I am constantly struck by how destructive blame is to the ability to achieve impact and how terribly hard it is to banish blame from our most basic human interactions. A significant example this past week reminded me of both of these cancerous elements of blame.
I had the pleasure to speak at and participate in a number of sessions at this week’s ASU Education Innovation Summit (Twitter: #eisummit) held in Phoenix. I have had the blessing or curse of attending scores of conferences in all three sectors over my career. This Summit (fondly called “Davos in the Desert”) is head and shoulders above the best of the rest. It is truly a cross sector gathering of key leaders in Education, Business, Venture Capital, Philanthropy, Academia and Public Policy with the central focus of how do we achieve better education outcomes across all ages. The focus seeks to complement teaching with cutting-edge technology – not for technology’s sake but for the learners’ sake.
During the week, powerful progress was made in understanding the freedoms and constraints of each sector in moving the trajectory of results in a fragmented system and to begin to see the potential power of collective impact across these sectors. There was a growing respect and sense of true shared-passion.
That is, until the Wednesday evening Closing Keynote. The speaker – Andy Kessler – one assumes in an effort to be cute and provocative, took the collective air out of the room of 1500 leaders from across the globe. Most shocked, no doubt, were the phenomenally talented organizers -- GSV and ASU – of this stellar conference. Whether it was sheer distain or unadulterated stupidity, Kessler felt the path forward was to blame the teachers and that the technologists’ main job was to eliminate all teachers. He had several slides that built to a crescendo that society could afford to replace all teachers with iPads. If blame IS the currency for Kessler, then he should have at least been balanced enough to point out that the promise of technology in the classroom has been as often delayed over that past 20 years as any teaching reform. And meanwhile, the immutable fact remains since measured in the early 1990’s – as many or more of our children are not able to demonstrate basic literacy at the end of 3rd Grade.
As with any complex system, there is a fairly low threshold of gray matter required to find fault in any number of aspects of a dysfunctional system. Like shooting fish in a barrel, as all of us working on improving systems know. The genius, shown by so many at the Ed Summit, is in beginning to truly grapple with how to achieve transformative change in the midst of that system. The most heartening reaction in the face of this blame-oration, about the false choice between technology and teaching, was first to virtually sit on our hands when it was mercifully over and to take to Twitter to stand up for the shared values built during the rest of the conference.
In the past, we have often been silent when confronted by the bully of blame. The vast majority of the participants at the Summit – thanks to the Summit itself – drew the line and said we will no longer be “dragged” into the divisiveness of blame; we have too great work to do. In this way, perhaps Kessler’s speech truly was the “Closing Keynote” – the closing of an era of small, selfish thinking for which blame rather than result is the cudgel of choice.
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