Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Will the Kids Get to Take Part?

So, as I'm continuing my campaign to get students to speak their minds on the mainstage at ISTE 2010's keynote, I've been getting many bits of advice from throughout my PLN.

Scott McLeod pointed me to a post and a great comment discussion from a 2007 piece on his blog. (I cite parts of it herein in fair use with the interest of furthering the discussion).

The initial post was a response to a blog post by Karl Fisch who had been thinking about the recent NECC 2007:
I can’t help but wonder how much more powerful it would be to have students involved in these discussions as well.

I'm publishing the whole of McLeod's response here because I don't want there to be any confusion about what he said; I find it both provocative and of a broader concern as to the role of students and student perception in education:
I've generally been frustrated with student presentations at conferences. Folks trot a few students out, pat them on their heads for being there and sharing their voices, and then go back to doing whatever they were doing beforehand, giving themselves self-congratulations along the way for 'including the students.' I haven't seen many impactful student presentations in the sense that adults take the students SERIOUSLY and maybe actually change their mindset / practice as a result (of course I haven't seen too many adult-delivered presentations that do this either, but the level of condescension isn't the same). So... I like the idea of including student voices very much but would encourage some very creative thinking about how to do that to best effect. I'm sure the Generation Yes folks, among others, would be glad to help...

Before I try to explain my opinion on this whole matter, let me share with you a couple of snippets that struck me from the first few comments related to Scott's post.
Most of the time students present things we've already gathered. Students lack one thing that is all important: The ability of hindsight, or the experience of retrospectivity which may lift a student presentation from the average to the interesting.

Testimonially speaking, I'd rather hear a student talk about what she's liked and disliked about her learning experiences. But analytically? Adults, far more often than kids, have the historical perspective and cognitive skills to talk about education. Generally speaking, I don't think kids have enough perspective to talk about kids. In sum this feels like a tribute to school-change ideals in, kind of ironically, a forum where they don't fit.

In general, you are right. Most student presentations are patronizing and lack substance. I've seen a few exceptions though. The best was one in which ONLY students presented. The teachers accompanying them didn't say a word after the introduction.

And this, from only the fourth of over 30 comments:
It is completely true that most student presentations are patronizing them. It's not fair that we trot them out once in a while, ask them about things they have no knowledge or control over, and then wonder why miracles didn't happen.

Asking a student, "how would you change education" is crazy. They can't change education, and wouldn't know what to do if they could. As Dan commented, they don't have the perspective. In this sense, student showcases are a more real representation of student voice in action, but are often segregated away from the main conference sessions or exhibit halls.

Including student voice MUST be an ongoing process about real issues that impact their lives in real ways. There has to be adults involved in the process long term committed to making it happen.

I can also tell you from personal experience that any session at a conference with students presenting will not draw a large audience, no matter how fabulous it is. People go to conferences for lots of reasons, and I guess one of those reasons is to get away from their everyday job of interacting with students.

I'm not going to wade into the whole debate that followed; for that, click here and go ahead and read the original comments for yourselves. I am always excited to read the varied opinions of educators on matters like these, and this conversation proved to be no downer.

But, in this post, I'd like to offer my own perspective as a teacher often surprised, overwhelmed, and humbled by the things that come from out of the mouths of my students.

I think students have a lot to tell us. And I think we need to hear it. And I think it needs to be put directly front and center before all of us on that keynote stage.

Because we spend so much time assessing and looking at student 'production', and so little time actually talking to them as fellow learners. We need a major format in which collectively to hear directly from the learners and be reminded that we ourselves are in the same boat.

Left to our own devices and cordoned off from the reality of students' lives and perceptions, we really don't do a great job at these conferences.

For example, at NECC 2009, I was stunned to see just how self-congratulatory a bunch of educators could be. So much so, that you'd think our school system was actually working.

In one case, an administrator who has blocked student email in his district was given an award for excellence in ed tech integration.

And in the gratuitous keynote, we had a bestselling author rehash a speech he'd given before to the United Way as his way of telling us how unique we are.

Rather than cover any of the serious problems and conflicts-of-interest present both on stage and on the exhibition floor, much of the mainstream media diligently paraphrased corporate press releases available in the press room.

And for all of the energy going on in several of the ed tech and Web 2.0 sessions, there were just as many lame presentations remodeling 20th century ed speek for the 21st century.

In the two spots where kids did get up on the main stage: in the debate and in the 'Electric Co' number, it felt forced and rigid. The debate became a rather meaningless demonstration of rhetorical flourishes led primarily by ed speakers known for their rhetorical flourishes and the production number came across as a paid advertisement. Not to denigrate the work of the kids on the teams, but it was an obvious case of exactly what McLeod argues is so often the case with these sorts of things, namely:
Thanks, kids... now off the stage.

The only time I really felt a connection with anything actually going on in our classrooms was -- like one of the commentators cited above noted -- in the student-teacher workshop room where the folks who actually live the classroom life talked about and demonstrated what it was they were doing in their buildings.

I think these folks deserve a stage.

The main stage.

As for criticism that previous student-led presentations have been lame -- well, then I guess the challenge is to find students who aren't lame. (I think in a nation of tens of millions of students, we might be able to find a few).

Anyway, really now, you don't want me to start naming names as to which adults gave lame presentations.

To generalize that student presentations are weak and unreflective and incapable of presenting a perspective that teachers can learn from and be engaged and energized by just points towards an arrogance of the sort that so many of us despised back when we were students ourselves.

I'm not suggesting that we put students up on stage to make them feel good.

I'm not suggesting that we put students up on stage to make ourselves feel good.

I'm suggesting that we put students up on stage to hear what they have to say.

I want them to tell us that we suck at certain things.

I want them to tell us about the hypocrisies they see in our classrooms.

I want them to compare the ways they use tech in the classroom to the ways they use it in their cars.

I want them to give their impressions of what tech-savvy teachers are really like.

I want them to define 21st century skills.

I want them to frustrate us and remind us that we as teachers are only part of and not the center of the field of education.

I want them to stand up there without any of us holding their hands and tell it like it is, not as we'd like it to be.

There are plenty of exceptional kids out there. And I'm not talking about kids who 'do well' in school or have obvious artistic or athletic talents. I'm talking about the kids who are exceptional in the sense that they have the confidence to speak their minds, even if they aren't able to do so with precise academic tone and debate-team panache.

I want to see the kids who aren't prepped for the main stage take the main stage.

They might be perfects students. They may be trouble-makers. They may be student leaders. They may be total slackers.

But they are all students.

21st century students.

21st century students who speak their minds.

They're exactly who I'm not hearing from in this whole discussion of the new paradigm.

And they're exactly the ones who deserve to keynote ISTE 2010.

I think McLeod points out the real problem when he says:
I haven't seen many impactful student presentations in the sense that adults take the students SERIOUSLY and maybe actually change their mindset / practice as a result (of course I haven't seen too many adult-delivered presentations that do this either, but the level of condescension isn't the same).

The problem is us.

You, me, and the next guy.

Us and our collective inflated ego.

I'm glad that Scott and many of the folks who left comments on his original blogpost cited problems with student presentations, but expressed a desire to really hear what they had to say. Because the other point-of-view, that is to say the point-of-view that students fundamentally have nothing to say and can't change education -- or anything, for that matter -- is a totally cynical statement. Indeed, if our students can't effect change, then we haven't really educated them.

I want to thank Scott for sending over this discussion from years back. Looks like the discussion continues. I hope that this time, the kids get to take part in a meaningful way.


  1. The best presentations I've ever seen at a conference were the speakers at AVID Summer Institute (SI). SIs happen in multiple cities every summer. They have 4 or 5 AVID students speak in each city. They speak to 2000 or so teachers during a luncheon.

    They talk about their lives, school and their futures. They talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of school and life. It's amazingly powerful. Have you ever seen 2000 teachers wiping tears awaya? That's the power of student presenters.

    They didn't talk about technology. However, they did talk about why school was failing them and how they were failing school. They talked about the things that happened in the schools to get them going.


    No adult could ever deliever a message like these students. Hearing first hand about a classroom or teacher that ruined education for them. Then hearing about a classroom/program/teacher/coach/mentor/student who brought them back.

    I can't wait for SI next summer to hear what students are saying. It gave me inspiration, strategies and knowledge to use in my classroom.

    I vote for the kids!

  2. Nice to re-read that discussion! Can't believe that was two years ago.


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