What ISTE means to me: Innovative Systems Transforming Education

I chose education as a profession for social justice reasons. Since my draft number for Vietnam came up 311, it meant I wouldn’t have to go. I decided to fight a different war, closer to home, addressing the gaps in opportunity that could only be healed through learning and in 1973 began teaching music in Newark NJ. The technology available to me back then was a reel-to-reel tape deck, a Gibson Melody Maker and my recordOldDesk collection at home. My students explored imaginary worlds of sound and feeling inspired by Bela Bartok, Harry Partch, and a host of African American composers who were largely unknown, along with exploring the rich gospel and jazz legacy that was renewed from generation to generation outside our classrooms walls, alive in their community. Needless to say, this was not part of the approved curriculum, but the central office objections to my practices were never adequately enforced to hold us back.

We were not merely consumers of music, we were creators. As soon as my students could play three or four notes, we’d compose tunes and develop harmonies that allowed students to improvise over their creations. We put on community concerts, with 25-cent admission for kids and 50-cent admission for adults. After each concert, we raised enough money to go to a nearby pawnshop and purchase another horn, so another kid could join the band. We toured the state in mRosevilleKidsy VW bus, eventually performing on WBGO and getting a chance to record in a real studio, to see how real professionals created the music they heard on records and radio. What this taught me was that students will rise to and surpass whatever levels of expectation they are supported in experiencing directly.


The first half of my four-decade love affair with learning was “pre-EdTech” and once the Internet came into my classroom in 1991, I joined an enthusiastic community of professional educators who shared a vision and commitment to extend the benefits we saw for our students to every student. My first NECC conference (1994 in Boston) felt like Woodstock. It was inconceivable that there were so many thousands of us who “got it” and connected to share our hard-won learnings. Every ISTE conference since then has provided a tribal gathering of innovators who support each other and welcome those who will continue these efforts after we leave the bandstand.

Because the tough lesson is this: two or three decades are not enough to bring our innovative practices into the mainstream of common practice. Ever more powerful hardware and software, ever more capable networks and ubiquitous wireless is not enough to bridge the gaps between “schooling” and real life. With the prevailing focus on reforming education, we are missing what’s most important: transforming education.

At its heart, education is about improvement. There is no point to anything we do that doesn’t lead to some aspect of improving our understandings, abilities or creations. The more cynical among us have pointed out that brick and mortar schools will exist as long as there is a need for daycare for working parents: everything else is cosmetic. This is why the idea of technology integration is bittersweet: we were completely integrated into a siloed model that co-opted transformative opportunities to its own ends. The era of accountability has simultaneously driven the national upgrade of connectivity in our schools while absorbing the classroom time that was previously available to early pioneers of digital learning (both students and teachers).

EvidencePrismSmallInstead of education reform, as measured by increased test scores at state, district, school, classroom and student levels, we are now at a moment where we can advocate for the transformation that comes with personalization of learning, which in turn only becomes possible in technology rich settings.

True accountability means that we are serving the needs of learners, making sure that the time they spend, engaged with learning experiences we design, provide and make accessible, properly equip them with the dispositions and competencies they require to expand their opportunities for a lifetime. True accountability means maximizing the learning return on investment and wise use of scare resources (the most precious of which is time).

This is why for me ISTE means Innovative Systems Transforming Education. There is no other body of professionals from which these efforts will originate or be maintained. There is no better foundation from which to assure the sustainability of these efforts, which must necessarily span generations (since we are now entering our third generation awaiting the ubiquitous delivery on the promise from technology’s potentials). There is no worthier mission for educators to embrace, as we seek to liberate learning from locality: it shouldn’t matter where you live on this planet, you should be able to connect to the people, information and experiences you need to meet your current goals and prepare you for ever expanding goals.

Because the required transformation is to shift the focus from teaching to learning. In doing so, teachers as learners enter a bright new present, rather than focusing on some imagined future. We stand today on the shoulders of giants from prior generations (Dewey, Papert, Vygotsky…a nearly endless and inexhaustible roster) at a time when parents and employers increasingly demand that students gain the competencies tests can’t measure: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. The new ISTE Standards will reveal the collective wisdom of thousands of educators who’ve shaped this latest refresh, which can’t come too soon to meet this growing demand.

I’ll conclude with insights from Jeff Goebel, a consultant I’ve seen organize groups around challenges previously considered intractable, in a process he calls “Possibility Thinking”. We must address both the worst and best outcomes people have before transformation becomes possible.

“Worst outcomes are feared future outcomes, often based on past experience, with a presently experienced emotion and physical reaction. When people believe them, they affect their perceptions, beliefs, values and strategies. They tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies when strongly held.

Best outcomes are hoped for future outcomes, sometimes not previously experienced, but intensely imagined, with a presently experienced emotional and physical response. When people believe them, they affect their perceptions, beliefs, values and strategies. They tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies when strongly held.

Possibility Thinking is an acknowledgement that both worst and best outcomes are present and inherent in each moment, up to and often after the event. This balanced view allows the movement toward desired outcomes.”

I invite you to join in the possibility thinking that considering ISTE as the potential home for Innovative Systems to Transform Education provides.

Ferdi Serim

NMSTE Executive Director


Santa Fe, NM 87508

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Belief In Science

Courtesy of NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Belief In Science

Last night, I saw a post that said, “before Facebook, I just assumed we all believed in science” which first made me smile, but left me unsettled. The confusion is rooted in an implied, but poorly framed question: which is truer? science or faith? Belief and science are neither mutually exclusive, nor interchangeable. Apart from ideological battles that hijack science for political or economic ends, there is a disturbing quality to efforts that seek to place either science or belief in dominance over the other. Contemporary life requires, and is made far richer, by arriving at a balance of both world-views.

Science is about what can be observed, and explanations of what is observed, that are verified by repeatability over time. Science is not dependent on belief. Science holds truth as the best understanding that evidence and reason gives us access to at any moment. When one model or theory “disproves” prior understandings, we don’t mourn, we celebrate the advancement.

You can believe your way into error. Belief can cloud what we observe and how we interpret it, so beliefs are put aside, as much as possible, to arrive at unbiased “objective” observations, unprejudiced by investment in maintaining prior understandings. If there is any faith involved, it is faith in the PROCESS of science, rather than any particular findings. Error is defined as a departure from this process, often revealed when efforts to replicate findings by others using documented processes don’t work (think “cold fusion”). Science demands the courage to be wrong, to wrestle with confusion, and to be willing to replace what we thought we knew with what more reliably explains what we see.

People who develop the reasoning processes demanded by science are less likely to accept without question statements that relate to how things work (economic, political or practical) or what needs to be done.

Science doesn’t care about how you feel about any of this, thank you very much. Attempts to attach deeper meaning through science departed from the discipline shortly after the branch of metaphysics appeared.

Belief goes beyond what can be observed, with a goal of revealing truths that last beyond any human lifetime. Faith in these eternal truths, that can be revealed and provide deeper meanings to accompany our journey through the material world, is required. Often this faith is tested by “objective” experience. Replicability is not the highest master. Once is enough. Evidence, in its presence or absence, is beside the point. As. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

Communities of faith share belief systems, and Error is defined as a departure from these systems of belief. Science may explain this world, but for those who believe the material world is not the only, and certainly not our ultimate destination, it is essential that we use our time on earth to prepare for what comes after. Belief is inextricably linked with feeling. The awe, wonder, gratitude that accompany insights and understanding touch all the aspects of our being that are “off limits” to the scientific approach.

You can think your way into error. People can use ideas and words to twist beliefs to suit their own ends. History is filled with unending examples of how differences in belief have been used to justify the worst instances of violence, hatred and destruction. Each day, the news shows how adept despots and demagogues are at using thought to calculate strategies that mobilize mass beliefs to support personal, political and economic ends.

People who develop skill in aligning their beliefs and actions are less likely to accept without question statements that sidestep ethical, moral or social consequences.

Belief doesn’t care what you think about any of this, thank you very much. One can’t think one’s way into a new way of acting. One can only act one’s way into new ways of thinking.

It is not surprising that many of the scientists I’ve known are deeply spiritual people, though often they keep their beliefs within their personal circle of friends and family. It is also not surprising that many artists carefully follow and are inspired by the new understandings science provides into how our world works, and the incredible connections from subatomic to galactic levels. This is the richness that opens up to anyone and everyone who most fully develops and balances these two very human, very essential ways of being in the world. I for one am grateful that we have both.


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What is TechTonic Change?

Drawing from plate tectonics as a metaphor, the structures that support and underlie global learning (eg. land masses) are moving, colliding and reshaping learning landscapes every day. In TechTonics, the plates are global: cultural, economic, political, environmental “plates” all interact with technology, and are constantly in play. While these changes may not be evident inside the majority of our classrooms, they are prevalent everywhere else.

Forces have been building for decades. On the surface, little has changed. We still go to school (either to teach, or to learn, or both). We still follow a “one size fits all” curriculum, based on the time our seats are in chairs, instead of how the engagement of our hearts and minds leads us towards competencies and mastery.

In a planetary sense, we are passengers who witness with little opportunity to influence these staggering forces. Yet we are entering a new era where the application of more than three decades’ research into how people learn is beginning to create powerful TechTonic shifts. We can use these as LEVERS to begin shaping the changes in directions we’d like to see.

The introduction of technology into what my good friend Dr. Tom Ryan calls “the legacy model” of education does little to change the results. By itself, technology is value neutral…while it may get you where you’re going faster, if your destination was a dead end, you’ll only discover that sooner.

However, today’s destination of 21st Century learning requires that all learners (students, teachers, parents, community) move beyond scripts and formulas to become skilled improvisers, who know how to create learning paths to meet continually evolving goals. Learning to “play the changes” is a fundamental lesson for all jazz players, so I will draw on this source of insights, and apply them more widely to the interdisciplinary worlds of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) as well as C-STEM (which focuses on computational thinking, modeling, etc.) and STEAM (which adds the Arts).

In this blog, I share with you what my journey into digital learning has revealed over the past 30 years. The best part of this learning has been the relationships with innovators and pioneers, people who exemplify Anders Ericsson’s observations about investing 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. I will feature interviews and collaborations with these amazing folks here. My intent is to generate a working, living, breathing guide book we can use to navigate TechTonic Change in order expand and improve opportunities for all learners, everywhere.

Stay Tuned!


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