Imagine the Possibilities

I recently gave this keynote at the EdTechteam Cape Town Summit, titled “Imagine the Possibilities”. I’ve actually given this talk a number of times at Summits and other events all over the world, but this is likely the last time I’ll use it, so I’m posting it here just for posterity.

Technology is amoral

I’ve been asked to present a keynote and workshop at the National Education Summit in Melbourne in August. The organisers of the event wanted to do an interview and ask a few questions as a way of promoting the event, which I did via email. This has been published elsewhere, but I thought I’d crosspost it here for the record.


1. What are some of the important messages for teachers in your presentation ‘The Track of the Storm’ at the National Education Summit in Melbourne?

The title “Track of the Storm” was inspired by Part 3 of Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”. The book opens with the famous lines …

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

As soon as I read that opening paragraph it instantly resonated with how I see technology impacting us today. We continually see amazing new technologies being used to solve seemingly impossible problems, connecting people globally in ways we could barely even imagine a few years ago, and offering endless opportunities to democratise knowledge so that everyone has the opportunity to share and participate.  At the same time, these tools we have created have also enabled a unprecedented polarisation of political and social worldviews, created oceans of fake news and online vitriol, and have provided a powerful platform for some of the worst aspects of humanity. 

Essentially, technology is amoral. It is neither good nor bad. It neither loves nor hates. It neither empowers nor destroys. It simply enables and amplifies that which we use it for.

2.  In your view, what are the most significant emerging challenges for schools and teachers when considering the impact of digital technology use in classrooms and schools generally?

Many schools think about technology in term of tools and applications, hardware and software, in order to enable learning. And while that is certainly a conversation that needs to be had at some point, I think it’s far from the most important one. Too often, I see schools seeing technology as some sort of panacea that will fix all their problems – if only we can choose the right platform, the right devices, the right apps – then we can succeed with technology. But remember, technology is amoral. Unless you rethink a few things, it will just give you more of what you already have. 

The biggest challenge facing most schools, in my opinion, is their general inability to question the status quo.  To step back and ask some fundamental questions about learning, about teaching, about schools, about students, about teachers.  To question the way they have always done things.  To learn, unlearn and relearn. To redesign their processes and procedures, to rethink their rules and assumptions about “the way we do things around here”. 

There is little point introducing technology into the experience of school without rethinking what that experience of school could look like. Because if we just do what we have always done, except with a computer, very little changes.  You want digital technology to have an impact? Be prepared to change what you use it for.

3. Drawing from your experience, what are some of the strategies that can be used in schools to effectively use digital technologies to deepen learning and support educational outcomes?

Notwithstanding my previous answer, which I think underlies everything else, the best strategies that schools can use to effectively use digital technologies is to design learning experiences that provide choice and voice for their students. If we start from an assumption that all students are different, with unique talents, abilities, interests and expectations, and we design the learning experiences in ways that respect and acknowledge those differences, that offer flexible pathways for students to acquire knowledge, express knowledge and validate knowledge, then we are on the right track. 

Reduce the rigidity, without reducing the rigour. Maintain high expectations for what students do, but be flexible about the the ways they can execute on that learning. 

4. In your experience, what practical strategies can schools use to ensure digital technologies are used in an engaging and creative way?

Before cameras became digital, they used film. Good photographers made good photos by understanding the underlying principles of design that created good photos. They understood the essential principles of composition, the rule of thirds, contrast, balance, interest, light, colour, shape. But these essential principles were not just useful for photos taken only on film, they applied regardless of the kind of technology used to make the photos. So when the technology used in cameras moved from film to digital, these same visual design principles remained as true as ever. Digital photography changed many things about the way we take and share photos, but good photographers still apply these design principles regardless of whether they shoot on film or digital, because the principles are based on enduring truths about the way visual design works.

Teaching also has some enduring truths. These include things like building relationships of trust between teachers and students. Having authenticity in the way we interact with students. Caring for for their well-being. Engaging their interests. Bringing humour, laughter, care and respect to every class. These are some of the very human things about teaching that don’t change.  And just as the shift from film to digital changed photography forever, the introduction of digital technologies into our classrooms has opened up fabulous new opportunities for the way we can do things, but it should not change these enduring truths about teaching.

You want digital technologies to be used in engaging and creative ways? Teach well. Care about your students. Build relationships. Be authentic. 

Question everything else.

5. Are there any resources you would recommend for teachers wishing to implement or improve their use of digital technologies within the learning environment?

First, the best resources are other people. Engage with online communities, and surround yourself with other people who can be great resources for you (and you for them). There are so many communities online to tap into, and the very best teachers I know all take advantage of online communities.  All of us are smarter than any of us, and there truly is wisdom in the crowd.

Secondly, choose flexible, powerful, collaborative tools for your students. Learn to use them. Maybe even consider certifying yourself in their effective use, to really prove you know how to use them. Being a confident and competent user of digital tools is incredibly empowering.   But remember that whatever shiny new app you love using today, it probably won’t be around forever. Don’t fall in love with specific tools to the point where you can’t let them go. Tools are just things that perform actions, so love the verb, not the noun.

Finally, learn to use search to effectively to find the answers you need. Teach your students how to search too.  Not just type in a keyword and hope for the best, but to genuinely use search to find answers. We live in a world where there is no excuse for being ignorant about anything. So be curious, ask questions and find answers. Being able to independently find the answer to a question, or the solution to a problem, may be the best skill you can ever possess.

This article was originally posted in School News. I’ve crossposted and lightly re-edited here.

March – Jehovah’s Witnesses

March is month three of my Beyond Belief project, and I was sitting at home debating which religion I should check out this month. As if by some kind of divine intervention, my doorbell rang and I answered it to find two ladies standing there. It’s as though religions are now being delivered to my door, like some kind of divine Deliveroo!

They introduced themselves as Sandra and Beverley., and they thrust a brochure into my hands and asked if I knew about Jehovah’s plan for me.  I said I didn’t, and that I was a confirmed atheist, but that I was doing a project this year to learn about 12 different religions in 12 months. I suggested that they should tell me all about theirs, which turned out to be the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were a little taken aback (in a good way) at the idea of someone trying a different religion each month and said they wished more people could be more open minded about religion.

We stood at the door for quite a while discussing what the Jehovah’s Witnesses are all about.  I mentioned that I had a great aunt who became a “Joho” and that it didn’t make her very popular with the rest of the family. I learned that Jehovah is just God’s actual name, and that, if he is your best friend (and why wouldn’t he be?) they surely you’d call him by his name, Jehovah, not his title, “God”.  That sounds way too formal, right?

These two women knew their stuff when it came to the bible (I later found out how). They were quoting passages left and right, and then Sandra pulled out a bible app on her phone and showed me that they were not just making these quotes up.  Apparently God really DOES love me. The bible clearly says so.

The Jehovah’s Witness religion is like many other strict bible-based religions I’ve come across, in that it uses the bible as a fundamental and canonical source of truth. Their logic suggests that everything in the bible is true because it’s in the bible. To me, that’s always been a very circular argument…  I can’t quite reconcile the idea that the proof of a thing being true is simply because the thing itself says so. So when I hear people quoting the bible and then looking at me like I should be instantly convinced because the bible says so…. Yeah, nah. It don’t think it works like that. Maybe God loves me (I’m pretty lovable after all), but using the bible as “proof” of  that presumes I believe there’s a God and that I am willing to believe because some book says it that it must be true. That reasoning does not get a QED from me.

Regardless, they were nice ladies, and far be it from me to deny them the right to believe whatever they want to believe. (Can you imagine what a different world this would be if we all just let other people believe whatever they want to believe, without condemning them for it?)

Anyway, we spoke at the door for a while, and I said I wanted to learn more, so they invited me to a bible study evening at the local JW Kingdom Hall. I’m in.

So I rock up to the bible study group a few days later, not quite knowing what to expect. First of all, I’m a little surprised at how well dressed everyone is for a Thursday night. I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Nobody told me there was a dress code.  Oh well, good thing God loves me anyway.

I enter the building and am greeted by a guy who ushers me into the main room and seats me next to a “buddy” to look after me. There’s a guy talking on the stage, digging into a passage from the bible, and leading some Q&A about it. This goes on for a while, again, using the bible as proof of the bible which, as I said, I don’t really get. The passage being studied was focused on how we should all be obedient and subservient to God, sorry, Jehovah, and that we need to live good clean lives without sin. They went on to explain that if we have friends or know people who don’t live good clean lives without sin then we need to break ties with them and cut them out of our lives. Because God loves everyone; but those people, not so much. Moreover, what do you do if you’re the one not living the good clean life? How do I cut myself out of my own life?

This discussion was followed by something I didn’t expect… some role playing about what to do on the “second return visit”.  You know when you get a knock on the door from your friendly Jehovah’s Witnesses? That scenario does not just happen, it is very well rehearsed.  At this meeting they were practising what to say and how to handle the conversation when they return to talk with you for the second time. What to say, what questions to ask, how to respond to objections, etc.  It was like a well designed sales course. There was a structured set of notes, supporting videos, and a whole curriculum to follow in executing these door to door visits. Many of these resources are illustrated with what can only be described as “Jehovah’s Witness art”, which is mostly full of happy looking white people in a 1950s Disney movie, living the happy shiny life God made for them. I applaud them on being so organised and optimistic, gosh darn it!

Following that there were more conversations about the next part of that same bible passage studied earlier, with more sharing of ideas about what it meant, and how we should live our lives based on it. My buddy seated next to me handed me a bible so I could follow along, and even lent me his phone with a special JW bible study app on it for further detail of the passage. I tried to keep an open mind, and take in the teachings being discussed, which at their core, are reasonable ideas. I think you can probably sum up the main message of the bible as “let’s all try to be nice to one another”.

At the end of the evening (after about 2 hours) it wrapped up and there was some socialising and chatting of the people in attendance. Sandra, who initially invited me, found me and came over to say how glad she was that I was there. We chatted a bit, and I was introduced to some other people. They all seemed like very nice people, super friendly, and I was told I could even keep the copy of the bible which I’d been using. It was nice to observe the sense of fellowship that existed in this group.

A few weeks later I had a follow-up visit from Sandra, when she popped by just to see how I was, and what I thought of the experience. (This was the first return visit, not the second return visit, so I can’t grade her on how well she did). To be honest, I’m still not really sure what I thought, except that I know this religion is not one for me. I can’t quite accept the whole “it’s in the bible so it must be true” thinking, and I still see far too many contradictions in it… like being told to ditch your friends if they are not living what you consider to be a wholesome life, while Jesus gets to hang out with prostitutes and other unsavoury characters. How does that work?

So, to sum up, definitely not a religion that attracts me at all (not that I’m looking) but it was still interesting to learn more about it.