On Day One, I sat in the audience and listened to three lecturers talk about how (basically) teachers should not be lecturing in the 21st century. “The lecture is dead,” these lecturers implied, and has been for over a century. Their power points supported this message. During the conference, there was a lot of backchannel tweeting going on, or rather “parroting,” since most of the tweets were repetitions of sound bites culled from the lectures we were listening to. Some of the most popular sound bites were “a textbook is not a curriculum,” “paper is over,” and “why are students not buying what we’re offering?” To me, a first-time conference tweeter, the backchannel experience felt a little like a charismatic church service, my fellow brethren’s tweets so many “Amens!” “Preach its!” and  “That’s what I’M talking abouts.” Maybe my sense of the experience was colored by the fact that the conference was taking place in the Worship Center at Houston’s First Baptist Church? Probably. A little.

Certainly, as the lecturers-lecturing-against-lecturing scenario reflects, this is a time of contradictions and conundrums in Education. However, the field of Education has always invited and embraced contradictions and conundrums. What makes this era in Education different than many, many previous eras is the Internet, which is the catalyst for the  MASSIVE SHIFT taking place in the world. The tools created for and by the digital world are effecting a SHIFT analogous to those caused by the printing press, writing, or the wheel. We’re talking huge, huge shifts here. And even in the old days, these type of SHIFTS were feared by the majority of folks, many of them brilliant thinkers and teachers. 

The main argument of Day One @ISASTC was that educators need to face their fears of this SHIFT and embrace the participatory, digital tools (aka Web 2.0 tools), because doing so will improve students’ motivation to learn in school. Because we have a crisis of students’ motivation to learn. In school.

The challenge to address this crisis is being heralded over and over in the professional literature and development. Personally, I’m involved in an extraordinary professional development model called PLP, which stands for Powerful Learning Practices. The MO of PLP is to transform teachers back into students in the arena of Web 2.0 tools. “Just do it,” commands curriculum mapping guru Heidi Haynes Jacobs, “embrace these tools.” At the ISASTC, Jacobs showcased her Curriculum 21 clearinghouse of supercool digital tools, like Visual ThesaurusGapminderGoogle Art Project, suggesting ways these could be brought into the classroom to enhance student learning. “Or,” bullied Jacobs, “You could not do it,” implying that by not doing it, not embracing and using these cool tools in the classroom, teachers are dooming their students to Certain Hell: The boring classroom, and, by extension, a life void of meaning and passion.

Michael B. Horn, another ISASTC presenter, studies student motivation. What motivates students are the twin desires to 1) make progress towards success and 2)  have fun with friends. Horn argues that learning can be compared to consuming. We “hire” products to do jobs for us — our car to get us places, that milkshake to distract us as we commute to work in the morning.  His analysis is much wider and deeper than this, of course, but nonetheless we should be asking, “What job is this HW doing for my students?” If it’s not obvious to them how the HW will help them sate their twin desires (make progress toward success AND have fun with friends), they are not going to be motivated to do it. At least not authentically, intrinsically motivated.

What are 99% of boys and 94 % of school-aged children hiring to sate their twin desires? Video games.

Dr. Jane McGonigal, PhD, whose book Reality is Broken hit the NYTimes bestseller list, made the biggest impression on the  ISASTC audience, not the least because of her audience participation game, “Massively Multi-player Thumb Wrestling.”  During her talk, she asserted that it’s hard indeed to compete with the “Epic Win” of getting into the top 10 level of a video game. She identified the top 10 emotions that happen when people play games:

  • 10. Joy
  • 9. Relief
  • 8. Love
  • 7. Surprise
  • 6. Pride
  • 5. Curiosity
  • 4. Excitement
  • 3. Awe and Wonder
  • 2. Contentment
  • 1. Creativity

Her company is trying to bridge the “engagement gap” between games (where these emotions flourish) and the classroom (where they do not). McGonigal sees the current crisis in student motivation as a “tremendous opportunity to bring the sense of wholehearted engagement of gaming into the classroom,” although she also references Mark Pretsky’s “Engage Me or Enrage Me,” phenomenon as a real and serious challenge that must be addressed.

While Houston-based neuroscientist/author David Eagleman spoke before McGonigal, he argued that “the winners of the future will be those who can sustain focused attention for the longest time.” This argument corresponds with the point McGonigal made about the suspect diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. McGonigal noted that children who are supposedly ADD/ADHD in the classroom have NO PROBLEM staying focused in an engrossing video game for hours at a time. During his talk, Eagleman stated bluntly that he thinks ADD/ADHD is being “over-diagnosed.” Eagleman, my other favorite presenter of the ISASTC, professed in his inimitable style that we need to make learning an event. He referenced a famous study of rats, where there was the “normal cage” — the control —  and the party cage, the extremely colorful, stimulating environment with balls and bells, etc. Rats in the party cage learned more and quicker. If you want students to be motivated to learn in school, he indicated, you have to “make your classroom the party cage.”  That’s the way to engage students emotionally; for students students to be motivated to learn, they must be emotionally engaged. “Whatever the topic is — make it emotional, multi-sensory, multi-directional, multi-dimensional.” Eagleman urged. “I have my students act like neurons in class,” he offered as an example, stretching his arms up high and fanning his fingers to look like synapses firing.

Patrick Bassett, president of NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools), acknowledged the current contradictions and conundrums in Education with his keynote: Difficult, Creative and Fierce Conversations. “For schools of the future to serve kids better, we are going to have to be engaged in threatening conversations,” said Bassett. His essential question was “How do we better manage these dangerous, threatening conversations?”  And the essential answer? Empathy. “Realize that on both sides of the argument, people have a sense of their own competence and goodness.”

How many of you watch the new HBO show Homeland? One of the reasons this show is so resonant and relevant — engaging — is that it dramatizes truths that are becoming increasingly clear to the masses: there are no easy answers; nothing can be reduced to black and white; the good guys are not necessarily good; the bad, not necessarily bad. A show like Homeland captures these realities much better than the clichés I’ve used here can. These are the complex truths we teachers traffic in every day. And they are exciting, dangerous, world-changing truths. Let’s not forget that our job is inherently messy and difficult. Let’s remember that, in the words of Michael Wesch of the University of Kansas, “On some fundamental level [students] are not any different than they were 20 years ago….Most students are still at school mostly to figure out who they are and who they’re going to be.”