Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening

The false promise of ed tech, part two. Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening.

It’s day two of my university’s four-day-long orientation for entering students. Two steps at a time I hurriedly climb the bleachers of our large auditorium to an empty seat in the very back. Six hundred students have gathered for their first academic experience, a faculty panel discussion of a common reading, Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014). First, however, the Associate Provost gives a talk on academic behaviors important for college success; advising students to “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged . . . be open to constructive criticism.”

A long ways from the closest students, a moderator stands at a podium. The students in the back and I look up at a large audio-visual projection of two formally dressed professors sitting at a table across from the moderator. The conversation begins. Question one, “How did your respective disciplines—Psychology and English Literature—help you better understand the novel?” The professors intelligently deconstruct the text. The second question begins similarly, “Again, looking through your disciplinary lenses. . . .” More thoughtfully expressed insights follow. Despite the professors’ expert analysis, something is amiss. Within ten minutes, the students in front of me start to stir, smart phones materialize out of thin air, a few laptops open, two students exchange backrubs. As ten minutes turn to forty, nearly everyone tunes out.

Seymour Sarason offered an apt metaphor for education reform in The Predictable Failure of Education Reform (1993). It is, he explained, like an ocean storm. During an ocean storm, the surface is markedly changed as the result of 100 mile per knot winds, darkening skies, mountainous waves, and incessant lightening strikes. Yet as one descends to the ocean floor, the water chemistry, darkness, and animal life remain completely unchanged. Too often, the modern university classroom, or in this case auditorium, is the ocean floor. Despite the fact that most “always on” young adults text continuously throughout the day, whether they’re in their cars or our classrooms, classroom teaching remains largely unchanged—professors mostly talk and students pretend to listen.

There should be a corollary to the admonition, “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged,” such as “Faculty will resist talking at you. Instead they will capitalize on your energy for learning by developing personalized learning environments characterized by meaningful interaction.” The teaching disconnect so powerfully illustrated by the common reading panel discussion provides faculty the opportunity to model the other highlighted academic behavior, “Be open to criticism.”

Deborah Meier argues in The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly telling” (1995, p. xi). Likewise, Decker Walker contends inFundamentals of Curriculum, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them” (1990, p. 479). University faculty rarely apply these aphorisms because they think of themselves first and foremost as mathematicians, philosophers, and psychologists who also happen to teach. Consequently, scant time is spent thinking about whether conventional teaching methods are working. Even less time is spent crafting alternative ones; as a result, a talking at students status quo prevails.

This lack of introspection means faculty rarely engage in thoughtful conversation about their teaching strengths, styles, and struggles. That’s why the common reading panel discussion was implemented nearly identically the previous two years. No one on the First Year Program Committee has dared to state the obvious—if the goal is to engage students, it’s not working.

There are several reasons why the common reading panel discussion is not engaging students, but to understand the most salient causes, it’s important to know that Fowler’s novel is a riveting and sometimes emotional story that prompts lots of thinking about human-animal relations. One reason the students tuned out the two distant faculty members sitting on the stage is that they both read their rehearsed responses to questions they had received a few months earlier. Their conscientious preparation and obvious insight was not enough to compensate for the impersonal space coupled with a complete lack of eye contact.

Most importantly though, the wording of the questions, and the highlighting of their academic disciplines, meant they spent almost all of their time deconstructing the text as English and Psychology scholars when the story begged a human response. The professors’ intelligence was evident, but not their humanity. That’s why so many students turned to social media. Parker Palmer, inThe Courage to Teach, illuminates why the reading panel went poorly by detailing a typology of teachers’ questions:

• The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question—what subjects shall we teach?

• When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question—what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

• Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question—for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

• But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question—who is the teacher? How does the quality of my selfhood form—or deform—the way I related to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? (1998, p. 4)

Conventional wisdom seems to be that educational technology is the key to engaging the “always on” generation. In contrast, I believe the best way forward is to pay more attention to the self that teaches. Based upon the wording of the questions, the First Year Committee thought of the faculty panelists exclusively as scholars. Students would have responded much more positively if the panelists had first talked more spontaneously and authentically about how the story affected them as human beings—vulnerability being a key factor in learning.

This seeming reticence to explore the self that teaches takes me back to a few years ago when I participated in a faculty seminar with colleagues from across our liberal arts campus. During the seminar I enjoyed getting to know Kai, a young English professor, whom I learned was a talented and accomplished poet. At the time, we were both teaching first year writing. Before the start of one of our meetings, I told Kai about a successful class activity that was based upon an essay I had published a few years earlier. Dumbfounded, he said, “You share your writing with your students?!” “Yes,” I replied, “usually a few times each semester.” The thought had never entered his mind. The more Kai and I embrace Parker’s idea of the self that teaches and reveal something of our humanity, the better our odds of truly connecting with our “always on” students.

Embracing the self that teaches in order to reveal one’s humanity is admittedly abstract advice. How might that concept inform a new and improved first academic experience for any university’s entering students? The answer lies in the second half of my university’s common reading experience—small, writing seminar–based discussion groups of sixteen students. My group was relieved when I noted, “That could’ve gone better.” Then I began our discussion by reminding them that people have markedly different feelings about animals. Next, I explained the evolution of my thinking about animals and how that impacted the way I read the novel. The students were interested in how fearful I was of dogs as a child and were amused by my foolhardy attempts to outrun a few. Then, I confessed that as a middle-aged adult I didn’t understand how a few of my close friends thought of their dogs almost as children until my family pressed me to get one of our own. “Now, after nine fun-filled years with our amazing labradoodle,” I said, “I completely understood their special bond.”

I used my story as a springboard for talking about the importance of being open-minded in college to different ways of thinking and being. I also asked them about their relationship with animals and whether they liked the book or not. Forgetting their phones, they engaged one another. We should eliminate the large group faculty panel discussion altogether, in favor of the smaller, more personal discussion groups. And if we can get the faculty small group leaders to reveal something of their humanity, we may engage the “always on” generation in ways that revitalize the university classroom.

References

Fowler, K. J. (2014). We are all completely beside ourselves: A Novel. New York: Plume.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas. Boston: Beacon Press.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Sarason, S. B. (1993). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walker, D. (1990). Fundamentals of curriculum. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

Most Educational Technology Does Nothing to Improve Teaching and Learning

Two friends of mine develop apps for children with autism spectrum issues. Their work is just one of many examples of how educational technology is an unmitigated positive for students with special needs.

You would never know it given the tendency of the Information Technology Zealots (ITZs) to exaggerate the impact of their toys, but ed tech is not an unmitigated positive for elementary, secondary, and university students more generally.

In fact, 80-90% of educational technology does nothing to improve the quality of K-12 and higher education teaching and learning. The problem is, the ITZs nonstop, unfounded assertions about the benefits of ed tech has rendered our critical thinking abilities completely ineffectual. The Ed Tech Emperor often has no clothes on, but odds are you’re skeptical of that because ed tech groupthink is at epidemic proportions.

The problem is there’s no consensus about how to evaluate whether educational technologies improve teaching and learning; as a result, our default is a vacuous falsehood. More is better.

My starting point is Decker Walker’s assertion that “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” What is it, ideally, that students should do? Students should read and think about challenging topics and abstract concepts, ask open-ended questions, look at and listen to one another, respect classmates who think differently than them, learn to be empathetic, and write and speak clearly and persuasively. That’s my liberal arts oriented litmus test for whether educational technologies are additive or not.

What happens if we apply my test to a case study that my esteemed university recently added to its website? I’m calling it Professor Technology.

Here are the highlights, or lowlights, depending on your perspective:

Intro. Professor Technology is a self-proclaimed computer geek. Employment in the financial sector and government opened his eyes to the importance of technology in the workplace. His first experience with technology-based education occurred when the IRS asked him to develop national training courses to be delivered both live and virtually. He realized the challenges involved in developing engaging content and obtaining learning feedback. This opened the door to his exploration of many types of learning tools, including online polling.

What is one instructional technique or project that is particularly effective, innovative, or engaging? “I encourage my students to bring their laptops, tablets, cell phones or anything else. I keep them technologically engaged in a way that they will not have the time or desire to do anything else on their machines during class.[i] Students have cell phones and they will bring them to class. That is the reality of 2014. Why not put them to use? The students are intrigued by the idea of ‘texting for learning.’ [ii] Technology allows us to collect information about behavior. Information is just as precious to a company wishing to market a product as it is to an educator wishing to improve specific areas of performance at the class level or at the individual student level.”

What related tool or strategy do you use that other PLU faculty might like to try in their courses? “Although I have many untested ideas, this semester I relied heavily on a neat PowerPoint plugin called Poll Everywhere. PollEv allows me to embed polls in my PowerPoint presentations. I can create multiple choice questions, T/F questions, or open ended questions and embed them by surprise in my presentation. The students can answer polls though their phones, computers, or tablets. For open ended questions, they can type in their answers. The system tells me how many students are attending the poll and how many have cast their vote. The poll results are updated instantly on the class screen.”[iii]

What are the benefits, for you and your students, of utilizing this tool or strategy? “My experience has been that quality decisions are made through quality information. Plenty of quality information is available to most of us if we only know how to reach it and use it. Businesses are well aware of this competitive advantage and employ technology to the fullest extent they can to maximize profits. . . . PollEv allows me to obtain immediate feedback about my class without having to put the spotlight on one specific student. I noticed that students sometimes feel pressure to participate or not participate or to give a right or wrong answer. PollEv allows everyone to participate without fear and gives me the opportunity to reiterate a certain topic while the content is still fresh. I generally embed 1 poll every 5-6 slides.”[iv]

What advice would you have for someone interested in trying this tool or strategy? “PollEv is very easy to use. You may simply visit their website, form an account, and give it a try immediately. While I enjoy embedding my polls into PowerPoint, that is not necessary. You could simply use their online portal to cast your poll.”[v]

The remarkable thing about this case study is just how unremarkable it is. Stories like this—about the benefit of things like wireless laptops, tablets, smart pens, or smart boards—are so commonplace, we passively accept them.

When will we muster the courage to question the ITZs hyperbolic claims? Instead of being bedazzled, even hypnotized by ed tech bells and whistles, we need to challenge Professor Technology to show us how PowerPoint and PollEv are helping students read and think about challenging topics and abstract concepts, ask open-ended questions, look at and listen to one another. Or how they’re helping them respect classmates who think differently than them, be more empathetic, and write and speak more clearly and persuasively.

These aren’t the only questions, or even the best ones, but I probably deserve some sort of medal for asking them. I won’t hold my breath. I’ll consider myself lucky if I avoid a public tarring and feathering by the ITZ hordes.

[i] How can I put this nicely? Professor Technology is hopelessly naïve. No one is that engaging. Mercy, this is an accounting class. Students are likely texting; emailing; and alternating between Twitter, Tinder, PressingPause, Facebook, Instagram, PressingPause, and ESPN.

[ii] The central assertion that I do not accept.

[iii] A giant leap forward from asking students to raise their hands and/or speak to accomplish the same things?

[iv] If ed tech is a work-around for students too afraid to raise their hands or state an opinion in front of their peers, we have more pressing problems than how to better engage students.

[v] I will respectfully pass on not just PollEv, but PowerPoint. Why did Steve Jobs, every time someone used PowerPoint to pitch him a product idea, stop them before the second or third slide?

The Coming Ed Tech Tidal Wave

Will smart phones eliminate the digital divide? That’s the title of an interview article with Elliot Soloway in The Journal Digital Edition. Here’s a video version of the same content. And finally, here’s his company’s website with a “contact us” tab in the upper right.

I don’t know enough about Soloway to know if he genuinely cares about improving teaching and learning or if he’s simply out to enrich himself.

Of course already extensive cell phone usage among young people is going to increase over time, but that doesn’t mean every K-12 student in the U.S. will be using a cell phone for educational purposes within five years. That’s his claim, but more accurately I suspect it’s his hope because he just happens to have created a company that outfits local districts and schools with personal cellphone learning devices.

Unfortunately, I can’t find anywhere on his website where I can place a bet on his claim. So maybe he’s just blowing smoke. I’d like to put $1k into escrow based on my belief that there will be at least one student somewhere in the U.S. in September of 2015 that isn’t using a cellphone device in their classroom. Maybe a kindergartner at a Waldorf School somewhere in Vermont?

The larger question posed by Soloway’s snake oil is whether more personal technology in the classroom is going to translate into achievement gains. The burden is on the techies to explain why that might be true. Soloway’s argument is extremely weak and only adds to my skepticism that personal technology is a panacea for improving teaching and learning.

An even more pressing question is whether more personal technology in the classroom is going to reduce the achievement gap. Again, the tech zealots have to do a much better job explaining why that might be true than Soloway does in the linked material above.

The achievement gap exists mostly as a result of outside of school factors. Uneven teacher quality also plays a large part. Soloway is silent on both of those essential factors.

Teachers and parents have to be on guard against tech salespeople who are desperate for a chunk of the textbook millions that will be increasingly up for grabs.  Headlines like this, “Georgia State Senator Hopes to Replace Textbooks with iPads” are going to be increasingly common.

At school board and related meetings a healthy skepticism requires us to ask the following types of questions:

• How will the personal technology device you’re selling improve the quality of teaching?

• How will it help students develop 21st century job and citizenship skills and sensibilities?

• Will it reduce the achievement gap? If so, how?

• What unintended negative consequences have you discovered through pilot studies and what are you doing to mitigate those things?

• If our district or school adopts your gadget, how much money does your company and your employees and you stand to make?

• If we adopt your device, what will you do to restrict image advertisement and direct marketing of commercial products to our students?

• If we adopt your device, how can we be assured you won’t try to influence the content of our curriculum?

Teaching and Texting

Starting five or so years ago, the student teachers I work with really started wrestling in earnest with what to do about their students’ cell phones that started bubbling up in secondary school classrooms everywhere.

Despite a range of school-wide “no cell phones in class” policies, the typical secondary student continues to send over 3,000 texts a month from behind textbooks and under desks.

Now, some of my twenty-something student teachers, who’ve come of age during this era of inveterate texting, are doing it in my classes. As a result, we’re at the point where many texting school administrators are asking texting teachers to enforce no cell phone policies. And they wonder why they aren’t making any headway.

A first year writing student of mine told me that he and his football teammates recently volunteered in an elementary classroom near campus. He was amazed at the way the teacher capitalized on their help—by texting away on her cell phone throughout their entire time with her students.

Consider two contrasting texting schools of thought. One is the “embrace change, why fret about new forms of communication” school. These people point out that you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube and that interpersonal communication has been forever changed. Within schools the onus is on educators to adapt to this new, permanent reality. Work with not against incessantly wired young people. In fact, figure out how to use texting, cell phones, Facebook, and social networking for academic purposes within the classroom. To do otherwise is to risk becoming even more irrelevant.

While I’m sympathetic to that argument, I embrace a “model for and teach young people how to use cell phones and related personal technologies so that face-to-face interactions aren’t indelibly compromised” school of thought that’s really more about electronic etiquette writ large than just texting in schools. I’m not willing to take a laissez-faire, “texting in classrooms is way too pervasive to do anything about” approach.

When it comes to assessing my graduate student teachers’ class participation and professionalism, I ask them to help me assess themselves on these eight points:

1) I was prompt and attended each session.

2) I communicated as far in advance as possible about any class time missed.

3) My cell-phone never distracted anyone.  It never rang and I never text messaged during class.  I didn’t surf the net or catch up on email on my laptop.

4) I was careful not to dominate discussions.  I listened carefully to others and was attentive during my peers’ presentations and class discussions more generally.

5) My questions and comments often deepened class discussions.

6) I was conscious of others’ learning and purposely contributed to positive group dynamics.

7) [If applicable] I directly and constructively communicated any concerns I had during the course.

8) The course was better than it otherwise would have been as a result of my participation.

The most recent student I asked to stop texting could have argued that despite her texting, she’s excelling at 7.5 of the 8 points, so what’s the big deal. The big deal is this half point, “I listened carefully to others and was attentive during my peers’ presentations and class discussions more generally.”

She did argue that she’s a skilled multitasker and that she has no problem keeping up with everything. She’s unaware of recent neurological research that shows there is a clear multitasking cost in terms of divided attention.

For me there’s two issues, divided attention, and most importantly, eye contact is integral to a successful seminar. I design and teach the seminar to help students realize, for some of them for the first time ever, that they can in fact learn from one another. For that to happen though, they have to continuously and conscientiously track whomever is speaking. No matter how skilled the texter, texting inevitably compromises that.

It’s fascinating to me that each of this semester’s texters had no clue I was aware of their texting. One seminar has ten students, the other sixteen, and we sit around an oval table. As a result, it’s extremely easy to detect because heads dip and eyes go straight down.

I wonder what percentage of my students would say I should just chillax about in-class texting. I’m hopeful it would be a minority and that the majority appreciate my efforts to preserve the classroom as one of the last bastions of direct, eye-to-eye, interpersonal communication.