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.