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.

21st Century Reading

When flying, I’m often impressed by the percentage of people reading. Mid-flight, on the return from FL, I walked up and down the center aisle. Interesting to survey people’s reading formats of choice. Like fish that don’t notice the water (Margaret Mead), it’s easy to forget we’re living in the midst of an Information Revolution that will alter nearly every aspect of our lives.

Among the readers, old school hard copy books held a slight advantage over Kindle and Nook-based electronic books. I only saw one other iPadder.

The transformation to reading electronic books will probably take a decade. Sometime relatively soon I’ll tell young people, “When I used to fly, the airlines provided every passenger warm meals on trays.” And “Before and after those meals, we read hard copy books, some that weighed a couple of pounds each.”

I’m a periodical junkie, so to this point, I’ve been using the Pad to read newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Yesterday, I purchased and began reading my first electronic book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life, by Francine Jay.

Today, while reading The Joy of Less through the Kindle app, I came upon an underlined sentence which I of course tapped. Up popped this message, “Five readers highlighted this passage.” Had you been in the Toyota dealership at the time, you would have seen a look on my face that was equal parts shock and horror.

Stunned and creeped out by biblio big brother.

I could not care less about the passages other readers highlighted. A cardiac arrest was averted by the remainder of the message which said I could adjust the settings so that I couldn’t see others’ recommended highlights and also so that my own annotations would not be factored into the recommendations.

Done and done.

I suppose I should go along to get along with respect to the increasing popularity of social networking technologies, but for me, reading is intensely personal. My choice of material, my pace, my interpretations and internal dialogue. Don’t tell, but I sometimes get irked when the galpal reads outloud from the paper.

Are there really readers who want help figuring out what parts of a book are most noteworthy? Or is this feature a technological point of diminishing returns? Just because we have the technology to do something doesn’t mean it adds value. But again, since readers are free to decide whether to opt in, (awful cliche alert) it’s all good.

A lot has been written lately about the impact of electronic readers and the changing nature of book publishing. Traditional book publishers are understandably nervous. The digitization of music provides some clues as to what is likely to happen, like ever shrinking profit margins and the option of purchasing portions of books, but it’s still challenging to accurately extrapolate and identify clear winners and losers.

I’m optimistic that distinctive, clear, creative, insightful, engaging writing will still be rewarded with large, appreciative audiences.

Lasting, Meaningful Work

Print versions of newspapers are endangered species. In part, for that you can thank Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. Craigslist, which I’m a fan of, has crippled print classified revenue. For the newly unemployed journalists this is a negative and painful turn of events, for the rest of us it should be a precautionary tale about the Information Revolution and our children’s educational futures.

The plight of print newspapers begs a question: In an Information Revolution characterized by increasing global interdependence what type of K-12 and higher education experiences will enable young people to find lasting, meaningful work? More specifically, what knowledge, what skills, what sensibilities will increase the odds that young people will avoid economic dislocation as a result of increasing automation and outsourcing? 

Too few educators are asking those questions.

The young, internet savvy students in my globalization course are familiar with foreign call centers, but are surprised to learn the extent outsourcing is taking. As a reminder that whatever data or services can be digitized and sent abroad for processing probably will be, I provide each of them with a one inch long piece of coaxial cable to keep in their pockets throughout their PLU experience. After distributing the pieces of cable, I ask them what they think the key ingredients of an outsource-resistant education are.

Initially at least, they stare at me blankly (51 seconds in).

After awhile though, the wheels start to turn, and they begin responding with thoughtful insights.

Instead of revealing their thinking, what do you think?

Historically, a part of the “American dream” was that children would enjoy an even better quality of life than their parents. Now though, many anxious parents wonder whether their children will enjoy their same quality of life. By themselves, high school diplomas, G.E.D’s., and even higher education degrees don’t guarantee anything. Just ask the journalists at the Christian Science Monitor or Seattle Post Intelligencer.