The Alan November Talk/Rant/Rally

Alan November

Yesterday, at the first annual TEP (Technology in Education Partnership) Conference (tagline: A Conference for the West of Us, as conferences usually take place in the east of the state near Boston), Alan November was the keynote speaker. At times  funny, sarcastic, optimistic and downtrodden by the state of education, November launched into an energetic discussion that certainly did its job: it got the crowd of technology leaders, school administrators and teachers talking and thinking.

He began with the critical question: who own the learning in our school? November argued that teachers do more of the work than students, and that the model has barely changed in the generations since public education became a backbone of our society. New technology has not revolutionized teaching practice, he said.

“We’ve bolted technology on top of a culture of learning that we have never questioned,” November said, and then urged us in the crowd to turn the tables on that notion. He then went into great detail about the concept of the Flipped Classroom, where teachers record lectures as pre-class homework and the use the class time for hands-on projects and learning. He shared some video from a Harvard professor doing research on the Flipped Classroom, but I could not help thinking: show me the Community College or the public high school, not just motivated Harvard kids.

November also said that the model of students working on isolated assignments, with teacher as sole audience, is out of sync with the learning styles of students. Instead, learning should be social, it should engage the lines of inquiry, and projects should allow students to “leave a legacy” for others behind them. The model now is that “you work all year and then, we throw out everything you did,” he mused.

Technology allows the building of legacies to happen, he said, and gave the example of a fanfiction site that has hundreds of thousands of young people writing stories. They write, get peer feedback, revise and publish to the world, but November said he was confronted by a teacher of  one of these young writers at a recent conference who did not the value of fanfiction.

November was incredulous that this teacher did not see the value of what was going on (the teacher complained that her student was not doing homework, only writing on the fanfiction site.) “And that’s a shame,” November said, of the teacher’s lack of insight. “That’s what real writers do. Writers write.”

In the end, November told us, it is not the tool or even the technology itself that we need to pay attention to. “Don’t think technology. Think kids,” he said, and expressed exasperation that all the talk of redesigning schools seems to lose track of this focus. “Forget redesigning schools. We need to realize that technology is not the revolution. It’s the internet” and the global information structure that allows for collaboration and project-based ideas.

At one point, he grilled the crowd on using Google as a search engine, asking us how to do a simple narrow query around schools in England that teach about the American Revolution. So few of us knew how to search for extensions for countries that he just shook his head at our lack of knowledge.

“And you are teaching our children,” he muttered. We’ve still got a ways to go.

Peace (in the conference),
  1. Good review. We do have a long way to go. I don’t know about how to search for extensions on Google. I would like to know more about that. Thanks for sharing – the conference must have been invigorating.

  2. I liked many of the things he said, but I didn’t like being yelled at. It’s a good lesson for me to pass on to my Oral Communications class. I also thought he was rude to people who were earnestly asking questions by interrupting them and scolding them. (Another point I will make to my speech-givers.) And I agree with you, Kevin, that I would have liked to see an experiment outside of Harvard.
    Hope your 8 am workshop went well!
    ~ T-Dawg

  3. I did not take the “yelling” as rude. I have been to several of Alan’s keynotes/workshops it is impatience with the slow pace of change in the educational system.
    Anyway, thinking abut how did highly educated students get into Harvard with out the skills necessary to be successful learners. For 12 years all we ask students to do is memorize facts and not question what the facts are and how they got to be facts. Facts are also fluid and change over time. It seems to me that the term 21st century skills is still just a slogan that educators and politicians use with out any real understanding of what it means. Until we start assessing for real 21st century skills we will not start teaching them.

    • Hi Jim
      I agree with the sloganeering of “21st Century Skills” and the need to put labels on things, and then …. little realistic movement ahead (thus, Alan’s impatience). In many ways, we focus too much on the tools and not enough on the learning, right? We sort of ran into this with our New Literacies project, in my opinion.
      I remember a talk that Charlie Moran gave a few years ago with the Western Mass Writing Project, in which he said something along the lines of your point, Jim. He said something like: Until the formal assessments show value to New Literacies, New Literacies will be sidelined by teachers and administrators who are trying to keep out of the harsh glare of potential government take-overs due to test scores of traditional testing. Charlie also worried that textbook companies were driving policies, and how can you not argue that isn’t the case in many states, right?
      I am hoping the state’s adoption of Common Core, despite its many flaws, may help in this regard, if we see its philosophical stances around media, technology and literacy as valid. The real question: will the new state assessment value that shift? That remains to be seen.

  4. Hello Kevin,

    I have to agree with Jim and Alan here. I didn’t really think that Alan was off-base or rude, in fact, I thought the audience itself was rude. I’ve never been to a conference where the audience challenged the assertion of the, invited, keynote speaker. I was dismayed that no one had heard of the flipped classroom, and I was annoyed at how far behind the trends the audience seemed to be.

    Maybe I’m the outlier in that I Tweet, have a PLN and prowl the internet reading edu-blogs, but I shouldn’t be the outlier. I should be the norm. I love teaching. I love literature. I want to jump up and down and say, “Come on guys! Come on! The good stuff is over here! Check it out.” But many of my colleagues just don’t seem that interested.


    Can’t wait to read about gaming in your next post. Love that stuff!!


    • Meg,
      The fact that Alan challenged the participates and some pushed back was the point. This is what the classroom should look like. This is the struggle the physics prof at Harvard was having. Bright capable students have been socialized to sit quietly and take notes. Also as Michael Wesch notes in “A vision of students today” the most “successful” students are the most passive.

  5. Was also there at the TEP conference, and have heard Alan many times. I didn’t feel insulted either, I was pretty much expecting it. He does tend to “transmit” a bit, and I agree it does come off as impatient, but I take it as a challenge. I have done some investigating of the model before and since the keynote, and there are indeed a number of public schools that are doing this, but so far everything I have seen is math and science, where assessment of mastery is a bit simpler than it is in the humanities. Here’s a Ning that I recently joined that has a lot of info, and several videos and webcasts on how it all works at the secondary level:

  6. Alan has just been to our school.
    I know this will seem rude but it seems he is pumping out the same material now which he was four years ago, but probably charging more for it.
    He needs a refresher on delivery.

  7. Having seen Alan as a guest speaker this past year, I tend to agree with the above comments. While the message is certainly thought provoking, and schools are perhaps focusing too much on the wrong applications of technology, I found his delivery to be arrogant and condescending. He was downright combative with one of my colleagues (though he later apologized). Another colleague who had seen his workshop three years earlier said it was the same material, right down to the Google search exercise. If you want to teach adults, don’t treat them like idiots.

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