Many of you probably saw the New Yorker article about banning laptops in the classroom. And maybe you saw a follow-up in Slate that defended the use of laptops. The first was circulated to me by several people. The latter has not been. I will, indeed, circulate the latter myself, but I have to get some stuff off my chest first.
I wanted to write this as an open letter to college professors, but decided against it. But I do want to start with a question for college professors. Do you all even know what goes on in K-12 schools? Do you know that many are 1:1 device places and have active learning going on in a classroom and aren’t sitting in a lecture hall listening to someone drone on? While I agree that students should adjust to teaching styles, lecture has been proven one of the most ineffective teaching methods on the planet, as Rebecca Schuman points out in the Slate article. In fact, Rockmore begins with a story about a colleague “seeing the light” on banning laptops, saying that his colleague noticed a sea of laptops “after he looked up from his lectern.”
Well, there’s your problem right there. Even if your students didn’t have laptops in front of them, you wouldn’t see your students. They’d just be a sea of faces. I say ban the lecture, then you might see some better learning outcomes and it might alleviate some of the other problems you’re having.
Rockmore notes, “Our ‘digital assistants’ are platforms for play and socializing; it makes sense, then, that we would approach those devices as game and chat machines, rather than as learning portals.” It makes sense only if that’s how approach a device. Part of the process of helping students in a 1:1 program is to teach them the skills to use their devices as learning portals, and yes, to help them learn to avoid distraction. We’re doing that in K-12 schools. Teachers are having students use laptops to hone their research and critical thinking skills, to use tools to create presentations that combine video, audio, and image, and to connect to experts in areas they’re interested in through social media and other platforms. And they’re doing these things in classrooms.
Rockmore also states, “We’re not all that far along in understanding how learning, teaching, and technology interact in the classroom.” Maybe he’s not, but there’s research about this stuff that goes back 50 years. Go read Seymour Papert. Dig into any Instructional Technology book, or even, general Education book. Like many fields, there’s not agreement on everything, but we are further along than one might think. The Internet has been around for longer than I’ve been alive. The web has been around for half my lifetime, and I’m in my 40s. Your students have always had devices, have always had connectivity. Using them in the classroom makes sense to them.
Schuman’s article touches the point in several ways, hitting on the idea of lecture as a poor teaching strategy and noting that you’re fighting a losing battle when most of these students live by their devices. She also points out something that dovetails with another article on students, not having to do with laptops, but about treating students as the adults they are. She says, “But even more importantly, policing the (otherwise nondisruptive) behavior of students further infantilizes these 18-to-22-year-olds.” Sean Vallas makes the same point in his essay called “Don’t Call Them Kids.” As he reminds us, they’re old enough to vote and go to war, so why do you call them kids. They’re certainly old enough to decide when to pay attention to their professor and when not to. There are, after all, natural consequences (one hopes) for not paying attention.
Schuman argues for the natural consequences of not paying attention, of learning things the hard way. I do that even with my older high school students. I say that I’m not obligated to repeat myself or otherwise catch you up if you’re not paying attention in class. We discuss the issue like (gasp) grownups. We do have policies about using things in class that aren’t class related. I can give someone a detention for being on Facebook during class. And I do that for my Middle Schoolers. But for high school, I just make sure what we’re doing is interesting enough and they feel compelled enough to either do the activity at hand or pay attention to me. As far as I’m concerned, if my students are goofing off, then it’s on me to make them want to do the work.
Schuman ends her article with a quote everyone should keep in mind:
You learn all kinds of things the hard way in college: Hooking up with your hallmate the first week of school is a bad idea. Jägermeister, Goldschläger, and Rumple Minze are not “natural companions” just because they all sound German. Add to those: Spending your econ lecture with Upworthy will tank your GPA. That’s what college is all about.
The day I find myself saying, “Kids these days . . .” is the day I know I should quit teaching. And laptop banning is a big giant “kids these days” moment.