DAILY INSIGHT: Standing in the Back, Watching the Screens

By Jonathan Martin

Standing in the back, I watched the screens. The students had seen me come in, and a few clearly clicked away from the screen they had open as I entered. I am, after all, their principal.

Our excellent teacher was lecturing. Our excellent students were note-taking, almost all of them typing notes into word documents on their laptops. We are, proudly, a one-to-one laptop school; we are also, proudly but somewhat controversially, a largely unfiltered internet access school (we do block porn and gambling sites, but not social media or gaming).

Standing quietly in the back of the room, the teacher lecturing from the SmartBoard at the front, it was remarkable how quickly the students forgot entirely I was behind them. And then the fun began.

Now, at our school we are lecturing a lot less than we used to, and especially so since 1:1 adoption. But that we are doing so less doesn’t mean we aren’t doing so at all, and it is not my practice as principal to insist otherwise (encourage otherwise, yes; insist otherwise, no).

As the teacher lectured, and she is a very good, very experienced, teacher, her discussion points varied—some of them with seemingly no connection at all to the present day and the world these students live in today, but other points fascinatingly relevant to today’s economic and political realities.

The laptop screens which I watched, from the back, corresponded in near-perfect correlation. When the topics appeared relevant to students, the note-taking pages appeared; when the topics veered to the arcane and irrelevant, the screens veered to Facebook, gaming sites, and other distractions. Not all of them, of course, not at all. But a number of them did, in close correspondence to the relevance of the topics.

When our very fine teacher moved towards more discussion, though, asking questions to facilitate conversation, something else fascinating happened. Nearly half of the screens veered away from both note-taking pages and distractions; appearing instead were Google, Wikipedia, and other information source sites. I carefully approached several screens, and took note of their search topics: all of them were dead-on the discussion subject.

Sometimes the queries or page-views were definitional—just seeking the plain facts of what was being discussed. Some of them though went deeper, asking via Google good questions about background to the subject or contemporary implications. And sometimes, though not often enough, the information being gathered was then shared, orally, into the conversation. I think of this as parallel processing, and it is going to be pretty hard to persuade me this is anything but positive practice by our students.

What to do? What to say?

We aren’t going to stop being a 1:1 school, nor am I, as principal, going to wave a magic wand and prohibit lecturing (I will keep working hard to encourage moving away from lecturing). I do try to assure teachers that they manage their classrooms, and if they wish, they can sometimes direct students to close their laptops and take notes on paper during lectures. It is sad to me, though, that when we do so, we will eliminate the incredible power for our students of “parallel processing” in their learning, as described above.

We could choose to use wifi/Internet filtering tools to block both gaming and social media (especially Facebook); this is what I believe many schools are doing, and certainly this is what many are urging me to do. But blocking is pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition: campus-wide, all day long.

In blocking and filtering, we are sharply limiting the positive value of social networking (for the value of this, see Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From or Lisa Nielsen’s many posts), and we are deciding that gaming has no place in learning (see Jane McGonigal’s TED talk). We are also saying, when deciding to ban “distractions,” that every minute a student is at school they are under our dictates for how they spend their time, and that we have determined there is no value for them, even in their break times, to socially network or game; this is a hard proposition for this principal to endorse.

There are no easy answers; I am finding it hard to even find the right way to conclude this post. What I keep returning to is an approach that favors

  • encouraging our teachers to move away from traditional lecturing and towards digitally empowered PBL (see Suzie Boss’ fine book, Reinventing PBL with Technology),
  • encouraging teachers who do lecture to work harder than ever to make their content relevant and connected to the concerns of students,
  • and keeping the internet open to all, even with the inherent downside that some of the time, some students will use it inappropriately.

I know that many teachers think and feel this isn’t supporting them, and this pains me: nobody wants to be a school administrator who doesn’t support the teachers. But I haven’t found yet the alternative.

Have you stood in the back of the room, watching the screens? What are your observations? Send to Twitter.

Cross posted at Connected Principals

Jonathan Martin has been an independent school head (principal) since 1996, and currently heads St. Gregory College Preparatory School in Tucson, AZ, serving students in grades six through twelve. St. Gregory is a 1:1 laptop school. Some topics he is passionate about include Tony Wagner's Global Achievement Gap, 1:1 laptop programs, Web 2.0 in learning, problem and project based learning with technology (PBLT), the excellence of High Tech High and New Tech Network schools, and the College Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA). He blogs at www.21k12blog.net and tweets at @JonathanEMartin.