Sound is Touch at a Distance | Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad #iste17 keynote

Noah Geisel
Jun 27, 2017 · 4 min read

One of my favorite podcasts is Radiolab, so I was thrilled when ISTE announced that Radiolab host Jad Abumrad would be delivering the opening keynote address. If you are new to the program and want some recommended listening to get you started, these are some faves:


Why isn’t the sky blue?

Eye in the Sky

Nominally, his topic was the origin story of his show, Radiolab. How it got started, how it progressed and the journey it has taken to now and beyond. In describing the earliest days of the show, he shares audio of a call with his co-founder in which they are discussing their hopes and anxieties and they boil the visceral feeling they are experiencing down to “Gut churn.”

At first, this struck me as a funny phrase. Jad quickly had me (and I think thousands of ISTE attendees) considering how it’s one of the most accurate descriptions of this je ne sais quoi-type sensation. You probably don’t need any more unpacking around “Gut churn” to know that you’ve been there and, if you’re anything like me, you have a moment in your mind right now that produced Gut churn, even if you didn’t know to call it that at the time.

As he spun his tale, it became clear that Jad was in the process of telling a great story and that he wasn’t going to be revealing the point. He wasn’t going to tell us what to think. What he did share, insofar as conceptually laying out an overlying theme of his chronology, was to say that it would be, “A medication on being lost and the benefits of being lost.”

…a meditation on being lost, and the benefits of being lost

He took us on an enlightening and at the same time very familiar deep dive of this process. Watching the heads nod all around me, it was like he was making each of us aware of something that we’ve always kinda sorta known was there but never had the words to describe and so we just left it to a more comfortable space of zero acknowledgement.

When he got into this space of being lost, the questions Jad was asking himself felt familiar. “How do I hold my nerve? How do I hold my spirit when everything seems so formless and uncertain?” Every day, often multiple times a day, educators find themselves designing solutions for questions that have never been asked. Without a roadmap and with few or no exemplars to lean on for lessons learned, this uncertainty can be lonely. Jad was speaking our language!

The quotes were forthcoming and left me with the feels

Watch the full keynote

If you’re taking the creative process seriously, there are no shortcuts. You have to sit there and wait in the discomfort for that moment of authenticity…

There is UTILITY in that negative space. That negativity pushes us through…it is a thrust. There is a usefulness to feeling bad.

On one hand, all of his talk about the struggle probably resonates with the notions many have of grit and embracing failure (i.e. F.A.I.L. = First Attempt In Learning) that are prevalent in education circles right now. There was, however, something different about the way he was packaging the struggle in that the struggle itself is not what he sees as impactful, but rather the process of persevering through (and in spite of) the struggle.

We’ve created a story structure that mirrors life: you get lost, you have a brief moment of understanding that thrusts you into a bigger moment of being lost.

This mirrors our lives and the lives for which we are preparing our students. They will leave school and enter a Real World that confronts them with uncertainty and they will, hopefully, find ways to persevere. And this, I think, is the big idea that a lot of us can take away from Jab’s keynote: persevering is something that humans do in a way that is unique to our species and storytelling is a huge part of why the way we persevere is categorically different. And when we consider that the Real World of the very near future is one that will thrust people into situations that force us to find work that doesn’t pit us in competition with IBM’s Watson, the storytellers will be among the best at persevering.

Jad is a storyteller. In his talk, his slides weren’t simple bullets that helped us remember what he just said; they were illustrations that enhanced the story he was telling. (Similar to the RSA Animate accompaniment to the Ken Robinson TED Talk.) He also incorporated noise in a novel way. We weren’t hearing mood music in the background but rather well-designed soundscapes that, while largely subtle, were highly intentional and very much a part of establishing our emotional connection to the story.

Terror becomes a different character after you realized that you’ve made it out a few times….That is how I have chosen to embrace the gut churn.

Another major (and likely more prevalent) takeaway

I had the opportunity to check in with Dr. Steven McGriff on his takeaways and based on attendees’ twitter comments, I think his finger is on a stronger pulse of what most people got from this talk. It’s good stuff:

It’s about finding your voice and how that discovery is inextricable from finding your audience. Your voice must connect to your audience. For teachers, this audience is kids and unlike Storylab, our audiences change every year. You might think you’re teaching 3rd grade and then teaching 3rd grade again but you’re not! You’re teaching individuals and your voice needs to change so we are constantly searching.

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