Stager takes the Stage

The main keynote on the Friday of ACEC 2010 was Gary Stager, a man who has a reputation for calling a spade a “bloody shovel”.  He did a morning keynote, as well as a “soapbox” session in the main hall where he held court and treated anyone who would listen to the world according to Stager.

I’m not totally sure what to make of Gary Stager.  I heard him speak for the first time at ULearn last year and I was pretty impressed by what he had to say.  That probably shouldn’t sound so surprising since the guy has a long history of working with schools to do some pretty innovative and constructivist things.  He was a consultant at MLC Melbourne, Australia’s (and the world’s) first 1-1 laptop school. He was a student and personal friend of Professor Seymour Papert, in my opinion one of the world’s most influential educational thinkers.  And he has some really forceful opinions about what works and what doesn’t work in education.  I admire his intensity and his conviction.

This intensity and conviction can sometime comes across with a high and mighty arrogance though, and his talks can sometimes feel like being bludgeoned with a blunt axe.  There is often a sense of sensationalism in the things he says, and there is rarely any gray between his black and white viewpoints. He seems to have a handful of things he feels really passionate about and is like a dog with a bone in promulgating them, often to the exclusion of everything else.

On the one hand, it’s a good thing because it is confronting and makes you think about the issues. Although his arrogant approach tends to piss people off a bit, sometimes people need a bit of pissing off to force them into getting off the fence and taking a side. A keynote speaker probably should be a bit confronting and prod people with ideas that force them to think and evaluate things that perhaps they haven’t thought much about. In that sense, he does a great job.

On the other hand, some of his sweeping black and white statements can be very dismissive, even outright rude. If something is not part of Gary’s world view, he tends to sweep it aside and treat it with absolute contempt.  At ACEC especially, he was very vocal about any idea that didn’t fit with his version of how education should work.  It gets a little tedious after a while, and you end up feeling gloom, doom and a sense of hopelessness about, well, almost everything.  Name a topic outside of Lego or programming, and it’s likely that Gary will dissect it and strip it to pieces, telling you why it’s rubbish and is counterproductive to education.  It really is a bit wearing after a while.  I came away from his keynote feeling like nothing we are doing at school is any good at all (which is nonsense of course).

I like many of the things Stager has to say, and I think he has some powerful insights. I totally agree that there are many things about school that need to be rethought and reinvented.  He’s right about a lot of things, but he also seems pretty narrow minded about a whole lot of others.  He spins a good conspiracy theory, and clearly hates certain technologies, especially IWBs. But he also chooses examples that highlight the poorest possible uses of these technologies and then holds those up as some sort of “best practice” to be critical of.  Sure, it’s easy to be critical of something being used poorly, but that doesn’t mean that the thing itself is bad, just that the given example is one of it being used badly.  One could probably find poor examples of 1-1 laptop usage, poor examples of students working with programming and so on.

I could cite an example of almost any technology being used poorly and an equal number of examples of it being used really well.  Like Gary, I also see the enormous value of learning with constructivist tools like Lego, the value of students learning to program, the value of students learning about computing science. But I also believe that there is room for a wide range of technologies for learning.  There is no one single answer, no single technology for helping kids learn.

There is always room for a bit of open-mindedness in education.

PS: I just noticed that @Steve-Collis has posted the UStream video of Gary’s keynote, so here it is if you’d like to take a peek. Thanks Steve for recording it, and thanks Gary for allowing it to be recorded.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Stager takes the Stage by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

24 Replies to “Stager takes the Stage”

  1. Chris
    I watched his presentation by Ustream and couldn’t agree more. I found his interpretation of DER as ignorant rather than arrogant. Just because Uncle Kev didn’t make a personal call to him about 1:1 laptop programs doesn’t mean the research hasn’t been done. The program director of DERNSW spent several months touring the world looking at educational technology programs including the 1:1 Michigan Laptop projects. Our technology support team leader was intimately involved in the London Grid Project. Plus all the research and consultation the team has done in the life of the project.

    DER in all systems has delivered a range of digital tools including netbooks and internet connectivity to schools (many that without funding could never dream of either). Equity is one of its greatest characteristics. Project based learning occurs in the classroom structure not the technology so I’m not sure what his point was there.

    Reading the Tweets & Blogs from #ACEC2010 I found it concerning that the participants viewed themselves as victims of a system with no sphere of influence. Yet reality is the opposite, teachers and leaders who work with their students and community have full control of their context.

    a little more research required before he bangs on next time me thinks…

    Ben 🙂

    1. Hi Ben,

      I’m not sure that I’d agree with you when you say that “teachers and leaders who work with their students and community have full control of their context”. I get the impression from talking to many teachers and leaders that they feel there is a great deal that is out of their control, and that is being thrust upon them. They may have some control, but “full control”? Maybe a stretch?

      What’s your response to Stager’s criticism of the DER in regard to kids getting underpowered netbooks that are crippled with access restrictions and limited by an overly locked-down network? is that valid?


      1. Chris
        Sorry my comment was meant to be “within their context”. We have always been victims of our context, English & Math are very political PDHPE are the surrogate parents TAS are financially starved but resource dependent, Creative ARTs are undervalued, etc. Then we have the context of out governing departments and local community. Compounded by getting a new curricula every few years usually about the time we just become comfortable with the old one. These challenges are nothing new, what is new is that we have been begging for more funding and technology in schools and have been given it. Within these contextual factors schools do have full control, but in history we have never had control of the context that is just part of being a teacher.

        As for his views on the device, wait a few hours and you will see my latest post on the “Utopian Learning Device”. As for the filter I think it’s important to note schools like yours that have only porn level filtering are very rare. I speak to CEO/AIS teachers all the time that have stricter filters and or cannot request filter changes. NSWDET teachers can request a filter change that usually takes less than 24hrs. The filter is constantly being reviewed but as Rodger pointed out we are the subject of a vocal electorate. A parent complained to the media and minister when her child Googled ‘swallow’ and found birds without feathers (read between the lines). On the positive Internet is free to schools to consume as much as they want, something I don’t hear from CEO/AIS schools many of whom have to limit bandwidth to meet budgets (although I understand CEO has recently come to a national agreement).

        Ben 🙂

    2. Hi Ben,

      What specific research are you pointing too? Maine’s 1:1 program has been touted as a success but its based on a very short term research design. As an educator (i’m guessing) i’m sure you can agree that justified pedagogical tools take a long time to validate. Most of the research concerning 1:1 laptops has been done in a relatively short amount of time with no real longitudinale studies as to their effectiveness.

      If a full review of the literature is present (I’ve seen the DERNSW literature and its not very comprehensive), I’m sure you would find a lot more people would be critical of the wide spread implementation. Being critical is good for the system, it will inspire change and that is very important.

      1. Jim
        I work for the DERNSW team and we haven’t released any DERNSW literature? I assume you are referring to either the Curriculum Directorate 1:1 Literature Review or the Information units Literature Summary of 1:1 literature. Both these documents are intended to make the limited available literature accessible to teachers. Since this some really good additional research you might be interested has been done at I have tagged all the open 1:1 research in our delicious tags:

        My point was not about specific research but pointing out that Gary who ranted that out that DER was based on no research that significant research had been undertaken not just by the DERNSW team but all states and systems. I feel Gary was happy to cash his keynote cheque but not do his research.

        As you have pointed out the 1:1 research is quite porous which is why DERNSW is undertaking its own research project run independently with University of Wollongong. We have just stated to collect base line data to base a 4yr longitudinal study. Obviously as with everything DERNSW it will be open content to be shared. Even without research we are getting some very significant anecdotal data on engagement and attendance.

        Ben 🙂

  2. I personally found his presentation refreshing, though I of course did not agree with all he had to say.

    His reference especially on the stupidity of a National Curriculum was worth the whole ACEC2010 conference!

  3. Despite Gary’s comments on National Curriculum, in a country as geographically big as Australia, there is a place for a national curriculum. Having (as a kid) moved through 5 education systems, none matched up either in pedagogy or delivery and I could find myself (and this happened) in Grade 3 in one state, Grade 5 in another and Grade 4 in a third state.

    There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a National Curriculum in terms of a method of content delivery. there is something wrong when this is tied to testing as a way of identifying the less than able student and making teachers’ lives a misery as a result of that.

    1. Agreed Dom. I think the concept of a National Curriculum makes a lot of sense, and there is a need for some degree of standardisation so that at least we don’t end up with examples like you mention above. It would also be useful to think that whatever credentials we end up with at the end of schooling they are recognised all over the country. We are both too big and too small for the fractured approach we have right now.

      I just hope that we think hard about the we we structure what goes INTO a National Currulum, and don’t get all hung up on specific content. If a new NC gives us a flexible framework and a path to follow rather a set of rails to run on, it will be a good thing. If it’s overly prescriptive and too focused on defined content it may just come back to bite us later.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I am in the midst of writing a few things about all this at the moment.  I find Gary refreshing – I understnad your concerns about the way some may see the message as doom and gloom though.  From spending some time on Friday with him I observed a man who loves education and just wants to see the best for kids.  He spent a great deal of time talking with folk afterward and engaging in constructive conversation about a wide range of issues. 

    His critique of technologies comes from an educational philosophy that he holds close and to me makes sense.  I am sure you would agree that we see time and time again good teachers being flooded with so many things that they never do 1 thing well!!  I see his message saying that we need to focus back on what matters.  Understand that we do this for the betterment of kids and not get caught up with the latest and greatest.  I am yet to see a gr8 use of iwbs… I would be happy to have one in my school if everything else was covered, but fail time and time Again to be shown any value for $$ and how they help kids!

    Our mass systems in oz have not rolled out a 1 to 1 program with any substance and they could have done a lot better gaining advice from Gary or those who have done this for a long time.  I am pretty sure Gary suggested folk spend time with schools like MLC before making these decisions!  He loves this country and loves education… His warnings should be listened too… We have a disaster in the making with Gillard and co!! National curriculum has failed the world over and she is taking advice from those who have created that failure.  A national curriculum maybe a nice theory but it needs a fresh approach for it to work! 

    More to come… Enjoy the conversation!!

    1. Hi Brett

      Could you please clarify the basis upon which you make this assertion:

      ‘Our mass systems in oz have not rolled out a 1 to 1 program with any substance and they could have done a lot better gaining advice from Gary or those who have done this for a long time.’

      Just how much do you know, for example, about the DERNSW project and what it has delivered?
      Are you aware of the extent of infrastructure provision, the huge range of available software, the accompanying dollars for professional learning an the technical support for schools?

      The program, it’s co-ordinator and the DET CIO have been regarded internationally as achieving a hugely significant outcome.

      Is this a program without ‘any substance?’

      And, yes, it was achieved without Gary Stager’s input, but with full support of the Secondary Principals’ Council of NSW and buy in from huge numbers of teachers, school staff and students statewide.

      Shooting from the hip is all very well, provided that the gun is loaded with fact.

      1. Sure well $$ spent equate to nothing suvstantial so far… Here is just a few issues…
        1) roll out was of under powered second rate machines
        2) you expected these devices to last 4 years!! Not going to happen
        3) teacher training and pedagogical training was minimal
        4) the department have a block policy instead of educate policy when it comes to access and content

        I am yet to see great educational outcomes… These judgments come from talking with teachers and students in the program!

        Do you perhaps work for the department?

        1. Hi Brett

          Yes, I do work for the ‘department’ and have done so for 32 years. That’s clearly evident in my Twitter profile and in my website links. If you are inferring that my career history predisposes me to be an apparatchik for the ‘department,’ then I’d be very happy if you scratch around some more.

          Your points 1-3 are all contestable, and subjects of conjecture.
          1. Under powered is, after all, a relative term and is a judgement made on the basis of what analysis?
          2. Whether the machines last 4 years is clearly yet to be seen.
          3. The deal in NSW provided probably the highest level of funding available for professional learning as a percentage of the unit cost. Rather than a blanket ‘training’ approach, we have sufficient flexibility to try a range of approaches. I was in Melbourne at ACEC to provide a clear view of what that approach has looked like in one DET region in NSW, because I’m very proud of what we have achieved.

          In terms of outcomes, I’d be very happy to show you a large number of schools where great things are happening, where very real shifts are happening in terms of teacher buy in and resultant pedagogical shifts. Once again, examples and statistics were on display in Melborune to support this assertion.

          4. The block policy you refer to may be regrettable. It is, however, reflective of a policy environment which is strongly influenced by the need to respond to the concerns of an entire electorate as opposed to managing to educate a single community at a single school. Once again, I have been on record in many many presentations and blog posts etc as strongy asserting the need for educators to be authoritative contributors to the debate. Bear in mind that ‘the department’ also operates in a policy environment which is also seeing plans for national filtering positively considered by the electorate.

        2. Brett
          By the approx middle of this year every high school will have a wireless network in every learning space. Approx 70,000 laptops went out to yr 9 last year, and another approx 70,000 are being rolled out as we speak. The creativity and productivity software on the laptops open a wealth of project based learning and creativty opportunities, software that was previously financially unaccessible in most schools. Many of these laptops are going to families who have never had a computer in their hosehold or students have never had a dedicated personal laptop/computer. $6m went straight to schools for PL and $4m in support directly available to schools with much more to come. Bandwidth to schools has been increased. Every school has a dedicated technology support officer to provide support so the teacher can be a teacher not a computer mechanic. Oh yes and this all started in the middle of 2009.

          In my conversations with teachers and students accross the state, teachers have responded in amazing ways to what has been a challange for all. Maybe read my post:

          So yes your right in only 9 months not much substantial has happened at all…

          Ben 🙂

  5. I will agree to sit and wait for the results. Hopefully, it is as amazing as you say it will be. Please send me the links to what is going on!! As for the blocking policy – I find it quite strange that you would simply put that down to “what the electorate want” I would question if the electorate has actually been informed as to what is going on and what the options are. The national filtering system actually does not have the support of the electorate, most polls are showing overwhelming support to block the Conroy bill. If our parents were informed, I am sure most of them would agree that educating kids is better than blocking them. There is a huge number of teachers in your system that constantly complain about legitimate educational sites being blocked!! Oh and FYI – apparently Gary Stagger’s site was blocked by the DET in NSW and SA at one stage – not sure if that is still the case. We wouldn’t want people having access to information that presents an alternative view to that of the department?!?!

    1. I think we’ve canvassed some different points Brett. I’d ask, though, that you re-read my comment regarding filters, and not simplify it to the extent you have. There are very different contexts operating.

      And, in terms of tolerance for other points of view, why is it that many people could not be employed at your school, and many like them, because of atheism, or varied faiths?

      ….’ At King’s we choose staff not only for their qualifications and experience relevant to their particular field, but also for their Christian character. When positions become vacant, we welcome applications from suitably qualified and experienced Christian people. When applying, in additional to your professional qualifications and experience, please provide a reference from your Pastor / Minister or other evidence of your Christian life.’

      My point is: we all accept that the context in which we work may prescribe some ‘givens.’

  6. Well I am not sure where I was not being tolerate of others views… I simply engaged in the professional conversation! The low blow of trying to link tolerence to my employers employment conditions is irrelevant… They are open about that as they wish to inform parents!! Parents choose the school being informed of

    Yes we are in different contexts but we both have the same aim to educate kids the best way possible! Oh and my school that doesn’t tolerate others views…. We don’t block we educate and encourage kids to engage in conversation and debate!! We also aim to educate parents and don’t engage in government fear campaigns!

    1. Why? Let’s bit get into public V private debate… I am interested in education as a whole!!

        1. Don’t know off the top of my head… But it is a low fee school…. With a large number of students on fee relief… Guess that blows the – “rich school” argument away?!?! Still interested in why u asked the question – is it relavent to our discussion here?

  7. Brett and Roger,

    I appreciate the passionate discussion you’ve got going here, but I’m not keen to see it just become a back and forth slanging match (which it’s starting to verge upon). I respect you both too much for that. While I’m happy for you to keep the discussion going, please play nice and respect each others viewpoints, ok?

    1. Fair call Chris. I don’t intend to get into a slinging match just an educational discussion… I will leave it at this.. Please send me the examples of great
      practice happening!!

  8. Hi Chris,

    Getting back to your summary of Gary Stager, you are both spot on and very diplomatic. I first saw Gary at ACEC 2004 in Adelaide and had to officially thank him for one of his talks at ACEC2008 in Canberra. I followed the twitter stream of his keynote at ACEC2010. He is certainly very consist in his view, and that is what worries me.

    I cannot remember who said it but I recall reading once that the best measure of a ‘life long learner’ is not how many degrees they have, or how many course and conferences they attend, it is how many times they change their position or opinion on certain subjects. It is when you realise that you were wrong, or that you didn’t fully understand something, and now you understand it better…. this is how life long learning should be measured. By this measure Gary Stager’s consistent hatred for IWBs (and many other things) and his unwavering support for all things constructionist despite the research (ref Hattie 2009 – Visible Learning) doesn’t really mark him as a successful life long learner.



  9. labdien lurkers

    you guys haven’t quite got it. the keynotes went like this. alan november with what is possible, michelle sellinger, sivia martinez on how to do it, tom march on some dangers involved and gary stager on lets get on with it.

    in my view, when seen as a continuum, it was a brilliant piece of presentation planning by acec committee.

    and if they wanted to end with controversy so we keep talking, well done. there were as many tweets 24 hours after the conf as there were during it.

    hats off to all concerned.

    c ya

    numbat mark

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