Tingling Currents of Thought

Source: SpideySense is Tingling - http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/images/2008/04/17/tingling.jpg

At first, I thought we were in for a big expose of all the charlatans that haunt the edublogosphere and end up as speakers in places where the people just lack the sophistication, the energy to read online. Dr. Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant) starts out with Willard Daggett, Ruby Payne--both of whom I had to deal with in different school districts I worked with, having to study their work only to find out now that they are (gasp) EXPOSED as fakes--and then moves on to a short list that, not surprisingly, includes some of my all time favorite speakers, including David Warlick, Doug Johnson, Ewan McIntosh, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, and Wesley Fryer.

Update 01/01/2009: Ewan asks if he's on the list of fakes. Obviously, he missed the bold section above which lists him as one of my all time favorite speakers. So again because my original text was not clear, here is--for what it's worth--my stamp of approval on the folks listed: David Warlick, Doug Johnson, Ewan McIntosh, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Tom March, Bernie Dodge, Dr. Scott McLeod, and Wesley Fryer. What? Gary Stager doesn't like my list? (smile)

Now, I'll admit to a bias in the case of Doug Johnson and Wes Fryer--I've been reading their writing for at least a decade, maybe two (I'm sure Doug is published in some stone tablets somewhere (grin) that I haven't read yet). David Thornburg, Tom March and Bernie Dodge are also among my favorites.

I found this comment made on Scott's blog intriguing, but I find the dichotomy too either-or. I seldom find this to be so clear as Jackie Gerstein points outs...well, perhaps only in the case of a big celebrity. I often remember how disgusting ascribing celebrity status to any one speaker is...when it's done to me, a part of me revolts and says, "Hey, I'm a human being, too!" I've played this game with David Warlick and Wes Fryer, both colleagues and, dare I say friends, who I admire when they assume the mantle of consultant as expert. But in both cases, it is the experience of being in the room with them that I'm after, not what they'll actually teach me.

Jackie Gerstein writes:

The consultant-as-the-expert is quite different than the consultant-as-a-facilitator.

The consultant-as-the-expert, as the sage on this stage, is often revered by the audience. Later, he or she is spoken about with great fervor around the water fountain with comments like, "Wasn't she or he amazing?" The consultant as the facilitator allows participants to walk along side and then in front of him or her. The workplace atmosphere, in this case, becomes, "Aren't WE amazing?"

The fact is, we all ARE amazing. This deifying of certain individuals isn't fooling anyone anymore (Dagget's days are numbered as a speaker, in other words) as more people get connected and online.

In my own selection of a speaker, I am looking for someone that will advocate a particular agenda (mine, obviously) to the benefit of the organization. Often, organizations don't want to hear the bad news from in-house folks. I'm reminded of this Chris Argyris quote:

Experience shows that organizations have the most difficulty at learning when the problems are difficult and embarrassing or threatening precisely when they need learning most. An organizational defense is a policy, practice, or action that prevents the participants (at any level of the organization) from experiencing embarrassment, or threat, and, at the same time prevents them from discovering the causes of the embarrassment or threat.

So, in the speaking engagements--the fly you in, speak, fly you out kind that Gary Stager has complained about (sorry, no link but it was memorable!)--that I've participated in, I've actually had the organizational representative tell me that this was why they selected me to give the talk I gave.

In my youth, I would have resented such manipulation when delivering a hands-on workshop. I still remember when I was called in to provide professional development for a teacher who had left the Texas Border Patrol to avoid learning how to use computers; imagine his shock when he found he had to learn how to use technology in the small central South Texas school district I was invited to present at!

Yet, since I moved from workshop facilitator to conference speaker, I have had a lots of fun preparing for my presentations. . .it's a different experience for me...I no longer care WHY I'm being asked in, I'm too busy having fun letting myself "off the leash." Simply, I have a fun being a speaker; I can only hope the folks in the audience feel that way, too.

In the interests of transparency, I once felt that I had to be up on the latest and greatest in ed-tech...but, I've had a change of heart. After watching so many edubloggers make good as professional speakers, I recognize that the standards have changed. Before I outline what those standards are, I'd like to touch briefly on some of the excellent one-word points Scott makes; my opinions follow the dash.
  1. Accuracy - While accuracy is important, we now live in a world where anyone can fact-check you DURING your presentation. The focus has to be on providing engaging access to primary sources of data, not just citing data or ensuring its accuracy. I'm sure this has always been true but we continue to achieve a higher level of expectation.
  2. Currency - Keeping yourself fresh and current is important but when you have access to a world of learners and teachers, the emphasis has to be on being current with real-life, verifiable examples...simply, helping others to better understand the lives of real people in the context of research and data.
  3. Transparency - I often feel that the qualitative researcher's expectation for confessing his/her bias in a study has found its way into other aspects of life. In addition to being transparent in our thinking, we also have to make it possible for our audience to become a part of that thinking through audience engagement...simply, invite them to be transparent themselves.
  4. Service - Scott shares that it is about the organization, not us. I've found the priests and priestesses of an organization are about ensuring that the message and changes recommended by the speaker are hard-hitting, that they transcend the organization's present troubles and obstacles. Service, for me, often implies subjugating one's will to that of the organization...but we know that some organizations are best served when one shows up, as a famous speaker and leader said, to set the world on fire.
Those are just some quick thoughts about what Scott said. Let me switch gears and share what speaking is all about now.

Source: Mountain Stream Swimming, Sungubala Mountain, Royal Natal National Park

“It is not what we learn in conversation that enriches us. It is the elation that comes of swift contact with tingling currents of thought.” -Agnes Repplier
This quote really captures what being a speaker is for me today. In fact, the flip side of the learning blog is this participation in the flow of conversation that sets us all a-tinglin'. Sometimes, though, one can be over-stimulated (smile) and get "ho-hum." The more I learn, I'm no longer interested that David Warlick is using PmWiki.org to power his speakers wiki or Wordpress for his blog or downloading YouTube videos to embed in his presentations or that he has some factoid that will knock my socks off. I'm actually engaged by the way he presents, how he shares what he is learning or conversing about...and how that happens makes all the difference.

So, with that Repplier quote in mind, here are some of the new expectations for speakers.

New (but getting old quick) Expectations
  • Visionary, pie in the sky presentations that build on the changing student demographic (you know, citing the Pew Internet research, pick your study) and what that means for teaching, learning and/or leadership. A few short helpful tips on how to become a lifelong learner using the Read/Write Web, personal learning networks, and all that.
  • Listening to a Conference speaker now is an experience that is increasingly participatory "a la 2.0." Successful speakers must engage the audience as much as possible through multimedia, Web 2.0 communication tools (e.g. Twitter), and stories that are personally relevant, even if it means involving someone from somewhere else...including the audience who is live blogging and narrowcasting the event via audio, video, live-blogging to the point that if your regular blogger didn't catch it, you know someone did.
  • The oddball anecdote, "new story" or statistic that validates, that affirms what we're doing in schools while uncovering a fresh approach, an "Aha! I missed that but I see that the approach is a refinement to what I'm doing!"
  • Razzle-dazzle images on dark background that visually stimulate and engage.
What are your thoughts/reflections?

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Gary said…

Happy New Year!

I haven't been named on either your or Scott's list of conference speakers. Perhaps I should be relieved not to have been associated with some of the other folks listed.

I've been wanting to write about conference speakers for some time now. Perhaps you and Scott are forcing my hand.

In any event, I'd like to make a couple of quick comments.

1) My quote you alluded to is "Some speakers get shot by pneumatic tube from the airport, to behind the podium and then back again without spending an extra minute interacting with attendees or defending, extending, clarifying or supporting the arguments made during the keynote."

This demonstrates callous disregard for the sponsoring organization, the attendees and remarkable superficiality on the part of the speaker.

Yet, they keep getting hired. In fact, the more aloof and superficial they are, the more popular and wealthier they become.

When I am invited to speak at a conference I appreciate how important it is to "do the hang." I go to meals, hang out in the lobby until 3 AM with attendees, run extra sessions, offer a Q&A hour following the keynote, speak to the media and anything else I can do to make the event an educational success.

I know how important it is for educators to meet people who inspire them and challenge their thinking. That is only partially accomplished from on stage.

2) I WISH I shared your optimism that some of the most shocking charlatans would be run out of business. I've yet to see it happen in 26 years.

3) I'm not sure I share affection for the successful speaker techniques you shared at the end of the blog.

4) It would be nice if educational institutions valued the kind of work I prefer to do with schools (see http://tinyurl.com/5rmtw8) over an hour of schtick, but they don't. That's the reality. We live in a celebrity/show-biz culture.

5) There should be greater thought invested into original conference programming and speakers chosen on merit, rather than fads or instant popularity. Paying dues is important. It makes you worthy of an audience.
Gary said…
PS: I wrote the following article in 2000. It seems relevant to this discussion:

False Profits: Expertise and Educational Computing

Gary, to respond to your first comment, you haven't been named because I haven't heard you speak yet! As such, I can't claim whether I would enjoy listening to you or not.

I love your quote about the pneumatic tube. Thank you for sharing it!!
The callous disregard comes from the Organization rather than the speaker. It is too much to blame this solely on the speaker and more a matter of organizations not giving more consideration to their members. My impression of what you say is that this is all the speaker's responsibility; it isn't.

I've been in several situations--and I wouldn't compare MY speaking engagements or popularity to others so I'm speaking just about my experiences--where the folks wanted one of two things. Either they wanted me to deliver a particular message, so that's why they hired me, OR they just wanted me to come in and do an awesome job.

While I've done my best to customize my talks for the audience I'm working with, there is that lack of communication and intent that is the responsibility of the employer. And, doing "the hang," as you term it, is something I do as well...that "hang" now includes podcasting attendees, blogging their stories, and getting their story out there. I point the Principal Improvement (MPIP) blog that I created for one such event (check the sidebar).

Charlatans will always be around, I just hope they're new ones (smile) because we caught on to the old ones.

As to the new speaker techniques, those reflect what is rather than what I'd like to see. Speaking is more of an experience now that the participants enjoy, just like the quote--or the image--imply. It's not meant to be a long-term benefit, just an experience worth having...think of it as a bucket list of conferences (hmmm, a conference bucket list).

Your list of experts--that you mention in the article linked in your 2nd comment--is funny but not detailed enough. I would love to see you flesh out the details of those kinds of experts and use real examples. I'm tempted to do my own list since you missed a few. Perhaps, after New Year's BBQ feeding frenzy ends, that may be the time.

While we wait for that degenerative, derivative work--my adaptation of your list--I applaud this quote in your article:

"I often think of these experts as vaudevillians traveling from town-to-town on a modern high-tech chitlin' circuit. "

Yes, that is the case. And, even if true, the masses crave diversion provided by the vaudeville acts. In looking up vaudeville, I ran across these definitions:

"voice of the city"
"worth of the city, or worthy of the city's patronage"

I find that vaudeville is the perfect term...could we see the end of vaudeville you describe with the advent of Web 2.0 tools, much like "old" vaudeville was replaced by cinema?

Thanks for responding,
Ewan McIntosh said…
Happy New Year, Miguel. I didn't spot my name in the original posts from Scott and now don't know if I'm in the camp of frauds or alright guys. Any chance you can make that clearer, for better or for worse? ;-)
Ewan, you'll never be in the fraud, charlatan, vulture camp.

And, in fact, I don't agree with Gary on some of the folks he puts in that camp.

That's OK. But to make it really clear, I've given you my official stamp of approval...really, re-read the post.


Happy Gloomy New Year! (to ref your recent blog entry)

Over the pond,
Ewan McIntosh said…
Ouf! Normal service is resumed ;-) I'm maybe just a touch worried that one day I *will* get found out. I think that the key, for me, has to be authenticity both in examples given (i.e. they're ones I had something to do with or 'own') and in facts (it should be normal practice to provide a delicious tag that regroups every citation as it were - it's not a lot of time or effort to do in return for the $s, and people really appreciate the further delving).

I'm just amazed that more people don't engage with audiences in this way, and, of course, in the after-conference craic, which is where the real learning takes place for all parties.

Unfortunately, it's often a misunderstood point of conference organisers who think they're paying $3000 for an hour keynote and two or three workshops when, in fact, it's the other dozen mini workshops you share in at the bar that are thrown in.
Gary said…

I've never encountered a conference anywhere that was unhappy with the keynote speaker doing more work for the same price. Therefore, it is largely up to the speaker to suggest that they participate to a greater extent.

I also feel that there is nothing better than a f2f event and if the event is f2f, the most important parts of the hang are indeed face-to-face. All of the people I respect do and did that. For example, Seymour Papert was usually available to chat with attendees, attend the conference dinner, etc... Thornburg is the same way.

Putting up a blog or Wiki after your drive-by keynote isn't the same as defending, extending or clarifying your arguments or as rich an experience with the audience as breaking bread with them.

I've been desperate to find a way to "name names" about the speaker abuses I've witnessed, but I will be labeled (or sued) as being mean rather than applauded for providing a vital public service. Even some of our friends make stuff up that is unsupported by evidence or make correlations between points that don't exist.

There is no great conspiracy out there. Education conferences are largely run by volunteers, often lacking the time or business acumen to make thoughtful programming decisions. So instead, the same speakers get booked over and over again, the company that donated the projectors gets a keynote and a cable TV conglomerate gets the rest.

"Blind review" of conference proposals heavily favors fads, tips/tricks sessions and non-controversial subject matter.

Way too many keynote speakers achieved their popularity because they ask nothing of the audience, but rather affirm their idealism or cynicism. The result is the status quo.

These realities are why I work so hard to continue learning, share video-based examples of children doing what many would think impossible or not think about at all while striving to improve my technique as a speaker.

It is also why I have been creating my own institutes like Constructing Modern Knowledge and the Constructivist Celebration.


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