Feet on the ground or head in the clouds?

195/365... Feet on the ground
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In the past few years, I’ve been pretty darn lucky to be able to speak at quite a few conferences. I’ve also been blessed enough to include in my network dozens of people that do the same, whether it’s for a living or ‘on the side’. I’ve found that for the most part, presentations tend to fall into one of two categories.

1) What we (educators) should be doing.

2) What you can actually do right now.

I’ve always gravitated towards sessions in the former category. I like the ones that make me think, that encourage me to breakdown my ideas about what education means and h ow we do it, and then to rebuild them with new ideas and information. But rarely does that make much of a concrete difference in reality. When I do keynotes of this nature, I truly hope that I’m inspiring educators to reach farther, think bigger, and to become the very innovators that they currently look up to. But I always through in at least a few concrete ideas that people can do ‘on Monday’. Why? Because more often than not, those are the things that people scribble down and actually come back to.

I hear the same conversations on Twitter again and again. ‘We don’t need tools, we need pedagogy, we need understanding, we need new policies, we need leadership, we need political reform.’ And at the same time, I keep thinking to how many emails and comments I’ve received from people along the lines of, “Thanks so much for showing me Blabberize, I used it with my students and they were more engaged than they’ve been all year!” Will that change the education system in America? No. But for one classroom and one teacher on at least one day, it made a difference.

I’m not saying Blabberize is the most wonderful thing in the world. It just one of hundreds of Web 2.0 tools. But what is wonderful is that it made an old lesson new, that it energized a teacher who was then able to energize her students. To me, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

I’ve heard so much criticism of ISTE over the past few days because so many of the sessions at NECC are what many consider to be ‘low level’. They’re discussions of tools, of toys, of websites and widgets. That won’t create any systemic reform in education. But if even a fraction of the teachers who attend learn a few new tricks and perhaps hear about a network like the DEN, Classroom 2.0, Plurk, or Twitter… isn’t that enough?

I like to think that my Top 10 Web 2.0 presentation has more in it than just a list of websites. I try to really focus in on why it’s important for teachers to delve into that world, how they connect together, and how to change their mindset it the way they use them. But more than anything, I hope to make them look simple, accessible, and within their grasp. And if a roomful of teachers see that presentation and leave thinking, “Wow, I really believe that I can do that stuff he was showing” then I’d consider it a success. Maybe I won’t be the one making broad sweeping changes to the US Education system. I can live with knowing that in a small way I’ve helped a group of teachers look at their lesson plans through new lenses, and maybe inspired them to do just one thing differently. If they can use some of these new technologies to make learning exciting again for the students, then I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Is that such a bad thing?

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By | 2009-10-08T13:41:49+00:00 October 8th, 2009|Musings|35 Comments

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  1. Jamey Barber 10/8/2009 at Oct 08, 09 | 7:05 pm

    You are NOT wrong. I know as a teacher I need those what I call “nuts and bolts” seminars to give me something exciting to take back to my classes. I then take what I am shown and then think how I can use it to help my dyslexics, my visually impaired, my weak auditory proccessing students, and my students that have very weak comprehension skills. These tools help those of us in the trenches differentiate instruction–baby steps, but at least they’re forward steps.

    We can talk about reform, policy, pedagogy, assessment, accountability, performance, etc. until we are blue in the face, but I can’t use all the talk TODAY to help a student access his or her American history lesson on the Progressive movement and how public education “helped” the massive influx of immigrant children in the late 19th century.

  2. Jonathan McLear 10/8/2009 at Oct 08, 09 | 7:49 pm

    I loved your “Top 10” post! As a result of your post, I used two sites in a presentation I gave yesterday (prezi and pollanywhere). Thank you for all you do!
    .-= Jonathan McLear´s last blog ..Threadless Tshirt Giveaway at jaypeeonline.net =-.

  3. Dean Shareski 10/8/2009 at Oct 08, 09 | 8:56 pm

    The danger of course is that while you understand the connection to reform and higher level learning opportunities, the teacher who doesn’t will use these tools thinking that the technology is really awesome but they never make the transition to doing transformational things; they simply tweak what they’ve always done.

    In some cases, that’s good enough if indeed they seek more support, conversations leading to something more.

    I sat in a SMARTBOARD session today where some of the discussions focused on all the cool tools and activities you could do. One teacher asked the hard question, “How will this help my students learn more?” She hadn’t intended but she stop the presentation in its tracks.

    Again, I’m not saying a healthy dose of “what you can do today” is good. But it has to be balanced with “why would you do this?”

    I do agree that some are too critical if anyone mentions tools. This is not a linear, step by step process of change. We need to attack this from various levels and angles and what you suggest is certainly one of them. I just think it should be contextualized in the bigger picture.
    .-= Dean Shareski´s last blog ..Google Image Labeler =-.

  4. Ben 10/9/2009 at Oct 09, 09 | 10:26 am

    Dean, what you’re highlighting then are teachers using poor educational practices, not poor presentations and/or models for successful professional development. “Cool Tools” sessions aren’t the sessions to attend if you’re looking for new ways to form understanding and make connections with your students. They’re sessions for just seeing what’s new, what’s out there, and what it does so you can best decide how to use them in an effective way.

    If anything, these large educational technology groups will probably have to focus more on meeting the needs of the “low end” if they want to continue to survive financially. The needs of the higher practitioners are already being met online and in smaller conferences or meetings.

  5. Chad Lehman 10/9/2009 at Oct 09, 09 | 11:19 am

    Steve, I think it is good enough, for some people. Some aren’t looking for wide spread reform, they are looking for ways to enhance their lessons, or learn a new way to do an old thing. There’s nothing wrong with a teacher using a new tool to spice up a unit or add something to an existing lesson. I do think that if it excites the students or gets the student more engaged in the lesson, there’s a pretty good chance it will lead to greater achievement. For some students, we need a hook, something to get them started.

    Keep doing what you’re doing.
    .-= Chad Lehman´s last blog ..A Taste of Something New (for us) =-.

  6. Dean Shareski 10/9/2009 at Oct 09, 09 | 1:08 pm


    You make a valid point but sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know. It seems to me that conferences can be great places to challenge people and many teachers are looking for quick fixes and having been guilty of presenting tools without context, I’m just wary of it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I know Steve and I would he would never present out of context and as I said earlier a little of each is healthy but I think conference organizers/presenters often miss out on a great opportunity to spark important conversations.
    .-= Dean Shareski´s last blog ..Google Image Labeler =-.

  7. Steve Dembo 10/9/2009 at Oct 09, 09 | 2:16 pm

    @Dean Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I always appreciate hearing your perspective. My response draws from my own personal experiences. I’ve been using Web 2.0 for years. While I consider myself a dabbler more often than not, I’m often referred to as an expert in this genre. That being said, the only thing that I can say with 100% certainty is that I’m still trying to figure out exactly where all this fits into education and the best ways to use it to improve student learning. I’ve seen many success stories, and I know in my gut (ample as it is) that it can make a difference. I can share qualitative examples out the wazoo of places where it has transformed learning. And yet I still struggle to define why that is and how to quantitatively demonstrate it.

    And that’s with years of experience. After dabbling, experimenting, trying it for personal uses, succeeding and failing in equal quantities, and spending more time than I like to admit discussing it with others.

    So with that in mind, how on earth could I possibly expect somebody who’s new to Web 2.0 or blogs or PLN’s to really understand the transformative nature of these technologies in a 60 minute session? Heck, I have enough trouble trying to explain why Twitter is significant in 3600 seconds or less.

    I understand your Smartboard example, but perhaps the people who were in that session weren’t quite ready to answer that question yet. Maybe they needed more time to experiment, gain firsthand experience, learn what works and what doesn’t… and THEN they can have an intelligent conversation about how it can transform learning.

    As Mr. Miyagi once said, “You must walk before you learn to fly.”

  8. John Costilla 10/9/2009 at Oct 09, 09 | 2:43 pm


    Thanks for sharing. I have done several internal sessions on social media and web2.0 tools and resources. There are so many tools our there that give teachers the creative flexibility to integrate and engage Web 2.0 tools into their everyday teaching. The standards and scope/sequence are the guidelines to ensuring students are accountable for what is needed, how they do that is something that I think every teacher should embrace “tools” like this to help engage learners. Students need foundation skills and there are many good resources to do that. These tools can help in the transfer of knowledge and understanding in creative and innovative ways. I learn something new everyday. I think the challenge is that just like int he 80’s we trained folks about naming the computer parts as opposed to teaching student about writing and concepts through the use of computers. Today, we are teaching folks about Web 2.0 tools and widgets and sometimes overlook teaching them how to use these tools to teach concepts. I will say, this go around, we have done a much better job of teaching folks to use these tools as part of their core disciplines and not just a “how to use the tool” approach.

    I appreciate your blogs and gain much insight. I’m sure others have as well.

  9. Dell 10/9/2009 at Oct 09, 09 | 9:26 pm

    Be the change you want to see in the world, right @teach42? great #blog about small steps http://bit.ly/djhyw

  10. Dean Shareski 10/9/2009 at Oct 09, 09 | 10:39 pm


    I can honestly say I’ve swung from both sides of this issue. I think there are many who are overly critical of anyone who even mentions “tools”.

    As you state, the limitations of a 60 minute session is of concern. In my context in a school district, I have the luxury of follow up. I may introduce a tool but want to encourage and push the thinking. I think that context is important to distinguish.

    You’re right, if that’s the entry point to further discussion and exploration into deeper understanding and learning, I”m okay with that. My caveat is that it never moves beyond that. While giving teachers a new idea to use Monday has its merits, I’m personally not as excited about that. I’d rather give them something to think about for a few weeks that may lead to significant changes. It may not be an either or choice but pursuing deep reflective change takes priority. I’m not sure I can accomplish that in 60 minutes either, but if that’s my time restraint, I’m willing to give it a shot.
    .-= Dean Shareski´s last blog ..Google Image Labeler =-.

  11. Sara Beauchamp-Hicks (yoopertechgeek) 10/13/2009 at Oct 13, 09 | 8:02 am

    Steve–I don’t think you’re wrong. I’ve seen you present a number of times and you always draw strong connections between the tools and the learning. However, I do agree with Dean that we do need to have, at conferences (and in blog posts, on twitter, ning, etc) discussion that includes the conversation about pedagogy, school reform and the ways in which we can make the technology transparent. Professional development itself cannot be limited to 60 minute sessions at conferences, no matter how knowledgeable the speaker or how prestigious the conference teachers need learning communities that expand their current circles and allow them to reach out beyond their classrooms and districts to learn more. That’s what you are able to do with your tools (especially those with collaborative aspects). Your encouragement to join online learning communities and the ongoing discussions that you yourself participate in are what make your presentations at conferences meaningful. The tools engage, the discussion sustains.
    .-= Sara Beauchamp-Hicks (yoopertechgeek)´s last blog ..Teachers, Writers, Leaders =-.

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    I like your honest approach to changing education one new 2.0 tool at a time. This is probably the most doable approach to getting veteran teachers to jump online and work to bridge the technology gap. The concept of looking at lesson plans with new lenses, however, actually gets into a wider arena that merits exploration. Making learning for students more exciting is critical for learning to happen. The more neural connections that fire in the process of learning the more we are likely to remember. However, the teacher, needs to work not just at brandishing a new tool in the classroom, but encouraging cognitive and metacognitive growth in the students. Getting students to understand the use of a tool in connection to solving a particular problem helps students to learn not just the purpose of the tool, but also the process of analyzing a problem and how to use any tool optimally.
    The sheer number of 2.0 applications is daunting to neophytes to the open source world, but using tools for problem solving is probably one of the oldest skills in our evolution. Somehow we must work to help both extant teachers and teachers in training to understand the process of engaging the digital native learner. As a digital immigrant, I am excited by the possibilities that new technologies bring. As an experienced teacher, I am aware that the students who are coming into my classroom are native to the digitial environment. I must work to make sure that they are still learning to choose the right tools to creatively solve the problems presented to them.

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