Removing the Bricks from the Classroom Walls: Interview with David Warlick

David Warlick is a local blogger and educator. We first met at the Podcastercon a couple of years ago, then at several blogger meetups, and finally last January at the second Science Blogging Conference where David moderated a session on Science Education.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your background? What is your Real Life job?
I’ve been an educator for more than 30 years, starting as a middle school social studies, science, and math teacher. Every once in a while, I have to remind myself that when I entered the classroom, desktop computers didn’t exist. It constantly astounds me what has been happing around us.
I remained in the classroom for almost 10 years, after which I moved to a central office position supporting instructional technology for a rural school district in NC. I’d been seduced by computers (Radio Shack Model III), and taught myself how to program them, since there wasn’t much instructional software available. After that, I moved to the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction where I wrote and supported curriculum for the state, ran a state-wide bulletin board service (FrEdMail) and finally built the nation’s first state department of education web site.
I left the state in 1995, and started consulting, doing business as The Landmark Project. the Internet was still a wilderness, and I wanted to build landmarks for teachers and learners. I maintain a number of web sites which, combined, receive more than a half-million page views a day. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit educators across the U.S. and Canada, and even in Europe, Asia, and South America.
It seems that I should be near the end of my career. But it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
I always wanted to be Johnny Quest’s father, Dr. Benton Quest (1960s cartoon series). Wikipedia describes him as: “…’one of the three top scientists in the world,’ and apparently something of a Renaissance man; his scientific and technical know-how spans many fields.” I wanted to travel the world, have great toys to play with, and solve problems for people. I got part of it, in that I get to travel the world and play with great toys, and there’s some adventure, thought it has more to do with navigating exotic airports than defeating evil despots.
But now that all the travel is starting to wear me down, I’m thinking I’d like to settle back to one or two interests, and study/work the hell out of them. Digital photography has always appealed to me. I also enjoy composing music with a computer. I’d also like to find some topic and set up a web site/blog/social network around that topic. No idea, though, what it might be.
You are quite an evangelist for the use of online tools in the classroom. You used to teach with a blackboard and chalk – how and when did you get to embrace the modern tools in education?
My main subject was History. It’s what I had studied in college. But I always taught about History from the perspective of technology, focusing in on the invention of the bow & arrow, agriculture, paper, the steam engine and explore how these technologies affected and changed our cultures. The first time I saw a Radio Shack Model I computer operate, I knew, at that moment, that this was one of those technologies that was going to change everything. Here was a machine that you operated by communicating with it. I was thunder-struck. I was seduced.
However, it was sometime later that I started to learn, and am continued to learn that it isn’t the fact that we have a machine that we can communicate that makes computers so important. It’s that they give us new ways of communicating with each other. This, I’ve learned as an educator — not as a technologist.
SBC%20Saturday%20004.jpgOne of the important concepts you write about is the Flat Classroom. Can you, please, explain it to my readers?
It’s simple. According to a recent PEW Internet & American Life study, 64% of American teenagers have produced original digital content and published it to a global audience. How many of their teachers are published authors, artists, musicians, composers, or film makers? From the perspective of our children’s information experience, they are more literate than many of their teachers. Our classrooms are flat.
The central question that we should be asking today is, “How do we drive learning if we can no longer rely on gravity?” Where do we get the energy. It’s a sobering and threatening idea for most educators. However, I think that once we can get to the other side of this problem, we, teachers and learners, will be much happier. Here are just a few ideas:
* We need to redefine literacy to reflect today’s information landscape and not just teach it as skills, but to instill it as habit.
* We, as teachers, need to model learning, not just inflict it. We need to practice new literacy in front of our students.
* What students learn has become less important. The answers are all changing. It as important today to be able to invent answers to brand new questions. What’s become more important is how students are learning.
* We need to understand our students information experience and learn to harness the energy that comes from it, to replace the vanishing energy of gravity.
“Please turn off your cell-phones, i-Pods and other electronic devices, kids” – why is this sentence, spoken at the beginning of a class period, wrong? What should a teacher say instead?
This is wrong on so many levels. But principally, we have to recognize, accept, and respect our students out-side-the classroom information experiences. For the first time in history, we are preparing our children for a future we can not clearly describe. So much is changing and so fast. I think that there are clues in our students information experience that we can use to better prepare them for that future.
I recently read about six schools in New York City (where they’ve banned cell phones) that are giving cell phones to all of their students (2,500 of them), preloaded with 130 minutes of talk time. More minutes are added based on test scores, good behavior, and other activities. The teachers are starting to use text messaging to share homework assignments, remind them of upcoming tests, and other activities. What I’d love to see is text-messaging become a platform for doing homework assignment in collaboration.
I know that this may seem weird to some, but no less (NO LESS) weird than many of the applications we use every day would have seemed 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.
What is your basic advice to teachers who are not themselves Internet-savvy, yet want to take a plunge and get their students to produce online content, be it blogs, podcasts or videos? How do you explain the pros and cons and the usual traps some teachers fall into?
Be a good teacher, and pay attention to your students information experiences. Your students can teach you a lot about these new tools, and what better way to model yourself as a lifelong learner.
Become 21st century literate. Once you’ve accomplished that, then you can teach yourself what ever you need to know. Most of the teachers who are doing extraordinary things in their classrooms didn’t learn it in a workshop. They learned it by engaging on online conversations with other innovative educators.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I have to plead the 5th on this one. I do not read any science blogs regularly, though SEED may well take the place of WIRED as my favorite magazine. I’m fascinated by science, all areas of science. Science constantly reminds me of the frontiers we have yet to chart.
Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
It thrills me to see that part of learning science is learning how to talk about science. And this is what the Science Bloggers conference is about. It’s about the softer side of our explorations, bringing them home, and making them a part of the everyday conversations of the rest of us. I think that, deep down, we all crave frontiers.
It was so nice to see you again at the Conference and thank you for the interview.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


2 responses to “Removing the Bricks from the Classroom Walls: Interview with David Warlick

  1. Nice to see that you have an open mind to computer use and technology as an education tool. As a music teacher, I have found this knowledge to be invaluable both to me and my students.
    I enjoyed your posting.

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