Don’t hold your breath

[cross-posted at Moving at the Speed of Creativity]

One of the key beliefs of many edubloggers and educational technology
enthusiasts is that digital technologies can, and should, empower students to be
active, engaged learners who have greater control over their own learning. I’ve
been doing a lot of work lately with secondary schools and, unfortunately, I’ve
got to report that I think there is a huge lack of congruence between this
pedagogical belief and the existing belief systems of high school teachers and
parents (at least the ones with whom I’ve been interacting).

For example, I’ve asked several groups of parents recently whether it was
important that student learning experiences were interesting or engaging.
Sometimes I also cited student survey statistics from their children’s school
that 65% to 75% of students reported that most of their work was “busy work.”
Here are some fairly typical parent statements:

Life is not always interesting and engaging. They need to learn how the
real world is.

Students expect to be entertained all the time. What is the teacher
supposed to do, dance?

Teacher comments were similar in kind, if not quite in degree:

I’d like to think that we all try to make our instruction interesting.
But there’s only so much we can do.

Our teaching would be easier if there weren’t so many distractions such
as headphones, text messaging, etc.

Some of these topics bore me too. I don’ t know how to make them

Moreover, neither teachers nor parents seem very inclined to give up much
control over student learning experiences. I have heard a lot lately about the
importance of ramping expectations up further regarding student mastery of core
knowledge, that students will have to do whatever their supervisor tells them in
their later careers so they better get used to it now, and that high school
students don’t really know what’s best for themselves at this stage of life.

To the extent that my recent interactions with parents and teachers are
generalizable, what all this means is that educational technology advocates are
facing a losing battle if their advocacy strategy is based on persuading
teachers and parents that these digital tools will foster student creativity,
engagement, and autonomy. Educational technology efforts based on this premise
are doomed to either marginalization or outright failure until parents,
teachers, and administrators are inclined to give up control and to place
greater importance on engaging learning environments.

7 Responses to “Don’t hold your breath”

  1. I’ve noticed that a lot of new technology has been put into special ed. classrooms so that kids will do better. But the kids still want me at their elbow before they will do their work. Granted I work with a narrow group of kids, but I don’t see talking books, talking typewritter, blogs, wikis et. helping these kids very much. It seems to me that what these kids want is more one-on-one with a person, not with a computer. I read about all kinds of wonderful projects teachers are doing using the internet in their classrooms, and it is exciting. Maybe over the summer I can let my breath out and develop something that will engage my at-risk kids.

  2. Hi Scott,

    I get concerned that people seem to use the terms engaging and entertaining interchangeably. Both could be considered “flow” experiences, but I’d classify entertainment as the frivolous subset of engagement. In other words, I can be total engaged in solving a problem or reading a book without be in the least bit entertained.

    Are there “official” definitions for these terms?


  3. Scott,
    We are sitting at the cusp of a new era in which technology will be part of the life of people in a way we are just beginning to glimpse. Because we cannot predict the future, those who are not resisting the change are feeling the resistance from those who do not see any need for change. We are experiencing the first stage of a change in worldview that will alter how we, as people, connect and interact and see our place in it. I was listening to a radio program about music and they discussed how Beethoven was under house arrest because of his political views and his music yet, today, we can see the genius in his work. He is an example of how societies view change that is “radical”, not wanting to acknowledge it and trying to supress it from happening. But happen it will. I agree that teachers are not suppose to “entertain” students but we are to engage them. We are to have them seek solutions to problems and develop their understanding. As much as it seems that web2.0 is an everyday part of life, that is just for the select minority at this point. The majority are not involved in this change process as they wish to continue living within their own worldview and that view has children in school, in rows, learning “things”. Eventually, educators and parents will realize that the change is unstoppable, as it has always been, and will embrace what is happening and then defend it as the way it should be. For those of us who would like to see this happen sooner than later, the process will be very slow and there will be those who are marginalized because of their stand. But, as with any of the major huge societal changes that have occurred, adoption will happen. It’s up to those of us who see this to continue to write the music. Some will be masterpieces while others will be forgotten but the important piece is that it is not the individual but the whole and that, I think, is where the difference really lies in how technology will change education and, eventually, society. Maybe:)

  4. The first thing I thought as I read your post, Scott, was that the integration of technology is about a new model/pedagogy…That is to say that as we have moved toward 2.0 with our middle school it has been about teaching them to think, making them take responsibility for their learning, and yes engaging them in the pursuit of knowledge…as opposed to spoon feeding them discreet pieces of information which they soon forget.
    Do the students take to it right away…no they prefer to be spoon feed…
    Once again I think it also is about telling the story…the parents in our school are supportive but we have packaged this in terms of real life skills…understanding global cultures, responsible and ethical use of technology, finding and validating information….
    I agree with Doug and Kelly….entertaining is not our mandate and if that is the way we are describing our connection with technology and 2.0 we may be mis-speaking.

    Your post is important because it reminds us that we need to very clear with our purpose and objectives…and we must communicate with all stakeholders.

  5. engagement:learning::breathing:O2

    the world-view which assumes engagement is simply a fancy word for entertainment:learning::breathing:CO2

    Each time we inhale we get some of each. When we get a bit too much CO2, however, bad things happen. (Interestingly, when we get too much O2 the results aren’t so hot either).

  6. Can I say “amen” to Kelly’s point? Engagement is not a synonym for entertainment.

    Allowing for engagement can be an uphill battle. I think this is everso. People remember their education (see my note on Permission to Fail) and it affects how they see or approach education policy questions today. I think that we could make a change in this if we make it a practice to educate our parents about engagement. I remembered this post during my recent Open House, and when a parent complained about the afterschool program not being academic enough (they play), I pointed out that sometimes play is learning, and showed her some work her daughter did on a podcast where students had to describe a relative using figurative language. I told her, “The kids think it’s fun because they are making a podcast, but they are doing a state standard by using figurative language.” Now that example involves a situation where “serious” work may be being sugar-coated, but I could also show how when I let the kids play games, with dice, cards, and tanagrams that is Mathematics even though it appears to be pure play. I would suggest that maybe the next time we are all doing parent conferences, we should spend some of the time talking about engagement and the recognized effect it has on achievement.

  7. Hi Scott–

    Good post. But I like what Jeremiah said: breathing:O2 indeed. Fortunately for the future, engagement will probably remain a strong selling point for a few more years–long enough for new technologies to arise that don’t have to be inefficient with time and resources in order to engage. Right now, teachers and students take a tremendous amount of time out of lessons in order to create wikis/blogs/movies/etc. They’re using consumer technologies to educate. Not bad, but the next generation of ed IT will make the educational process native to these types of tools, allowing seamless integration into lessons that isn’t possible when teachers have to learn, set up, teach, use, and separately grade a class wiki for each project they want to “engage” with.

    I’m working on building one such tool, and I’m sure there are many more out. So instead of calling IT distracting, call for IT that doesn’t distract 🙂

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