ISTE2016 Summary – Ruha Benjamin Keynote

I wasn’t sure I was going to make the Tuesday keynote, mainly because I went to Denver Biscuit Company and ate myself into an unbelievably delicious and completely worth it food coma. However, as I arrived at ISTE this morning, I saw screens showing none other than THE LaVar Burton in the keynote hall. So, like the majority of ISTE participants apparently, I made my way over.

And I saw LaVar Burton! Geordi La Forge! The Reading Rainbow guy!! So cool.

Up to speak at the keynote is Ruha Benjamin. She took the stage by geeking out about LaVar Burton (like pretty much everyone here), but eventually moved on to her main talk, she called “Set Phasers to Love”, because she just couldn’t resist, and I can’t blame her.

As her true talk started, it was immediately clear that she is an accomplished speaker, and will have the audience in her palm. She knows how to work a room, that’s for sure.

One of her big quotes off the bat was, “Teachers, if unified and empowered, can change history.” She attests that this is the reason educators are so constantly under attack in the media, because we have the power to change the world, and that scares people.

“Why is it that we can imagine growing heart cells in a lab, but not imagine growing empathy in our daily lives?” What a powerful statement!

She pointed out that technology in many schools for students consists of metal detectors at the entrance, and at this image shows students a potential version of themselves and the worst things they are capable of. While they get suspended for fighting, she says, the politicians who run their lives glorify wars for resources and ideologies. “Where,” she asks, “is the zero tolerance policy for our politicians?”

She continues to bring back the idea that design needs to be considered. She starts by talking about benches, and how they have been designed in many cases to prevent homeless people from being able to sleep on them. She says that this is discriminatory design, but more importantly, they instead of trying to fix an underlying problem, they push the locus of the problem to within a person. Instead of addressing the issue of homelessness and joblessness in our society, we build benches with extra arm rests, or single occupancy, or even spikes that only lower when you pay for the use of the bench (she actually showed pictures of this). She asks whose imagination of a perfect world is being used in the design of these products?

She also talked about the concept of “code switching”, a social science principal that says that people will begin to change the way that act, speak, and dress to fit in to the expected rules and behaviors of a general group. This is most noticed by the change someone undergoes when at work versus being in social settings. This is also more notable with women, as they will apologize more, speak out less, and talk quieter when in a male-centered work environment. She goes on to ask that instead of code switching, we teach our students to be code changers, to hack the game of life, and change the rules. To reach out of their environments, instead of leaning in to the established norms, or default settings.

“Educators are on the front line of either reproducing the world as it is, or teaching their students to change the world for the better.” I can’t begin to claim credit for her words, but they ring so true to me. Too often I hear teachers accept the status quo, OK with the way things are, or at least unwilling to reach out and try something new.

Overall, Ruha Benjamin’s talk today was absolutely amazing. I am so excited to go back to my school and actively pursue change, to help my students make the world better. At my second time at ISTE, I have learned that more than any new tech tool, more than any new pedagogical strategy, the reason to be at ISTE is to reignite the passion that drives us to do what we do. Ruha has given me that today. Thank you.