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Are Schools Wastelands or Wonderlands?

This past week at the EdTechTeacher Summit in Chicago, we heard two great keynote talks--from Will Richardson and Jennie Magiera--that took two contrasting approaches to framing the future of technology and schools.

When Will laid out his talk, drawn in part from his TEDBook essay Why School?, he promised to try to leave listeners confused, uncomfortable, and inspired. He described a world being profoundly reshaped by technology, a world characterized by an abundance of resources and opportunities for connections. He argued that this was potentially a disruptive moment for education, where we should stop chasing Finland or Singapore and try to do something totally different, taking inspiration from the incredible young autodidacts in society like Super Awesome Silvia or Jack Andraka.

And he had tough words for his local public school, where Will taught and where his two kids go to school. He described his family's collective frustration with the limitations of school- the traditions of the classroom routine, the boredom, the sense that school wasn't really where his kids were learning what they needed. (He coined the phrase, co-schooling, to describe their family efforts to complement the curriculum with other learning opportunities.) He certainly expressed a deep fondness for his former colleagues, but also a sense of disappointment in the institution and it's resistence to change. His description of the current state of public schools, especially when set against the learning opportunities bubbling up all across the networked world, was bleak. (Not quite as bleak as Richard Elmore, who has been quoting Will of late, and who has said, "I no longer believe in the institutional structure of public schooling anymore. I view my work as palliative care for a dying institution....The modal classroom in this country is designed, point for point, to be the exact opposite about what we are learning about how humans develop." Not as bleak, but kindred.)

The following day, Jennie Magiera--one of Chicago Public Schools' great treasures--gave a follow up keynote, in which she directly responded to some of Will's characterizations of public schools. From her point of view, if you look at public schools and see a wasteland, you are just looking at the wrong places. She showed a variety of examples of terrific student work and videos of student process. She showed three second graders provisioning 25 Nexus Tablets in three minutes. She read aloud an op-ed from Monday's Chicago Tribune, collectively written by fifth-graders in Linsey Rose's classroom (math classroom!), responding to the characterization of Chicago's South Shore as Terror Town in the local press. If you look, both with technology and in more traditional ways, students are doing powerful and important work in Chicago's schools.

Jennie's direct pushback to Will's keynote was an argument that he failed to account for some of the great things that are happening in schools. The subtext that I read into it was, "for those of us working in the schools and trying to make them better, the crisis narrative isn't helping."

So there are two interesting dimensions to this back and forth between two views of the future of schooling. The first is a kind of descriptive, empirical question: to what extent is technology enabling rich learning experiences in school settings? To what extent are schools effectively preparing students for their lives ahead as citizens and participants in the economy? Are our schools wastelands or wonderlands? Certainly, examples of both can be found and we could debate the exact balance of the two. This leads to the second question, more of a strategic question: what kinds of narratives inspire change? Is the best way to inspire change to point out the wastelands or point out the wonderlands?

Both Will and Jennie look at the demands of the world and the practices of school and find a mismatch; they both do their work so that educational systems can do a better job preparing young people. Will decided that the way to address this mismatch (at least in his keynote) is to highlight the mismatch, and to follow decades of reformers in describing a crisis in public education that demands transformation. Jennie decided that the way to address the mismatch (at least in her keynote) is to highlight emerging best practices and point out a path towards a better future. Both showcased amazing young people. Will's young people found mentors outside the formal educational system, and Jennie's young people found mentors within it.

Both Jennie and Will are excited about big changes--disruptions and redefinitions. What kinds of stories can we tell ourselves as educators that will inspire these changes?

Many thanks to both presenters for thought-provoking presentations, and to all those at the ETT Summit who tweeted, commented, and shared their responses.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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