No Song and Dance Needed

11 Nov

When I came across this New York Times article a couple weeks ago, titled “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say”, I was immediately intrigued. I wanted to know more about the way our technology use is affecting learning, or even how it affects brain development.

But I read the article and found little that resonated with me. It was mostly about how teachers are noting a decline in attention in their students and a need for instant gratification and entertainment based on youth’s excessive tech use. Here is an excerpt that really got my attention:

“I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention,” said Hope Molina-Porter, 37, an English teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., who has taught for 14 years. She teaches accelerated students, but has noted a marked decline in the depth and analysis of their written work.

She said she did not want to shrink from the challenge of engaging them, nor did other teachers interviewed, but she also worried that technology was causing a deeper shift in how students learned. She also wondered if teachers were adding to the problem by adjusting their lessons to accommodate shorter attention spans.

“Are we contributing to this?” Ms. Molina-Porter said. “What’s going to happen when they don’t have constant entertainment?”

This excerpt got my attention mostly because I couldn’t identify with it at all. I read the rest of the article, which is more of the same — anecdotal evidence by teachers like the above — and finished feeling highly unsatisfied. The article shot up into the “Ten most emailed articles” on the New York Times web site, demonstrating that it clearly hit a nerve with the public. So why, I asked myself, couldn’t I connect to it at all?

I started thinking about my SPIDER Web discussion model and how students are really taking off with it at this time of the year. We’ve had four months now to practice and hone, and students are really starting to get it. Just this week my eleventh grade IB class had a real breakthrough with it and the discussion felt so much more organic and authentic; as one student remarked: “Everyone spoke today, but not because they had to. It felt like everyone spoke because they really had something to say.”

I don’t ever do a “song and dance” in my classroom. I’m against it on principle, first and foremost because the belief that you need to do one espouses the theory that you are still the center of attention, you are still the fountain of knowledge dispersing information; you are the all-important teacher that students must pay attention to.

Five or six years ago, I shifted my thinking on this entirely when, while working at a Harkness school in the U.S., I realized that students knew far more than I was giving them credit for and that I was doing most of the thinking for them. When I woke up to the new reality that my students needed a coach more than an instructor, my teaching changed forever. I began developing SPIDER Web discussion more in depth, and I didn’t need to do a song and dance; students came to class excited and ready to engage because their work and contributions suddenly mattered. It was no longer an exercise in providing the right answer so the teacher could check off a box. Students felt intellectually respected by both their peers and their teacher because their ideas were the focus; their ideas mattered to all of us, and immediately engagement rose across the board in every single student in all my classes. My dad recently said something to me that hit me like a hammer: For most students, whether they are in class or not doesn’t matter. Their presence doesn’t change anything. It should matter — their presence should be important to what gets done every day, and their absence should be a loss to the group as a whole so that their work and contributions mean something. For most students, their presence at school doesn’t mean anything — the same thing will get accomplished in the classroom whether they are in attendance or not.

This really did resonate with me. I felt chastened by it as an educator and see it as a personal challenge: How can I create a learning environment in which students not only want to engage every day but in which we need them to; their absence would be our collective loss? It’s not about short attention spans. It’s about creating a classroom in which students’ ideas and work truly matter. How can a student feel that his ideas matter in a class with lectures (or discussions in which he’s not required to participate), reading books he may not care about, writing papers for an audience of one? We educators have not been very honest with ourselves here — we are often too boring and too focused on our own plans or interest to notice that our students have much more to offer that we aren’t tapping into.

When I read the Times article, I realized that it wasn’t just that the situation teachers described didn’t resonate with me; I realized that what they described was nearly the opposite of what I experience. In most of my classes, students put aside their phones and laptops, their gossip and their math test fears, and they sit down and engage for 40, sometimes even 80, minutes with each other other in intellectual conversation. They police themselves, they assess themselves, and we all discuss what went well, what didn’t, and what was most interesting about it afterwards. I think, whether they realize it or not, that students really like to have a space in which to let go of all that other stuff, all the distractions, and just engage in the most basic human interaction invented: authentic conversation. No song and dance needed.

SPIDER Web discussion is just one way to do this; for me, personally, it has been the single most powerful tool in my teaching toolbox. But there are myriad other ways for teachers to do this. The real point here is that I don’t believe student attention is declining as a result of technology. I believe students’ waning attention spans (or a better word: boredom) is a valuable piece of feedback that we ignore at our own peril. The response we need is not to amp up the volume with noisy attention-getting techniques or “fun” units with no real learning attached. The response we need is to ask ourselves: how can I design my classroom so that students’ contributions matter, and matter to a degree that the students themselves know it?

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