Apr 19, 2013
Wednesday evening found me sitting in a ballroom at the
luxurious Phoencian hotel, nervously wondering if our little company would be
recognized at the GSV Education Innovation Summit. Preoccupied? A little self-absorbed? Guilty as charged.
But part way through the dinner, I was jittery for entirely different reason: the evening speaker, a former financial analyst and self-styled commentator, Andy Kessler, had launched into a diatribe against teachers. What he had to offer was unadulterated stupidity. Looking at the faces around me, I saw nothing but bewilderment and anger. The tweets started.
When Kessler had finished, there was a weak smattering of applause, signs of relief that he had finished. The evening's emcees took to the stage, looking stunned. They offered a toast to teachers. The evening rolled on.
I'm sorry the evening rolled on. Yes, EdSurge got a prize and I got to smile for the cameras--but I'm deeply sorry that I didn’t seize the moment, grab a microphone and challenge Kessler on the spot.
In the wake of that embarrassment, it's important to talk about why Kessler's remarks were not just inappropriate--but in fact, should be a rallying cry for every participant in the education technology community.
What do we know about learning? We know we learn from one another. We learn from great teachers.
All the products in the world--from pencils to laptops to adaptive software or robots--can only support what is inherently the most human process of all--teaching and learning. And teaching and learning are intrinsically rooted in caring, something that no silicon or software-based product can even remotely deliver.
Teaching and learning start at home. As parents, we then share the joy--and the challenges--of educating our children with teachers, people who care deeply about our children.
In Newtown, Conn., a teacher died using her body to try to shield a child from a gunman.
On that day, teachers steeled themselves--held themselves together--to protect children, instructing them to cover their eyes and hold hands and walk through carnage. They inspired us. They taught us with their actions.
How dare Kessler hold teachers in disdain.
The technology industry has long failed educators. It had failed for decades to produce tools that were usable in classrooms or schools. It instead sold to schools the same products that were designed for offices or factories and shrugged when teachers complained that the tools were not designed to work for them.
All that jazz about "listening to customers"? For decades, the technology world turned a deaf ear to education. It's as if GM slapped wings on the side of a Cadillac and tried to convince United to use the vehicle to fly people from one place to another.
And now education is hot. It's the industry of the moment, the place to be.
The three-day conference in Phoenix was a wonder: 1,400 people, the vast majority representing companies that are now eager to sell tools to educators. Make no mistake, this was a conference about business--about all the gears and mechanics of building companies, creating products, selling to customers and so on.
Can the industry support teachers and learning? Possibly. Great products can do it. Cars with wings won't. Great products are built when developers listen to their customers. Is the technology world listening to teachers?
Because technology has made it possible to look up every recorded fact with a few clicks of a smart phone, you could even argue that kids in the future won't need to know many facts at all. They won't need all those bits of standardized knowledge that we try to test them on.
Our children will need to know how to learn. They will need to be inspired and to know how to be inspirational. And that means they will need teachers.
It's up to the industry to prove that it's useful: up to the industry to prove that it can build tools that fit different teaching environments, different styles.
Technologists--or aging former financial analysts--who try to bully either teachers (or for that matter, parents) into thinking that technology is "the solution" are simply that: bullies.
The rallying cry that Kessler's talk should inspire is this: technologists should commit themselves to working very, very hard to understanding their customers: teachers and students.
"You say you want a revolution?"
So here it is: Industry has to change. Industry needs to listen deeply to its customers, to educators. So far, few companies have grasped the essence of education--that learning--great learning--comes from inspiration. It starts with curiosity and joy and wit. It starts with people. With teachers.
Listen to educators. Listen to our teachers. Build the tools they need--not the ones that are just easy for you to build.