What’s Old is New

shifting-conversations-logoLast week was ISTE, the largest gathering of technology educators annually in the United States. This was my eighth ISTE “experience,” and it’s hard for me to ignore the love/hate feeling I have for it. The best parts are, as always, the people. It’s a time to reconnect with friends from the early days of blogging and social media, to reminisce a bit about how much (or how little) things have changed in the last 15 years (especially when it comes to schools,) and to just get a temperature check of where we’re at in the conversation around learning and change in schools.

The worst parts, for me at least, are the Expo floor and the sessions, few of which I find rise to the level of what I would call provocative. This despite the fact that 230 sessions this year had the word “transform” in the description. I mean seriously, 32 sessions about flipped learning!?! Really? And to be honest, few of the sessions that I saw were even very entertaining. (One sponsored by the US DOE took the first 15 minutes to read the bios of the panelists. Seriously. Another on 21st Century Skills was of the four bullet points per slide variety. I’m sorry, but if we’re going to choose to lecture, which is what most of the one hour sessions are, we’ve got to do better than that.)

And the vendor floor. (See Audrey’s description to get a sense.) No question, there was an uptick this year of constructionist technologies, usually in the form of maker space stuff. And from what I could tell, there was some really good stuff there. But it was still absolutely dwarfed by those selling glitzy crap that schools or teachers really don’t need in the name of “learning” even though the vendors I managed to speak to had little or no concept on what that term even means (outside of how it’s calculated in numbers.) It’s about data, or it’s about curriculum, or it’s about fancy, schmantzy blended, interactive, be-the-rock-star teacher tools that will “engage” students. Or it’s about more data.

Oh, and it’s also about money, of course. And so it goes…

Here’s my tell-all take away from ISTE this year. It was a moment when someone came up and said, “Hey Will! So what’s new?” And the response that came bubbling out was “What’s old is what’s new.” Or at least, what’s old is what should be new. Because I’ve come to understand that we can’t fully evaluate or make sense of the new if we aren’t fully grounded in what’s old. And by that I mean grounded in our ageless understanding of how we and our kids learn. If ISTE is representative of anything going on in education right now, it’s certainly this: we’ve replaced the conversation around learning with a conversation around technology and curriculum and a whole bunch of other stuff that let’s us ignore the one important thing in front of us: powerful, deep, learning. As I said on the panel that Audrey refers to in her post, “We’ve lost the conversation around learning.” And that’s a bad thing.

To reclaim it, we have to peel back the layers of rhetoric and marketing and “transformation” and get in touch with what believe about not just learning but about what the world holds for our kids. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we’re not well read when it comes to our understanding of the larger changes happening in our lives. It’s difficult for us to choose tools and strategies with relevance unless we have at least some sense of how the world is changing at all levels. But some beliefs about learning are timeless, right? Last week at some point, I Tweeted out a link to John Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed. In it, he writes:

I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.


I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities. Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator.

To see schools and classrooms and education through just those lenses changes the conversation a great deal. (Read the rest.) Yet how many of us can articulate what exactly we believe about learning and then use those as starting points for our decisions when we walk the vendor floor at ISTE? How many of us visit the vendors or attend the sessions thinking the following?



We have to start seeing technology as something that enhances and amplifies what we already know about good learning, not something that creates “new” learning. But we can only do that if we’re grounded in a vision and belief of what good learning is to begin with.

1 thought on “What’s Old is New”

  1. Gary G

    As one who has thrived and survived after 50 years of full time dedication to the work of changing schools and the people in them, I captured a few lessons learned in two places that you might enjoy and share with others. One is a blog that you can find on LinkedIn and elsewhere called “Ten Lessons Learned in a 50-Year Career” and the other is a short memoir, an easy and quick read entitled “Seven Decades: A Learning Memoir.”
    Thanks for your continuing good work and shared insights.

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