Overcoming Our Fears

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When it comes to keynote speakers, nobody can ever match the line-up that the November Learning team puts together for BLC. Once again an amazing line up of thinkers outside of K-12 Education stretching us to think where we need to be taking kids and schools.

Mitch Resnick opened the conference with a very simple message:

Students should be creating on the web

I couldn’t agree more and not just creating for themselves and their classmates, but for the world. Using Scratch as his basis for his talk, Resnick took us on a journey of how students are using Scratch to create, share, remix, and collaborate on creating some pretty cool projects, most of them outside of school.

Resnick’s message aligned perfectly with an article I read in Inc. Magazine last week titled: Revitalizing the American Dream. A fascinating read on how entrepreneurship needs to be revitalized in America.

It’s important to note the view point in which I’m coming from on this next bit. A little history on me: I’ve lived overseas for the past 8 years and when people ask me where I’m from..I hesitate, as do most expats. It’s a hard question to answer. I’m an American and proud to be one, but in the past 8 years America has felt less and less like “home” and more and more like a foreign land. Over these last 8 years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit America only during the summer holidays and at the same time visit 35 other countries.

What I have observed being a some-what outsider to America is the fear that has captivated our country. A fear that I believe is stifling creativity in the country, in our schools, and in our daily lives.

What saddens me most is this country was founded on the idea of anyone can make it. The “American Dream” is written into our Declaration of Independence.

In the American Dream, first expressed by James Truslow Adams in 1931, citizens of every rank feel that they can achieve a “better, richer, and happier life.”[1] The idea of the American Dream is rooted in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[2] (Wikipedia, 07/14/2010)

(Too bad the writers didn’t include an unfiltered Internet in that!)

Does this still hold true? Do kids today feel like they can grow up to be anything within our schools? The same schools that block much of the content that allows them to be creative, to communicate with others, and to create opportunities for themselves?

“There’s no way my district will ever let us use any of these social tools, they’re scared”

I’m sure many of you have either said this or have heard someone who has said this.

Alan November kicked off the conference today with one simple message:

We need to break down the Firewall fear

The same country that believes in free speech and the freedom of the press is the same country with some of the most restrictive filtering systems in its schools.

I lived for three years in Shanghai, China behind what is known as the “Great Firewall“. As much press as the “Great Firewall” gets for censoring some information and some tools, it is less restrictive than most filtering systems here in American Schools.

We need to break through this culture of fear, we need to empower students to make decisions, to analyze and evaluate good content and learn how to avoid the bad stuff. We need to empower students to protect themselves.

Mitch Resnick asked the question: How can we help students become makers of things in the digital world?

To do this we must first overcome our fear of putting student content out on the open web. It’s not as scary of a place as the media makes it out to be. At my school (International School Bangkok) we have over 1,000 student blogs with over 6,000 blog posts. In the two years we’ve been using blogs we have not had one bad comment or one bad blog post. Yes students get spam comments from time to time, and much like the spam they get in their e-mail they just delete it (Have you ever heard a student complain about spam? They don’t, it’s just a part of digital life that they’re used to).

It’s not just making things in the digital world, because making thing is only half the battle. The other half is finding ways to share those artifacts with the world. Creating something isn’t fun unless you can share it. Very rarely do we create anything just for ourselves. We create things to be shared with others, to share with others, and to be proud of. Once we overcome the fear of access we must overcome the fear of sharing.

Of course once we share our digitally made creations they can be remixed and as Resnick stated, “Being remixed should be an honor.”

We should be encouraging our students to remix, to use, and collaborate with others on ideas. We should be encouraging students to join Facebook groups around a cause, or remixing a Scratch game, or editing a Wikipedia article. Being remixed is an honor, it’s having someone take your blog posts and enhance it with their own ideas, it’s being retweeted on Twitter, and being talked about in a podcast.

Creativity and fear do not mix. Trying to be creative in a culture of fear is nearly impossible. It’s difficult for teachers and it’s difficult for students.

Adora Svitak ended the day on the same note in which it started. This time coming from the mouth of a 12 year old, Adora talked about how our fear of the tools as teachers, our fear of change, is blocking what she calls innovative classrooms. If we are to be innovative in our schools, as well as society, we must overcome our fears of the unknown. If we truly want our students to be creative and we believe that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” then we need to overcome our fear of the Internet and embrace the global audience that awaits.


  1. I believe our American paranoia about child molesters is mirrored in our fear that the digital world holds as many fears. I believe nothing has changed. When there was little transportation and no telephones, we taught our children values. We taught them right from wrong. We taught them to share their their thoughts and fears with us. We taught them to report bad things that happen to us. There is no difference now, except that we, the adults, have dropped the ball. The world our children live in is digital and many adults don’t know enough about THAT world to prepare the children to be safe. The easy answer….lock them in the house. We have an obligation to prepare the children to be safe the same way we did in the past. Adults don’t need to know everything about the web, they have to teach children right from wrong, to have strong values and to do the right thing.

  2. My school district is stricken with problems arising from censorship policies designed to protect our students. It’s a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. The students circumnavigated the fail-safes in place within the first week of classes, and do so routinely every school year. We are unable to access some of the most engaging and student-centric tools available to us because of this problem. I must say though, it is no surprise that China is ahead of us ….again. Take a look to American time spent studying China, both in historic and contemporary contexts. I think you will find the reason why so many of us have such skewed views of one of the oldest countries on Earth.



  1. Overcoming Our Fears | The Thinking Stick - [...] Overcoming Our Fears July 15, 2010 By Jeff Utecht Share      Hello there! If you are new here, you might…

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