A quest for learning, unlearning and relearning…

Distraction, Boredom, or Connected?


There is much talk about how kids (and adults!) are distracted by their digital devices simply because the learning is boring or not relevant… that if we only make it more engaging they won’t be checking their smartphones… that it is no different than doodling “old school style” with pencil and paper.  I disagree. True, it’s far worse when the learning is dull and lacks meaning and relevance, but being so digitally and instantly connected to friends creates a continuous party in their pockets. One can’t always blame the teacher or the teaching. It’s just human nature at some point to want to remain part of the conversation in real time. Why do so many adults continue to text while driving despite the facts of the incredible danger it puts themselves and those around them in? Is it because they are bored? I have to continually practice self talk and self discipline in this regard, telling myself that the text, tweet, or e-mail can wait. I also practice this in front of my children, as there’s no worse teacher than a hypocrite.

As a recent example, I received a rather important DM in Twitter while driving. Rather than ignore it, I passed the phone to my son and told him to reply so that the individual wouldn’t think that I was just ignoring him. Had my son not been in the car and had I felt that it was important enough, I would have pulled over and replied, along with the information that I was driving and would reply more specifically later.


Instead, I think we need to place more emphasis on the teaching of mindfulness, attention literacy, and self discipline in this regard and stop placing so much blame on teachers and kids (or boring staff meetings…). These kids become drivers and employees, too. They need to acquire and practice these important attributes of mindfulness and attention literacy. We can’t always just distract them from their distraction by trying to engage them more. What about when they are at home? Doing homework? Reading? At the dinner table? In their house of worship?

This one researcher makes an interesting point about the digital divide and writes,

“… the digital divide is not about the gadget haves and have nots, but rather about those who can resist the constant distracting tug of technology and those who cannot.”

Now, of course, I am not arguing against creating learning environments that are relevant, invigorating, student-centered, and meaningfully complex and rich – where they can actually USE their devices to support their learning. What I AM saying is that all of the responsibility for one’s attention cannot be placed on something or someone else all of the time. Some of this is developmental, and at some point, learned behavior and choice.

As this article concludes,

“I don’t think the enemy is digital devices,” Goleman said. “What we need to do is be sure that the current generation of children has the attentional capacities that other generations had naturally before the distractions of digital devices. It’s about using the devices smartly [emphasis mine] but having the capacity to concentrate as you need to, when you want to.”

When the party in your pocket is calling when you are supposed to be focused on a task, what do you do?

Don’t Be Replaceable.

How do you view the ideas of “Flipped Classroom”, “personalized learning”, “Khan Academy”,…?


Dan Meyer writes,

Teachers are a great medium for lots of things that a YouTube video isn’t. “Conversation, dialogue, reasoning, and open questions,” as I put it in my post. If you, as a teacher, aren’t taking advantage of your medium, if you’re functionally equivalent to a YouTube video, you should be replaced by a YouTube video.”

Are we really leveraging rich access to online, networked resources and people so that we can improve the quality of F2F time while together in the classroom? Or instead, are we farming out the “really boring stuff” to be completed outside of school on one’s own as homework without the benefit of social interaction and learning frameworks that benefit the learner and learning? Or worse, are we just “personalizing” and gamifying the “really boring stuff” – the stuff that is best learned through rich, messy, complex, highly social experiences?

What’s the Faustian bargain that we are making? Neil Postman writes,

“This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings. You need only think of the enthusiasms with which most people approach their understanding of computers. Ask anyone who knows something about computers to talk about them, and you will find that they will, unabashedly and relentlessly, extol the wonders of computers. You will also find that in most cases they will completely neglect to mention any of the liabilities of computers. This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.”

Of course, there are also many downsides to [poor] in-class instruction… This is what new technologies, new learning spaces, and new possibilities seeks to mitigate. However, rather than improve student-centered, meaning-making pedagogy, at what point are we simply chasing solutions that distract us from this goal?

Marshall McLuhan writes, (paraphrased here) that

“people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As society’s values, norms, and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of.”

Is augmenting an already-flawed reality helpful, or would it be better to invest our efforts in re-conceptualizing our current reality?

There has been much written on both sides of this fence. It’s really healthy to consider them both and think hard, really hard, about what is happening.


Assignments That Get Students’ Attention

In two recent posts, Grant Wiggins asked students to respond to the prompts, “I learn best when the teacher_________” and “What was the best assignment you did this year?“. Honestly, anyone who understands student-centered pedagogy and how young minds work should not be surprised in the least at how they responded. I decided to make their responses more visual using Wordle. So, here they are.

“I learn best when the teacher ____________.”

"I learn best when the teacher _______."

“I learn best when the teacher _______.”

“What was the  best assignment that you did this year?

"What was the best assignment that you did this year?

“What was the best assignment that you did this year?

Now, decontextualized from the students’ actual full-text responses, these visualizations aren’t quite as powerful. So, make sure that you read their responses. However, anyone who understands learning and students should have no difficulty reading between the lines here. They should also have no difficulty identifying words, actions, and ideas that are not present.

I love when Gary Stager tells the anecdote of a student running up to him (or any teacher) in the grocery store, and enthusiastically saying, “Do you remember that  [insert project] that we did in [insert grade]?” (see Gary’s article, What Makes a Good Project“)

With all of the new mandates, increased “rigor“, curriculum compacting, competition for funds and scores, standards, accountability, high-stakes testing for all, college readiness, decline of the arts, recess, physical activity, violence and security measures,… it becomes more important than ever to advocate for the children, the students – from the superintendent, the principal, the teacher, to the parent. We need to stop letting suits in offices mandate what learning should look like. We need to stop thinking that we have no control over this. We do. We do.

How would students in your classroom respond to these two prompts? Regardless if they respond positively or negatively, would you be surprised? Do you already know how your students are responding affectively to learning in your classroom? If not, don’t let the year come to an end until you do.

Here’s to memorable and powerful learning! Here’s to the great teachers and fantastic students who celebrate this every day!


What Do You See?

What do you see when you view this image?


Creating Perplexity


Dan Meyer gives this fantastic keynote at CUE 2014. Honestly, it is one of the best keynotes that I have heard in a long time where learning and technology are concerned. He cuts to the chase and lays out what really makes learning contagious, interesting, meaningful… and couples effective pedagogy with technology in a very simple way. It’s not rocket science here.

  1. Look around your world for things that are interesting and perplexing at the same time (technology can help)
  2. find some what to capture that perplexity (technology can help)
  3. and then share this with students (technology can help)
  4. … then, of course, help them resolve this perplexity.

I’m not going to rehash his entire keynote here, so go and watch it. I’ll wait – it is so worth your time. Then, spend some time reflecting on your practice and on what learning likes like in your classroom. Yes, he’s a math teacher, but the specific discipline doesn’t matter here. How are you finding, capturing and sharing the perplexities of your discipline with your students? The world in all its glory is fascinating and perplexing. Why do we start our lessons with the day’s objective and a laundry list of “stuff to know”? Why are we surprised when our students seem less than interested in “what they need to know”? How are you creating within them a NEED TO KNOW – a burning desire to know? This… this is truly the hard and good stuff of teaching.

Now, as a teacher in higher education, I am personally just as convicted and challenged by this message. Yes, I often default to telling my students what and why they need to know. I even set up meaningful experiences for them to practice and apply what  they need to know and be able to do. For many, if not most, they get this. However, powerful it may not be. It keeps learning relatively passive and focuses on compliance over really making meaningful connections and letting curiosity and interest drive the learning. The learning tools are fantastic and really can help along the way, but the tools in and of themselves are a cheap replacement for a meaningful and perplexing problem to solve. It is the perplexity and problem that gives the tool meaning and purpose.

I love the concept of ‘hard fun’ that Seymour Papert unpacks a little bit here. If we begin learning on the notion of compliance, this becomes largely unattainable. Any perplexity or complexity we try to introduce is largely artificial and students know it. In another article, Toward the Pedagogy of Idea Power, Papert writes, “You have to mess with actual ideas. But this is the kind of hard that will make teaching more interesting, just as idea work will do this for learning.” What is your “pedagogy of idea power”? How much messing around with ideas do you do? How much messing around with ideas to you help your students do? Perplexity is the perfect impetus for messing around with ideas. Technologies provide the perfect tools for extending what is possible with such messing around. I really see a connection between Papert’s pedagogy of idea power and Meyer’s finding, capturing, and sharing perplexity.

So, I’ll leave you with this haunting statement that Dan makes in his keynote. How are you finding, capturing and sharing the perplexities of your discipline with your students?