A quest for learning, unlearning and relearning…

Technology Captives

Dane Pen, Flickr - https://flic.kr/p/7AFi37

Dane Pen, Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/7AFi37

A recent article in Business Insider summarizes some research over the past year on the relationship between keyboarding and handwriting on note-taking and learning. The conclusions made here are stunningly shallow… that we shouldn’t use computers/keyboards for note-taking; rather, handwriting is better because it slows us down and allows to to “engage” more with the content as we summarize and organize it in our minds during the process of handwriting our notes. If the tendency for keyboarders is to do more of a lecture transcription with less thought, then perhaps the problem is that those note-takers have insufficient and flawed strategies for [digital] note-taking.

Joe Ross, Flickr - https://flic.kr/p/aYjtFv

Joe Ross, Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/aYjtFv

The parallel here could be that since fossil fuel-based vehicles pollute more, we should all go back to horses and bicycles. Thankfully, we are working toward more environmentally friendly vehicles and leveraging new technologies to improve our world. Why is it that where learning is involved, we are so quick to just blame the technology and fight to go back to a “simpler time” rather than strive to improve our relationship with it?

We have given far too much power to the technology and given up some of our responsibility in shaping it and shaping our world. There’s no doubt, that as John Culkin and Marshall McLuhan framed, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us”. However, at no point in this statement were we intended to give up our responsibility in shaping our society and our world. There is indeed truth to the statement that “we become what we behold”. In our idolization of technology and tech tools, many of us have [willingly] traded things like intelligence, kindness, wisdom, intimacy and empathy for the new shiny gadgets and the convenience of the  easy and the instant.

Mysi, Flickr - https://flic.kr/p/5uARTE

Mysi, Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/5uART

Here’s a thought… how about equip young people to be valuable, contributing digital citizens who effectively learn with new technologies instead of just staying with desks in rows, lectures, pencils and worksheets? How about teaching them to be effective digital note-takers – yes, who also know how/when to pick up a pencil if needed? How about, as adults, striving to be essential models of citizenship and learning in a digitally mediated culture that our children so desperately need? How about including making and programming as a regular part of a modern curriculum (instead of an “Hour of Code”) because it is good for kids and their thinking as they tinker, problem-solve, create relevant things and express powerful ideas… because they could actually learn to be more than consumers of technology? How about choosing NOT to text while driving [while our kids watch]? How about choosing NOT to spend more time on social media that with one’s family? How about choosing to send a card to someone instead of a quick email? How about NOT yelling profanities and shaking our fist at the driver ahead of us [while our kids watch]?

How about choosing to learn to effectively take notes with a digital device?

How about that?

It’s Not Just “the kids”!

Source: Ed Yourdon, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/jbXuLP

Source: Ed Yourdon, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/jbXuLP

I find myself growing weary of reading articles that complain about how technology is negatively impacting “kids these days” – how they are addicted to technology, distracted the the point of diminished capacity, and even experts who describe scary changes of the brain due to their excessive, or some would say, obsessive relationship with technology.

I don’t necessarily deny any of these claims; in fact, I agree with many of them. but we need to stop singling out kids here. In my daily life I see just as many adults struggling with making healthy and wise choices with their digital tools and digital lives. I completely agree that we have dropped the ball in terms of helping all involved develop mindfulness in this arena. We ban rather than teach. We somehow expect that kids should never screw up, so when they do, we trade the opportunity to teach and learn for  punishment alone. We bring in a speaker for a “digital citizenship talk” for an hour, then go back to business as usual. We hand kids powerful tools and wave our fingers at them, telling them not to mess up, then send them on their way. Meanwhile, they see countless adults around them screwing up, making poor choices, and completely absorbed in their digital lives.

From personal experience with my own children, I see how their mobile devices are negatively impacting their development. It is crystal clear. Of course, this is purely anecdotal, but I see it happening. As Dan Willingham writes in this piece, it’s not that I want to limit their digital access for irrational reasons, but rather that I don’t want them passing up other important opportunities around them at the expense of their digital activity. And that’s what I see happening. So, we limit their time. We recognize the seductive nature of information, in all its forms, both good and bad. It’s less that bad kids make bad choices, but that we can all make bad choices when left unchecked. Due to some poor choices, my teen son had his smartphone taken away… for a month. We sat down and had a really good and important conversation when this happened. He’ll get his phone back and a week, and I’m sure he’ll be so excited about this. However, I’ve watched him blossom… turn back into his “old self” without constant access to information and his friends. He’s spending more time with his music again, with his hobbies, with his younger brother, and with us, his parents. He’s focusing so much better on his homework. His attitude has become much more positive and upbeat. As much as he misses his phone, he’s happier. He still has access to the computer for his regular needs, but not a computer in his pocket. I’m hoping that he’ll be willing to write about this experience from his point of view when this is all over… and be willing to share it here. Stay tuned. But regardless if he does or not, he is definitely learning about mindfulness and noticing how his constant connectivity is impacting him and his friends. He mentioned that lunch is so boring now because all of his “friends” (sitting at the same table as him) are on their devices and he has no one to really talk to.

source: Surat Lozowick, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7Nehy8

source: Surat Lozowick, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7Nehy8

I see many of my college students struggling with this as well. Some have developed the discipline of not letting their devices distract them from the activity at hand, while others really struggle in this arena… some to the point of it really interfering with their academic performance. I watched a male student walk into the women’s restroom and not even notice because he was texting. I routinely stand beside male students in the restroom who can’t even take 30 seconds to pee without engaging with their device. I wonder how many drop their phones in the urinal…

But then I almost get run over by adults in the grocery aisle talking and texting on their devices. I’ll see them suddenly stop in the middle of the aisle with absolutely no awareness or regard for those around them. I see people not noticing those in need around them… a mother with child really needing the door opened for her, for example, yet the guy doesn’t even notice because he’s absorbed in his device. The cashier in the checkout line, desperately needing someone to notice her and perhaps engage in eye contact and smile, yet person after person doesn’t even look up from their devices or is engaged in conversation with someone else at the other end.

I don’t want to make this a gripe session, but rather simply want to point out that we’re ALL struggling with the shifts that technology is enabling. We’re ALL struggling to be mindful of how our devices impact us and how we shape their use. We ALL need help – and this includes those who don’t really use new technology. How can they understand these complexities and help those around them understand them if they refuse to engage? How can a teacher (or parent) help their students understand tools like Twitter and learn to use them in empowering ways when they themselves don’t “get it”? It’s certainly no time to dig one’s heels in and say “I’m not going there.”.

I read a great deal about “mindfulness” and have written about it in a few previous posts. Just look back in this blog and you’ll find a few. What are YOU doing to remain acutely aware of how the new digital landscape is impacting you? What do you do to teach your children and your students this? What are some solutions to these struggles? I’d love to hear. Consider leaving a comment here to share, both with me and with others who may find this post.

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!