ASCD 2011

I was sitting in the first of four sessions I attended at ASCD’s annual conference when the presenter asked all of us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors and discuss a particular prompt. I turned to my seatmate and said,”Hi, I’m Dan.”

“I was noticing your press badge,” she said, without introducing herself. “I have an implicit distrust of the press. Do you mind if I make up a fake persona?”

“You know what, don’t worry about it,” I thought, and discontinued the conversation as politely and quickly as I could.

Right. So I’m the press. The fourth estate. ASCD reached out to several local bloggers, offering to comp our registration in exchange for coverage. Let’s get into it. Here are the four sessions I attended in my first and only day at #ASCD11:

  1. Curriculum 21. Heidi Hayes Jacobs.
  2. Made to Stick. Chip Heath.
  3. Moving toward Mobile. Cheryl Davis & John Nickerson.
  4. They Snooze, You Lose: 10 Shots to Recaffeinate Your Presentation. Lynell Burmark.

You can ask any one of 9,000 educators for their impression of Chip Heath’s keynote. (Here is David Cohen with a nice take, for instance.) Lynell Burmark has been on this blog’s radar for a good three years. As someone who occasionally exchanges speaking services for checks made out to “Cash,” I figured I’d attend and see what tips I could pick up and perhaps inquire also about the design decisions that went into the cover of her last book. I took off when it became apparent that I probably wasn’t her target audience.

So I’m only recapping the sessions from Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Davis & Nickerson.

Curriculum 21

Jacobs was an ASCD featured speaker and she gave a confident talk at TEDxNYED a few weeks ago so I settled in. Her recommendation was for both short-term and long-term upgrades to our schools: a) teachers need to make one-to-one replacements of curricula while b) administrators need to replace old systems with new ones, all supporting 21st-century learning. She had both the microscopic and macroscopic lenses. It was a talk that let no one off the hook. No matter what your role in a child’s education, she had a job for you.

My seatmate and I never really recovered from our contentious introduction but even setting that aside, I was irritated throughout most of Jacobs’ talk. I found it difficult to pin down the specific, gnawing source of the irritation but here are some possibilities:

Jacobs pitched her products nine times over ninety minutes — six references to her book, three references to the website of her consultancy.

She recurred frequently to catchphrases (ie. “Paper. Is. Over,” “I have met the enemy: the #2 pencil.”) They were bombastic and guaranteed to pop up a few times on the #ASCD11 hashtag but they were only meaningful to the extent that you brought to them your own meaning.

Her style was passive-aggressive and frequently sarcastic. After dazzling the crowd with a Gapminder demo, she said, “Don’t use it. Use your laminated charts instead.” After demonstrating Wordle and Visual Thesaurus, she said, “Or don’t use them. They’re free.”

Her implementation designs were sketchy. I very much appreciated that she came with a particular rubric to guide our replacements. They should either a) give students more ownership, b) engage them more, c) or create a more quality product. (I’m not saying those are the exact elements I’d choose. I’m just glad she had something more than “new = better.”) Also, she emphasized several times that it wasn’t enough that students are creating new media like (eg.) podcasts – they need to create good podcasts.

Still, she spent a lot of stage-time demoing web apps, dazzling her audience into submission to her message (the times, you see, they are a-changing) with much less clarity on what educators are supposed to do with those apps. For instance, with Wordle and Visual Thesaurus, she recommended students run their essays through Wordle to identify the most frequently-used words and then run those words through Visual Thesaurus to swap them out with synonyms – a find-and-replace strategy that sounds just about right for churning out flimsy essays overburdened with fifty-cent vocabulary. We moved quickly along to the next tool.

Her embrace of new media was quick and uncritical. TED talks? “Students should be giving TED talks.” iOS apps? “By the end of eighth grade every student should create an app.” Screenplays? “I rarely find a school that requires every student to write a screenplay.”

She checked herself there and clarified that screenplays are a 20th-century medium – Curriculum 20 not Curriculum 21. The implication was, I guess, that if the medium has a born-on date older than eleven years, it deserves our skepticism.

Nevertheless, she was enthusiastic about screenplays and I couldn’t really figure it. See, I’ve written short ones and it is a weird medium. Have a look at 2010’s Academy Award-winning best original screenplay:

The camera direction. The blocking. The capitalization. The margins. None of that has anything to do with narrative. None of it is comprehensible to the average reader. None of it serves any purpose unless the screenplay eventually interacts with actors, directors, cinematographers, and so on, en route to the screen. So why, again, are we supposed to assign this idiosyncratic medium to students? Jacobs took the question for granted.

Ditto iOS apps, for a different reason. A student can write an excellent persuasive essay about any area of her expertise without any instruction in how to use a word processor. An excellent app, on the other hand, requires much more extraneous knowledge – Objective-C, for instance, or the Javascript/HTML5/CSS stack. If Jacobs is serious about requiring apps from eighth graders, does she plan on every school offering coursework in those programming languages? And, if so, what is her plan for recruiting those CS teachers from the middle school ranks? Where does she intend to find room for those required classes in the master schedule? Or are we just assuming the students will figure out how to program iOS apps? (“Haven’t you heard, Dan? These kids don’t read instruction manuals.”) Or maybe Jacobs isn’t serious. If she isn’t serious – if she hasn’t considered even the most basic logistical implications of what she’s recommending to thousands of educators – why would she say these things?

“I really mean this.” She said this several times throughout her talk, usually before some grand pronouncement like, “I don’t think any of you can improve Johnny’s performance. The only person who can improve Johnny’s performance is Johnny.” The effect was to make the audience wonder if she really meant what she said when it wasn’t preceded by this explicit assurance that she really meant it.

This was, I suppose, the nut of my irritation with Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ talk. While she heaped responsibility onto the attending teachers and principals, she failed to acknowledge any for herself. What responsibility should you, a consultant, acknowledge for a ninety-minute presentation? For starters, you should acknowledge that you are a consultant giving a ninety-minute presentation. You should acknowledge, if only to yourself, that unless you’re especially vigilant you’ll always favor simple solutions, grand pronouncements, and bombasticism over the details of implementation. You should acknowledge the vast gap in responsibility between you, the consultant, and the audience members, all of whom work with children in classrooms where the constraints on the imagination are much, much tighter than they were for you when you were at your desk reading TechCrunch or Seth Godin. Just like love means never having to say you’re sorry, being a responsible presenter means never having to say you really mean what you’re about to say.

Moving Toward Mobile

Is it a coincidence that the most effective session of the four I attended was the only one whose title wasn’t the same as a book the presenters were hawking? It has to be a coincidence.

Speaking in a much smaller room to a standing-room-only crowd, Davis and Nickerson described their district’s transition from traditional print-based curricula to iPads, iPod Touches, and predominantly digital resources. I can’t recall a single catchphrase from their talk. Instead, they described the content of the bond measures they passed, their outreach to the community, their constant attention to stakeholders within and without their school, their constant evaluation of new technology. (Here is their evaluation form.) They spoke of infrastructure – the wireless vendors that came out of the woodwork at first sign of an RFP and how the school tested each vendor by attempting to stream thirty HD movies from the same router at once. They spoke of professional development – how they sent new devices home with the teachers for the summer, how they involved teachers in micro-level discussions about implementation and macro-level discussions about philosophies of learning.

Their presentation wasn’t bombastic. (Bond measures!) But it was tightly organized and incredibly helpful. (Here are their slides.) They wrangled a large audience using a TodaysMeet backchannel and PollEverywhere. Their talk was extremely practical but it was impossible not to be inspired also.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I am also at the ASCD conference (and happened to run into Dan in the exhibit hall on day 1), and my colleagues and I stumbled upon Derek Cabrera’s session on Metacognition. If you have never heard of him (which I had not) you should check out his work. I think readers of this blog would be interested in what he and his colleagues are doing. Rather than trying to sell us his book, he is so passionate about his work that he just handed out free copies and encouraged us to learn more. He is all about finding ways for students to build knowledge so that we can educate a generation of students who can think and problem solve rather than memorize and regurgitate. We were happily overwhelmed and can’t wait to learn more.

  2. Wow…definitely more fun reading your post than it might have been attending the conference. I wish you could’ve attended more sessions.

  3. Dan,
    Thanks for the thoughtful reflection. Although you said you weren’t sure why you didn’t love the Jacobs talk, I found your critique to be specific and insightful. I’m already thinking about a number of aspects that you address.

    Use of sarcasm: Boy, I’m a big fan of sarcasm (no, I’m not being sarcastic…or should I plug this into Visual Thesaurus and say facetious). It can add humor and a lightness that I find refreshing after slogging from one conference session to another. That said, it can’t come across as being condescending. Unfortunately, sounds like this happened yesterday.

    Catch-phrases: It’s important to name things. Otherwise, it’s just harder to communicate. That said, I think it’s important to give things meaningful names. I hate…and I don’t use that term lightly…”21st century learning.” It’s a big catch phrase at my current school and even here it means fifty different things (while I have a tendency to exaggerate, this isn’t one of those cases). In many cases, it simply means justifying what people are already doing in their classrooms (I support 21st century learning by…ummm…having a class website for homework). Instead of just complaining, though, there are three big take aways for me:
    1. Just because we need to rethink how we teach doesn’t mean all of our old ways and tools (such as number 2 pencils) are bad
    2. When someone uses the eduspeak term of the day, feel free to be impressed but also ask them what they really mean if you’re not sure
    3. Any term (including WCYDWT, SBG, and my baby “mathematical habits of mind”) will inevitably take on multiple meanings as it becomes mainstreamed. This is why I think it is so important that schools develop their own meanings that are consistent and that are most helpful in meeting their own students’ needs.

  4. I’m enthusiastic about screenplays, but that’s because I write them. And they can be extremely useful when you’re trying to teach elements of narrative, careful word choice (think of it as a form of poetry), character traits, delivering the most information clearly in the least amount of space, subtext, etc. etc.

    Should every student be required to write one? Um… no. Well, maybe if only so we don’t get the continual influx of people who think writing scripts is an easy career that any bozo can do. Kind of like how they view teachers these days.

  5. So…kudos to you for contributing to my Progress Report Procrastination Mission…I just read the entire screenplay for The King’s Speech. And my progress reports loom larger…Somehow not doing something doesn’t get it done.

  6. Weird. I was using Heyes-Jacob’s TEDx talk with my Sup’t and it hit a nerve for her. So much so, she wanted me to help her unwrap what those ideas might mean for our district. For that, I’m thankful.

    But the picture you paint isn’t very flattering. I always remember something from Doug Johnson when he talked about the art of the presentation. He said something like, “they may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel”. That’s always stuck with me and so when you speak of her use of sarcasm and blind ideas of implementation, it was clear she didn’t make you feel very good. I don’t think anyone can present an idea without at some level connecting with the audience. It seems she missed that here. It also seems that a demo of a tool is supposed to be her idea of implementation. I do like the idea of providing some quick, easy ideas along with a plan to adopt more challenging ideas of depth.

    Thanks for the recap, always enjoy your take.

    Glad you made it alive out of Canada. That’s not always the case.

  7. I got hung up in this review entirely by two very related things, (1) how I have felt the difficulty “to pin down the specific, gnawing source of the irritation” frequently in talks, and (2) what is this “one-to-one replacement of curricula.”

    So, I watched 17 min. of a TEDxNYED talk (maybe in about 5 min). I was irritated, so I get that. Ms. Jacobs did mention the notion of each teacher changing one lesson (I think?) or maybe one thing about one lesson?

    That seems, in a very surface way, problematic–say an average lesson in a school is 3 days long. That’s maybe 40 lessons per year (accounting for testing season, pep rallies, etc.). That might be a bit slow. I read a paper in one of NCTM’s Teacher Journals years ago that suggested a teacher ought to work on changing about 10% of what they do each year. That still seemed very feasible, conservative, but also problematic. But at least much more interestingly so, from a mathematical standpoint.

    What I really itched about was the talk was quite useless to the teacher concerned with developing the child’s logico-mathematical mind (the relationships that are formed by individuals in their own minds), as opposed to being concerned with developing Social knowledge and Physical knowledge.

    The question for me is, what aspects of the life of the 21st century student/child ought to be attended to more intentionally in schools so that we do not stymie the growth of logico-mathematical knowledge, and maybe even possibly provoke its growth.

  8. I think that people who are have an authentic interest in their field of work (beyond paying a mortgage), unfortunately, suffer at conferences for being so far from the center of the bell curve.

    Catch-phrases are for simplification (maybe sarcasm is, too?). They condense a broad corpus of knowledge into an easily digestible and mostly true bite. They’re like an approximation or a trendline; sometimes they’re all that’s needed.

    The problem is that some of us are actually interested in these things. I don’t want the soundbite. I want the complex understanding.

  9. Where’s the party? From the Feedburner results I see, you’ve catapulted over 7K readers, Dan! Congratulations! Watching that number reach 7000 was a close second to the App store’s 10 Billion march. Kudos.

  10. I heard Jacobs speak at a conference not too long ago and left with a very similar feeling. I was annoyed, but didn’t want to exert the energy to figure out why. I felt like she was being condescending, left it at that, and moved on to the workshops. This blog expressed exactly how I felt, but much more eloquently. Thank you for the review.

  11. I think Dean highlights an interesting point. that is if you are not in the middle of the 21st Century teaching revolution (sorry for the catch phrase) than her talk would be very inspiring.

    I just read Heidi’s book recently (Curriculum 21) and I found her Tedx Talk to be basically a quick and dirty summary with a bit of sarcasm on the side.

    The book itself I found to be her take (Well a compilation of others as she was editor) on a lot of the educational reform buzz I get within my PLN.

    So yes Dan I can see why her presentation would turn you off. Her presentation wasn’t or shouldn’t have been meant for you. It was meant to excite and inspire people to look at education a bit differently.

    However, I think your basic problem with the presentation was dead on. She is a consultant and should take more care in being reasonable with her suggestions. That the changes and reforms she would like to implement are more complex than just identifying a #2 pencil as the enemy. ASCD should have been a conference where she didn’t have to inspire teachers in a technological revolution, but rather give some concrete details on how and why it should be used to elevate our curriculum.

  12. Brendan: So yes Dan I can see why her presentation would turn you off. Her presentation wasn’t or shouldn’t have been meant for you. It was meant to excite and inspire people to look at education a bit differently.

    My irritation with her talk wasn’t due to boredom or the fact that I’d already heard of a “wiki.” I found her irritating because she misled her audience time and again about the difficulty of upgrading the technological landscape of their classrooms. As I’ve pointed out, her solutions were very loosely sketched (eg. screenplays and iOS apps) and then she treated us like we were idiots for not immediately seeing their worth.

    I don’t see how that behavior becomes more acceptable when the audience knows less about the content of your presentation. The reverse seems true to me.

  13. Wow Dan, that’s a bold reflection there. I agree that it’s much more fun reading your version than it likely would have been to be there. I can see what you’re saying about the difference between Jacobs talk and the Davis and Nickerson talk – that really crystallized what was so bothersome about it. Heidi is still loved and generally people love hearing her message. Do you think it’s possible that her popularity has somehow created a disconnect between herself and what teachers are actually doing (or should be doing) as she is so focused on the presentation and her work? Thanks for your thoughts!

  14. Dan,

    I enjoyed reading your perspectives on the conference of such a large “educationally-focused” organization. After years of conference-attending, I am finding much less enthusiasm in doing so; rather, I would love an opportunity to interact in real-time genuine discussions with some of the people whose blogs I read and some of the people whose published works I have been mulling around in my head. I had attended a 3-day workshop by Jacobs at least 20 years ago when I was teaching in TX. Her focus then was on cross-content curriculum.

    I am somewhat suspect of people who have made their fortunes as ‘consultants,’ without any demonstrated comittment to effecting positive change (i.e. update your message to fit the times, publish a new book, get paid substantial sums of money to peddle your message and increase your earnings). I think many times these types of consultants allow educators to maintain their cynicism and belief that “this too shall pass” and promote the maintenance of the status quo in teaching. Yet, there are many people who work as consultants and educational speakers, or who research and publish literature on effective educational practice who have messages that would be of value for educators to hear and think about (Will Richardson, Tony Wagner, Chris Lehman to name just a few).

    How do we not lose sight of the benefit of “hearing” their messages? Or your messages about the teaching of mathematics? (As an aside, I have followed your blog for quite some time; as a former teacher of mathematics, I find it to be very compelling. I have referenced it many times in discussions with the math teachers in my school. I do not think many have looked at it; unfortunately, I am not sure some see value in looking at anyone else’s work and perspectives – which is the basis of my concerns expressed here).

    Again, thank you for sharing your perspectives. I will be attending ISTE this summer (I will be part of a panel-discussion regarding the use of netbooks in a somewhat 1-1 environment). Your post has given me some food for thought about how I will select the sessions I attend.

  15. Dan,

    I’m put off a little by your reaction to the lady sitting beside you. I would also be a little cautious about revealing much about myself to someone who self-identified as a member of the press. Maybe if you mentioned something like “I blog about math education”, then things would have been more amicable.

    Also, didn’t the 21st century start 10 years ago, not 11?

    Those small critiques aside, being in IT, I’m familiar with ideologues with grand pronouncements about weak ideas being invited speakers, and it is definitely a nerve-wracking thing, especially if you notice people around you buying into it, smiling, and nodding in agreement to things that would be impossible to implement.

    Thanks for the coverage.

  16. Thanks for the coverage.

    The links from the mobile devices slides didn’t work, nor does the one for the evaluation tool you posted. Can you re-post the evaluation pdf again. Thanks.

  17. I just saw Heidi Hayes Jacobs give the same talk today at the Partnership for Global Learning conference. I certainly mean the same, since it had this same irritating hallmarks you pointed out. I also say the same because it seemed like she didn’t adjust her talk at all, calling us out for not doing things that we, as a network, ARE doing and even talked about at this very conference. Not a good feeling.