What Teachers Need: An Ongoing Conversation with Education Leaders

Bonnie BraceyBy Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

[Note: This article grew out of a comment that Bonnie posted, on 4 May 2011, in response to Jim Shimabukuro’s “The Web As a Platform for Teacher Revitalization.” -Editor]

I know how lucky I am. Chris Dede was a mentor. Before he taught at Harvard, he was a professor at George Mason University. Back then, he sometimes visited my classroom, bringing students with him, and sometimes I got to be a part of his classes.

Chris was one of the mentors in the Christa McAuliffe NFIE (National Foundation for the Improvement of Education) program, and he worked with five of us, representing various diversity components: Native American, international, digital divide, supercomputing, and futuristic education. We were groomed to help classroom teachers and had frequent meetings with these experts, who shared resources, ideas, and thoughts with us.

The NFIE was funded by the NEA from member contributions on behalf of the astronaut who died in the shuttle accident. It is a private foundation within the NEA. Chris was my knight in shining armor in the NIIAC (National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council). I could present ideas to teachers, but I was just a teacher. Chris had a PhD. They listened to him, though they may have been amused by the things I said. He was my resource for the duration of the time I was on the council.

Seymour Papert was also one of our mentors, and we learned so much from him, though the school systems did not necessarily believe in his work. Here you can see why educators who had never met him might be wary. He was the American computer scientist who invented Logo, an educational computer programming language for children. (Can you say turtle and do you know much about Logo?) He co-founded the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. One of his often quoted statements is, “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge” (Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. NY: Basic Books, 1980). I learned a lot from him and took several courses in Logo. What happened is that schools tried to workbook Logo. It was exciting to learn, but the fight to keep it in schools was hard.

I also had the experience of being on the original board of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. I sat around the table with people who were known by their reputations in education, and we had face to face discussions.

There was also CILT (Center for Innovative Learning Technologies). This was a group of researchers, professors of education, teachers, and some industry people. I cannot tell you how powerful it was to be able to have the conversations in real-time and to talk to, say, James Comer, and others without an audience. I called them thinking sessions. Some of them are reflected in the work of the Edutopia web page — some of them not.

I live in Washington, DC, and can attend the National Academy of Science workshops and objective research initiatives. This is a priceless, wonderful way to learn from experts who have spent their life thinking about one or more special areas.

Then there is the education part of the Supercomputing Conference. It is like being Alice in Wonderland, wondering how to share the vision of the researchers and broaden participation to those who are not interested at all in much more than the social media.

I am not a good business person. I just want to share the resources so that people don’t fall away from education, thinking that we cannot solve the problems. But we, as Americans, have a lot of layers and a lot of ways to think about education. We find lots of ways to make learning interesting.

Conferences are expensive. I wish, however, that the community of knowledge workers and those who are in classrooms could meet in ways that are more personal. Thinking out loud in a journal like this is one way of changing the conversation.

Claude Almansi, ETCJ editor of accessibility issues, and I met, in person, some time ago. It is important to have this kind of sociocultural perspective. In a flat world, some topics are really interesting, cyberbullying, gaming, sex education, and cursive writing are hot topics. I wish that those who are across the digital divide had a larger part in the conversation.

Google, with Larry Page, is dedicating itself to knowledge. Hopefully, the convocation on the gathering storm, which was a beginning discussion of this topic, will come to pass with the revocation and change of NCLB. We have to make sure that fewer teachers are left behind. In this group, the PhDs are reaching out to the whole education community. What a wonderful place to be. We learn from each other.

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