ISTE | Q & A

Principal Robert Furman Urges Teachers to Break Old Habits and Go Digital

The author, educator and lecturer will appear in three sessions at ISTE this month.

L. Robert Furman urges educators to break the cycle of wash, dry, rinse, repeat. In other words, get out of the rut of the habitual ways of doing things and try something different.


Robert Furman

Furman is principal at South Park Elementary Center in South Park, PA, 12 miles outside of downtown Pittsburgh. He’s also an ISTE author, a regular public speaker and presenter, and a champion of tech-infused education for the 21st century.

During the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference later this month, Furman will participate in three sessions: “Leading for the Future: Harness Innovation, Embrace Change and Transform Learning” from 10:15-11:15 a.m. Tuesday, June 27; “Technology Tips, Tricks and Hacks from ISTE Authors,” 2:45-3:45 p.m. June 27; and “Relevance in the Revolutionized School,” 4:45-5:45 p.m. June 27.

THE Journal spoke with Furman about his visions for 21st century students and educators.

THE Journal: What do you mean when you say we need a revolution in education? And why do you call your YouTube series “The Seditionists”?
Robert Furman: We need to make the changes necessary for the 21st century. [In American history] the seditionists talked of revolution; they talked of the need for change in a grand way.

We talk like we’re revolutionaries. We definitely want to be heard, in terms of the importance, of the need for change in education. We need to make the changes necessary so we fit with our mainstream society, and we give kids the skills they need — digital age skills: the need for collaboration and leadership and all those things we talk about in terms of digital age skills.

There are a lot of things educators do by accident. We need to be aware of what we’re doing, and the fact that these kids need these skills. You could be teaching facts and memorization and things [by rote]. We may have AI machines doing half that stuff for you. Having those digital age skills are going to be eternal.

Only 10 years ago, there was no iPad, iPhone or Netflix. Just in 10 short years, look at how much has changed. We’re probably not going to have to learn how to drive.

To have these digital age skills — no matter what — [students are] going to be armed with these skills that are going to help them regardless.

THE Journal: What should we be doing differently on a policy level?

Furman: It’s so unfortunate. From the federal government, down to the state government, the policymakers aren’t educators. We’re still doing high stakes accountability testing.

There are schools [and administrators] that are mocking us on the international stage. They’re laughing at us. We went back to accountability. [Schools from other countries] just proved that it doesn’t’ work.

Policymakers need to be educators — true educators, true believers in what we’re trying to do here.

THE Journal: Why go through so much change? Is it really necessary?


Furman: We talk about digital immigrants and digital natives. The same thing is occurring in education. We’re [the older, teaching generation] the educational/digital immigrants, and we think what we did is best.

On a national scale, education looks the same, and yet the world doesn’t look anything the same. We need to get back to student-centered learning.

I talk about it in my book, “The Future Ready Challenge.” We need to start looking at what technology does for us.

THE Journal: What does technology do for us? What are some things that we may not need to do anymore because of technology?

Furman: We teach skills that are sort of silly. Like cursive handwriting. If your goal is to have your students communicate with you, you shouldn’t teach that. Cursive handwriting in a very short period of time will be non-existent.

Printing is going to go away. We don’t need to print and sign our signature. Typing is probably going to go away. Why would you want to type away things when you can just talk into a computer?

Maybe we need to start tailoring back — maybe cursive can go in the art department, as opposed to a primary content category.  

Let’s talk about spelling. We have spell check on our computers. Do students need to read and memorize half the dictionary? Absolutely not. It’s a colossal waste of time.

Let’s dump some of these things. Do we need the old-fashioned textbook?

[Presentation partner Keith Reeves and I] go through a host of those — six or seven different things. Then we debate it with the audience. Keith and I are not opposed to a good, old-fashioned debate. We love when people have opposing opinions. We want to hear what they have to say. We’re always open to ideas.

THE Journal: Tell us more about your book, “The Future Ready Challenge.”

Furman: I want to get moving, I want to get future ready. We’re preaching this, but really not telling people how to get ready.

I give tangible tips on how you can incorporate future-ready skills into your classroom. Some of it can be practical stuff. I want to get out of the WRDR cycle — wash, rinse, dry, repeat.

We give assigned homework, do bellwork. That gets monotonous. Very soon artificial intelligence and virtual reality — they can do that. If teachers want to be relevant, we have to bring things to the table that AI and VR can’t — teaching compassion and love, dealing with constructive criticism. What teachers bring to it is the human element.

THE Journal: Isn’t all of this harder for the educator? They already have so much work to do.

Furman: We have to — every single day — make decisions based on what’s best for the student. Even if that means making ourselves uncomfortable, even if it means giving ourselves more work.

We don’t come into education for the money, certainly. We come in for the passion. But times change. The veteran teacher might say, “It worked last year. Why can’t it work this year?”

Well, maybe I can add a little tweak here, a change here to make it more 21st century, more beneficial to the student. We as the adults should be taken out of the equation. We should be doing what’s best for the kids.

Someone once said, “Complacency is the enemy of change.” “It worked last year, it will work again this year.” We need to make changes in order to become better.

rob lecture

THE Journal: What are you going to talk about during your ISTE authors session?

Furman: I’m probably going to pick two or three of my challenges that I have in my book and discuss those. I’m not really sure which ones yet.

I’ll probably talk about an easy one — layering, like a layer cake, the soft skills, digital skills onto your current lessons. Transcending the classroom walls. The four-wall classroom thing is archaic.

You can transcend the classroom walls with Skype, bringing authors in. Kids realize that there’s more out there than South Park.

I might talk about grading and how ridiculous grading is. We need to go to more skills-based reporting. If I get a letter grade, does that mean I know the skill or not? We need to hammer down into a more skills-based version of reporting the information.

THE Journal: Tell us something about the significance of ISTE.

Furman: During the summer, as a teacher, we have to be a quality student ourselves. We need to embrace the whole idea of modeling and being a quality educator, teach yourself, being self-directed. If we don’t do it, then we’re being hypocritical. We need to teach the importance of networking, collaborating.

ISTE is the Mecca of educational technology. Everybody has similar beliefs. You could learn more just going to lunch with someone than at the conference. The ideas and the energy are just remarkable. Teachers come out so energized, ready to take on the world. A lot of those teachers end up in the wash, rinse, dry repeat cycle during the school year.

It’s a chance to recharge their batteries. It gets you excited, gets you passionate again. Then when you have to put the work in, it doesn’t feel so much like work.

What better place to go to, with all the experts there at one time. It’s so important to be able to able to meet these people, discuss these things with people. We’re all in this one big boat. If we can help each other, why not?

Find out more about Robert Furman at THE Journal will be exhibiting at ISTE, June 25-28, in booth 754.