Don’t Talk Restrictions. Let’s Talk About Distraction.

Earlier this week, I was in conversation with an administrator in the district where I work.  She was asking some really good questions around some of the cultural issues she’s been seeing in her middle school which, like all of our middle schools, has just gone 1:1 iPad. At her school, she observed, many of the problems that have emerged as “iPad problems” are ultimately larger issues about behavior.  One stuck with me.

Lunch, it seems, is taking too long at the school.  A parent, too, had complained that their child hadn’t had an opportunity to eat at all one day.  The administrator has been investigating to see what’s going on.

Turns out a couple of things.  For one, some students are grabbing their lunches, taking trays to table, and then pushing food aside to focus on whatever they had on their iPad screen.  She didn’t elaborate, but I guess that sometimes that’s a game, other times a book or piece of reading.  But the iPad’s getting in the way of the meal, in a sense.

Another thing that’s happening is that some folks in the lunch lines are moving slowly, faces down on screens, and perhaps not paying attention to the questions from the staff serving food.  It takes longer to get through the lunch line, so lunch takes longer.1

She asked a colleague and I what she could do about that.  What, she wondered, might the consequences for this be?  How could we fix it?

I pushed a bit.  Because I don’t think distraction is necessarily a middle school problem.  Or an iPad problem.  Distraction, I think, is a culture problem.  Everybody’s distracted lately.  And there’s plenty of shiny, important stuff to be distracted by.  So possibly, instead of needing to develop consequences for behaviors resulting from distraction, her school needs to think about how to collectively discuss what to do about attention and a lack thereof.  She agreed.  I’m looking forward to seeing how she tackles the conversation.

Other middle schools in our system have decided that lunchtime isn’t device time, because the staff there wanted to value the role of face to face talk around a table with friends.  And recess.  Running around is pretty important sometimes, too.  Our district doesn’t have one answer for places like these, because school culture decisions should be made, appropriately, at the school level.

It’s not just middle schoolers who have problems managing their devices and attentions.  I’ve worked with, for, and in meetings with folks who aren’t there with us, but are somewhere else, checking email and other things.  In my home and work, sometimes, I’m present but absent, too.2

Howard Rheingold has been arguing for a while now that attention might be one of our most precious nonrenewable resources.  And he’s developed some good tools for helping folks to think through attention.  Focus will become more important as we continue to have more and more opportunities to learn about/from/through/with more and more things.  Our students, and the rest of us, need to be able to focus on the right stuff at the right time.3

Rather than label behaviors as “bad,” and attempting to correct them through punitive measures, shouldn’t we instead engage the cultures and deeper issues that these behaviors manifest?

I wonder how you’re helping to create conversation and attention to culture building in your schools and classrooms, and how we can all do a better job of managing our attention.

  1. This isn’t just an issue at her school.  I saw this post a little while back and was reminded of it.  Our devices and connections are sometimes getting in the way of, well, pretty much everything else. []
  2. A colleague this morning told me another story about a student who was waiting for class to begin at a different school.  The teacher hadn’t yet arrived and the student took a moment, while waiting in the hallway, to play a game.  A passing teacher, see the violation of the “Don’t use your iPad in the hallway” rule, confiscated the student’s iPad.  I wasn’t impressed with that response.  If that teacher has Candy Crush or Words with Friends on his or her phone, and has ever launched it between 8 and 5, well, I guess that a bit hypocritical. []
  3. And to be able to decide what counts as “the right stuff.” Teachers shouldn’t always be the people deciding what’s right for their students. []
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Investing Meaning, Clarifying Objectives, and Remembering Care

No one has come out openly for the smashing of television receivers, teaching machines, or even computers, but there is an uneasy feeling among some educators that technology is dehumanizing education.  There is conversion that the student is becoming a programmed robot; that decision making in matters of school management, methodology, and even curriculum, is slipping into the hands in impersonalized computer-programmers; and that the ever-widening, ever more rapid flood of electronic, photography, magnetic, automated instructional systems is turning the teacher into a button pusher.  

The business of education is to invest experience with meaning and organize it in a way which will expand the individual’s capacity for further learning.  Developments in educational technology are amplifying and accelerating this process.  

The significant effect has been to force both teachers and learners to clarify their objectives and methods, and assume more, not less, responsibility in the search for leaning in a world of ambiguity, change and stress.  

The sophistication and proliferation of machines, and more carefully designed media programs offer no hope at all to those who believe that someday man’s thinking will be done for him.  

“Machines, Media, and Learning,” Robert W. Wagner, Educational Leadership, March 1966

I came across the above passage while I was searching through some old EL back issues this weekend.  My original quest was to find older articles on writing instruction.  Then I slipped into looking for past articles about technological developments.1 I love the two purposes for education and teachers therein – the business of education being to invest experience with meaning and the idea that teachers and learners should clarify their objectives and methods.

Let’s be intentional.  Good reminder, and one I incorporated into a talk I gave today to my colleagues regarding what we should be focusing on now that we’ve distributed iPads to our middle school students.  The tablets by themselves won’t change a thing about instruction.  But they’ll give us some new opportunities and options.  Let’s be intentional about what we do with them.2

Tonight, as I reviewed Audrey’s keynote on “Ed Tech’s Monsters,” I found a third purpose that seems connected to the first two.  Or I liked it because Audrey and I share a fascination with the revolutions of the past and how similar they are to the revolutions of today, particularly in the “there’s never been anything like this”-ness of them that turns out to be repeated over and over and over.

Her added purpose was, and I’m taking this a bit out of context – you should really read her entire talk:

To be clear, my nod to the Luddites or to Frankenstein isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation. It is about rejecting an uncritical and unexamined belief in progress. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that we have pretended like it is truth and divorced from responsibility, from love, from politics, from care. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that it does not, despite its insistence, give us “the answer.” 

And that is problem with ed-tech’s monsters. That is the problem with teaching machines.

In order to automate education, must we see knowledge in a certain way, as certain: atomistic, programmable, deliverable, hierarchical, fixed, measurable, non-negotiable? In order to automate that knowledge, what happens to care?

I wonder about love and care and their place in teaching and learning.  I wonder about how we make sure to invest experiences with meaning and create capacity for further learning.  I want teachers and students both to think hard – very, very hard – about their objectives and the way they approach them.

As I’m beginning a new school year with plenty of new challenges, one of which is my struggle of late to document and reflect upon my experiences, I feel like these are worthy purposes to ponder a bit right now.

So that’s what I’m doing.

  1. Found some fascinating pieces on the need for audio-visual staff in schools in the 1940s. []
  2. We’ve, of course, been down the “this new thing will change everything” rhetoric before.  And before.  But nothing much changes.  We incorporate the new technology into some old (often bad, but sometimes good) habits.  Then hope for the next thing. Let’s stop hoping and start doing. []
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Learning is Complicated

“Thinking about software as the primary way of solving problems (in any field) forces us to frame problems in terms that software is capable of addressing.”  – Paul Franz at _The Atlantic_.

Software isn’t really meant to take the place of someone who cares about you and wants to work with you to succeed.  Unless we only care enough to pretend that we care.  

You know?

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It’s National Poetry Month – Go Write (And Read) Some Poems

For the last several years, I’ve used this blog every April as a space to help folks write and share poems.  It’s been fun, but I’m thinking it’s time to do something different and possibly combine efforts.  

Ben Rimes has a great site up at Poetry for People where he’s posting visual prompts and folks are sharing poems.  This month, let’s spend some time together there.  Poetry is better when we’re reading and writing together1.  

How are you working poetry into your life this month and all months?

  1. Bonus option – encourage your students to enter the NY Times Learning Network’s Found Poetry Contest. []
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Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom

Screen Shot 2014 03 15 at 5 40 11 PMRecently, a project I spent some time on last spring and summer came to life. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is now available for free download as a PDF or a 99 cent eBook via the Amazon Kindle store.  I’m biased, but I think you should take a peek.

The goal of the project was to put a face of specific examples from real classrooms on the Connected Learning principles.  Again, I’m biased, but I think if you read the text, and follow the links to the projects from Digital Is we focused on, I think you’ll get a sense that real, live teachers and students are engaging in some very dynamic work in classrooms right now.  They’re not waiting for someone to show the way.  I was particularly pleased to see so many examples of “teacher” and “student” shown in the text.  We all take turns with both of these roles.  That’s important to remember.  Gail, Mike, Adam, and Jenny, the teachers who wrote the examples I showcase in the chapter I worked on, were all my teachers on this project and I’m grateful for their contributions to my learning and this text. You will be, too.  So take a look already.

But other teachers, as well as plenty of non-teachers who make big pronouncements about schools and schooling, would benefit, too, from a glimpse of the work we reference. So share this with them, would you?

Last week, several of the other project editors visited for a webinar at Educator Innovator. That webinar is below.  Give it a listen.

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Turn It Off, or Turn It Up?

My school district has been adding some infrastructure to a facility for support offices recently, and our network team noticed some serious spikes in WiFi use after hours at the sites.  A few years ago, we implemented a very easy to use public network for any guest or personal machine in our schools to be able to connect with minimal inconvenience.  Basically, we have Starbucks-style free WiFi running at all of our sites.  That’s a good thing – as public schools are community institutions, funded and supported by the community.  That support should go both ways.  And yet – it’s a rocky road.

This facility, surrounded by homes and broadcasting a strong WiFi signal, was getting hammered by private residences in the area.  Serious use.  Non-staff use on the public network side.

So the decision was made, because of concern about the network and the high traffic, to shut down that site’s access points after business hours.  

One network technician, leaving the site, was asked by a nearby resident “Why did you turn off my wireless?”

What an interesting question, and it got me thinking.  What is the role of public infrastructure when it comes to personal use beyond the scope of our educational mission?  

I see both sides of this one – a network with no available bandwidth for students and staff to conduct their work just won’t do – and the primary mission of an educational entity is to educate the folks within the entity.  

But I wonder, too, about the larger role of a public school district in terms of its educational mission to the community beyond the classroom.  How do we create opportunities for learning for the folks served indirectly by our primary efforts?  Is a school’s WiFi, funded by the community through tax and use fees, “mine,” or “theirs,” or, maybe “ours?”

As the lines blur further between personal and professional and in-school and out-of-school, I think this is an important question.  I wonder how you’re answering that in your institutions, districts, and classrooms.  If you’ve got a great answer, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

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A Little Bit of Modeling. A Whole Lot of Love.

I taught a class tonight and made it home just in time for bedtime.  I’d been looking forward to stories – and expected my daughters to be on their way up to bed.  But what I found instead was that Ani was already in bed and tucked in.  She wasn’t feeling super well and had retired early.  

Without packing her lunch.  Which meant it was going to be my job.  

But I found out that the lunch wasn’t made because I caught Teagan, her younger sister, already in the process of packing two lunches.  Without any prompting or complaining, she was helping out.  Just to be nice.

That, though, wasn’t what floored me.  I watched Teagan grab a Sharpie and begin to mark up the sandwich bag she had just filled full of sliced peppers, a staple vegetable in our school lunches.  Immediately, I told her that she needed to show her mother what she had done.  

She did this1:

Teagan Loves Ani

 

I can’t tell you how proud I was.  But I can tell you that I never told her, explicitly, that the way you help someone feel better is to write them a note.  That was something we modeled for her by slipping notes her way from time to time.  

You can’t teach love, so much, by way of demanding it or requiring it or lecturing on its finer points.  You’ve got to model it.  You’ve got to live it, or at least try to, and let the lesson come through a little bit on its own, as we trust that our children, or students, or colleagues, pay attention.  

Tonight’s scribbled notes2 were a fine reminder that, even when an example isn’t perfect, plenty of times the message still gets across.  

And I wonder where and how I could be modeling love better, myself.3  

  1. It’s maybe a bit hard to read – but it says “I love yuo (sic) Ani! (Heart) Teagan”. []
  2. She wrote a similar message on the pizza in another sandwich bag, too. []
  3. Later, Teagan chose Peter Reynolds’ The Dot as her story for the night.  Love notes to sisters and that book were the one-two punch of love for me tonight.  If you haven’t read that book, oh, you really should. []
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Talking iPads and Intention

A little while back, I had the opportunity to discuss our iPad 1:1 work with my friend and colleague, Antero Garcia.  He wrote up the conversation and posted the video.  Take a peek.

Be sure to read his comments about the conversation over at DML Central. I really hope we get the chance to continue the conversation.  Let us know what we should focus on in future videos in the comments.

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Dear Educational Publisher/Vendor: We Care About Our Data, Even When You Don’t Seem To

I’ve been in several conversations lately where publishers and vendors have taken an awful casual approach to identity and student data management.  The front end of their new “digital textbook” looks great.  HTML5 and everything.  Plays nicely with an iPad, or a Chromebook or any other screen on any other device.  As they should.  I get excited.  

And then I get a look at the user database or authentication tools they provide for managing accounts and student data for the product.  And again and again and again, I get a little sick to my stomach.  No way to authenticate against our identity databases.  No way to actively manage and/or sync data from our databases to theirs.  Duplicate accounts.  Terrible data management.  Shockingly disappointing attention to issues of privacy or student ownership of the work they do.  

The worst part isn’t that they don’t get it – educational software and publishers are often a little behind cutting edge when it comes to enterprise level technology.  I get it.  Many school districts are behind on this, too.  It’s when we raise questions and express our concern that I get upset.  Because we get one of two types of responses:

1.  This is “the first time anyone’s ever asked these questions,” we’re told.  As if we should be excited that we ask new questions that no one else is asking.  That’s scary.  

2.  “Well, we understand your concerns, but other school districts don’t want these things, and we don’t feel the need to develop them,” I hear.   That’s worse.  

I can’t fathom why publishers and vendors are so willing to play fast and loose with precious data – student personal info, their schoolwork and creations, etc.  But it’s not okay.  And worst thing is when, in spite of our concerns, we hear things like this:

“Well, the front end is so beautiful and high quality.  Would you really allow your concerns over this other stuff to prevent you from giving these amazing resources to your teachers and students to use?”

My answer to that question is always going to be yes.  A pretty thing on the other side of a glass wall of awfulness will keep me walking right on through the universe of options. I’ll pick the resource that’s not as good if I know I can keep my students safe and our data reasonable to manage and protect.  The “it’s only one more account” for a student to learn or use argument is no good when there’re only five or ten or more accounts for folks to actually have to learn in order to do their jobs.  

Let’s do better.  Let’s demand better.  

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