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Everything I know in 15 minutes

Everything I have learned about education and life over the past 55 years summed up in 15 or 20 minutes.
Graduation address for Nova Southeastern University June 7, 2008

I've been asked to give a commencement address tomorrow down in Ft. Lauderdale. Here are my current thoughts about what I'm addressing. My solemn pledge is not to go longer than 20 minutes.

Congratulations graduates of the Fischler School of Education and Human Resources. You have demonstrated intelligence, perseverance, and great tolerance for uncomfortable chairs for long periods of time. Many of you completed much of your coursework before laptops and wireless connectivity allowed you to endure tedious lectures by multi-tasking and updating your Facebook page. To all of you, my deepest admiration.

gradcap.jpgAnd to you guests - the parents, spouses, children and friends of these graduates. Congratulations to you as well. I’ll bet you did more than your fair share of the cooking and cleaning while these folks were in school. School as their excuse for not doing housework is now officially ended.

I’ve just completed my 30th year as an educator – as a classroom teacher, school librarian and technology director. They can fire me anytime and I will have a pension. Let me tell you – that’s an incredibly liberating feeling. I hope it is one you all enjoy one day.

I would like to visit with you for just a few minutes today about what I've learned about change - from the trenches - over the course of my career. 

Throughout my career I’ve looked through three lens – a parent lens, an educator lens and, most recently, a technology lens.  My comments will be colored by these lenses.
We educators who are parents have a special viewpoint. Let me share mine with you for just a moment.

I’d like you to imagine a big PowerPoint slide over my head showing a second-grade school picture of just about the sweetest little girl you’ve ever seen. She has bows in her pig-tails, is wearing a new dress, and has the biggest missing-front tooth smile. That’s my daughter Carrie who was born in 1973.

Carrie went to school with a smile on her face and it really never left her face while she was in school. She loved school, was the teacher's pet and graduated from high school at the top of her class. She got her BA from the U of Minnesota  - in four years – married in the nicest man in the world and has give me the two finest grandsons anyone could ask for. (In that order – married, grandchildren – yes!)

I loved going to PT conferences because I learned there what a wonderful parent I was. In fact, I got to wondering what was wrong with all these other parents. Parenting was just not that hard.

That’s when the gods punished my hubris. By giving me a son.

Now the slide shows a handsome little boy. Second grade, missing teeth – but with a smile that is a little more forced. That’s Brady who was born in 1986, 12 years after Carrie. Brady was (and is) a sweet guy. Smart, shy, creative and never a lick of trouble with drugs, alcohol or girls. (I think he was 20 before he actually talked to a girl.) However, Brady’s overriding philosophy toward school was “What is the absolute minimum I have to do in order to get by?” And sometimes Brady’s idea and his teachers’ idea of minimum were different. The PT conferences were, uh, interesting.

My question was and is “How could two children, both from such superior genetic stock, be so different?

One possible explanation is that Brady falls directly into the demographic of the Net Generation. A recent bestselling book has labeled them “the Dumbest Generation” asserting they’ve been made stupid by technology and pop culture. 

The author is not the only person to question the values and intelligence of kids. Here is what one prominent critic had to say:

"Today’s children love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders, and love to chatter in place of exercise… They contradict their parents, talk before company, gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers."

Oh, wait. My notes are mixed up. That was Socrates -  2300 years ago or so. My bad.

We are seeing more Bradys and fewer Carries in schools today. Just this week a report was released that showed our country has 1.23 million drop outs this year! And the rise does not come from the academically at risk, but the academically bored. And they are dropping into a workforce that requires not just a high school diploma, but post secondary training to achieve a comfortable life style.

The Bradys –those children who are plenty smart – but find little value in school, that may not come from homes that value education, or that find more meaning in online activities – are the ones who are education’s greatest challenge.

I entered education because I wanted to change the world. I would have been tempted by the Fischler School’s website that says:
•    Your job is to inspire.
•    Your job is to create a chain reaction.
•    Your job is to cause an effect.

Imagine my surprise to find that the schools in which I worked and the world itself was not all that thrilled about my changing it!

What we young idealists forgot was that society’s implicit charge to schools is to codify and protect current culture, norms and structures – not change them.

On her first visit freshman home from college, even Carrie, the “good” student asked, “Why do I have to take these courses?” meaning, of course, those core classes all liberal arts majors are required to take. You know the ones… Huge lecture halls. Overpriced text books. Weird grad assistants.

Here was my response to her:

A basic charge of education is to see if you are willing to conform to social norms. Can you delay gratification? Can you give the “right” answers back on tests? Will you absorb a basic body of cultural literacy? Are you willing to think inside the box? Are you willing to jump through hoops? NOT be a big troublemaker.

Most of us have learned to play the conformity game.

Society also has chosen to fund it schools to maintain class structure. As Jonathan Kozol wrote 17 years ago, there are schools for the governors and there are school for the governed. I believe this observation is even more accurate today.

Will schools change from within? Why don’t we as professional educators rise up and change our organizations?

It’s because it is difficult to change a system that rewards superior people – people just like us! The one thing all of here today have in common is that we are good at school. Schools are led and run by those who have succeeded in traditional mode – the Carries. In the early 16th century Machiavelli observed:

"there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

So change is difficult in education.

But I am here to tell you it is not impossible. And it is imperative if we are to serve all children including the Bradys and change the world.
Change can happen when... we are subversive.
I started college in the early 70s – a time when the country was fighting an unpopular war, there was great political division, and there was great social unrest. (Sound familiar?) Along with my fu-manchu moustache and my Neru-jacket, the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity was a prized possession. It was my bible as an undergraduate education major.

In it Postman and Weingartner argued that schools, because of their bureaucratic natures, cannot and will not reform themselves. That learning that is irrelevant is also pointless. That standardized tests don’t measure up. That schools reinforce conformity and mindless adherence to a “one right answer” mindset. (Sound familiar?) And conclude that it is up to the individual teacher to “subvert” practices and policies that are not in their students’ and society’s best interests.
I found that school librarianship was rich with opportunities to be subversive

  1. We order exciting books and high interest magazines and bill them as “practice reading” materials designed to improve student test scores, when our true aim is to develop a love of reading and open young minds to the beauty and wonder of literature.
  2. We teach kids not just to find information, but to be skeptical of it by looking for authority and bias.
  3. We teach the research process, less to help students satisfy requirements in English or social studies classes, but to help them learn how to one day use information to help them answer genuine questions and solve real problems.
  4. We use puppets and share fairy tales just because they are so darned much fun, not primarily because they effectively transmit our cultural heritage.
  5. The most subversive belief of all may simply be this – that the purpose of education is to teach children to think, not simply to believe.

A Singapore educator once shared with me that Singaporeans tend to suffer from the No U-Turn Syndrome and that Americans do not. When no signs are posted at an intersection, Singapore drivers assume U-turns are illegal; US drivers assume they are. He felt this “assume it is OK” attitude gave our country a competitive edge. 

It really is better to ask forgiveness than permission. Except maybe with your wife.
Change can happen when... we understand and honor the characteristics of today's learners.
I’d like you to picture a new slide over my head. This one shows two little boys – one who is about five engrossed in a computer game; the second is about two sitting on his grandpa’s lap also mesmerized by a computer screen. Both are learning using the Captain Underpants highly interactive website. It could just as easily be Club Penguin Island or Lego StarWars. These are my grandsons and they are or soon will be in your school.

Today’s children are the first generation to watch less TV. Like Clay Shirkey’s daughter, they don’t understand why any technology would come without a mouse.

In workshops I often ask participants to list characteristics of today’s kids. One that is usually on the list is that they need to be entertained. This is a dangerous and wrong assumption. My grandsons need no more or less entertainment than the rest of us. But they do demand engagement. What’s the difference?

  • Entertainment's primary purpose is to create an enjoyable experience; engagement’s primary purpose is to focus attention so learning occurs.
  • Entertainment is ephemeral, often frivolous; engagement creates long-lasting results and deals with important issues.
  • Entertainment needs have little relevance to the reader/watcher/listener; engaging experiences most often relate directly to the learner.
  • Entertainment is an escape from problems; engagement involves solving problems.
  • Entertainment results through the creativity of others; engagement asks for creativity on the part of the learner.
  • Perhaps the greatest distinction is that entertainment is often passive, whereas engagement is active or interactive.

Do all our lessons have “the mouse” today's kids expect?

Change can happen when... we are not content with superficial change.
We must begin to insist the changes we make are transformational. In technology, we have too long been content with window dressing – computers used as typewriters, data projectors used as overheads, websites used as school brochures, software used as worksheets. We have an expression in Minnesota for this sort of thing – it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

We need to envision what second order changes might look like with technology as a change engine. Here are a few of my goals:

  1. All students would have meaningful Individual Education Plans specifically written to their learning styles and needs. Classrooms would be truly differentiated with all students learning in their own way, at their own pace. Chronological segregation would not happen.
  2. Personal motivation and relevance for learning would be a prime ingredient in education.
  3. Constructivism would be the main pedagogy, not a once-a-year term paper or project.
  4. Data mining would genuinely determine the most effective teaching methods, teachers and conditions for learning.
  5. Distance learning would be the norm, opening huge opportunities for students to learn according to interest from the very best instructors.
  6. Gaming would be the norm and teachers would be game coaches.
  7. Schools would be genuinely pleasant places where student want to be.
  8. Assessments would measure individual growth over time, not compare students to artificial norms at snapshots in time.

Insist on deep change.


Change can happen when... we become a co-learners.
Quite a controversy has developed about the concept of digital immigrants vs digital natives. The theory goes that oldies but goodies like me will forever become uncomfortable in the digital landscape – unlike our students for whom the Internet is about as remarkable as electric lights or indoor plumbing is to us. Some find the theory accurate; others find it insulting. These are not mutually exclusive conclusions, by the way.

I have to admit that I don’t “get” the thrill of Facebook. I am leery of the information I find in Wikipedia – not so much that the facts are wrong, but that the facts may be right today and wrong tomorrow. When I was first introduced to YouTube, my first inclination was to upload the video of my colonoscopy.

Technology, I admit, often causes me no small degree of cognitive dissonance - even for "tech" directors.

But I find myself delighted when a young person becomes the teacher. I love the story of a frustrated teacher who found Google suddenly blocked in her district. After fussing a bit, she felt a tug on her sleeve. “Hey, teacher. Try (the Canadian version of Google). It’s not blocked and works just the same.”

The secret to survival and change in the 21st century will be considering ourselves co-learners with our students able to teach us…

Oh, and do you have your Professional Learning Network established? Are you connecting to fellow professionals from around the world via e-mail, listervs, Ning, Twitter, chat, Skype, podcasts, blogs,, RSS feeds and webinars? Are you an Educator 2.0?

Change can happen when...  we all take responsibility.

A tour guide in Nairobi told me this tale about how the Ngong (Knuckle) Hills came into being.

A giant once ravished the land. The animals of the savanna were determined to get rid of it. The big animals went in first: the elephants, the rhinos, the lions. Each in turn were soundly trounced.

That night all the millions of ants gathered and decided each would carry a few clumps of dirt and place them on the giant while he was asleep. By the next morning the giant was buried so deeply that he never rose again. All that can be seen today are the protruding knuckles of one hand – the Ngong Hills.

Too often in education we look to the “big animals” to lead and create meaningful changes – the national department of education, our state departments, over-priced consultants, and district office staff.

But ask yourself honestly: Who will have the greatest impact on education: The Department of Education or each of us making a few small changes every year, everyday?

I would like to leave you with a very short poem by Minnesota author, Fredrick Manfred.

“What about you, boy?”

Is your work coming along?
Are you still making candles
Against darkness and wrong?
The whole thing is to blast.
Blast and blast again. To fill the
With songs, poems, temples,
Anything at all. Attack. Attack.
Open up and let go.
Even if it’s only blowing. But blast.
And I say this loving my God.
Because we are all he has at last.
So what about it, boy?
Is your work going well?
Are you still lighting lamps
Against darkness and hell?”

Congratulations again, graduates, friends and family of the Fischler School of Education and Human Resources.

Light a few lamps against darkness and hell.

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Reader Comments (14)


Good stuff. My son is going into his final year of teacher prep, and I will be sharing this with him. Two reasons really: 1) it's good stuff, and 2) I want him to know his dad isn't the only teacher/educator who holds such "radical" views. :-)

Enjoy your presentation.


June 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRic Murry

Bravo! Standing ovation! This is far better than any other commencement address I've ever heard.

June 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJim Dornberg


This is the best post I have read all year...thanks for the most inspiring 15 minute message I have heard this year.

June 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKen Pendergrass

Dear Doug,

I always enjoy reading your posts. Tonight, though, was extra special. How fortunate those graduates will be to hear your words. How fortunate our children and grandchildren are who will be lucky enough to have the teachers you will inspire. I will read it again and again.

June 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJudi Wolf

I enjoyed it all, especially the differences between entertainment and engagement, except I did not like the ending. The darkness part was okay, but I just found the hell part too extreme. I would have hoped that you would end on a more positive note than suggesting that they will be journeying forth and needing to light a few candles in darkness and hell. When I've been at graduations where the speeches ended on such a dire note, it always left a sour/bad taste in my mouth. Just a thought you might want to consider.

Enjoy the event.

June 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJanice Robertson

Doug, wonderful post/speech. I especially like your take on school librarians being subversive. I have just been charged with being known as the library consultant instead of the literacy/english consultant (oh and don't forget that I am also the health and phys ed consultant too - talk about having the Rodney Dangerfield portfolio) and that my consultant position is somehow being diminished by some of the work that I've been doing the past 18 months with school libraries. How anyone can think that libraries are not literacy-based is beyond me. So maybe I'm making a few people uncomfortable by my subversive activities! Good luck today!

June 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSharon Seslija

Hi Doug,
You are not only a talented blogger but a phenomenal speech writer. I would be inspired and motivated by your speech if I sat in the audience.
Coincidentally I posted my retirement speech on my blog today; it's entitled, "The Top Ten Reasons Why It's Time to Retire."
Best wishes,

June 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaul C.

I'm smiling at the inspiration you've provided for those lucky graduates...especially the "subversive" section, my own philosophy exactly...but, when I was in Singapore, at least four taxi drivers did U-turns to put us in front of our destination...they seem to be exempt from that no U-Turn rule...or, maybe they are subversive....REALLY good speech, Doug

June 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSra Kelly Johns

Excellent commencement address and you do deserve a standing ovation (hope you got one).
I hope the graduates take seriously your message to go forth and be subversive, to challenge everything and also have sound educational rationales for every instructional method used in the classroom.

June 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKarenJan

Good work. I especially like the use of African folklore. Inserting such vignettes into a speech helps the listeners remember the point. I didn't find the ending to be negative as a few comments above indicate. Rather it seems that lighting the lights against hell and darkness is a positive thing. Good luck with it and I'm sure it will go great.

June 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie A. Roy

Great speech, Doug! -- and a worthwhile reading assignment for all school librarians!

June 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlice Yucht

Hi, Doug-
I don't know if you know anything or not about high school speech, but I do an event called Oratorical Declamation, which is basically a student giving a commencement address or a famous speech by someone else as if they were the author. I have used your speech all year and I can't tell you how many comments I've received on how fantastic and original the speech is! In fact, I've taken first place at three tournaments with it. I hope you don't come after me for using it without consent, but I just thought you should know that your message is being spread, at least throughout Illinois, and that everyone loves it (especially the part about the gods punishing your hubris by giving you Brady)!

January 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMitch Bley

Hi Mitch,

As both a former HS speech participant and former HS speech coach, you comment means a lot to me. I am delighted you were able to make use of the speech. Since all my blog writing is under Creative Commons, you were under no obligation to ask my permission to use the talk – but I would have happily given it in any case.

I wish all the very best in your future speaking engagements!


January 27, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

To Doug,

In responce to the above 13 comments, I would like to say AMEN & AMEN!

January 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Martin

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