Tuesday, November 20, 2007

NYSCATE Closing Keynote

NYSCATE’s closing keynote this year featured two very well know speakers on Educational Technology. I was a fan of both coming into the keynote. I am not coming out, although I do still highly respect them both and will continue to follow both online.

Will Richardson
and Gary Stager took to the stage with a moderator and a series of questions. Will is well known for his blog and book on Blogs and Wikis. Gary is a nationally recognized speaker and has been a visionary in ed-tech for some time.

The questions were designed to put them at odds, focusing on issues that the two were known to disagree on. Everyone was expecting a bit of rough and tumble in the conversation.

It was played by both, although I heard “I agree with… but” way too many times from both of these gentlemen. Gary is very passionate and was compelling to listen to. Will was reflective and appeared a very good listener.

I can’t help but express that I disagree with Gary on a number of his points. He stated that “all curriculum is bad”, suggesting we operate our schools without curriculum. He was clear in his belief that we should give all kids computers without any consideration to the readiness of the teacher. I cannot state how strongly I feel that we cannot provide any guaranteed quality of education without a core curriculum. I do feel that curriculum contains too much content and should be more skill based, but to suggest that teachers work with no curriculum and teach what kids might be interested in, might be current, might work, or what might spark the teacher’s passion with no clear path is irresponsible.

Will talked about teachers effectively modeling good use of technology and be comfortable in an understanding of how a particular technology works before implementing it in a classroom. Gary doesn’t care if the teacher even has a computer. Gary’s thinking can only lead to inconsistent education for our kids, lack of alignment, and the schools with the most money and resources getting the best teachers and giving kids more opportunities.

Will’s approach is more cautious. I agree with him that school needs to expand beyond the when and where we have kids in front of us and that time may even be able to shrink. Yet we still need to be their guide. Teachers need to know a clear path of what it is they want their students to be capable of accomplishing and guide them in the process to learn the skills they need. Teachers need to create the opportunities for learning and discovery and a place where they can make “safe mistakes”. If teachers do not understand the way students are doing their work, they cannot teach them safe, effective, ethical, enjoyable ways to learn. We need to stop worrying about the content, and allow students to discover and create the content while learning skills. Teachers cannot do this if they cannot model and guide the students. They cannot come close if they have no clue as to the environment they expect kids to do accomplish things in.

I also did not agree with Gary that all kids need to learn more about how the computers they use work. He made it clear that he feels they all need to understand how the computers were programmed. Personally, I do not think this is at all essential. Just as many of us have no idea why our cars run when we turn the key, why our televisions show us pictures, or why our refrigerators keep our food cold; we do not all need to understand how to create a word processor that will allow us to move text the way we want.

The conversation between Gary, Will and the moderator was civil and ended peacefully. It did what it needed to do, and that was to make me think. This was a great end to a conference and the fact that I am home writing this less than 3 hours after arriving home is testament to that. Thanks to both Gary and Will and the NYSCATE organizers as well.

See the Keynote at:


Fred Delventhal said...

Hey Teacher,

Thanks for your reflective view on the closing keynote. Any and all of the bloggers at any of the sessions add a perspective that those of us not at the conference can appreciate and use.



Gary said...


Thanks for your blogs.

Please allow me to clarify a few points.

1) It is not the role of the school to get teachers a computer. It's nice if they do, but I thought I was quite clear that school resources should first and foremost be dedicated to serving kids. I also said that giving computers to teachers "first" (as if 25 years late can still be considered "first"), is a bad idea because it does little to affect classroom practice - at least in a learner-centered fashion.

These comments were also within the context of discussing how critics of OLPC are often through American school-colored glasses and calls for specific professional development activities were absurd in countries where children may not even attend school. (see the Ustream for more details on this point)

I explained how teachers need to see learning with computers through the eyes and screens of children before they have any motivation to develop their own skills and shift their practice. They cannot do what they have not seen AND it has been a quarter century since computers have arrived in American schools. How much more pandering should we do to teachers who have steadfastly refused to learn as more than a generation of children have passed through their classrooms.

I was even specific on how schools who provide machines for teachers ahead of the students often focus PD on counterproductive experiences. (again, see video)

2) I did not say that all students need to understand "how the computers they use work. He made it clear that he feels they all need to understand how the computers were programmed."

I did say that it is unconscionable that children are being denied rich computer science experiences and that learning to program is not only a powerful intellectual activity necessitated by work in the hard and social sciences, but that it grants the highest level of agency over the machine to the learner.

I wonder why the edtech community so hostile to children learning to control the technology so central to their lives? Why prevent children from learning computer science? Isn't it a legitimate domain? How can the ISTE Standards have the audacity to talk about creativity and problem solving in the abstract and never mention computer science or programming?

Why would you deprive students of some computer science education over twelve years of public school?

3) How's the alignment going? If alignment was the goal how do you explain how such efforts have failed time and time again? How does the the quest for alignment explain teachers being the only segment of the population allergic to computers?

I am deeply committed to diversity and social justice. This is precisely why I TRUST TEACHERS to determine what their students need to learn, based on their individual needs, interests, experiences, talents and the world around them.

I truly believe that curriculum, the arrogant notion that some group of unaccountable anonymous adults far from the learner should determine when anyone else should learn something specific in a proscribed fashion, is an obnoxious idea. That universally accepted idea leads to many, if not most, of the dysfunction in our schools.

If that suggestion is too radical, consider my friend Brian Harvey's advice... "Take half of the curriculum, any half, and get rid of it."

4) I will repeat a sentiment I shared during our conversation. Blogging and the over-emphasis on the computer as information appliance contributes little to math, science and the arts. The computer holds much greater potential for knowledge construction and access to information is a trivial aspect of learning.

Sandy Wagner said...

Gary, thanks so much for the response. I wish I had the chance to have a conversation with you following the keynote.

You have clarified a number of points for me. I am still not sure I would throw away curriculum entirely although I would wholeheartedly agree that it is far too focused on content and not skills. High stakes testing has led our teachers and administrators to fear the risk of teaching anything other than what is on the test.

We are truly challenged to find new methodology to our teaching and even more challenged to get teachers on board. Again, I would agree completely that teachers are permitted and even encouraged to maintain the status quo which has proven to be inadequate in preparing our kids for the future we face.

As you said, school need to be much more about our students and not about teachers; about learning, not teaching.

Thanks again Gary.