Education round-up: the suck it up edition

cowgirlbroncobestedFriendly greeting!  Comments on the local weather, and humorous story about my weekend plans.  Here we go:

  • Denver second grade teacher Austen Kassinger says that struggle is inherent to learning, and that parents need to push their children to achieve by owning that struggle.  After spending an entire evening working through five long-division problems in fourth grade, her mother told her to figure it out:  “No, she did not think the assignment was unfair. No, she would not write a note to Mrs. Hall. And no, I absolutely could not stay home from school. Thus went her long-standing policy for schoolwork: If my sisters or I didn’t understand something, it was our job, not hers, to talk to the teacher. . . .I wonder what would have happened if my mother had taken the approach of the comedian Louis C.K., whose tweets about his children’s homework recently went viral: ‘Yet again I must tell my kid ‘don’t answer it. It’s a bad question.’ ’ ‘Who is writi[n]g these? And why?” “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!’ My mother could have said some version of those things in response to my meltdown, but she didn’t. She chose not to blame the question, or the teacher, or the test. And because of her steady insistence that if I took ownership of my learning, I could master any subject, I recovered from long division and went on to take AP calculus, multivariable calculus and linear algebra — in high school.”
  • This is the chief complaint I hear from K-12 teachers:  lack of parental support for their work, or even resentment that parents undermine the standards they have set for their students.  Yes, the same parents who make sure their children get to soccer and football practices and games on time, and force their entire families to eat crappy food and live in the backs of their minivans and SUVs to do so.  I just don’t understand the priorities of my fellow Americans.  At all.
  • Dartmouth digital humanist Mary Flanagan writes about the power and the overwhelming distraction of laptops and other personal digital devices in class.  She has encouraged the use of digital technologies in her classes to good effect, “[b]ut most days, there will come a time where faculty or guest speakers actually speak, or dialogue happens or provocative points are raised. It is then that students with technology-control issues immediately check out and check into Facebook or online games or shoe shopping. Unless they are directly involved in a hands-on activity for which they will be accountable in public by the end of class, it is much easier to give in to the presence of technology and lose the experience of direct engagement.”
  • Do you ban the use of tablets, laptops, and/or phones in your classes?  I have a blanket statement on my syllabus about not using digital devices to distracting ends in class, but I haven’t banned them outright.  A few of my students every semester buy e-books and use their Kindles or tablets in class to access them as well as PDFs of assigned articles and primary sources.  This year, several students have used their phones for this purpose as well.  As for laptops, it’s only a few students at my university who use them in class, and my experience is that it’s both some of the high performers and some of the low performers who use laptops in class.  That is, they work well for very organized and dedicated students, and they serve as vehicles for distraction for others.  I have been of the opinion that it’s up to students to pay attention, or not–remembering full well all of the means by which I used to distract myself in college classes nearly 30 years ago.  Also, if students are distracted by someone else’s laptop or tablet, it’s up to them to find a seat in which they can learn.  But now I’m starting to think that digital distraction may play a role in the poor performance of my two most recent classes, and that I may need to start banning laptops.

What do you think?  What are your experiences?  Anecdata, people!  I need some anecdata to guide me.




26 thoughts on “Education round-up: the suck it up edition

  1. In my lower-level classes I now have a blurb on my syllabi forbidding anything with a screen (and anything that makes noise), and I explain why: that notetaking by hand and reading a book you can mark up facilitates a different and more focused kind of learning.

    (I make exceptions for students with documented disabilities or for emergency situations where a student might need to be reachable by phone.)

    In my upper-level and M.A. classes, I’ll permit tablets for certain specified electronic versions of the text (rarely available, actually, for the things I teach) and for reading PDF versions of the articles available on our electronic coursepack. There’s no point in their printing all that crap out if they don’t want to. But I also give advice about the reading/annotating programs that I think work best. My logic is that more advanced students are more likely to take best advantage of the best electronic tools, while lower-level students are often still working on the basics and benefit from old-school technology.

    Weirdly, almost no one uses a tablet even when I permit them.


  2. To get a bit more handle on recent developments in cellular bio, I audited a class. As a guest, I tried not to take up valuable real estate, so I sat in back … where I could see everyone’s screens. This was a sophomore-level class, but quite tough. Several of the students had Bachelor’s degrees and were taking it to help them with AMCAT and med school prep. Okay, and a bit more background: I have a PhD, taught bio for decades, consider myself fairly sharp, and I had to focus 100% merely to keep up with the lecturer.

    So what did I see from my eyrie in back? A couple of A students up front using their laptops to follow their downloaded lecture materials and annotate. Some students just taking notes. Everybody else: checking pinterest, facebook, social sites I didn’t recognize, the weather, shopping sites, etc., etc., etc. One thing I did not see was anyone working on multiplayer games, so that’s at least something.

    I was flabbergasted. I mean, why in hell bother coming to class? Although after that recent post of yours, I’m thinking it’s part of the growing notion that keeping your seat warm should get you an A. (It didn’t for these students. A class of 30 was down to 12 after the last drop date.)

    I came away from that with the conviction that wifi should be blocked in classrooms and phones should be left in a box up front. Students with a genuine life-or-death must-be-reachable-by-phone emergency in their lives would be excused to step outside and check their phones whenever they needed to.


  3. p.s. I read the New Yorker comments on no laptops yesterday too, but I thought Flanagan’s essay was the more thoughtful one.

    Soltan’s comments here were pretty funny (the imagined internal dialogue of professors who permit laptops in class): “ Lecturing is authoritarian. The last thing you want is some Hitlerian up here talking to you as if she has something to impart that you don’t already know or can’t find on your computer…

    That one really got to me. Last month, I discovered that in some primary sources I had assigned for the final exam in one class, there were several untranslated German and Latin phrases. On the last day of class, dedicated to exam review, I wanted to go over these to show the students how they could probably figure these out themselves, using context and some English language cognates. When I asked the students if they had any questions, a total silence fell. When I asked, “What about all of those German and Latin words in the text,” their faces remained blank. Clearly, they hadn’t even looked at the documents. One smartass said, “Just use Google Translate!”

    I’m not proud to say that I lost it at that point. But at least I know now how little my presence and expertise matter. Coming to class was just a dreary obligation that has nothing to do with learning! At least we’re clear on that.


  4. Lots to comment on here!

    I’ll start backwards: Like you, I’ve found that few students use technological devices during class on my campus and those who do are split between intelligent and annoying users. It’s hard not to help students negotiate the technological world and locate the tools that will help them learn my material better. There are also intelligent note-takers on paper and annoying ones, too, like those who sit up front and get so absorbed in their doodling that they can’t follow the discussion and respond blankly to a question. Finally, there’s the bizarre policy on my campus that instructor cell phones are the emergency notification system (naturally our cell plans are not subsidized to cover for their use): we recently had a lock-down, too, so it’s not merely a theoretical issue. It’s hard for me to set a good example when part of my job means checking when I receive a text message.

    Regarding grade school education, I have a daughter who’s a rising third grader and we saw some of the reluctance to take risks that’s been reported lately (including above) exhibited by our daughter in second grade. We started refusing to allow her to do her homework in a common area, requiring that she work alone at her desk in her room instead. It seems to have helped and was an easy fix. I do think we’re at a strange cultural moment in K-12 teaching right now, with a hefty load of homework starting in first grade, a bit too much responsibility given to elementary school students (assuming second graders will hand their parents every important communication from the school is certain to fail), and an increased need for parental involvement that stays supportive of the teacher and firm but not on the level of a helicopter parent. Parents need some guidelines from districts, principals, and teachers on how to act appropriately. (And we should invest resources in making sure this new partnership develops–like that investment in public education will ever happen.)


  5. In my upper-division course I allowed the students(with guidance) to set their own class rules for when, or if, laptops were allowed in class. I reserved the right to tell anyone to turn off their device at any time, but I didn’t ever need to do that. I also gave them an empirical study of how laptops in class are distracting as assigned reading. Then I made them discuss it. Heh.


  6. Not with the police or Human Right Watch therefore I don’t ban anything individual; if you disturb others it’s different. You don’t want to listen, be my guest.

    My classes are taught to the average student. What’s the point of making a class difficult? I have no desire to show off my smarts. Assignments and projects will challenge you to think. I prefer team assignments for better results, added depth and useful discussion.

    Learning as a struggle sounds bizarre but not new. Bertold Brecht has the story about a class with 19 chair and 20 students. One student is left standing. The teacher slaps the student who cries foul. The teacher: next time I am sure you’ll find a chair. I’ll get a chair for the student from another class; it’s my responsibility.


  7. I teach mostly in computer classrooms, so it would be hard to ban computers. We do have a “big brother” program that allows instructors to watch what’s going on on the student computers, and I warn students it’s there, but I rarely use it. But a hands-on course like my (writing) course is different from a lecture or even discussion one. Banning electronic devices from the classroom for those strikes me as a lost cause, but we(and hopefully k-12 teachers before us, but it’s probably going to be up to us)are definitely going to have to add helping students figure out how to manage their use of technology and its potential distractions to our ever-growing list of responsibilities. After all, most of them are going to be working on some combination of electronic devices for most of their adult lives, anyway; they’re going to have to learn how to manage the distractions somehow. Of course, said management might well include using pen and paper (or one of those intriguing pens that record and take electronic as well as paper notes, though that raises its own questions; I’m inclined to allow recording — as long as I know about it — but not sharing of recordings beyond the class) on occasion, and/or limiting the number of open apps/programs/windows to those truly useful to the task.


  8. Here’s our brief post back from 2010 saying what we do. It sounds like #2 changed what she does, according to her comment above, but I haven’t.

    @quixote (other half here)
    I sat in one of my husband’s classes back when he was still teaching (and was still trying to figure out why so many of his students were failing, poor dear) and actually slammed the laptop shut of some guy who was playing an online card game. I also may have called him a disrespectful [expletive], so it’s good he didn’t have the faintest idea who I was. Turns out it was his THIRD TIME taking the class, having failed the first two times.


  9. Anecdata: I’ve been at a conference the last few days, and I’ve been taking notes on my iPad. (Yes, I know. But I have piles of paper from previous conferences, and I’m trying to figure out how to eliminate some clutter in my life.) The typing — since I didn’t bring a keyboard – required enough focus that I wasn’t touch typing anything. BUT, I noticed that when there was a boring presentation, not only did people who took notes on computer slip to their email and fbee etc., but some even pulled out their laptops.


  10. I don’t ban any particular gadgets from my classes, but I do require students to participate. Terms like “participation” and “engagement” have been pretty thoroughly hollowed out by the current neoliberal discourse of “competencies” and all the other bullsh*t, but I still try to take them seriously. Students are in class not simply to “attain” the “student learning outcomes” on the syllabus, but to develop and practice all the skills and dispositions necessary to participate effectively in various communities. These might be the intellectual community of the class itself, the occupational community in which students will be working after graduation (where, as liberally educated employees, they’ll earn their keep not just by carrying out policies and strategies but also by proposing and debating policies and strategies), or a national community (liberal education as preparation for genuine citizenship).

    What this means in terms of “class participation” is very simple: prepare beforehand, show up, follow along, speak up, give a sh*t, and contribute. Enrich the intellectual community you have chosen to join. Make that community better for everyone. Or else, you know, GTFO.

    And you athletes in the back row, stop looking at me like that. I’m not asking anything more of you than your coach does.


  11. I agree with Susan. Sometimes the gadgets-in-class discussion assumes a generational behaviour gap that doesn’t hold up in real life. There are just as many middle-aged academics texting/e-mailing etc. in conferences as there are students who do it in class. I see colleagues checking out all the time. Exhibit A: I found myself sitting next to Professor X in a conference panel dedicated to exploring the impact Professor X has had on the field. She was on facebook for most of the time, and didn’t even try to hide her laptop screen from those sitting around her. Exhibit B: I participated in a week-long pedagogy workshop for campus instructors, during which almost all of us spent as much time checking e-mail and generally multitasking as we did “engaging” in the activities …. even when the activities were about how to better engage students in the classroom! Since then, I’ve asked students in my larger classes to come up with what they consider a reasonable and respectful policy on devices. Mostly they agree that it’s not going to work to ban device use entirely, but that they should be conscious and aware of how they do it, especially in small group discussions with each other. (I found that last part encouraging).


  12. I’ve been sitting in on a couple of lectures recently, always sitting at the back, away from the TA, which gives me a lot of chance to see laptop misuse. There are always a couple of students who are online / playing games throughout the whole lecture, and I honestly don’t understand why they bothered to turn up. Far more common, however, is when students get lost / bored / don’t understand what they’re meant to be doing, and so turn to facebook etc. Now obviously it’s better for their learning if they keep focused, and computers make it very easy to check-out, but I found *where* they checked out revelatory. Basically any bit where the fact-giving slowed down and it got more conceptual, they didn’t know what they were meant to be doing. Students who were writing on paper stopped writing but kept staring at the front (maybe while doodling a bit.) Students on computers clearly felt it was all getting a bit repetitive and went on to something else. I think the main problem was that they didn’t understand the kind of thinking they were meant to be doing, and the computers accentuated that. Oh, and then the computer screens became distracting for everyone. So I’m tempted to ban computers, but first I’m going to explore ways to make sure they’re doing that conceptual work (drawing connections, making inferences etc.)


  13. Well. I have kids in elementary school in Florida, where we have the fcat. Every year my kids bring home official practice tests from the state that are rife with errors, especially in math. Questions for which none of the multiple choice answers are correct. Ambiguous question with more than one correct answer. And questions that have a chunk of text deleted so they make no sense whatsoever. Bad questions are real.


  14. I ban laptops in the Western Civ classes and allow them in the upper division courses as long as they do not distract other students.

    I appreciate the observation from Anon @ 11.50am – yes, I think you are right, as soon as my class departs from the High School Social Science norm, they check out. Just the facts ma’am. I am going to have to watch out for this. More show, less tell on my part.

    Given the comments here from flavia and nicoleandmaggie, I plan on rethinking the upper division policy. I would like the students to help create and take responsibility for their own learning environment. I think its important for them to own the class.


  15. I was feeling the Louis CK rant because so much of the material in pre-printed math worksheets is poorly proofread to the point where the problems aren’t just hard but actually undoable because the questions don’t make sense. My kids teachers try to catch the errors but still some sneak through.

    As an Upper School teacher, my grades have been keeping up, but I think that’s a function of having an open gradebook. Kids and parents have a target in mind and work to it. For example, my students are much better about doing and making up hw when they and their parents see that it is missing the day it’s not handed in.


  16. HA! Western Dave is an example of loumac’s point that technological distraction is hardly a generation-specific phenomenon. I agree entirely; in fact, I have a colleague whom I regularly accuse of being “worse than our students” for fiddling with his phone in meetings.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that this was just a younger people’s issue. I think it’s an issue that all of us with access to these marvels of distraction have.

    From 2010-2012 I had a “smart phone,” but I went back to a little flip phone in 2012 because 1) I resented the energy that the “smart” phone used, 2) I decided that I really didn’t need a hand-held computer, since I spend most days in front of a computer anyway, and 3) now that I’m on Twitter, I think a smart phone would completely destroy what’s left of my attention span. It’s irritating to have only 10 keys for replying to a text message, but that’s the only time I really miss my smart phone.


  17. When I first started teaching, I’d tell a little anecdote about me in college with ICQ… of course, now nobody in class except the occasional returning student knows what ICQ is.

    I also have a flip phone because if I had a smart phone I would never get off the internet. I have no impulse control– everything must be done via commitment devices. (I miss not having a smart phone when we’re on the road and wish we had yelp access. If only the Garmin came with reviews and phone numbers in addition to addresses!)


  18. Adding to loumac’s point: I often wonder what I am doing in meetings where my colleagues are using the time to catch up on email. It suggests to me that we don’t really need to meet after all, and not infrequently I begin to sneak peaks at my own devices. Furthermore, we don’t have to go on and on about the number of kids, and adult relatives, who can’t sit down at a meal or go for a walk with their kids without diddling on the phone non-stop.

    Which is all to say: Students are part of a bigger problem — almost no one ever says to anyone that they need to put a device away. I once asked a man in a restaurant to stop yelling into the phone right next to me and I thought for a second he was going to hit me. On the other hand, when I said to my nephew: “We are going out to dinner with a friend and her daughter, and I would like you to turn your phone off” to my great surprise, he did.

    When students fiddle on their devices unchecked, it reflects how they are everywhere, and how their parents often are too. It’s no wonder that some don’t really think there is much point to being in class, since their psychic absence probably has different consequences in different classes. Putting it on the syllabus is one thing: another is to speak openly, several times a semester, about the uses and abuses of using devices when you are supposed to be listening.


  19. I’m going to try something new this year, made possible by the fact that most of our new students take iPads as part of their tech package. I am going to let students use their tablets in class, but only for note-taking with a stylus or reading e-texts (preferably ones they have already marked up). I’ll also recommend a couple of note-taking programs that do pretty good handwriting conversion, including one that comes with a built-in voice recorder. I’m also going to have a class scribe: duties will rotate amongst volunteers; there will be specific requirements, e.g., going through and proofreading, formatting, and posting within 12 hours; and will count the same as an extra credit assignment (minimal points, but can help make up for absences or botched low-stakes quizzes). That way, the only student who has a reason to have a laptop open will also have too much to do to web surf.

    We’ll see how it works.

    Also, there will be times when students do use their computers for projects in class, like putting together a map or a Prezi – it will just have to be activity-specific.


  20. Bravo, Historiann, for swimming backward against the tide! I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of that: a #back-flip! I’m still with my old flip phone, which makes for a good comedy prop in class sometimes. I’m tempted by having a “device” with access, especially for fear that my home DSL will fail at some critical point with no forseeable help available. But I’m also on-screen too much already. And like others, I hate the distracted, demented meetings with otherwise biological adults, and the spectacle in restaurants, so I’m keeping my old brick for the time being.


  21. The ubiquity of smart devices is double-edged. Perhaps part of the problem for students is that they’ve never been introduced to smart uses for these tools. This may be the nicer framing on what TR observes above.

    I use my smart phone for many things, including as a reference center during meetings. I can follow agendas and supporting documents, find policy documents, and many other useful things (I guess I look like I’m checking email..which I sometimes am, to find relevant discussions held in email). Nevertheless, when I’m at a meeting, I take notes in a bound record book. Writing it all down is the only chance I have for remembering.

    I use my smart phone to preview my email on the way to work (walking, typically, or on the bus) so that I’ve had a chance to consider my responses for a while before I make them (I have a tendency toward overreaction in email that the phone preview curbs quite nicely). I can check my calendar and schedule new meetings on the fly too (this is a lot better than asking my PA to do such trivial stuff–she schedules more complicated, multi-party meetings though). I also use it to organize my public transit and find my way to new locations. All of this is good. But I can also read email, check texts from my kids, etc. while I should be paying attention, which is not good.

    I am now planning a lab assignment in which students will be required to use their devices as measurement tools. This is in part “if you can’t beat ’em, attempt to subvert ’em” and part a recognition that these things are quite powerful and it’s a bit silly to not make use of that power, as Another Damned Medievalist suggests with respect to iPads.

    All of that said, somebody I know who runs a lot of panel meetings bans devices except during lunch and he runs the most efficient groups I’ve ever been part of.


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