachers in this sector. I’m an Australian teacher – you visited our college in Melbourne last September but I wasn’t invited to your presentation/ workshop. In our almost higher-ed context, technology use and awareness of social media and networking for PBL is mixed. Some of our teachers are self-motivated learners, and many others are reluctant newcomers who have resisted / avoided change and reflection. I’ve seen the same patterns in Universities I’ve worked in as well.

    I spoke at our staff conference last year about social constructivism, and the opportunity presented by the challenge to integrate technology into our teaching for modeling/ experiencing the kinds of constructivist learning which we might want our students to experience. I’ve written more about this simple, obvious idea here: but I try to address the large divide which I, and your commenter Scott above, and many others see between teachers who self-direct to ongoing learning about pedagogies and technologies, and those who feel reluctantly compelled to ‘get on board’ the ship of change – which has for decades been simultaneously both docked, and sailing away. It’s a challenge to speak to the interests of both these groups in one conference keynote, thus the need you identify to linger and continue dialogue is important. It’s a good model for institutional PD as well.

    Thanks for your energy and work.
    P.S. We love Poptarts in Oz too, but they’re hard to find.

  13. I appreciate this post and the ensuring discussion. I definitely lean in Scott’s direction in terms of assuming too much of the average conference audience. When I was running our local ed tech affiliate, I actually stripped the keynote out of the program – because it seemed that we could never please the masses with whatever choice we made within our modest budget. We brought in excellent speakers, time and time again, but there were always complaints. So, after getting rid of the keynote, guess what we received? Complaints about the lack of a keynote. I think the problem is that most conference attendees – and I might fall into the same category myself – abide by the Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” definition of what a good keynote is or does. While I am tired of those very same videos, it never fails that a good segment of any audience I have been in will still ooh and ahh when they are shown. It just goes to support Scott’s opinion, but also to bolster Gary’s stance on teacher education and training. If we did a better job up front and also demanded better and more relevant professional development, we would have the savvy audiences that Gary craves. Until then, I think it is nearly impossible to provide one speaker to a group of any considerable size and expect that the presentation will be equally moving and equally effective for everyone. And I think that is why we often get the redundant and disappointing offerings that we do, because they are the fast food of the keynote community – a safe choice that most people will at least tolerate and that will produce the fewest number of complaints. That’s why you will forgive me if I often go with the only sure bet when it comes to keynotes – I’m rarely disappointed with sleeping in and getting the crib notes from my most excellent colleagues. Then I go find excellent presentations like those offered by the likes of Gary and Scott during the regular program.

  14. Gary – this is brilliant. You are so right. I work in the schools with teachers and students and not just preach to them what to do. It is my job to guthat are harming children. I love watching teachers change their roles and change the learning environment sto more of a “clubhouse” or “learning lab” experience. I do help schools create a shared vision so they have an idea on where they want to go. But they have to consider what they are going to do now so they can eventually get there.

    It is important to be and act in the NOW and today is important for our children. I work in high poverty schools where each day — each minute is critical. Too many poor children are dropping out in middle school. We cannot lose anymore because when they drop out at that young age, they are lost and become a statistic. I’m very lucky to work with schools and leaders that get it. I am learning so much from these children. They know more than we give them credit. I love “the child is our national strength.” Yes on rethinking teacher education. Yes on real world learning. Yes on your suggestions for school improvement. Thank you!!!

  15. Correction – one of my sentences got cut off – “It is my job to guide teachers in new roles as co-learners. It is difficult to watch situations that are harming children and not do anything about it.”

  16. As ever Gary, you are spot on, and entertainingly so. Although I worry a lot about the Pop Tarts.

    But there is a wider observation here: 30 years ago keynotes (in the multimedia age) would show an audience things that they were often not aware of. I guess the beginning of the end for this “let me show you – wow” era of keynotes was HyperCard. In very short order the “wow” of (for example) Voyager and Bob Stein gave way to “let me show you what I have done” from the an empowered audience. From that point, and so much more so now, many of the best ideas come from the bottom up – and initiatives like the TeachMeets over here in the UK are now booming as a result. The practitioners are getting on with the practice.

    What is curious is how slow many corporate presenters have been in their awareness of this zeitgeist. I imagine this is because too many corporations are built on incrementalism and managerialism – which blinds them to so much. Hence we get the depressingly off-message presentations you rightly highlight – with their interminable powerpoints, jaded videos, half baked tired data, and hackneyed “revelations”. They speak as though the 21st century is yet to happen. As these 20thC keynotes drone on, the Twitstream reveals a more lively and insightful debate in parallel. Like me, you watch this as you talk i’m sure.

    But lately i think the world has moved further yet. The audience are already exchanging ideas and practice and insights elsewhere and are seeking vision, direction and purpose. Suddenly that vision, direction and purpose seems to be (hurrah!) growing from the bottom up too. At the important WISE event in Doha last year (2010) for example there was a very clear sense that “the world is broken, let’s mend it with Learning, together” and the presenters who missed this urgency and purpose (perhaps in particular Cisco and Microsoft folk there) looked very out of step indeed.

    I am rather encouraged by all this – as no doubt you are.

  17. Gary – thanks for the great post. Like you (and apparently others) I’ve often sat frustrated through keynotes. I understand that a keynote is a difficult task – so many different backgrounds, subject areas and levels of experience/awareness to address. However, what I take from your post, and what often frustrates me with keynotes, is how the default line of argument is that the world is moving faster – like that is somehow supposed to encourage a transformation in teacher practice.

    I’ve walked out of a few keynotes in the last year, because I’ve seen the same content used by different speakers. I still don’t really know why a gorilla walking through a room in a youtube video is supposed to have me think about my practice differently. Or my other favorite – how many hours of video have been uploaded to youtube today. OK – we get it – there’s lots of stuff on the web – can we move on to discussing effective and engaging teaching and learning now?

  18. Great thoughts. Solutions? If we’re going to talk about today, let’s do that instead of just pontificating about the pontificating.

    Real World Question: How do we organize and structure a 4,000 person high school with a 25% rate of withdrawal and enrollment?

  19. Stephen,

    Thanks for the taking the time to visit, read and comment. I appreciate it.

    I agree with you. The lack of new things to show may be symptomatic of the same anti-intellectualism and “idea aversion” (Papert’s term) that creates the YouTube showing iPod counting keynotes you and I despise. Simply put, there are two few smart people thinking about powerful ideas and even fewer developing new products.

    Bill Atkinson and the HyperCard team were quite familiar with the work of Papert, Kay, etc… They said so publicly and in-print. There were powerful ideas behind Hypercard, even if its use in schools was purely accidental. Such wisdom and recognition of the shoulders on which we stand is sadly absent in both speakers and developers.

    True story – I was once hired by Davidson and Associates, the evil purveyors of Math Blaster, to lead PD sessions inside of the company on Logo programming in order to expand the programmer’s thinking about learning with computers. I SO wish I hadn’t cashed the check so I could prove that the house of Math Blaster paid me to teach Logo to its employees. Even a company like that once thought about education and product development, even if they came to the wrong conclusions.

    The biggest question of all is why anyone invites Cisco or Microsoft to participate at all. A few years ago, some poor schlub from Microsoft Bratlislava had to get up at a European Logo Conference and read from Redmond-produced slides about nothing at all germane to the conference and show a propaganda film about their “School of the Future” in the USA, complete with incredibly racist editing of scary-looking parents. My colleague went up to the conference organizer afterwards, asked how much Microsoft paid to ruin our conference, opened his wallet and offered an equivalent in cash to ensure that it never happened again.

    All the best,


    PS: I recently keynoted a conference in Europe and addressed the topic of the conference based on 20 years of experience leading the innovation being explored at the event. The other two keynote speakers (from the UK I must add) did card tricks for a much delighted audience and made little effort to actually address the topic at hand.

  20. Gary
    A very timely piece, I blogged about the same point some weeks ago ( I think the issue is not the video (Apple, MS, IBM, Cisco all guilty Eduporn producers) but the very structure of a keynote. It is simply an issue of “modelling”, our actions speak louder than our words or the Eduporn video about how many SMS kids in America send before breakfast.

    If you were asked by a school Principal to observe a teachers lesson and the teacher structured their lesson just like a keynote: for 60 minutes they powerpointed big ideas, watched a few videos, gave an extensive list of cool stuff on the web (because the students hadn’t noticed) then wrapped up with a simplistic scaffold and let the class loose. Would you give a favorable report to the Principal?

    Yet we are happy to bring hundreds of educators together at great expense to model the very pedagogies we cry are balked in the classroom?

    Ghandi said it long before technology : “You must be the change you want to see in the world”.

    Ben 🙂

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