My Annual ISTE Rant

Since the ISTE1 wrapped it’s annual conference last Wednesday I’ve been trying to write a coherent post of my experiences at one huge event. Something that would summarize five full days of conversations, presentations, crowds, noise, and activities.

But that’s not what follows. Instead this rant is a collection of impressions, reflections and disconnected thoughts.

For one thing, I’ve developed a real love-hate relationship with ISTE. I enjoy much of what goes on outside of the actual sessions. HackEd, a day-long, loosely organized un-conference on the day before the “real” conference begins, is probably the best part of the whole thing. A chance to talk with some very smart people about topics that go beyond “hot tech tools for today’s classrooms” (an actual session title).

On the other side, I have almost totally lost my tolerance for the “expo”. Gary Stager has long called it a boat show, with Audrey Watters using a less subtle characterization. But however you refer to the vendor floor, it’s difficult to walk through that giant hall, with hundreds of booths more resembling a carnival, and not question whether we are still talking about education and learning.

Especially when, on signs all over the Philadelphia Convention Center, we are told to thank the organization’s “Mission Sponsors”:

Two corporations who see classrooms as just another business (at least Samsung is upfront about it) and a third that sells what is my nominee as the all-time worst example of instructional technology. Ever.

Unfortunately, the marketing part of the conference doesn’t stay confined to that carefully guarded2 cavern of the expo hall. A large and growing part of the formal program are little more than commercials, sessions presented or sponsored by vendors, with many smaller companies now setting up in the lounges to push their products and distribute their tchotchkes.

So, where is the good stuff at this conference that makes the trip worthwhile? Start with the Poster Sessions (this year banished to the far reaches of the center, as far from “ISTE Central” as you could get) where I can talk with educators who are actually doing interesting and innovative things with kids. And, in some cases, actually talk to kids about their work.

In addition to HackEd, there are the hallway conversations with old friends and people I just met. Discussions over meals, snacks, and drinks with interesting, passionate educators that up until that point I only knew through their tweets, blog posts, photography or other contributions from my personal learning feed.

It’s those personal connections, along with the chance to get away from the day-to-day and visit an interesting city, that makes the trip to ISTE worth the effort and expense. And why you’ll probably find me making the trek to Denver next June.

  1. the International Society for Technology in Education

  2. Seriously, badges are checked to enter the expo but not to attend any of the sessions?

Do We Have Vision?

In his comment to an earlier rant about planning for a 1:1 program, Will asks a good question.

So, technology rollouts begin with a clear vision for teaching and learning first, with or without technology. The device should amplify your vision. So, does your district have one?


Well, we have a plan of sorts. It’s called the School Technology Profiles and lists the type of equipment that classrooms at each level should have (assuming the ideal budget situation). But that’s a shopping list, certainly not a vision for learning.

We have a huge committee, with members from IT, instruction and support, that meets once a month to discuss technology in our overly-large school district. But that’s more about a parade of reports from the various offices on their current work. Maybe some short term vision but very little about teaching and learning.

The superintendent has a project called Portrait of a Graduate, which is supposed to define the skills a student leaving our schools should have. Stuff like “Uses technological skills and contemporary digital tools to explore and exchange ideas”. But that’s the only mention of technology in a list of 27 traits most of which, as I’ve explained in other posts, would have been appropriate for a successful adult living in almost any of the past ten centuries. Not much vision there. For learning or the use of technology to enhance it.

Of course, the school board has their “Beliefs, Mission, Vision” page. Doesn’t every organization have something like this? It was likely assembled by a committee with representatives of all the “stakeholders”1, the result being a laundry list of inspiring statements strung together into something that says nothing. We’ll call it “vision”.

So, I guess my answer for Will is that yes, our district has a vision for teaching and learning. It’s muddled, antiquated, vague to those of us whose work it’s supposed to guide, banal sounding to the community, and not nearly far reaching enough to address the needs of students who are entering an increasingly uncomfortable world.

As to his other question about what I mean by learning… still working on that one.

  1. Although probably not more than one student, representing the most important “stakeholder” group

Understanding Data

We’ve been told that all students should learn to code, in part because business will have a lot of coding jobs to fill. (“1.4 million openings by 2020] but only 400,000 computer science graduates with the necessary skills to fill the positions”

Now, according to one report, we also need to have kids learn data analytics because… jobs.

By 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.

Here’s a better idea.

Rather than turning K12 schools into training academies for whatever industry is feeling slighted this week, let’s help students graduate with a good understanding of how the real world works. How code makes their magic devices possible. How data impacts their lives. How they can have more control over all of it.

In this case, that means a solid awareness of how all those little bits of information are collected and used, too often misused, by corporations, organizations and governments. Especially the personal data they themselves generate, knowingly and not, in and out of school.

Then we can worry about the staffing problems of the Oceans of Data Institute.

Improvised Learning

Gar Reynolds of Presentation Zen is a big fan of Bill Murray (me too!) and in a recent post calls attention to a discussion with Howard Stern 1 on how he connects with an audience and his experience with improvisational performance.

However, it was Reynolds concluding section that really caught my attention, first as it relates to students.

Public speaking and improv should be part of our education. It should not just be for a few students in the speech class or the even fewer students in the drama department. All of us can learn from the experiences with improvisation, and with performances such as plays and music, etc.

Outside of drama and speech classes, how many teachers actually encourage, much less tolerate, students who “improvise” in class. Improvisation implies more than one way of communicating ideas, more than one way of viewing the world, which often doesn’t fit with our standardized approach to education.

This idea of “state” is very important. Over time, with experience, you learn to put yourself into a different state when communicating before an audience. This is something that even experienced teachers do, perhaps without even thinking about it. Step by step, with experience, almost anyone can become much, much better.

Great teachers are also great improvisational performers, able to quickly adapt their approach and message to fit the needs of their students. However, this not a skill valued by all administrators, and in this age of scripted test prep, often as actively discouraged as student improvisation.

  1. of whom I’m not a fan

Gotta Fill Up Those Young Brains

Jay Mathews believes we are not teaching young children enough facts.

Before continuing I should note that I’ve spent most of my instructional time working with middle and high school students and adults, which means I have very few qualifications to pontificate on elementary education. However, there are a couple of thoughts in Mathews piece that need to be challenged.

First, he quotes the parent of a first grader and president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank.1

“Notice what’s missing,” Petrilli said. “Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents? People who study education for a living understand what’s going on — this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such ‘conceptual understanding’ over ‘rote facts and figures.’ ” He had found the kindergarten fare similarly mushy.

I can’t help thinking that if elementary teachers were able to do more with that “conceptual understanding” early, instead of all the drilling on “rote facts and figures”, kids might be better prepared for advanced study later in their educational lives. Not to mention less inclined to dislike school by the time they reach the middle years.

Of course, since the standardized tests that Mathews and the Fordham people adore so much depend heavily on kids being able to spit back the facts and figures, I understand the longing for stuffing the curriculum with more of them as early as possible.

Then there is this statement from Mathews himself: “But filling young brains with useful facts has to start early if they are to read.”

Again, I can’t speak to the process of how young children learn to read, but the concept of “filling young brains with useful facts” is straight out of the classic, simplistic concept of education as a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.

It’s an incredibly clueless idea, one still widely embraced by “reformers”. And one of the major impediments to ever bringing true reform to American schools.

  1. The National Zoo also has a “think tank”… for orangutans. I wonder which one gets more useful results. :-)