Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Avoiding shock and awe in Plato’s cave

I’ve felt a bit like E.T. recently landing on planet earth, speaking to a group of humans who had never seen or heard an extraterrestrial before.

According to WikiPedia, “shock and awe” is:

a military doctrine based on the use of “overwhelming decisive force”, “dominant battlefield awareness”, “dominant maneuvers”, and “spectacular displays of power” to “paralyze” an adversary’s perception of the battlefield and destroy its will to fight.

The allegory of the cave was used by the Greek philosopher Plato to convey the difficulty of explaining concepts like color and three dimensional objects to people solely exposed to black and white, two dimensional representations of reality.

Using Karl Fisch’s presentation on “Did You Know” remixed as a video by Scott Mcleod with teacher audiences here in Oklahoma lately, I’ve felt a bit like Plato in the cave, talking to people by using a video designed to have the effect of “shock and awe” on the audience.

cave people

I will likely reflect at greater length on this in an upcoming podcast, but for now I’ll say that overwhelming teachers with the messages from “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century” by Tom Friedman may not be the best way to encourage teachers to teach digital.

Unlike most of my audiences at edtech conferences, attendees and participants in some of my presentations lately in Oklahoma have been “regular” classroom teachers. Not computer teachers, not particularly tech-saavy teachers, just regular classroom teachers. In some cases, NONE of the teachers in the audience have heard of Tom Friedman or “The World is Flat.” Maybe that is not unusual out in the “real world” outside of edtech conferences. I suspect it is. The ideas of the “Did You Know” presentation are VERY intimidating and even overwhelming for teachers. Some of the responses from teachers about the video, after having discussed it with their peers, have lately included:

– Boy I’m glad I’m retiring soon.
– The United States is really in bad shape.
– I’m overwhelmed.
– I may be in the wrong profession.
– My kids can’t and won’t teach themselves. How will they survive in this new world?

The amazing thing to me in listening to and documenting these teacher responses has been that no one has said, “Maybe we need to teach differently in our schools.” The common responses instead have been: I’m overwhelmed, I’m so behind, there’s no way I can deal with this. I’m ready to retire.

I’m thinking rather than show a video like “Did You Know,” maybe I need to focus on small steps that entry-level technology users can take. I’m reminded of the ACOT research and stages of technology integration. In the case of my most recent presentations, in which I felt like E.T., I wasn’t talking to teachers who were or are ready for “invention level” integration ideas.

My thought for this group goes back to something I mentioned in the WOW2 interview last week. We need each teacher at each grade level to participate with his/her students in at least 1 Internet-based collaborative project per semester. And, this needs to be an administrative expectation that is part of the formal teacher evaluation process.

Google Earth is amazing. 3D interactive environments including the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Canyon ARE amazing. But simply “accessing” engaging, digital content like this is not enough. At some point, if we just present students with these types of resources to consume (even interactively) they are sure to ask, “So what?” No matter how amazed we are as digital immigrants by these resources, at some point “normalcy” will be redefined for our students as well as ourselves, and these things will lose much of their novelty value.

Our students need to remix their learning and create authentic knowledge products. But to do that authentically and effectively, they also need to have relational connections to other people and places. This is why I think websites like are so essential, to help teachers connect with other teachers for Internet-based projects.

I’m reminded of the story Tim DiScipio shared at TCEA in 2006 of the New Jersey elementary classroom whose writing scores jumped because the students wrote to pen pals in Italy each week of the school year. Simple concept: Get students interested and connected to kids in another country through a pen pal writing project. The implications can be getting students more motivated to write, and therefore writing more regularly and with more effort.

More frequent writing leads to better writing. A simple formula, but one which seems to be often overlooked in schools today.

I don’t have the answers. It was very weird to feel like E.T. this week in several contexts. “Shock and awe” may not be the best formula for conversations and learning. Maybe I need to craft and share a more basic, simple message, and avoid overwhelming people with too many scary statistics and ideas.

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9 responses to “Avoiding shock and awe in Plato’s cave”

  1. Scott McLeod Avatar

    Hi Wesley, I see this too when I present to teachers and administrators. I usually present to folks outside of technology conferences so my typical audience is made up of the “regular” educators you describe.

    The problem you describe is HUGE, because of course society is not waiting for schools to make their small, incremental changes:

    From Seth Godin’s The Big Moo (p. 34): “They say ‘We can’t handle this much change.’ I say, ‘Your [relevance is] in jeopardy. What other options do you have?’”

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m pretty sure that we can’t solve the problem of ramping schools up for the revolutionary changes of the 21st century by asking educators to make evolutionary changes. That said, you’ve got to find an entry point for folks that they can wrap their heads around. Otherwise they’ll just become defeatist and turn off.

  2. Scott McLeod Avatar

    I don’t know why that URL in my previous comment didn’t work, but please use this one instead:

  3. Silvia Tolisano Avatar


    I just returned from a SCOLT (Southern Conference On Language Teaching) and I felt very similar than what you describe in your post.
    I was the only teacher I saw that had a laptop with her to blog about the sessions. I only saw one other presenter present with a laptop/projector. All others used transparencies! I blogged about how very few sessions seemed to involve web 2.0 technologies or global awareness. (
    I very much felt like I was some sort of weird species.

    Comparing this experience to the FETC conference in Orlando was very humbling and brought me back down to earth. At an EdTech conference EVERYONE who is presenting and attending is at least interested in technology integration. One connects with like minded people and one can pull energy from this shared excitement.
    Being “E.T.” in a group of people who are not interested in, afraid of, bored by, or flat out against looking at a different way of learning and teaching for themselves and their students, is a very different experience. I realized that reality DOES NOT look like FETC or other EdTech conferences. Reality in schools looks more like SCOLT.

    I have shown Karl Fish’ “Did you know” presentation at meetings too and received similar comments than you have. It does not seem to be a wake-up call for many, but rather permission to retrieve further, shut down and hide behind their closed classroom doors.

    As the opener of my presentation at SCOLT (iPod, iSing, iSpeak, iListen, iLearn), I chose to show the Youtube video clip “Introduction of the Book: The Medieval Help Desk”. I received comments, such as:
    “That is how I feel” or “This makes me feel better about my technology knowledge”, “Maybe there is hope for me”.

  4. David Jakes Avatar

    Do I see another video opportunity here, this time featuring teachers instead of administrators?


    BTW, as an administrator, I enjoyed the movie.

  5. Andrew Boatman Avatar

    Hey there Wesley,
    Welcome to my world. I am considered a tech savvy teacher. I know nothing, really just a small portion of the whole. I have learned to teach myself about new things, new programs. I have learned to research and create. I never did learn how to create in Flash.

    No offense, but when we are at conferences and we are teaching technology teachers in districts and at inservices these are a small minority. The real world of education is not reflected. Best practices in technology are not yet even developed fully. And those best practices that are available are typically not supported in the classroom.

    I have a school with teachers across the full spectrum of technology integration. How can I help them with technology in the classroom? When do we have time to sit down and really learn how to use technology in the classroom. It takes 1:1 instruction. How can teachers be prepared for 1:1 student computer use in the classroom if they themselves are not ready. Most are willing. All are able. The stumbling blocks to integration are huge. How do we identify and remove these blocks?

    An example: If you want to use Google Earth in the classroom it is not installed on the computer. The teacher has been instructed not to download anything on the computer for fear of virus. They typically do not know how to download and install the program on the computer. The Direct X is not setup and they can’t get beyond hitting Alt+F4. How can we use Google Earth in the classroom with one computer that is on the teachers desk and used for attendance and grades and parent communication, as well as showing a powerpoint of the day’s instruction. How can students see anything on the 32″ monitor at the front of the room? How can Google Earth show my students about a new location without also going to the internet for other research?
    Number one question: How can I come up with a spontaneous lesson using technology with no or limited access to technology in the classroom. The rest of the lesson suffers or the rest of the students suffer or those on the computer miss the rest of the lesson.

    The reality of technology in the classroom does not nearly measure up to the dream of technology in the classroom. How can we make the change? How can we usher in a new era of best practice in the classroom with the reality of what we have at hand?

    Clarity here is not fully developed. As I think I have left something out. This discussion is very much needed.

  6. Scott Avatar

    “this needs to be an administrative expectation that is part of the formal teacher evaluation process.”

    Amen, brother…Amen.

    And until Superintendents make it a requirement of their personnel directors to hire tech savvy teachers, and come down on their principals who do nothing to require technology integration, it will continue to be on an individual basis. For that matter, let’s go all the way up to the federal government, because until technology becomes something that is tested, or made part of NCLB, it will continue to be something that “we’ll get to when we have time.”

  7. Karl Fisch Avatar

    I need to think about this some more when I’m not so darn tired, but my two cents worth is that I think it’s probably a bad idea to show Did You Know to any teacher audience if you don’t have built-in time to discuss. I think it can still be useful if you do have that time to discuss, because then folks can move past the “shock and awe” phase and into the “okay, what are we going to do about this?” phase. At least that’s the general impression I’ve received from reading quite a few posts about it over the last 6 months or so.

    But I also think we need to find some way to expose those teachers who haven’t heard of any of this to these ideas reaonably quickly, because our students can’t afford for us to take our time on this. And I really question how any teacher could not have at least some “flat-world” knowledge at this point . . .