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.

The ACEC Conversation Starts Here

In a bizarre and unexpected turn of events, I had a call from the good folk from ACEC a couple of days ago asking if I’d be interested in presenting something at the Friday keynote session. Apparently there was a spot available and someone suggested my name.  That was great news for me, since I really wanted to go to ACEC… not only does it sound like it will be an awesome conference, but there are so many people from my online world who will be there that I want to meet up with in person.  Naturally, I said yes.

The hard part is that I was told I can talk about whatever I like. That’s dangerous enough, but further complicated by the fact that I’ve been busy lately presenting some stuff for several other conferences and I don’t really want to just reuse the same stuff.  I realise that I’d be talking to a totally different group of people so it’s not the overlap that’s the problem, but I’d just rather come up with something specifically for ACEC.

My problem is that I’m such a dilettante and I tend to dabble around in so many different educational ICT-related things, that I have no real idea about what I might focus on.  And of course, Friday is the last day of what will doubtless be a pretty full-on conference schedule, so the chances of me saying anything intelligent about anything that hasn’t already been talked about by people way smarter and more eloquent that me is pretty slim.

I asked Tony Brandenburg from ACEC what he thought might make a good topic, or what gaps might exist in the program that perhaps hadn’t been covered.  His view was that although the conference has plenty of great stuff from lots of great people, much of that was from overseas visitors so it would be good to have a bit more of the Australian perspective.  “Just give us a brain dump of whatever is on your mind”, he said.

So, feeling a little daunted by the idea of it all, but really keen to have the opportunity to add something worthwhile to the ACEC conversation, I’m asking for some suggestions. If you read this blog at all, you know that I rave on about all sorts of stuff here.  If you were going to hear someone speak on the last day of the ACEC conference, what sort of things would grab your interest? If you could drop any thoughts you have into the comments below, that would be greatly appreciated.  I like the idea of a presentation for ACEC growing out of a conversation that starts here on the blog several weeks prior. To engage in some conversation here, which can then evolve into a presentation there, which can then be followed up with more conversation afterwards, seems to be a much more interesting way to do it.

I’m keen to hear what you’ve got to say… don’t be shy.