Back now from the stimulating, fascinating, and exhausting frenetic whirlwind that was three days at NAIS Annual Conference 2011.

Time for some observations and take-aways.

1.  As many have already written and said, the Gaylord National Harbor site, while clean and pleasant, was strikingly out of sync with the Conference theme of public purpose, and I don’t want to leave unstated that disappointment.   Our message should be one of lowering the barriers and connecting to the community rather than perpetuating isolation, and this setting was a strike against this message.

I heard from many that it was particularly awkward in regards to teaching candidate recruitment, which was compromised by a location so challenging to access without an automobile.

2. The outstanding highlight of the conference for me was the excellent Ted-style talk by Salman Khan about his extraordinaryKhan Academy.   No individual, by my lights, is going to more greatly transform how learning works in the next decade than Khan, and in person he was charming, energetic, and inspiring.   At the core of his message is his argument that if we use technology effectively, we don’t diminish the interpersonal, face-to-face, relational, human qualities of the classroom, we enhance it.   (When he articulated this, I did my darndest to initiate and expand the applause that followed, and it was so sweet to see the way our  applause caught Khan off-guard and delighted him).

Khan explained how valuable it is for students to have access to succinct, clear, outstanding lectures on digital video: students can pause, they can replay, they can play them over and over if they need.   I was struck by his observation that sometimes, when we are learning something difficult, we might prefer to do so without a teacher, parent, or tutor hovering over us and asking explicitly or implicitly: do you get it now?  do you get it now?  do you get it now?

It was exciting for me, the author of much writing in recent months about the opportunity of reverse instruction and flipping learning, to hear him say that educators are now discussing methods of using his videos for content delivery so that our classrooms can become places of tutoring, collaboration, projects, and inquiry learning: this is the movement of reverse instruction and flipping that is catching such fire this year.

Finally, it was fascinating to hear him explain how the use of new computer generated problem-sets associated with each unit of instruction can be embedded into the system with clickthroughs back to the video to explain it when problems are not understood.  The analytics associated with this, by which teachers can monitor student learning and intervene, are stunning.

If you didn’t see his talk, you really do want to watch this video:

3. The WiFi, after two years when it was poor and the source of much grumbling, was this year essentially non-existent and deeply disappointing to those us who believe fervently in the power of networked learning.   I would be writing to complain here to NAIS staff for letting us down again, but I won’t because of my learning more from Chris Bigenho’s post about the insanity (and the greed) of convention center WiFi pricing.  I get it now, and won’t complain any longer to NAIS about this.   I give my thanks to Chris for his highly illuminating post, and will say only, gently, to NAIS, that perhaps you all shouldn’t be shy about sharing this kind of information.  If you are aware how frustrated we are, don’t ignore the issue but confront it with direct communications.  @NAISnetwork could have tweeted, for instance, to the #naisac11 feed, the regret that WiFi prices were prohibitive.

A second comment: Chris is right too when he writes that some of us (me for instance) should stop complaining about what is not being provided and take our initiative to get our own wifi access, as Jason Ramsden was doing with his iPhone provided MiFi, (and which at one point he was so kind as to share with me).

4. Perhaps because of the wifi shortfall, it was a tad disappointing to me that there wasn’t more activity, and more importantly, more widely varying voices on the Twitter feed than in previous years; it didn’t display the progress I had for which I had hoped.   However, I hold out hope: it did seem to me that there was much more discussion of, training in, and interest in Twitter and other social media across the breadth of the conference than ever before.

We are far from a tipping point, but to my observation we were getting closer to it.  An example is a comment I received on a recent post from Webb School (CA) Head-Elect Taylor Stockdale:

I had NO IDEA what twitter was really . I just thought it was for the Paris Hilton’s of the world. It is such an awesome tool. I’m just learning how to use it…but so far, just by sticking in my toe, I have come across some of the most powerful talks on education.

5.  In addition to Twitter, it appears to me that social media as a whole is gaining ground swiftly in and throughout NAIS.  One valuable session for me was the edSocialmedia training, in which I was able to learn of really terrific uses of Youtube channels for school promotion, such as at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, of Social Media website “mashups” at Worcester Academy and Oakridge School, and of using Twitter with students as at Montclair-Kimberly Academy by Bill Stites on his @Irishstudies feed.

The presentation, by edSocialMedia’s Jesse Bardo, is below– it is worth checking out:

6.  The visual display of information is fast being recognized as among the most important tools we have for processing the abundance of information now swarming around us, and kudos to NAIS for recognizing this with the addition of new graphic artists.  (I thought the they were all going to be available on the NAIS site, but I can’t find them yet). 

Matt Scully, on his blog Engage the Learner, also offers several fine examples of graphically capturing information; for vanity’s sake, let me share his graphic of one of my sessions, Blogging Heads:

7. I didn’t make it to Sugata Mitra’s presentation, but my wife did and she was entirely enchanted by his work facilitating student learning in India via the provision of computers and “grannies.”   You really do want to watch this video also:

For more on Mitra, you can visit this blog post by Ewan McIntosh, from which this quote comes:

Mitra is building on the Hole In The Wall learning experiment, where children autonomously access an ‘ATM’ computer on the streets of India and South America and, with their peers, learn through the activities and experiences in front of them. Not just that, but given most of the content they are accessing on the web is in English, they’re also having to learn English. All this without a teacher, without a school building in sight.

8. I enjoyed the newly designed Speed Innovating session, the brainchild of some of my valuable PLN members such as Jason Ramsden.   It is an interesting and alternative format, spending one hour attending three sessions for ten minutes each, and moving quickly around the room taking in a wide array of new ideas.   I liked it: one was particularly valuable and inspiring for me, Alex Ragone’s and arvind grover’s session; two others were good.

I think that busting out of the hour-long minimum session construct is well advised, and we all know the disappointment of committing an hour to an unsuccessful session.   I wonder, though, if ten minutes is too short: perhaps this makes more sense in a two hour period (if the time can be allocated), in which one enjoys four twenty minute sessions.   10 is too short, sometimes 60 is too long: 20 might be just right.

9. I was delighted to see that the session I offered on the CWRA (College Work Readiness Assessment) with Chris Jackson and Kevin Mattingly was so well attended: the room was packed and the crowd spilled well out the door.   Now this is partly because they assigned us to a much-too-small room, and it had nothing at all do with me: what it reflects is what I perceive to be fast-rising appreciation of the value of CWRA within NAIS, and this delights me.

I am a fervent believer in the value and significance of the CWRA, and it is great to see so many others jumping on board this important tool for assessing and advancing higher order thinking in our schools.   For one, the more of us participating, the more affordable it can remain and, more importantly, the more we can learn from each other how to use the CWRA to improve learning in the fields the CWRA assesses.

Also of note: again and again as I discussed the CWRA with colleagues, I find myself asked about opportunities for middle school students to also participate in this kind of assessment.  There is a real demand for this type of program, and I am increasingly excited about the idea of collaborating with other CWRA fans and middle school educators to try to make this happen.

10. Dan Heath gave an absolutely beautifully executed presentation/slide show which made many of us who present with slides feel a bit chagrined.  There was as much to learn from his style as from his content.   That said, his content, which is entirely available in his highly recommended book Switch, is powerful.   I will confess being entirely guilty of far too-often focusing on rationally persuading the “driver”  to change instead of recognizing and respecting the significance of the “elephant.”  A short taste of Dan Heath and his important lessons is here:

11. Another session I didn’t make it to, despite my best intentions, was the Teacher of the Future session, but the twitter feed was buzzing with the excellence of Matt Scully’s presentation on problem-based learning for 21st century learning and learning from mistakes, three topics close to my heart.   His video is below:

12. Kudos to the NAIS conference bloggers and again to Chris Bigenho for his heroic work on the NAISAC blog, the go-to site for the conference feed.   Jason Ramsden was the designated Liveblogger, and this is a very valuable service for both attendees and non-attendees alike; one has to wonder whether NAIS could consider allocating a few more precious resources for a larger number of live-bloggers to record and share the learning.  Jason has a set of six liveblog transcripts from the conference here.

The other conference bloggers, it seemed to me, started slowly and then picked up steam later in the conference.

Marty Jones offered four posts, including one very thoughtful reflection where he applied what he was learning at NAIS to memories of his own education:

Just before these memories could rise up any latent anger I had with my parents for letting me go to this crazy school, Dan Heath’s  engaging talk on change, brought me back down to earth. This waste of a year, this failure in my educational path, wasn’t that after all.

I was given a year of permission to fail and to find a path – to be the rider and the elephant on that path, and now, four decades later, I can appreciate the gift of that 1%! Instead of writing if off as a punch line, I’m afraid to consider where my life would be had I not had that experience at that exact moment in my development.

Martha Hakmat provided ten perceptive and provocative short posts, including a powerful one entitled Can we talk about the Whiteness and Maleness of the AC?

But what are we doing to widen that pipeline of head of school hopefuls so that when that 50% of school heads retires in the coming few years, we are replacing them with leaders of the 21st century who represent the diversity that is the best of America?

How are we combating the good ole boys’ mentality where white men are mentored early and aggressively, while women and leaders of color either drift off and out of independent schools or slug their way into headships in double and sometimes triple the time?

Do we have the awareness or the will to change this tide? How can NAIS be an agent for change in this work of identifying and grooming the near future leaders of independent schools beyond the white, male paradigm?

Now, here’s a conversation I would love to have at this conference where independent school leadership comes out in full force.

Jill Brown wrote nine pieces which covered a lot of ground at the conference in a friendly, accessible, low-key style, including this one about the Speed Innovating session:

The Speed Innovating session was wonderful to watch. A great way to share the tip of the iceberg for many great ideas. Attendees signed up to visit three tables, at each table the presenter covered their big idea/ project in 10 minutes.

Obviously, one will need to follow up with more research and information to truly understand the breadth of the ideas shared, but this is a great way to find those things you want to learn more about without sitting in a conference room for an hour only to think, maybe I should have gone to that other session.

This might be a great model for faculty to share their successful classroom experiences with each other.

13.  Not a whole lot was spoken in sessions I attended or heard about about the effects of the ongoing painful Great Recession, and President Pat Bassett only touched on this in his remarks at the Annual Breakfast.   (I know there was much more discussed at the Town Meeting with NBOA and NAIS, which I was unable to attend and about which I have not found any information online).

At times, I wondered if this was because most schools are doing just fine, but the more I spoke with colleagues from across the nation, the more I heard them share their worries and concerns.  Certainly many schools, in many regions, are doing just fine based on their demographics and regional economic strengths, but it was hard to overlook that many others are struggling, and many of us have very, very difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks about financial aid, salaries, and budget balancing.

I wonder whether there ought to have been more sessions about balancing budgets in tough times, and strategies schools are taking to confront these challenges, but perhaps this has been outsourced to the business officer meetings, or perhaps I just overlooked these conversations in my admittedly too-great enthusiasm for the topic of transforming learning to meet the demands of our fast-changing times.

In a small way some of the glitz of the conference (and at least there was no expensive ridiculous Captain Independent avatar this year) , seemed offputting in the ignorance or dismissal it seemed to convey to the many of us struggling to fund our programs and our teachers in these hard times.  I heard this too, from many, in the frustration expressed about the price of the Annual Conference, which many think is just too darn high for many schools to afford.    Perhaps there is nothing to be done, but the price of the conference does deserve ongoing attention as NAIS seeks to serve its wide array of schools.

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My thanks to everyone at NAIS for what was genuinely a great conference, and one to which I was extraordinarily pleased and honored to contribute.  I am already looking forward to NAISAC12, in Seattle next year, and have actually begun already today to plan and collaborate with others for proposing new sessions next year.

Onwards with the project of public purpose, innovation, and advancing the work of our association in supporting every school in becoming a School of the Future.