Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spamming all-calls

That damn technology!

If only we could unplug the internet so those damn kids would pay attention to our damn lectures!

I mean, if they weren't so damn distracted with learning on that damn Internet, they would learn more from me!

Okay, I'm being a little over-the-top, but then so was this university professor when he says he can't figure out how to get his students off the Internet during his lectures.

Teachers don't need to survey their students for feedback on their lessons - students' behaviour in and of itself should be feedback enough. Sleeping, off-topic socializing, snoring, doodling, paper airplanes and self-mutilation are valuable forms of feedback that should tell teachers that something is awry.

Misbehevavior is the number one symptom of a boring and unengaging curriculum. If students feel less captivated and more like captives during school, then they are going to vote with their feet - and if they can't actually leave physically, then we shouldn't be surprised when they remain only in body.

But for the most part, we don't really want to hear it. Too often we ask for feedback, when we are really asking for praise.

When a kid misbehaves, for the most part, we don't look at ourselves - or our lessons - or our curriculum. Instead we blame the kids. They need more self-control.

Have you ever been to a teacher's conference? Ever sat in a room full of teachers during a lecture?

You might be smirking right now, because you know where I'm going with this. Try to lecture a room full of teachers and you'll see what I mean. The hypocricy is pungent.

Scott Berkun might be on to something when he explains that the technology is not the problem:

First, there is a strong academic argument that lectures are an inappropriate teaching method much of the time – it’s just that it’s the only method many professors know or are willing to try... Second, most people who lecture are awful – the bar is low – and in the case of professors, they are lecturing to people who are captives.

Berkun's comments are ironically cannabolistic - he makes a living as a public speaker.

This all got me thinking about how Seth Godin defines spam:

Spam is unanticipated, impersonal, irrelevant junk I don't want to get.
How much of a teacher's staff meeting agenda is considered spam by the teacher? How much of a teacher's lesson and lecture is considered to be spam by the students? How much of the content that plows its way over the public address speakers is considered spam?

Seth writes about the inefficiencies of the all-call:

Back when companies had offices, there was a button on the phone labeled "all call". It allowed you to page every speaker in the entire building at once.
"Tom P., you have a package at the front desk!"
It was a lot easier to hit all call than to just track down Tom. After a while, this group interruption gets tiresome because it's so wasteful. You interrupt 100 people to reach one, or you get ten offers of help (or someone to buy your hockey tickets) when one was all you needed.
The days of standardized swaths of lecturing where whole chunks of information is simply disseminated among the masses has come and gone. The kids are telling us there is something wrong with school - we know there are better ways.

The first step is to stop blaming them and start listening to them.


  1. I am really enjoying your blog! I am currently e-mailing two of my daughter's teachers and both have told me that she needs to pay better attention and show more effort. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make this happen for them but unfortunately I am not the one in school 7 hours a day. Uugghh!

  2. I like your spam analogy! I don't think lectures are always bad though. I think they can be very useful, in some cases, to present a complete idea without interruption. After all, sometimes it takes a little while to completely lay out a point. BUT! They're only helpful when they're relatively short, the lecture is carefully designed and rehearsed, and the speaker is passionate - like with TED talks, for example. Most of those talks are 18 minutes or less, extremely entertaining, and incredibly informative. It also helps that TED talks are recorded, so people like you and I can watch them on our own time - when we're ready to sit down and stay focused. And seriously, how is it reasonable to expect students to take notes on something they can't pause in this day and age?

    I think there are some other things going on here as well however. As claimed in the link, "these students are taking [the class] because they want to - and a majority of them choose the class because the professor is one of the MOST engaging profs I know." So let's give the benefit of the doubt and say, just for argument's sake, that these lectures meet all the criteria of excellent use of the lecture format. In that case, I think there are three other issues here.

    Students are probably getting graded in this class and that, quite simply, changes everything. With an emphasis on grades, students no longer come to class thinking, "What can I learn?" Even if the subject is really interesting, the class is still a contract. If a student sits in that room and does the work to an instructor's satisfaction, the student gets that shiny grade. And students are smart, so they'll try to be efficient. They have other classes and other things going on in their lives, so they'll try to get the grade they desire for as little work as possible. Which means if they can keep up with friends, read their feeds, and do that pesky chemistry homework without hurting their grade, they will. But the solution isn't to ban laptops or punish laptop users by hurting their grade, as many suggested on that page. Grades have to be abolished so the class can be about learning again. That's only a partial solution to this problem though.

    It can be very tempting to try to multi-task with your computer in front of you. Even at home, if I'm watching a TED talk that I anticipate being interesting, and I check my email while it's playing in the background, it doesn't have my full attention and I won't get the full benefit of the likely inspiring message. So students have to know that multi-tasking is not a skill, it's a bad habit. You can give full attention to one thing or inadequate attention to many things. I think many students just don't realize this. There are some students though, who know they're missing out on great learning, and STILL, they just can't stop checking Facebook. This brings me to my final point.

    Probably most people who read this will agree that it's easy to get carried away checking Twitter, Facebook, and email every 10 minutes. But this isn't an inevitable trap and it certainly isn't just the way kids are these days. There are steps we can take to cultivate good habits, so that we control our tools and not the other way around. The solution here is to give students the resources to regulate their behavior and develop more mindful habits. If you just ban laptops, you're putting a veil over a wound and calling it healed. It doesn't fix the real problem, just masks it. As a start, I recommend this link: - despite the title, it doesn't really advocate quitting Facebook, just using it more consciously.

  3. @Sarah, I just saw your comment and I think my last two points might help your daughter. Take it from me, as someone whose teachers always complained that my head was in the clouds (which isn't always a bad thing).

    @Joe, sorry about that super long comment! I just started writing and ended up having a lot to say. I had a short apology at end of it, but it ironically pushed the comment over Blogger's character limit.

  4. Thanks to both of your for commenting.

    Chris, as always, your comments are bang on. Hell, your comment is worthy of a blogpost all on its own... hey, that gives me an idea ;)

  5. If only all teachers would look to what they can do differently when their students are unengaged instead of blaming then we'd all be great teachers! That is so important for us to continually do. Besides, don't most educators know or have heard or have seen that only 10%, if we're lucky, of people remember or learn from what they hear?? I've been trying to use some backchanneling ideas because I can't stand how class discussions turn into one student at a time talking to me. So I've tried having my students chat class discussions. I can do that because I have ten computers in my class so small teams use their computer with a chat I added to my class moodle. So many more students get engaged that way!

  6. I have been teaching for over twenty-five years and I still get excited when I see my students excited about learning. Lectures? I give those to kids who have pissed me off with their inconsiderate behavior. I didn't lecture even when I was an instructor at the University - unless someone pissed me off. . . I plan for engaged learning - I want my students working with a partner (yes, my students talk . . .), working with materials, on-line, independently from choices, with older students, with younger students . . . because I value conversation as a learning tool, I do tend to be top-heavy in that area and expect students to engage in discussions. But at the same time, ensure that each new outcome/standard/objective starts with concrete materials or examples, then to pictures or other representations before moving to the abstract. Notice there are no lectures . . . when I'm talking, I'm asking questions to guide their understanding and encourage my students to think about their learning. Teaching is certainly a complicated task, but learning isn't. We, as teachers, need to remember that children love to learn - always have, always will, and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to guide them each and every day. How lucky we are to be a part of curious learning.


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