25 March 2008

Are teachers responsible for entertainment and engagement?

Why do we have teachers?
(a) Babysitting - someone has to watch the kids while mom and dad work, and without classes to attend, university students would never leave their pubs and cafés.
(b) Someone has to hand out the tests.
(c) Someone has to make sure enough kids fail to preserve the wealth of the privileged class.
(d) To help students learn.
(e) a, b, and c are all true.

One more debate on Inside Higher Ed brought this issue back up for me. Once again faculty whines that they are being forced to compete for their students' attention. And once again they declare that they are simply not up to the task. "Science Teacher" moans, "You’re there to be educated. If you want to be entertained, do it on your own time. I don’t allow open laptops in my classroom either, because I know they are doing what I would be doing if I were them...checking my e-mail, skyping my friends, downloading music from iTunes, etc.—and not paying attention to that subject matter on which they will soon be examined. I’m quite the ogre, true...but I can live with that," in the clearest expression of the despair.

"C" went further - attempting scientific analysis:
"a. I’ve sat in the back of several classrooms doing observations in recent months. Almost nobody with an open laptop is using it to take notes or follow readings. They’re buying shoes, watching youtube, IMing, e-mailing, on facebook.
"b. Because the surfers have a lot going on on their screens — rapid surfing, video watching etc. — it’s a distraction to anyone with the screen in their direct or peripheral vision. Students have complained to me privately about this.
"c. You also often get a couple of people clustered around one laptop chatting about what they’re finding.
"d. When I do class I don’t just lecture. I do a lot of interactive stuff in which I ask students to do something for a few minutes with a concept or an example. At those moments students who have been tuned out are dead weight — they can’t contribute to the work of a group. You can see this when people go to groups — the students who have been paying attention have to explain to the tuned-out ones what’s been going on for the last ten minutes.
"Of course, students can zone out without electronic assistance. But laptops make it a lot easier to withdraw and provide a lot more external stimulus, given wifi. People get drawn into IM conversations etc.
"I started banning laptops last year and we get a lot more done."

To which I responded (for the second time in this conversation): "C: How often do you include the laptops in your interactivity? Do you ask students to look things up? To email those results to others in the class? How often do you ask students to check the data on something you or a student just said? Do you have students share work via Google Docs?"

But that's only part of the answer. Because the question I began with remains.

Let's be honest. Most of us do not need school to learn. And if we were part of a society which celebrated and supported individual learning, even fewer of us would require a visit to that school building. I can read all the history I want either on-line or through books I find at the library or on Amazon. I can look up many different explanations of maths theories. I can visit foreign language websites. I can watch Mythbusters explain science to me.

So "school" and "teachers" only have value if they have the ability to simplify that process, to make it more efficient, and yes, to make it more engaging.

Does this require that schools and teachers cater to students? Of course it does. Because I have far more choices now. Information is much free-er now. And the only things schools can hold onto - outside of student support and student engagement - is credentialism. But credentialism - outside of medicine and some parts of the legal profession - is dying. People are becoming smarter - they are learning that what you know matters a lot more than who certified that you know it.

OK, put it in simpler terms...

The decimal parable...

Why is this equation so difficult for many young students: 1.75 + 2.90 = ?
but as most teachers have learned, these equations are much easier:
€1.75 + €2.90 = ? or $1.75 + $2.90 = ? or £1.75 + £2.90 = ?

The latter are easier because they engage student interest. Numbers and maths are, for most of us, meaningless without contexts of interest. Few care what "x" is, unless "x" is the amount of money we have to spend for things we want or need or a distance we need to walk or the speed of the plane carrying us from here to there or the number of square meters or square feet we get to occupy. Just as words and reading are of little value without the informational or entertainment value carried by those symbols. Why is it easier to read a good novel than bad textbook? duh. A good comic book or "graphic novel" than a bad textbook? Again, duh. One has the capacity to engage and entertain, the other tries to insist that it be read for its own sake. Removing motivation from the equation removes, yes, motivation from the student.

So teachers must entertain. Of course. If they don't their classrooms are like prison cells. Those who are otherwise motivated may still succeed in that environment, but chances are, they'd do better on their own. The others shut down and disconnect. Any learning is maintained in the same way prison discipline is maintained - kept until one can manage an escape. And of course teachers must work to engage students, and to engage those students on the students' on 'turf.' The ability to reach out, to bend the lesson, the curriculum, and the method to the individual student and that student's learning style (and learning tool preferences) is the only educational reason for the individual teacher to exist in today's world. Because otherwise, well, you know, I can watch better lectures online than you are likely to offer.

So teachers... think job security. You can probably already be replaced by a website and maybe an electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet, unless you stop thinking that you are the sole source for information, and realize that your role is to support the learning needs of your students.

- Ira Socol

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Anonymous said...

hi! I am Linda, and I am in college to be a teacher. I completely agree with you! While most teachers complain about not having their student's attention... all we have to do is make it more engaging. This generation is a multi-tasking busy generation! Lets put that to use in the classroom!! Forget lectures and lets do projects! I am glad you see it the way I do!

Anonymous said...

Here's something remotely relevant to this post and our discussion on the Economist.com. I think the topic is interesting in its own right. Enjoy.