Sunday, October 27, 2013

Am I Not Riveting? Capturing Students' Attention to Make Learning Meaningful

Michael Wesch's "Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance" and Sherry Turkle's "The Flight from Conversation" point to the increasingly difficult challenge of engaging students in light of depersonalized classrooms and constant technology at our fingertips. 

Wesch talks about the physical layout of the typical classroom or university lecture hall and how it tends to prevent fluid conversation.  He says that the lack of conversation and meaningful questions among students leads to "What do we need to know for the test?" mentality. He shows how students have become accustomed to wanting to fulfill graduation requirements, to simply memorize and regurgitate information, and subsequently, pass a course with as little vested interest as possible.  Teachers are equally culpable of fostering a lack of meaningful learning by simply teaching to the test.   He calls this concept "anti-teaching," and he encourages educators to model inquisitiveness among our students.  Questioning, he argues, is key to effective learning, and as educators, it is incumbent upon us inspire students to ask good questions.

How do we inspire our students?  In order to answer that question, Wesch says that we must reexamine the age-old statement, "some students are just not cut out for school."  Wesch says to remove the word "school" from the above adage and replace it with the word "learning."  He argues that EVERYONE is capable of learning, so therefore, educators must find ways of connecting to every student, or learner.  In his own classroom, Wesch uses the modem of "Spaceship Earth" to provide a classroom community and create a sense of urgency to learning.  Welsh says, "When students recognize their own importance in helping to shape the future of this increasingly global, interconnected society, the significance problem fades away."  He says that social media is a tool for learning, but not enough of a REASON to learn.

Sherry Turkle focuses on social media's role in creating a new norm of being "alone-together."  Turkle argues that in this age of posting "what's on our minds" on venues like Facebook and Twitter, we are presenting ourselves exactly as we want to be presented while still keeping our "friends" at bay.  We have little chance for self-reflection that comes through genuine face-to-face interactions with people.  Young members of society are even losing interpersonal skills, often choosing to look to media for advice and comfort.   Texting and "interpersonal" screen time are not a viable substitute for human interaction, argues Turkle.  Another side effect of constantly available technology is the inability to be alone.  "When people are alone, even for a few minutes, they fidget and reach for a device," says Turkle.

 I literally found myself nodding in agreement throughout Turkle's entire article, it resonated so clearly with me.  It brought me back to a time in my own family's pre-iPod era, when my sons Kevin and Sean were about 5 and 6.  After a little league game one day, our family went out for ice cream at the local Dairy Queen.  A group of high school kids sat at a booth across from us in dead silence as they stared down at their phones.  I remember fighting the urge to walk over to the table and start up a conversation because it seemed so lonely over there.  Even when conversation sparked up from time to time, I noticed the kids made little eye contact with each other. I felt like I was watching a group of aliens.

Now that both of my boys have iPods and my husband and I have a Droid and a Drood (my fake Droid), my own family is falling into the same pattern of the family Turkle describes who "sit together, texting and reading emails."  My husband reads the news on his phone, Kevin and Sean play video games on their iPods, and I am constantly on Twitter.  It is, in a word, DEPRESSING.  We all get sick of it and vow to turn off our devices, but often, we drift back to them without even realizing it.   Our family has changed, and we are more "alone together" than ever.  Honestly, I don't like it, and fortunately, I don't think it's too late to change that. 

Even in school, I feel as though I can model communication without devices.   My students can now text freely in passing between classes, so it is less important to tweet and text 24/7 from class.  There is a time and a place for texting and tweeting, and most of the time (but not always), it is not in the classroom. There are exceptions to every rule.

In September of this year, Clive Thompson argued that the Internet does not in fact "dumb us down" but actually makes us smarter.  In his book, Smarter Than You Think, he says that the Internet provides a platform for students to learn, share, and retain information for longer.  In effect, having a legitimate "platform" such as a blog or a post makes students feel as though they are writing for a greater purpose; that they have an audience of many as opposed to just a teacher. They also have more material to write about within a click of a finger.   As a self proclaimed "computer geek," Thompson uses video games to connect with his own children.  Admittedly, I have Words With Friends going with my own sons all the time!  I also watch my boys communicate with their friends on headsets in my living room as they create virtual worlds and fight virtual enemies on Xbox 360.   I will admit, it's pretty creative, and not entirely antisocial. 

And even Thompson is quick to admit that there that technology has its downfalls, particularly in distracting us.  "What I concluded was that technology can allow you to teach kids in remarkable new ways, but you should never use it to replace something you are already doing perfectly well with pencils, paper, and chalk," says Thompson, and I absolutely agree.  As with all things, we need to find a balance.  In my opinion, the balance of technology and interpersonal relationships needs to be fostered both in and out of the classroom.


  1. Amy, I can totally relate to our experience with your family. My family and I used to have dinner with each other every night, but now that we are older and we are more busy that has stopped and much of our communication takes place through a few text messages throughout the day. I would rather have difficult conversations with my brother via text message, and I convince myself that this is all ok. How can we try and tell our students that is ok to be disconnected sometimes, when we ourselves are never disconnected?

  2. Hi Amy, I enjoyed your honesty. I think that everyone ends up feeling less fulfilled by technology, and that we do need to just be intentional about putting devices to the side and having real conversations. I don't really enjoy technology or texting, so I think it's been easier for me to not get wrapped up in it, but I can't imagine what it would be like to have my own children who are stuck in the world of constant phone use. You don't want to say no to phones, but how do you find a balance? I think this is the key word of the week...balance...

  3. Amy, I know you can turn things around with your family. I am a phone-free person for the most part. I do not tweet, do not have a facebook account, and keep my own technology in the classroom down to a daily blog on my class website page. My sister has seen similar problems with her two children who are in the sixth grade. She has cancelled her home internet and cable because she found that the kids, who do not have phones, spent too much time watching videos on their kindles. Now, their after school time, when not devoted to sports, is spent on homework or having the kids practice their instruments or just playing board games. She even sent a letter home to their teachers of her new home policy so that any internet-related assignments must be completed at school. Also, I agree that while blogging may be a useful tool for kids, they must be taught how to blog well. There is so much clutter on the internet and in order for kids writing to be meaningful to others through their blogs, well guided criteria is key.

  4. Amy, I agree with you about the fact that so many of us fall into habits of putting our tech in front of us and forgetting that other people are around. Recently, I had a conversation with my students concerning the fact that I have cancelled my cable connection and no longer have "TV" in the house (the actual television is still there, but only for the occasional movie). Anyway, one of the kids in particular was in disbelief and asked what I did when I went home ... Me: "I play with my kids" Her: "That's it? So, that's all you do is play with your kids? Like, you just play with them outside or something?" Me: "Yes. What do you do when you go home?" Her: I go watch TV in my room" Me: "Do you ever spend time with your family" ... You get the point. It seemed that she did not know HOW to spend time WITH her family outside of simply being in their presence (purposefully not using the term company).

    SO, Turkle was right after all, it seems that we are allowing tech to take over our being, instead of using tech to enhance our being ... Sad.

  5. Amy, I totally understand where you are coming from concerning family and technology. Too many of my students never sit down for dinner with their family. They eat alone in front of the TV or on the computer. Some spend all of their time at home alone in their rooms. It is astounding how many kids will say to me I have friends hat the "met" online. They have never met these people but they still call them friends.