14 Days of #macul14 – Day Four – Adam Bellow’s MACUL 2014 Keynote from His Point of View

I’ve always been curious to know what a room full of a few thousand people looks like for someone up on stage during a large keynote talk. So I setup my iPad on the table at the front of the ballroom for Adam Bellow’s keynote talk at MACUL 2014, and I used Frameograph to take time lapse photos every 5 seconds.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and after compressing the footage to fit within 60 seconds of video (because who wants to watch nearly an hour of still shots with no audio), I’m still not sure what I captured. It’s not terribly interesting, at least not from what I see. To be honest, I’m not sure what I was expecting; it was an hour of a few thousand people sitting patiently listening to someone entertain them.

So I stuck a question at the end of the video, “what did you notice?” There may be no more startling revelations to be made other than MACUL attendees are quite attentive, and rather well behaved, but I couldn’t just let the video sit on my computer knowing that someone out there might have some other thoughts.

I’ve come to internalize that keynote talks are a rather odd beast, especially in our current era of educational thought. We profess how the lecture is dead, and yet it isn’t. The current “maker movement” is experiential learning in its most pure form; reflection and conceptualization are the direct result of concrete experiences. We herald small project based learning groups, and challenges that connect learning to applications in the real world. We beg for anything but one more lecture……and then we pay hundreds of dollars to attend workshops and conferences in which we spend the majority of our time listening to other educators lecture.

Be very clear about what I’m getting at, and read my next sentence carefully. I’m not saying that keynote lectures and talks are bad. I’m merely stating a curiosity that I have with the dissonance created  in my own mind  between motivating teachers to adopt new pedagogies of instruction, and the traditional lecture format that we use to motivate those teachers to change. Yes, keynote talks can be fun, engaging, humorous, heartfelt, and poignant. But after watching this video, I can’t help but wonder if there’s any other way to impact a room full of a few thousand people that doesn’t involve them sitting in a chair for 60 minutes.

Engaging keynote lectures will certainly always be with us, but I can’t help wonder what others’ perspectives are about them. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you’re out there Mr. Bellow, I’d really love to know what you think about keynote talks.


  1. So that’s what the iPad on the table behind me was doing! 🙂

    I noticed it when I got up to speak, but honestly thought someone might have left it there by mistake. Nice to know that a) it wasn’t lost – and b) that it was able to capture this and spark some conversation.

    So what do I think?

    It’s a double edged sword. Here are some random thoughts…

    I totally get the hypocrisy of standing up in front of a room of 3000 people and talking about making and not sit-and-get style education. It is one of the things that I try to point out in the keynote by even showing a slide of a room that resembles many large conference halls and explaining that “this can’t be it” and offering what I think would be a good alternative or supplement.

    I am a huge fan and supporter of the EdCamp and Un-conference movement. Personally, I find entering presentation titles and ideas 8 months before I present on them to be rather silly because things change so fast and because people who are participating in the event should get to craft their learning outcomes.

    That said, I do enjoy a good speaker/presentation. I personally am still inspired or moved or pushed in my thinking when I hear a great speech – but I get the fact that there needs to be more.

    TED events and a conference that I used to love to present at called the #140edu conference are onto something with the short form presentation styles. I like 15 minute talks – but I proposed a change to the format. Not that TED or anyone else needs to listen to me – but I love the notion of having 4-5 10 minute presentations followed by 45 minute breakout sessions where people could choose to go and build on ideas that the short speeches laid out. It takes the presentation of an idea and allows the audience to become presenters themselves – sharing ideas, pushing back, asking questions, and ultimately building relationships and connections that seldom happen in the large conference halls. I think that this hybrid model would work well – especially if the keynote speakers were crowd-sourced from the conference audience. I get the idea of bringing in “pros” – but there are many voices today that I think would make us all smarter.

    So I am kind of rambling here – sorry – but the idea I want to get across is that we need less “Keynote” and more conversation – and the idea above is just one way to try and tilt the model so that we have more variety of voice on the stage.

    I am sure there are other – and probably better – ways to do this and make it more relevant and personal to the learner in the audience who I would like to see as a sharer of ideas and presenter of sorts, even if they didn’t have to get up and talk. I love the interaction that Twitter has leant to conference sessions. People can disagree, question, and engage with presenters and audience members – both as a back channel and after the session is over.

    I know I always go back through the feed and interact with anyone asking questions or posting ideas to try and further the conversation.

    One keynote that stood out to me is actually the closing Keynote that Steve Dembo did at MACUL in 2013. He gave a killer presentation – but at the end he got the whole crowd (all 2,000+ people) doing the Harlem Shake and then edited it live on stage and shared it. It was participatory and engaging. He talked about the idea of making media and then we all did it – was a brilliant moment. We need more things like this.

    I love the idea of audience participation and have tried things like handing an entire audience money, integrating live polls, taking random questions throughout the presentations, displaying a live twitter feed alongside my slides, live-tweeting my ideas for people in and out of the presentation to engage with, etc.

    I have this crazy idea to have everyone take selfies and email them to me to make a digital quilt with their twitter handles – all in the efforts to making the presentation less about me and more about the community.

    So to sum up – Keynotes are a weird animal – but I think conferences in general will have to (and in many cases are) evolving into something new and I hope that I will still be able to be inspired by a great speaker or a set of ideas, but that the speeches are more actionable, more personalized, and more relevant to meet the need of the people who are in the room.

    Lots more in my head on this topic – but it is off to work…

    1. Sorry about the “mystery iPad”, but glad that I could shed some light on it!

      I think it’s important to acknowledge the apparent hypocrisy of it, but I certainly didn’t want to come off as it being hypocritical. I value large keynote talks for many reasons; they fill seats, sell tickets, and give attendees some large common experiences and thoughts to connect with. But your point about crafting a message several months in advance is telling; it’s a shame more keynote speakers aren’t creating something that speaks directly to the audience in question, and is pertinent to their community/situation.

      That having been said, are great speeches and lectures still valuable? Of course! Even if the message isn’t tailored for the audience specifically, there’s certainly value in having a “tent pole” event or session to get people excited. I’m not so sure you were rambling any more than I was in the post. There was a lot of great conversation on Twitter about this, and perhaps the issue isn’t the typical “keynote format”, but rather the nature of conferences like MACUL, ISTE, FETC, CUE in general. They may have been structured at one point in time to facilitate conversation as a primary goal, but have become vehicles which need to bring in dollars first, and conversations second. I don’t blame, or think this model is inappropriate; In order to stay relevant, or have an impact beyond smaller grass-roots change, these events need to be big!

      Steve’s keynote at the close of MACUL 2013 is a great example of getting the audience up and involved with the speaker. It’s certainly not always do-able, and occasionally falls flat (I remember Hall Davidson trying to do a collaborative National Anthem a few years back that worked rather poorly). We’re both on the same wavelength here; keynotes have become strange animals, and we’re okay with that, provided that we follow up with conversations, or perhaps structure further “big talks” on what was gleaned from the conversations. I’m just wondering how much longer big conferences and keynotes like this can survive if we continue to move people to a space where they want the smaller connections of the EdCamps and Unconferences.

  2. I like a good keynote, they are great ways to create shared visions and create a cohesive culture with a larger group than a workshop usually has. I am mystified by the idea that a 25 or 30 minute speech is somehow modeling bad teaching. Most of us only have that time to connect with the speaker and usually the speaker is pretty insulated from the average attendee. I think we need more time to connect with them, to learn to trust them, and to ultimately learn from them.

    Perhaps we should encourage keynote speakers to follow up their message with time in a chat room or other form of social media to engage with audience members. It wouldn’t be hard to set up a private chat and share the link with the audience at the end of the keynote. Would that solve some of the problems with the format?

    I really dislike the #edutwittosphere’s penchant for black and white thinking. With all methods of instruction there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to approach them. If we continue to make blanket statements like keynotes are bad because the audience is not engaged we are limiting our ability to deliver information in a way that has worked for 4,000+ years. Remember the sermon on the mount?

    1. “I really dislike the #edutwittosphere’s penchant for black and white thinking. With all methods of instruction there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to approach them.”

      As I grow older, I find myself more willing to work within a world that is more “grey” than black and white. I wonder if the very nature of Twitter, coupled with the always persistent issue of intent being lost in online conversation, means that statements fit in the black and white space by default. It’s hard to work complexity into 140 characters, and it’s a shame that we don’t have larger spaces to connect. I get Adam’s early response about keynotes being a double-edged sword, as I feel Twitter only amplifies that. We connect, but in sporadic and truncated versions of ourselves, regardless of intent.

      I really appreciated the back and forth we had today on Twitter, and I’m thankful that you took the time to leave some thoughts about finding more time to connect beyond the conventional “one way” street of a keynote. I didn’t want to come off as saying that keynotes are bad, because I don’t feel that way at all; rather keynotes have room to grow, and change as audiences become more sophisticated with social media.

  3. As someone who is asked to do keynotes, I have to say that it feels a little awkward. I’m not a good speaker and I’m not an expert on anything. However, if someone wants to listen to me and pay me to speak, the answer is a resounding, “yes.” After all, I have to fight to keep my students’ attention for more than five minutes.

    I don’t think it’s hypocritical to be advocating for experiential learning while also giving a keynote. To me, the bigger issue is whether or not you’re actually living that out. I feel good about the things happening in my classroom and I know that a keynote is a strange reality that’s far removed from where my life’s work actually is.

    I only think it becomes critical when someone lacks nuance and makes ridiculous bold statements. You know the type. “Be creative, because that’s the only solution,” but that speaker gives the same damn TED Talk speech over and over again and doesn’t contribute anything creatively to the public commons. Or they say, “We need to ditch lecture” and they speak of it as if it is inherently evil while doing that non-stop.

    To me, a keynote is closer to a book or theater or a podcast. All of those are inherently “passive” in the social realm, but have the potential to be mentally interactive. The issue to me isn’t whether keynotes should exist, but whether or not they are being done the right way.

    I still think the Sermon on the Mount is awesome (though I think the Sermon on the Plain might be better) and I still love listening to good slam poetry / spoken word and I still love the “I Have a Dream” speech.

    In the case of Adam’s keynotes, I loved listen to his at ISTE. It was actually the only one that kept my attention. Here are a few things he did well:

    1. He avoided the crappy fortune cookie stuff that I see in some of the keynotes.
    2. He didn’t insult the audience by telling us that game designers are better teachers than teachers or that a hole in the wall is better than a relationship. Instead, he affirmed teachers.
    3. He used the medium well, in terms of slides, movement, voice, etc. He knew what the medium offered.

    1. Agreed on most counts, John. I was only able to capture small moments of Adam’s keynote (mea culpa) due to my volunteering for crowd control and stamping sheets for continuing education credit at the door. However, the elements I did capture were appreciated, and the humor felt authentic, not just manufactured and inserted for effect. I even noticed that he cut the video for “Organ Trail” short before it became too graphic (or as graphic as 8 bit can be). He knew his audience, and he knew his medium. I’d say that most of the keynoters that come from the classroom have a good sense of this (or at least those that still interact with teachers and students on a regular basis).

      I’m down with a keynote being passive. When I listen to podcasts or read books that I feel passionately about, the more I want reach through the pages and become a part of the world, or through the internet and sit down with the people talking on the podcast to chat with them. I know we can do that with keynote speakers through social media, but the more I attend keynote talks, the more I want to walk up on stage and just start a conversation with the person (provided they engage me). Having “fire side” chats with keynote speakers throughout the conference would be fantastic if they happened on a regular basis. I’ve attended many before, and always jump at a chance to sit down and have a real conversation with a keynoter, not just gloss over their main talking points.

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