Associated Projects

Teacher takes home some Big Ideas

Randy Vail


Once again, I had the opportunity to attend the “Big Ideas Fest” here in Half Moon Bay (Review, Dec. 11). Sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, the fest is one of the most enlightened education conferences in the United States and it’s right here in our own backyard.  

The lineup of speakers and the “Action Collab” process were again inspiring, but I was struck by the paradoxes, the ironies and the contrasts in my quest to find direction in the current education revolution. The merits of opposing positions confound simple truths, divergent perspectives challenge change, and I was left in a kind of apodictic apoplexy.  

For example, is college the way to go? Is it a way out of or into, poverty? It has been criticized as too expensive, ineffective and shackled to an obsolete paradigm. Yet, it is still a way out of the ghetto, an investment in one’s own future and a bastion of intellectual advancement. Chris Emdin, the hip-hop professor from Columbia, Mo Qayoumi, president of San Jose State University, and Sean Pica, executive director at Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, were eloquent in their defense of college, but many claimed the system is broken.

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese and now Brainrush, gave a lively talk full of trenchant advice. Teaching kids to be digital, eat right, take naps, read science fiction and develop both enthusiasm and a strong work ethic sounds great. But should we take advice from a guy who has encouraged short attention spans and child obesity? Interestingly, Bushnell advocated taking ceramics, while Ali Partovi of thought ceramics interfered with programming. (I guess there are 10 kinds of people, those who understand binary, and those who don’t.)

Speaking of jokes, Taylor Mali, America’s biggest cheerleader for teachers, was hysterical. Both his talk and his poetry cut with wit and irony through the paradoxes and paralysis of contemporary education. He “gets it.” And Aaron Horowitz and Hannah Chung of Sproutel really give it, that is hope and empathy through their work — mostly play — with kids who have diabetes.  

Larry Rosenstock, CEO and founding principal of High Tech High, might have delivered the most brilliance per minute with dozens of ideas about project-based learning, and there were others from Wikiseats to field science. Two of the themes, “Common Core” and “Big Data,” while possibly reflecting the continuing emphasis on testing and assessment, actually were the opposite, challenging us to use evaluation and student information in new ways.  

In any case, more participants had signed up for the theme “Learning is Everywhere,” and the learning truly was everywhere at the Big Ideas Fest. Thanks to ISKME for bringing the leading edge of education to the San Mateo County coast.

Randy Vail teaches social studies and English at Pescadero Middle and High schools and lives in La Honda.


Publication Date: 
December 19, 2013