The need to produce a generation of students who are creative thinkers and innovators was a key theme at this year’s National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Atlanta.

More than 18,500 educators and exhibitors gathered at the Georgia World Congress Center June 24 through 27 for the nation’s premier educational technology conference, hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

Conference-goers heard from keynote speaker Andrew Zolli, a futurist and author who urged those in attendance to cultivate students’ creativity to maintain America’s position as a global leader in innovation. Later in the conference, Zolli moderated a roundtable discussion on what it takes to unlock the creative potential in all of us.

In between, ISTE released an updated version of its National Educational Technology Standards for Students, a set of standards for defining what students should know and be able to do with technology at various grade levels. The revised standards include creativity and innovation at the top of the list of traits to be measured.

The innovation ‘imperative’

Zolli’s opening keynote speech on June 24 had two parts. In the first half, he explained why it’s “imperative” for educators to encourage students’ innate creativity.

“You are shifting our whole civilization onto a new platform,” he told attendees, using a metaphor the audience was familiar with to describe the changes in society brought on by advancements in technology. “We’re watching an exponential curve … an amazing set of shifts.”

Two key ideas underlie these shifts, Zolli said: Everything that can be done by machine (eventually) will be, and many more things will be able to be done by machine than we now think.

“What happens when we’re successful?” he asked attendees. In other words, what would the world look like if everything we needed were plentiful, fast, and cheap? “What is left to humanity is the essence of the creative spirit,” he answered—and it’s that creative spirit that educators must nurture in their students.

These capabilities are latent in all of us, Zolli said. He illustrated his point with an example from science. Scientists, he said, now have the ability to “shut off” various parts of the brain temporarily, and in one research experiment, scientists turned off various inhibitors and had subjects draw a picture of a dog. In almost all cases, he noted, the subjects’ drawings were much more rich in details than they were capable of before the experiment.

“We all have to find our own creative center,” Zolli concluded. “The good news is, science tells us it’s there.”

In the second half of his speech, drawing on fields as diverse as demographics and psychology, Zolli outlined five key trends that are shaping education’s future. And it’s clear from these trends that creativity and innovation aren’t necessary just for students: Educators, too, will need these traits to cultivate new approaches to teaching and learning.

The first of these trends is what Zolli called “demographic transformation.” The world and U.S. populations are changing in ways that will have profound effects on education in this century, he noted.

For example, the world is becoming increasingly urban, and many of the largest cities in the world soon will be in East Asia. Women now make up 56 percent of undergraduates in the United States, and this figure is rising. The population in the western part of the U.S. is rising at a much faster rate than in the East, and whites will be a minority in the United States by the middle of this century.

“The next generation is going to be more multiethnic and female than ever,” Zolli said—and schools, too, will need to evolve to address these changes.

The second trend Zolli described is a shift in the way we think about our relationship with the natural world—or, as he put it, a growing awareness of “the need to navigate our moment in human civilization in relationship to our ecosystem.” These social forces are going to meet new technological forces, he said—and as a result, “we’re going to see hundreds of examples” of so-called “eco-innovation,” or efforts to “rethink the world.”

As examples of this phenomenon, Zolli cited a plant that scientists have engineered to turn red when its roots come into contact with the chemicals associated with landmines—and “ecotiles” that use the kinetic pressure of your stepping as you walk to power the lights around the town square.

“Someone you educate,” he said, “… is going to win the Nobel Prize in this century for having solved a problem like this that also makes them a trillionaire.” He added: “That’s the opportunity in front of us.”

The third trend, Zolli said, is a change in our perception of ideal “learning places.”

“We are animals,” he said, and as such, “we have preferred habitats.” These are places that are rich in resources, multisensory and vibrant, adaptable and reusable, and mix public and private spaces. Zolli then showed a slide of a typical school building, with rows of bland lockers all looking the same.

“We send [students] to a place almost guaranteed to elicit psychosis to a social primate,” he joked. His message: Educators must rethink their learning environments to elicit innovation from students.

The fourth trend is the need to cope with choice and complexity. In our “surplus society,” Zolli said, we’re now awash in choices. A key skill for educators to impart to their students will be the ability to manage these choices.

The final trend is the redefining of what “literacy” means. In our post-Sputnik model of intelligence, Zolli said, you’re smart if you either know more facts than the average person, or you know unique facts that most others don’t know. But as technology evolves and puts knowledge literally at the fingertips of students, that definition must change.

“Today, when students take the [SAT], they can take a programmable calculator into the test with them—and that’s a bridge to a day when that device contains access to all the world’s present information,” he said. “The question is, what are we testing when we enable people to come in with the cloud of human knowledge behind them?”

It is inevitable that students will bring those tools with them to future tests, he said, and when they do, “we will have changed the nature of what we test to something a lot more like our ability to find, build, and use complex information tools in real time.”

[Editor’s note: For video highlights of Zolli’s speech, as well as other aspects of NECC 2007, go to:]

New ed-tech standards

On Day Two of the conference, ISTE formally unveiled a new version of its National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS*S), the culmination of a year-long process to revise this rubric for what kids should know and be able to do with technology.

Launched at last year’s NECC, the NETS*S Refresh Project convened students and stakeholders in town-hall style meetings around the country during the past year, inviting their feedback. The project included participation from representatives in 50 states and 22 countries, ISTE said, including China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia.

ISTE first issued its NETS for students in 1998, and this framework has since found its way into the standards of as many as 48 U.S. states. Now, nearly 10 years later—and having also issued NETS for teachers and administrators—ISTE has revised its NETS to keep pace with the changing demands of a new global, information-based economy, the group says.

Toward that end, creativity and innovation head the list of characteristics the new standards seek to measure.

According to ISTE’s chief executive, Don Knezek, the original NETS*S focused primarily on technology tools, “because that was okay at that time, but that’s not true now. … [We need to focus on] what students need to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly digital age.”

Knezek has described the changes as a shift away from a focus on “competency with [technology] tools” and toward a focus on the “skills required in a digital world to produce and innovate” using technology.

The differences can be gleaned by looking at the categories that define each set of standards.

In the original standards, the skills necessary to define technology proficiency were outlined across six categories: basic operations and concepts; social, ethical, and human issues of technology use; productivity tools; communication tools; research tools; and problem-solving and decision-making tools.

The revised draft standards also are organized into six categories: (1) creativity and innovation; (2) communication and collaboration; (3) research and information retrieval; (4) critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making; (5) digital citizenship; and (6) technology operations and concepts.

“The first set of standards was about learning to use technology. This set is about using technology to learn,” said David Barr, a retired educator and a member of ISTE’s accreditation and standards committee.

Breaking the rules

Continuing the theme of creativity and innovation at this year’s NECC, Zolli moderated a June 26 roundtable discussion on how educators can encourage the development of these characteristics within their students.

The discussion involved four experts with different perspectives on creativity: Mary Cullinane, a Microsoft employee and technology architect of the company’s School of the Future project in Philadelphia; Michael McCauley, creative director for a Chicago-based communications agency; Francesc Pedro, senior analyst for the Paris-based Center for Educational Research and Innovation, a division of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; and Elizabeth Streb, a nationally renowned choreographer.

The conversation centered on the question: What kind of environment best stimulates creativity?

The School of the Future project (see was about “fundamentally questioning the norm,” Cullinane said. She added: “One of the things we wanted to focus on was creating a place where failure was an option—where kids weren’t afraid to fail.” That’s hard to do in an era of increased school accountability, she acknowledged. In terms of its physical space, the school’s designers sought to create “gathering places” where kids could come together and collaborate on projects.

Streb described a place she created in New York City, called Slam, where dancers, acrobats, and students come together to explore movement and flight. She portrayed it as resembling a large “garage,” where it’s OK to break things and get dirty. “We also allow complete sovereignty,” she added, noting there is a “thin line between when play stops and class begins.”

Streb also had a few words of advice for those in the audience: Ask seemingly unanswerable questions, and break the rules. “Discovery is going in with a clean question and then ignoring everything you thought you knew,” said Streb, who has revolutionized modern dance by challenging many widely held assumptions about this art form.

Zolli noted that the panelists seemed to be talking about taking risks and empowering individuals (that is, students). So, he asked, how do educators deal with the structural impediments to these notions that typically exist in today’s schools?

Cullinane acknowledged this can be difficult. She said Philadelphia’s School of the Future was designed to exist within the traditional constraints common to school systems, such as budget limitations—yet its goal was specifically to loosen the structural barriers that often impede progress.

“Imagine if we were all swimming downstream—imagine how fast we could go,” she said. “Yet, in schools, we’re often swimming upstream” against a current of policies and procedures.

Zolli then asked what it is about the culture at Microsoft that encourages innovation. Cullinane responded that it’s a place where individuals are self-critical and constantly questioning: How can I get better? This behavior is modeled every day, she said. Also, employees are given time to just think.

“You didn’t have to justify that you were doing something,” said Cullinane, a former teacher before joining Microsoft. “Thinking was doing something—and that, for me, was a fundamental change, coming from a school environment.”

Cullinane ended the discussion by urging educators to remember the word “motive,” asking: What motivates students? What do they value? What is their environment? What are their challenges?

“If we can’t answer these questions, we’re not going to be able to create the kinds of environments like the School of the Future,” she concluded.

Editor’s note: On July 5, eSchool News will bring you a roundup of the brightest innovations and most important announcements offered by selected technology providers exhibiting at NECC 2007.


NECC 2007

Revised National Educational Technology Standards for Students

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