Stop with the Widgets

On Friday, I will deliver a keynote address to my good friends in Illinois, at the IL Technology Conference for Educators (il-tce). I have attended and worked at this conference before, and I have made a lot of very good friends in Illinois.

The address will be called “Telling the New Story”. I’ll be telling some stories (loosely defined), telling what our stories should be about, and giving some hints on how to tell new stories designed to redefine our classrooms. But I’ll also be re-telling some stories.

For instance, I will likely describe how Hong Kong is encouraging project-based teaching strategies in its classrooms, that have long been places of regimentation. ..and how Singapore is attracting scientists to their country from all over the world, and inviting them into their high test score schools, because they desperately want to inject a culture of innovation and creativity into their classrooms.

All of this, while we seek to further standardize our curriculum, teaching practices, and technology programs. Think about it. Think about our children moving down a classroom assembly line, where we install reading on them, we install math, and install science on them. ..and at the end of the line quality control engineers, with their precision instruments, measure each widget to make sure that they all fall within the clearances of the blueprint specification — making sure that each child knows the same things, thinks the same way, and can solve the same problems.

This, of course, made perfect sense in an industrial economy where we needed a workforce who could work in straight rows, performing repetitive tasks, under close supervision.

But in a creative age, it’s not what you know that the same as everyone else that brings value to your endeavors.

It’s what you know that’s different, you think that’s different,
..the solutions you can invent for new problems, and
..answers you can assemble for new questions,

that bring value to your endeavors.

Let’s stop with the widgets, and start talking about preparing our children for a dynamic future, where almost anything is possible.

8 thoughts on “Stop with the Widgets”

  1. Hi David,

    Wish I could make your presentation. Sounds like it will be yet another good one.

    I fully agree with what you are saying, but how do you respond to the reality of Singapore and Honk Kong essentially having national education systems. We have 50 states, with 50 sets of standards, 50 different approaches to meeting those standards (and obligations under NCLB). How can we make a move as a nation to “prepare children for a dynamic future” (if of course someone at the fed level had such a vision) given the level of local control that districts have?

  2. A valid point, Jeffro. Both Hong Kong and Singapore are essentally city-states. Even though Hong Kong does have about the same number of students and schools as my state, North Carolina, they are in the geographic area of many of our counties. One of the comments I hear often, when working with educators in Scotland, was the awe they felt that we accomplished what we did, as big as we are.

    NCLB must either go, or it must be morphed into something that actually addresses the goals that it was sold on. But the key to making any sort of meaningful change in our education system is for the educators to tell a compelling new story about how exciting a 21st century classroom could be, and the possiblities that could arise from a generation that is educated in such classrooms.

    I wish us luck, imagination, and some good old-fashioned camp fires to tell our stories around. 😉

  3. Dave,

    In my recent visit to your country I was amazed at the focus on standardized testing. I can’t imagine dulling our students lives to nothing more than having their heads filled with content (much of which they can’t apply in real situations) and expecting them to not only stay in school but enter a flattened world that expects them to be innovative and adaptive to change. Where will the innovators come from. In my new position I work with all different types of people, from sales managers to graphic artists. My office is a melting pot of different skills and passions and when they all join together with a common vision it all comes together to meet the goals of our company. If we don’t educate children to become innovative and encourage them in all different skill sets our companys and organisations of the future are going to be dull and boring places.


  4. Dave – I think you’re a little simplistic with your views on NCLB. All it says is that students have to be proficient in reading and math. What that means is left to each of the states to define. There is nothing preventing your state from defining literacy the way you do. Further, there is nothing that prevents schools from making teaching and learning creative and fun. High Tech High is a excellent example. High achievement. Project-based learning. Real world linkages. Radical reconceptualization of school. The kids all do well on the test but there is no “teaching to the test” obssesion that concerns you.

    I think the other bigger point that you’re missing is that the business community is calling for the renewed focus on math and science. Your definition of literacy never appears once in Friedman’s the World is Flat. Nor in the National Academies Gathering Storm report. Nor in Tapping America’s Potential. Nor in the National Innovation Intiative. Instead, all of these reports call for a focus on teaching math and science. What further complicates your arguement is that the author of these reports aren’t politicians. They’re tech ceos and university Presidents.

  5. About 8 years ago I was contacted by 2 principals and 2 superintendents form an elementary school and middle school in Singapore. They were going to be attending a conference about 2 miles from my school and wondered if they could come observe. While they observed my cooperative group math lesson involving M&M’s and sorting and graphing and sharing thinking and modelling different ways to get the answer, they pulled out their video cameras and started filming the lesson from every angle and whispering and pointing and in general acting very excited. I was after school with them for 2 hours and at dinner the next night as they peppered me with questions about why I would have students work as a team and share their thinking to work out a problem. What did I do with the 8 computers in my room? Why did I teach a multi-age 4-6 class? A week later the emails started coming. How could they get their teachers, that totally ability grouped their classes to do problem solving like that? (11 – 5th grade classes alone – all ability grouped by class so class 1 was the 45 best at “The Test” they had in fifth grade and class 11 was the 45 lowest) They had showed the video at staff meetings and their teachers were not impressed. Now I read your post. It’s not my fault is it? : )

    The real story is this – during their visit I stopped them at one point and pointed out that earlier that same school year my school was rated as “Inadequate” on our ITBS testing results (they changed the label the follwing year to needs improvement) and these visitor’s schools scored in the high 90% – they were in trouble the year before because their scores dropped to the 94th percentile. The week before on the news – Singapore had scored the highest in the world for the second year in a row. Why would they want to do what I was doing at a school where at that time we were scoring in the 34th percentile?
    “Because our kids don’t think and solve problems like yours do – they don’t innovate, they reggurgitate. We want to develop thinkers.”
    Maybe they’ve done it.

    PS – I checked out the web page of High Tech High above – sure looks like your “story” to me.

  6. Larry,

    Thanks for challenging my thinking. It’s how I learn, and you are right in all of your statements. My argument with NCLB is not with the law, but with it’s implementation and effect. With little time to write, now, I’ll only say that to reshape our notions of reading, numeracy, and communication skills, will require us to tell stories that help us to reshape our notions of teaching and learning. That’s the purpose of my assembly line metaphor.

    As for the reports that call for more math and science? They may be write and I may be wrong. I don’t think so. Certainly we need more people who can solve practical problems involved in building better tools that help us to live better lives, and this requires a deep knowledge of how the world works and the language that describes it’s working — numbers. I simply maintain that producing people to who are inventive and creative in the process will require a different type of learning environment than the regimented classrooms that seem to have resulted from NCLB’s implementation.

    I’ll also add, that if you sort out the problems that are really vexing the world today, that offer the real threats to our lives and well-being, they are not problems of science and math. They are problems with our ability to get along, our ability to see the value and richness of other people and their cultures, and to celebrate our diversity. Where’s the social studies in all of these reports.

    The world is not an engine.

    It’s an organism.

  7. “I’ll also add, that if you sort out the problems that are really vexing the world today, that offer the real threats to our lives and well-being, they are not problems of science and math.”

    This fails to include health/medical issues such as Cancer and HIV/AIDS, which are certailnly “vexing the world today,” particularly in Africa.

    Climate Change, fuel usage and the like are also science issues. Not entirely numbers and formulas, but it’s a big part.

    Even having said all that, i agree with the larger point — communication is key, though one need not preclude the other. we’ve got to be able to read, understand and talk (ie, communicate) about science issues as well. in my mind, (sorry for the pun) — Daniel Pink gets at this issue really effectively in his book, A Whole New Mind. Have you read that book, David? If not, I’d be honored to ship a copy to you. My treat. josh

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *