Attending an event like MacWorld is a tremendous opportunity not only because of the excitement of keynotes and the expo hall, but primarily because of the opportunity it affords to meet with people face to face and have great conversations. It was a great thrill and an intellectual stimulating opportunity to meet Gary Stager today on the expo floor hall. I had not met Gary before, but have heard a great deal about him and read some of his work. Most recently I was reading about him on District Administration’s Pulse, for which Gary serves as the editor. My main thought in reading about Gary’s background was what great work he has been doing for years in education and what a lengthy list of credentials he has, and what a newcomer and “nobody” I feel like at times compared with someone like him. So, it was a real honor to meet him and hear some of his ideas about learning, educational technology, and educational reform.

Gary is days away from completing his doctorate, which is a feat I hope also accomplish in the next year. (I don’t think the work I’ll write up will be nearly as transformative and exciting as what he’s done, but at this point I am very interested in getting FINISHED with my PhD and then moving on to other work that perhaps might more tangibly help change the world in constructive ways.) His work in Maine prisons with students is really remarkable. I was immediately struck by his passion for students, for learning, and for making a difference as an educator following one of his mantras:

Things need not be as they appear.

Gary’s second matra (in the context of “teachers” and “students”) is also worth remembering and repeating:

Less us, more them.

The influence of Seymour Papert upon Gary’s thinking about education is clear. I am somewhat reluctant to admit I’m one of those people who, to date, has read ABOUT Seymour and his work, but not actually read any of his books. Gary says each of them (“Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas”, “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer”, and “The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap”) are really the same message packaged for different audiences. I’m adding these to my reading list for 2007.

In terms of the educational battles of pedagogy, Gary sees the camps falling into a triad of extremes:

  • Al Bork: For the system
  • Tom Snyder: For the teacher
  • Seymour Papert: For the child

Like Papert, Gary is a major advocate for changing the fundamentally COERCIVE culture in most schools. We are generally quite focused on coercing students to behave in prescribed, unnatural ways in schools. Gary is an international consultant and loves working with multi-age, heterogeneous groups of learners for extended periods of time. In fact, in many cases as a term of working in a school he requires that the administration permit him to have access to “non-standard” groupings of students for “non-standard” periods of time. This approach is invigorating and sorely needed, I think.

Rather than seeing political debates about education as being viewable in a typical left/right, republican/democratic dichotomy, Gary sees people lining up in two primary camps: those supporting INSTRUCTION and those supporting CONSTRUCTION. This is a helpful lens for examining much of the discussion relating to educational reform, especially with lots of talk on NCLB reauthorization. On that topic, incidentally, Susan Ohanian has a thought-provoking list of reasons NOT to reauthorize NCLB on Gary’s Pulse blog. While you’re there, check out the amazing lineup of people they have blogging on the Pulse. Wow! Miguel Guhlin had actually directed my attention there last week with regard to David Thornburg’s post, “The Power of Yes” that I responded to on the Infinite Thinking Machine. Lots of great ideas already there and I’m sure many more to emerge with the great cast of minds sharing their thoughts on The Pulse!

Another statement from Gary today that caught my attention regarded how we can and should change systems, including policies of local school boards:

The solution to bad democracy is more democracy.

I think this relates powerfully to the idea of empowering people to become citizen journalists, to become more involved in the politics of their locality, and the need we have for MORE SHEPHERDS and fewer sheep. (A metaphor I discussed a little in my last ITM post also.)

In discussing math teachers and the need to help reform/transform the pedagogy of teaching mathematics, Gary discussed “the almost metaphysical connection many math teachers seem to have to the curriculum.” He talked about Seymour Papert discussing how all of the major attempted educational reforms of the past few decades have had absolutely zero impact on the pedagogy of mathematics instruction in most classrooms. This reminds me of how critical it is to focus on that issue: What changes the practice of classroom teachers?

On that note, Gary mentioned The Milgram experiment in the context of teachers and administrators in our current climate of high-stakes accountability. I agree with his thesis, that in many cases we see educators doing things that they actually know on their face are immoral and hurt children, but their rationalization is that “I’m just doing my job, just doing what I’m told and directed to do.” The comparison is harsh but likely needed: Remember the trials at Nuremburg? In 8th grade social studies at Manhattan Middle School in the 1980s, I remember a big part of our curriculum was mock-trials for the Nazi war criminals. Remember what many of them used as a defense? “I was just following orders.” How many of our teachers today are “just following orders” in creating a coercive, fear-laden educational environment that is damaging to both children and adults alike? I’m not sure, but my sense is that the answer is “many.” One case in point is the formal removal of recess for third graders in our old elementary school in Lubbock. I’m quite proud to say that in Oklahoma, where my children now go to school, they have two recess periods each day in third grade. The fact that we even have to discuss this and our need to fight for recess shows how off-base much of our thinking about developmentally appropriate education has come in our crazy era of high-stakes testing.

We’ve got to find a better way. We’ve got to reform our predominant educational paradigm. As Gary exhorts, “things don’t have to be the way they appear.” We are smarter than this, and we care enough about our children to make the changes that need to be made. I am thrilled to have had an opportunity, however brief, to dialog with Gary and invite some of his ideas to rub off on my mind. I hope to see him again in early February at the TCEA conference in Austin, and perhaps I’ll have read more Seymour Papert by then to ask more intelligent questions! 🙂

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3 Responses to Worthwhile thoughts from Gary Stager

  1. Gary Stager says:

    Dear Wesley,

    Thank you so much for your very kind words. You are a supreme blogger possessing magnificent gifts of memory and the discipline required to sit down and share those thoughts in a timely fashion. My hat’s off to you!

    It was great to finally meet you in f2f and look forward to doing so again in the future.

    All the very best,

    Gary

  2. Brett Moller says:

    Hi Wes… What an awesome experience being at MacWorld – I attended a few sessions by Gary here in Australia last year. He is an amazing presenter and really gets you thinking!! Hope he comes this way again soon….

    thanks for the great macworld coverage as well!!

  3. Bruce Dixon says:

    .nice work..good to see Gary getting some of the respect he so richly deserves.

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