Lessons from ISTE 2017

Muscling through gut churn, raising our voices in Washington, learning to “fail forward” and addressing the “bravery gap” in our discussions about STEM were just some of the heartfelt messages delivered by the keynote speakers at this year’s ISTE conference. Here is a roundup of takeaways.


Jad Abumrad. ISTE.

Jad Abumrad, host and producer, “Radiolab”

Negativity actually exists for a reason. There is a usefulness to feeling bad.

Endure the gut churn. Abumrad described “gut churn” as that place “where everything seems formless and uncertain,” with no clear road map for moving forward. Embrace this experience, he advised, citing lessons he learned from the early days of “Radiolab.” He recalled his struggles around speaking in his own voice and pushing through long periods of creative emptiness and self-doubt. These experiences have value, Abumrad said; they are the only way to produce beautiful, authentic work. “There are no shortcuts,” he said. “You have to just sit there in that annoying and horrible emptiness and wait for authenticity.”

Do a lot of work. Abumrad talked about a battle that occurs in the creative process called “the gap,” a term used by “This American Life” host Ira Glass to describe the disconnect between good ideas and work that falls short. This disconnect is normal, Glass said in a recording. “Everybody goes through that.” The only way to push through this phase is by doing a lot of work, Glass said. He recommended setting goals with hard deadlines to help encourage consistent practice. “It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions,” he said.

Embrace the negative moments. “There is a utility in that negative mind state,” Abumrad said. We need moments when we feel good about our work, but we also need moments when we realize the work isn’t good enough yet, he said. Those moments act as a thrust, Abumrad said, moving us from one idea to another until we find the one that works. “Negativity actually exists for a reason,” he explained. “There is a usefulness to feeling bad.”

Brave the “German forest.” Producing great work will hurt, Abumrad said, recalling a difficult documentary project about Wagner that put him in a place he referred to as the “German forest,” a state of intense pressure and anxiety. When you find yourself in this place, Abumrad said, keep going — keep working. Don’t let fear and uncertainty throw you off course; you will find your way out of the darkness.

“That terror takes on a new character because now it’s framed by this knowledge that you’ve made it out a couple of times,” he said. “It’s almost as if you get to a slightly higher altitude, where you can see the tips of the trees, and you see this thing for what it is. This is a tool.”


Richard Culatta. ISTE.

Richard Culatta, chief executive officer, International Society for Technology in Education

We have the technology available to customize and tailor learning experiences for students, to meet their interests, to meet their passions, every day.

Raise your voice in Washington. It’s important that policymakers in Washington understand the work educators do, Culatta said. He spoke about ISTE’s commitment to keeping education’s needs front and center in Washington. He referenced a previous ISTE campaign that included calls, emails and letters about modernizing the e-rate program. More than 7,000 letters from ISTE members were delivered to the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Education and Congress.  “It was your voice that helped transform our Wi-Fi access in 30% of schools to 80% of schools, as of this year,” he said.

And it’s time to help again, Culatta said. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget eliminates funding for edtech initiatives and cuts dollars for professional development, he explained. Culatta encouraged educators to participate in a new letter-writing campaign aimed at persuading Congress to preserve dollars in these areas. “Congress — not the president — decides the final budget,” he said. “They need to hear your voice.”

Ditch one-size-fits-all instruction. Learning should be tailored for all students, Culatta said. He told the story about a school visit in New York where students in a classroom were divided into groups and worked on different activities. Students in one group, in the front of the classroom, were working on computers. A second group was going through an exercise with the teacher. And in the back of the room, a third group was collaborating on a project. Just before the end of class, everyone stopped working and participated in a quiz. The quiz, Culatta said, didn’t count toward the students’ grades — it was simply to take a pulse of what they had done that day. When the students returned the next day, they found a list on the wall outlining their group and activity assignments. The assignments were based on the activities and progress of the previous day.

Technology can help us make this standard classroom practice, Culatta said. “We have the technology available to customize and tailor learning experiences for students, to meet their interests, to meet their passions, every day,” Culatta said. “Technology can make that happen.”


Jennie Magiera. ISTE.

Jennie Magiera, chief program officer, EdTechTeam

[P]eople were picking up what I was putting down, but I wonder? Was that intimidating? Did I not share my whole story?

View failure as a learning opportunity. Educators often tout the benefits of helping students learn to “fail forward.” Harvard University has developed a program to help students cope with failure, and Gatorade’s latest campaign calls for channeling failure into success with the tag line: “Make Defeat Your Fuel.” Teaching is a realm where it can be challenging to embrace failure, but failure presents learning moments for educators, and educators should not be afraid to tell the often untold stories of failure on the road to innovation, Magiera said.

Consider: Are you telling the whole story. Magiera noted that when she first started presenting at conferences, she highlighted her successes. Sessions included catchy topics, such as using technology to clone herself in the classroom. “My students didn’t have Wi-Fi and devices at home, so I would create short videos for centers so they could have differentiated instruction while I would be in a small group, and I thought: Wow, this is so cool, I’m going to show everyone, and people were picking up what I was putting down, but I wonder? Was that intimidating? Did I not share my whole story?”

Tell the untold stories. Magiera had success with the “cloning” instructional approach. “I did create differentiated math videos for my students, and I did put them on all of their iPads, and I did come in on Saturday and sync them, and they did put on the headphones and watch the videos, and I did bask in the room of 37 9-year-olds that were completely silent and thought: Truly, I am a wizard.” But there was more to the story, she noted.

“I didn’t tell people about what happened next. I looked over, and a little girl giggled, and I thought: That’s weird, how is the volume of a pyramid funny? And as I looked closer at the iPad, I saw that I did not, in fact, sync the video of the volume of a pyramid, but instead, the 2010, raunchy comedy classic ‘Hot Tub Time Machine.’ ”

Don’t give up. “I could have given up at that point. I could have said: That’s it; let me pack my teacher bag; I’m out. But, instead, we had a learning conversation as a class,” Magiera said. “I called a lot of parents and had a lot of conversations with parents. I talked with my principal, and I overcame it.”


Reshma Soujani. ISTE.

Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO, Girls Who Code

We have to teach our girls to be brave. We have to teach our girls to invite imperfection.

Know that women are the solution. “If you talk to business executives, they will tell you that their No. 1 problem is that they can’t find enough engineers,” Saujani said. “Women are the ones who can close the talent and innovation gap in this country.” But there is a problem. “Year after year after year, we are losing women going into this field,” she noted. “In 1995, 37% of our technology workforce were women. Today, it’s 24%. In 2025, it is predicted that it will be worse; it will be 22%.”

Recognize the bravery gap. So what’s contributing to the decline of women in the technology workforce? “I have been thinking a lot about [how] we raise our girls to be perfect, and we raise our boys to be brave,” Saujani said. “From a young age, we tell our girls to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s, don’t get your dress too dirty, and we teach our boys to climb to the top of the mountain and jump off headfirst,” she said. “So by the time our boys are adults, they’re risk-takers; they are comfortable with rejection. Us, not so much. We don’t like rejection, and it’s because for so long, we’ve been coddled; we’ve been protected.”

Help girls move beyond the “perfection or bust” mentality. “I see this play out at Girls Who Code all the time,” Saujani noted. “Teachers tell me the exact same story: When girls are first learning how to code, the student will call her teacher over, and she’ll say, ‘I don’t know what code to write.’ ” The teacher likely will see a blank screen, and “if her teacher didn’t know any better, she will think her student, for the past 20 minutes, has just been staring at the screen, but when the teacher presses ‘undo’ a few times, she’ll see that her student wrote code but deleted it.” Girls would rather show nothing at all than their progress; it’s “perfection or bust!” Saujani said. But, “[we] have to teach our girls to be brave. We have to teach our girls to invite imperfection.” Coding can help. “If a line of code is in the wrong place, you have to do it over and over and over again. You have to sit with imperfection; you have to revel in challenge.”

Editor's Note: Article images courtesy of ISTE

Melissa Greenwood is the director of education content at SmartBrief. Kanoe Namahoe is the editor of SmartBrief on EdTech and SmartBrief on Workforce.

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