ACTFL 2016 opening session keynote and National Language Teacher of the Year Award

Noah Geisel
Nov 19, 2016 · 7 min read

The opening ceremony kicked off the celebration of ACTFL’s 50th anniversary with a retrospective of the last 50 years (and a nod toward the impACTFL future!), playfully titled Oh the Places ACTFL Will Go! It was borrowed from Dr. Seuss and written in his rhyming style. The emcee sat and read from an over-sized, Big Book style book.

He took us on a trip down memory lane that started with our organization’s founding and humble beginnings. The narrative went from membership growth to early and continuing successes with language advocacy. We heard about the organization’s push for proficiency and willingness to adapt and embrace change in teaching and learning in order to meet our students’ needs.

I was struck and left thinking about how truly far we have come and how long and hard our leaders worked to get us here. It had not occurred to me that something as simple as organizing and advocating for the profession was by no means simple and taken for granted just a generation ago. It makes me even more grateful than I already am for everything our leaders have done to make our profession great and reinforces for me the responsibility I (and you!) have to continue their efforts.

“Teachers can’t be replaced by automation; that’s just a real bad idea.”

President Pete Swanson was encouraged to speak about the future and the next 50 years. “Before we talk about the future, let’s talk about the present.” Something that Pete spoke to passionately was our nation’s language teacher shortage. My friend Caleb from Oklahoma told me his state has lost literally hundreds of language teachers in just the last year.

“This is something confronting us and we have to do something about it,” said Dr. Swanson, “we have a 24% attrition rate…and we need to be building a sustainable group of teachers that come into the profession and remain in the profession.” He went on to push our thinking, encouraging us to consider that the next great language teacher might be a student in our class right now.

The 2017 National Language Teacher of the Year candidates

All five of the regional candidates are amazing leaders and teachers who make the profession proud. Below is a quick tweet to help you get to know each. For a deeper dive, check out the interviews that Martina Bex conducted with each.

Grant Boulanger

Michelle Whaley

Katrina Griffin

Laura Roché Youngworth

Darcy Pippins

And the winner is…

Katrina Griffin! The second she took the mic, it was clear that she will be an awesome advocate for the study of language and culture. “The language classroom is the only place,” she beamed, “where students are tested on their ability to communicate with other human beings.” She briefly shared her own story of struggling as a language learner who went on to be bilingual and to share her love of German through teaching it to her students. “Have faith!” she said, “and hold the vision for your students that learning a language is possible.” For more, check out ACTFL’s press release about the announcement.

Keynote | Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is a futurist and began his keynote telling attendees that there’s a difference between a futurist and fortune teller. He is all about probing and considering the future, not making random guesses about what it will bring.

Further, when we think about the future, he encouraged us to let go of the science fiction narratives in our minds and embrace that “it’s not about technology at all, it’s people.” To highlight this point, he brought up the hottest tech companies in the world right now and challenged our notions about impressive, futuristic innovations:

“Aren’t you sick of hearing about Uber and airbnb? Who would’ve thought that the hight of innovation would be people driving strangers in their Prius or renting out a spare bedroom?”

He framed his talk with four key questions, although he sprinkled in many more provocative questions that he called Mind Grenades. [Aside: reason #284 that I think he is my brother from another mother is that I have a book in my bathroom called Mind Grenades! I know, I know, I know, it’s clearly fate:)]

Question 1: How will the next generation impact the future of learning?

Walsh said that millennials have fooled us all into fixating on the problem of making them happy. He then suggested that they were just an opening act and that the real focus is on our youngest learners, that they will be changing the future.

“A 2 year old’s brain is the world’s greatest super computer.” And it’s earliest inputs are a preview of our future, a future in which data is used to configure a world around you that is personalized for you. He gave the example of going to Disney in Orlando and how, because of wearable and other technologies, they are able to personalize your experience (by knowing your name, what food you tend to like, your favorite rides, etc.)

In the future, spoken language will be more important than screens. Spoken language will be our primary way of interacting with technology.

In thinking about data, information, knowledge and even learning experiences, Walsh painted a picture of a future in which these are often curated by artificial intelligence and delivered to us in personalized practices. [To see this today, look no further than your Discovery Weekly playlist on Spotify. It is a powered by machine learning that does a great job of quickly learning about our tastes and creating a weekly playlist of music that is truly hand-picked for us at an individual level, even if the hand is an algorithm and not a human hand.

This is a wakeup call for us as humans to reinvent and redesign learning experiences.

Question 2: How do you now create an appropriate learning design for this new 21st Century environment?

So much of the new, supposedly bold innovations, still rely on the old mindsets. Any change that fails to isolate those factors and consider them will fail to be transformative. For those familiar with the SAMR model, Walsh was basically hinting that this step is key in determining whether our innovations will end up just being fancy substitution.

The classroom of the future is both a platform and a place. It is a place because we are analog; we are human beings who interact on a physical level. There is a balance to embrace here: How do you balance the digital and the real? People want to be around other people!

In 5, 10 and 50 years we will still have classrooms because that’s where people make connections. While the place will transform, it won’t change. What will change are the tools. E-mail, for example, is a tool that anyone familiar with Slack is destined for a diminished or even obsolete role.

Algorithms will allow us to design curriculums for a single individual.

Question 3: How do we use data more effectively?

Walsh gave a compelling example that he called Google’s M&M Problem. In short, Google gives employees tons of free food (possibly to keep them from leaving work to eat but that’s another story). Some food is good, some food is bad.

The company found that there was a lot of unhealthy eating going on at the snack stations and did an experiment in which they redesigned a snack station. The redesigned space placed healthy snacks in clear glass containers in prime space and made them as accessible as possible. Junk food snacks like M&Ms were concealed in containers that were not see-through and to open them required slightly more effort.

The stations contained the same amount of food and the same exact food, the only change was the presentation. What happened was a profound change of millions fewer calories eaten in just 7 weeks.

So…what’s his point?

Essentially, he was advocating for UX design in our classrooms. [UX stands for User Experience and while there is not necessarily a single definition, I like this one from Google’s Tomer Sharon: “UX design is the art and science of generating positive emotions through product interactions.”] When students enter physical learning spaces, are they coming into spaces that have been intentionally designed around their needs? According to Walsh, schools and teachers need to use physical spaces to build connections.

Question 4: Why is Global Culture essential to 21st Century Innovation?

“Look at the strange things your clients/kids do — and then give them MORE of it!” Another way I am wrapping my head around this notion is to give students what they want so you can give them what they need. Empathize with them, learn about them and gather this data in order to plan and guide inquiry and learning that users (students) will want. Poignantly, Walsh added, “The future belongs to the anthropologist, not only the technologist.”

Final thoughts

Will you be working for algorithms or will they be working for you?

We have to take advantage of the superpowers that have been given to us while accepting our limitations. It’s not about replacing people with technology but about using tech to help people give other people better experiences.

Technology is going to empower us. It will augment us. It will take us on an adventure and produce new human insights.

Bring realtime data to your next meeting. Put it on the wall and see how it changes our meetings. If you want to understand what’s coming next, it’s not about looking at new technology but looking at how we as people are changing.

Think big, think new, think quick.

If you like this post, please click the heart. It will help others find this and make me feel good and encourage me to write more posts like it:) Oh, and you can get Mike Walsh’s slide deck from the keynote here.

Noah Geisel

Written by

Singing along with the chorus is the easy part. The meat and potatoes are in the Verses. Educator, speaker, connector and risk-taker. @SenorG on the Twitter

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