The results were striking—
and disappointing for people who believe
that better classroom technology and implementation
will produce higher student achievement.
I am currently reading I, Claudius (1934) by Robert Graves. I watched the miniseries on PBS in 1976–I was fascinated by the story then, and I am loving it again.
This time though, I am a teacher. And this passage from early in the book encapsulated my evolution as a teacher. If I have any advice for young teachers it is here:
Athenodorus told me, the very first day of his tutorship, that he proposed to teach me not facts which I could pick up anywhere for myself, but the proper presentation of facts. And this he did.
One day, for example, he asked me, kindly enough, why I was so excited: I seemed unable to concentrate on my task. I told him that I had just seen a huge draft of recruits parading on Mars Field under Augustus’s inspection before being sent off to Germany, where war had recently broken out again.
“Well,” said Athenodorus, still in the same kindly voice, “since this is so much on your mind that you can’t appreciate the beauties of Hesiod, Hesiod can wait until to-morrow. After all, he’s waited seven hundred years or more, so he won’t grudge us another day. And meanwhile, suppose you were to sit down and take your tablets and write me a letter, a short account of all that you saw on Mars Field; as if I had been five years absent from Rome and you were sending me a letter across the sea, say to my home in Tarsus. That would keep your restless hands employed and be good practice too.”
So I gladly scribbled away on the wax, and then we read the letter through for faults of spelling and composition. I was forced to admit that I had told both too little and too much, and had also put my facts in the wrong order.
The passage describing the lamentations of the mothers and sweethearts of the young soldiers, and how the crowd rushed to the bridgehead for a final cheer of the departing column, should have come last, not first. And I need not have mentioned that the cavalry had horses: people took that for granted. And I had twice put in the incident of Augustus’s charger stumbling: once was enough if the horse only stumbled once. And what Postumus had told me, as we were going home, about the religious practices of the Jews, was interesting, but did not belong here because the recruits were Italians, not Jews. Besides, at Tarsus he would probably have more opportunities of studying Jewish customs than Postumus had at Rome.
On the other hand I had not mentioned several things that he would have been interested to hear — how many recruits there were in the parade, how far advanced their military training was, to what garrison town they were being sent, whether they looked glad or sorry to go, what Augustus said to them in his speech.
There it is.
That’s how you teach if you want students to learn anything beyond the next test.
I am doing a “Banned Books” unit in my English 12 class this year.
The idea came to me when I heard that it was Banned Books Week (this year, September 22-28). This is an annual religious festival in honour of one of our culture’s main deities–Freedom. More particular, we celebrate the freedom to read. Because, in some circles, to challenge a book is to challenge a god, the celebration can sometimes take on a “screw you” sort of tone. But this is a worthy focus week, even for those for those who don’t bend the knee to freedom, for there are worrisome current and dangerous historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. These are often attempting not just to protect the vulnerable but to limit thought. Most of the books on the banned books lists were not, in fact, banned but challenged by someone somewhere about the use of these books in a classroom or their presence in a library. I like to use the word banned because, sure, it’s more sensational, but mostly because it alliterates so nicely. As in . . .
No, we are not reading Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, not only because the content is inappropriate for young readers, but because it isn’t very good.
That’s the interesting thing, most of the books on the banned or challenged book list are the same books that have been taught in schools for decades. In other words, most of the banned books are the best books.Most of the banned books are the best books.Click To Tweet
There’s a reason for this: the best books are often provocative.
Books that aren’t banned ask little of readers. They affirm our values and fulfill in the end what they promise in the beginning. Books that aren’t banned, are often bland books.What should we read in school, bland books or banned books?Click To Tweet
Books that make demands of its readers are challenged. Books that challenge readers to look at the world differently are burned. Books that startle and shock us out of our comfort zone are banned. These are the books we should be reading.
The books that do this, are the best books, and they are the banned books.
Here’s a list of some books that have been challenged; it’s also my recommended reading list. Its a list of books that everyone should read before they die, or better yet, long before they die so that having read them may do some good.
These next three I actually haven’t read, but I’ve read what my students have written about them. These stories had an impact. Students understood, in a meaningful way, something more about our indigenous neigbours, systemic racism, and the girl with no hope.
Not too long ago at my school, the graduates who had a GPA higher than a 3.6 wore gold chords around their necks at the graduation ceremony.
Ridiculous idea, I know, but we’ve remedied that now.
Some students continue to ask why we discontinued the practice. They, and sometimes their parents, feel they have worked very hard to earn a good GPA and ought to be recognized as a reward for their effort and persistence. They think it’s stupid that to abandoned honour cords just to spare the feelings of those who did not earn them.
Here’s what I tell them:
We got rid of the honour cords because they go against the philosophy of our Christian school.Some people worked very hard to get above a 3.6 GPA, others hardly worked for it at all. And we did not get rid of honour cords to spare anybody's feelings.Click To Tweet
One of the purposes of every school is to develop important skills and abilities. We want students to have acquired the essential skills by the time they graduate, whether they are naturally gifted with them or not.
But just as important, perhaps more, is we want to help students discover and develop the unique gifts that God has given them.
Some receive a few gifts, others, many. The number of gifts or their quality has nothing to do with merit. It’s all grace. All gifts are free and all gifts are valuable.
Our Father in Heaven gives his children many gifts. Some receive gifts that make them good with people, others make them creative or athletic. The list is very long. Some of God’s gifts help students to be very successful academically.
If all gifts come from God why would we honour just the few that help a student to get high marks?
Honour cords do exactly this.
The school is also interested in the growth and development of the whole student. not just their minds. Human beings are multifaceted–one whole, many parts. Jesus names the parts in Mark 12:30-31 (NKJV): heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The whole student matters to God. The whole student matters to the parents who send these kids to our school. The whole student, then, is what the school seeks to nurture and challenge.
If the school’s focus is the whole student, why would we celebrate just one aspect of a students at the graduation ceremony?
Honour cords do exactly this.
We seek to nurture every student.
This is why we offer such a wide variety of programs and extra-curricular activities: Textiles and Mechanics, Art and Music, Sports teams and Drama productions, and this is just the beginning. Yes, and we offer a wide variety of traditionally academic classes, every student is challenged in a lot of different directions. Students work very hard in all of these areas.
Does it make sense to celebrate just the hard work of some?
We celebrate the hard work of all students, regularly and in many ways.
But we don’t do it at the graduation ceremony.
The graduation ceremony is not about individual recognition. It is, rather, the celebration of the class as a whole. The graduation ceremony is a community celebration. The community gathers, not just to see “their grad” cross the stage, but to celebrate “Our Grads” as we mark this important moment in their lives.
The uniform of caps and gowns appropriately balances the attention on the individuals and the Class of 20– as a whole.
It doesn’t make much sense to add an accessory to the graduation uniform that draws attention to the hard work of just some of the students, honouring just one narrow set of gifts, relating to only one part of the student.It doesn't make much sense to add an accessory to the graduation uniform that draws attention to the hard work of just some of the students, honouring just one gift, relating to only one aspect of the student. Click To Tweet
This is why we’ve done away with honour cords.
There has been an increase in the popularity of dystopian fiction, especially in the number of books targeting young adults. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Divergent by Veronica Roth, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner are but a few examples.
Because so many of my students have read these books, I often teach a unit on dystopian literature and film. In this unit, we read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Some students also read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Still others read FEED by M. T. Anderson. We analyze portions of films like Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Gattaca, Brazil, The Island, and I, Robot. Students are often inspired to head to our library and check out other books in this genre, including Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
I am sure there are many schools in North America that teach a unit like this, but in a Christian school, a particular kind of Christian school, it is taught a little differently. I organize the unit around the questions, “What aspect of our culture is being critiqued in the novel or film?” and “Are these critiques legitimate?” Through our investigation, students discover that each author/film-maker places a high value on the human being and being human. The central purpose of each novel/film is to critique the subversion of human value to some other value–some other aspect of creation.Dystopian fiction and film is essentially a prophetic genre--it uncovers and condemns idolatry.Click To Tweet
This inversion is the essence of the Biblical notion of idolatry. Human beings have value because they are created in the image of God. Humanity has been placed at the top of creation and given the responsibility to take care of it. When God is replaced by some good thing he created, humanity too is replaced from its position above all that was created. Idol worship always degrades humanity. Thus, this unit is actually an exploration of the Biblical teachings on human identity and value, and idolatry.
The creators of dystopian literature and film are proclaiming the evil of sacrificing humanity to our cultural idols:
The presence and popularity of these narratives are encouraging. They indicate that there still is a large segment of our society that accepts the premise of human value.I will rue the day when dystopian literature and film are no longer popular--it will mean that we've stepped off the edge.Click To Tweet
The first discussion we have in the English 12 Poetry Unit is about truth.
Too many people consider poetry to be something that exists on a continuum between fluff and falsehood. This drives us Humanities types batty. Many hold to the mistaken idea that a thing is true if it is factual. And thus, since poetry isn’t usually factual, it isn’t usually true.Just because poetry isn’t factual does not mean poetry isn’t true.Click To Tweet
Perrine’s Literature, a textbook we used to use, talks about the difference between encyclopedic facts of eagles with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Eagle” to make the point that poetry offers a different experience than do facts.
A lot more can be made of this comparison.
I have my students collect a bunch of facts about bald eagles and we fill a whiteboard with them. Here’s a sample of what they find:
These items gleaned from online encyclopedias are factual and they are true.
Then we look at Tennyson’s poem.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
In this simple, six-line poem, Tennyson attempts to communicate that eagles are, in a word, awesome. But awesome doesn’t really capture it, nor does formidable or magnificent.
When I was 8 or so, I went with my class to a bird sanctuary. After viewing crows, seagulls and owls recovering from various injuries, I came face-to-face with a bald eagle—close up! It looked at me, and then looked away. I was awed by his size, his talons, his beak, his eyes—I remember my reaction; I whispered, “Whoa!”
Tennyson attempts to communicate the “whoa-ness” of eagles.
We fill another whiteboard with notes about of Tennyson’s poem, unpacking the figurative language, sound devices, imagery, and allusions. In the words and between the lines of this poem, readers experience the power and strength of this majestic bird as it is metaphorically compared to a wise and solitary king whose power is absolute.
I ask my students which is truer—the list of facts on the first whiteboard or the poem that we’ve annotated on the second. Many, perhaps most, confidently say the list of facts is “truer.” Some are uncertain. Eventually, someone calls out, “both are true but in different ways.”
There we go!
“The Eagle” communicates a truth about eagles that go beyond the encyclopedic facts. A truth that is best communicated with poetry. Our culture has been resistant to this broader understanding of truth for a long time, to its detriment.How much of the Bible becomes inaccessible when we reduce truth to fact?Click To Tweet
Things get even more interesting when I suggest, in line with C. S. Lewis in Abolition of Man, that “whoa-ness” is a quality inherent to the eagle, and not just a description of my subjective reaction to it. I’ll spare you the details, but this is often an enlightening discussion.
The next poem we look at is A. E. Houseman’s “Is My Team Ploughing,” a conversation between a dead man and his still-living friend. I ask my class, is this a true poem? This time, less than half say, “No.” Some are still uncertain.
But many, reflecting on the central idea of the poem, declare it to be true.
As the weather turns warmer, I again hear of some student displeasure with the dress code–this sentiment is as cyclical as the seasons. Because it is ridiculous that a school should have no dress code at all, I am tempted to tease that we should just adopt school uniforms? I’d not be serious with this suggestion; I oppose this move because dress codes teach us some very important things.
I will concede that school uniforms have some advantages:
The main reason I am against school uniforms is that, although some learning may improve, a lot of other important things are not learned by the uniformed scholar–things pertaining to Freedom.
Our culture is obsessed with Freedom.
It should come as no surprise that some students bristle at the idea of restricting their choice in school attire. They have been raised in this freedom obsessed culture, bombarded with the idea that Freedom is The Ultimate. Freedom is the standard by which we judge between good and evil. Furthermore, starting sometime in adolescence, human beings begin the natural process of moving out from under the authority of parents. This can lead to the natural assertion of personal freedoms against any form of authority– including that of their school. Combine this natural adolescent impulse toward freedom with our particular cultural obsession and you ought not to be surprised when the cry “Freedom!” erupts from some junior William Wallace, especially in the spring.
I oppose school uniforms because, in order to learn how to navigate the world dominated by Freedom worship, our children need to be given freedom. They need to have freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom can only be good if it is limited. Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity.Students need the freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom is only good when limited. Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity. Click To Tweet
Some students want to wear a hat to school. We happen to be in a time where hats are an important accessory in youth culture, but hats break the dress code. When asked to remove the hat, some ask, “What’s wrong with wearing a hat?” There is nothing wrong with wearing a hat, but it is, sometimes, improper to wear a hat. The reason we don’t wear hats indoors in some public places like churches, restaurants, and schools has to do with propriety. Propriety is the quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals. It has long been the case in our culture that hats are to be worn only outside.
Standards of propriety are relative. They change according to place or time. In some cultures, propriety dictates that head coverings must be worn indoors. Ours just happens to be one in which it is traditionally expected that one removes one’s hat when entering a building. Students naturally counter this argument by saying that times have changed, and I am holding on to an outdated convention–propriety has moved on.
I respond by saying that this convention is certainly no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole. Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.Removing hats indoors is no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole. Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.Click To Tweet
There is something much more important at play within the dress code’s prohibition on hats. It is that we are holding ourselves to an external standard. The specific standard is not as important as the idea that such communal standards exist. They exist, and they put limits on some personal freedoms, (a heretical move in our cultural context).
The “no-hat rule” is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards. This norm runs contrary to the teen sub-culture. Propriety cannot be meaningfully taught where there is no tension between student sub-culture and the culture at large. If we were to restrict only coon-skin caps and platform shoes, the important lessons of propriety would remain unlearned.
Propriety is about submission to something bigger than oneself. This is difficult for some adolescents who can’t conceive of anything more important than themselves. The cultural worship of Freedom exacerbates this attitude. Conveniently, those that most need to learn the principles of propriety identify themselves by bucking most violently against the conventions of propriety.The 'no-hat rule' is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards.Click To Tweet
Students who desperately want to wear their hats in class point out that some adults, too, wear hats indoors. Yes, there are some adults who, working outside all day, neglect to take their hat off when they come indoors. This is not the same thing as donning a hat for a day which will be spent entirely indoors. Other adults wear hats because they have not outgrown adolescent rebellion and/or believe that personal Freedom is ultimate. These are not a justification for students wearing hats; they are, rather, representative of the very idea we are trying to counter.
In the case of adults sporting caps indoors, it is appropriate to be gracious, but this is not a luxury we can extend to our students. We cannot turn a blind eye, for we bear the responsibility to move our students through adolescence and to challenge the supremacy of personal freedom.
You can tell students things, and they might learn a little. You can show them something, and they will learn a little better. Students learn even better when they teach something. And better still if they do something. But they will learn best of all if they do something with regularity. In the morning ritual of getting dressed for school, students practice the idea that there are some things that are more important than personal freedom. They practice submitting to an authority external to the self.
We want students to grow into adults who understand that personal freedom is a good thing, but not The Ultimate Thing. Without a dress code, students are in danger of graduating with the idea that freedom is God. The lessons inherent in the dress code, not just the no-hat-rule, if learned well will lead to their flourishing, and that of society as well. A school with uniforms does not have the opportunity to teach this important lesson.
Most students have no problem with the dress code, and for those who do, the disagreement is usually the typical adolescent desire for personal freedom. By the time most students reach their last year of high school, they have little issue with the school’s limits on clothing freedoms. Perhaps this is because they have grown up a little, and no longer need to define themselves against authority figures, but it might also be a result of daily practice making decisions that balance personal freedom and social responsibility.
Education has changed. I’m teaching differently. Student’s are learning differently.
How well do the new approaches to learning and teaching prepare students for university?
When I first started teaching Literature 12 there were provincial exams. These were content focussed. One of the purposes of the exam was to ensure students were prepared for the rigors of university. There was a prescribed reading list of over 40 literary works from the literary canon extending from Beowulf to a poem by Margaret Atwood. Students were also required to understand over 100 literary terms and devices. Back in those days, I did a lot of talking and students took copious notes.
Given that the exam scores would be used to rank students against other students, schools against other schools, teachers against other teachers, exam performance mattered a great deal on many levels.
So we worked very hard on exam preparation. Students created very detailed study sheets on each of the literary works on the prescribed reading list. These were collated into large packets and students spent hours reviewing this material. At the end of the process, they knew a lot, and my students generally did very well on the Provincial English Literature exam.
I still teach Lit 12, but I do so very differently. My class looks much more like a graduate seminar than a lecture hall. Students discuss and unpack the literary works, rather than listen to me tell them what they would notice if they were as smart as I was.
Through this dialogue, students analyze, synthesize, evaluate, propose, inquire, challenge, concede, admire and they connect the ideas they encounter to life and society. After we talk, we write. They use their laptops for this task. Sometimes they journal, other times they write an academic essay or a personal narrative; we mix it up.
My assessment has changed as well. We no longer end the year with an exam. We end the year with presentations–students explore a topic of their choice making connections literature, often beyond the material we worked over the course of the semester.
Last year, I dusted off an old provincial exam, one of the same exams for which I used to work so hard to prepare my students. We didn’t review the material in class–students didn’t create review sheets for each other, and they didn’t study for it. I passed it out one day and they wrote it.
I used to mark the Literature 12 exam, so the marks students got on this test were valid. I was surprised that their scores were significantly higher than those of students of similar ability from 2 decades ago. I realize this observation is anecdotal and does not meet the standards of a proper study, but I am convinced of the results.
My students know the literature better now than they did when learning was primarily focussed on content rather than projects and discussions. With the new approach to learning, students are performing better on exams designed to measure university preparedness.
The beauty is, they don’t just know the content–they have a much broader and deeper understanding of the literature than they used to. They can talk about it and bring it into dialogue with other artistic expressions and with life and society. They are better readers and thinkers and moviegoers. Almost all are reporting great success in university classes.
But not all reports are positive. One of my students excitedly entered her Literature course at the local university this fall and dropped it after only a few classes. It was clear to her that, in this particular university class, the study of her favourite high school subject would primarily involve transferring what she heard in a lecture onto an exam paper at the end of the term. There is no doubt in my mind that she could have passed this course with an A. Many of my less gifted students frequently do.
My little experiments show that if students are expected to know the material well, then they are well prepared for university. If their university courses will expect them to be able to analyze and synthesize information and concepts, they are ready. If they are expected to evaluate ideas; to challenge assumptions and be able to recognize a strong argument and concede, they are ready. If they are expected to communicate clearly and effectively, both verbally and in various written forms, they are ready and very well prepared for university.
If, on the other hand, they are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information and transfer this information onto an examination paper at the end of the term, then perhaps my students are ill-prepared for university.
Does anyone really want me to change my approach to teaching literature?If students are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information that will be transferred onto an examination paper, then students are ill-prepared for university.Click To Tweet
As a teacher with a classroom full of laptops, I had to read the article in my Twitter feed entitled–“Ban the Laptops, Yes.” This article by Mark Bauerlein cites a study that appeared in Education Next, under the title “Should Professors Ban Laptops?” which suggests that the implementation of classroom technologies, such as laptops, may be detrimental to student learning.
The results were striking—
and disappointing for people who believe
that better classroom technology and implementation
will produce higher student achievement.
I was troubled and confused–troubled because last year the high school at which I teach required every student to come to school with a laptop, confused because, from my experience, laptops are improving student learning.
I read a little further. The article explains, “The decisive measure was performance by students on the final exam.” Ah, there it is.
I was no longer troubled or confused.
It is clear from the study that the classrooms wherein laptops are causing the problems are the ones in which professors are lecturing and students are taking notes. In this context, exams are a measurement of how well a student transfers the content of the lecture to the examination paper. The study shows that technology interferes with this simple process because when students “update social-media sites, order takeout, and watch YouTube videos during lectures.” It is easy to see why the study concludes that “unrestricted laptop use reduced students’ exam scores.”
This all leaves me with a few questions:
Why are laptops a detriment to student learning, but an indispensable tool for the professors who deliver the lectures, and research and publish their papers, articles, and books? In the so-called, “real world” personal computers and other digital devices are used by adults all the time–presumably because they are effective tools for accomplishing important tasks. Is it simply that adults are more mature and therefore better able to resist the temptation to watch Youtube videos?
Or is it because the work that adults are doing is relevant and the results really matter, and because the work is challenging, requiring creativity and critical thinking?
Is it because it’s personal–involving the whole person–the unique gifts and abilities of the adult individual? Or is it because it’s interpersonal, involving collaboration with others?
Is it because it’s complex, varied–interdisciplinary?
Or is it because the responsibility for the success and failure of our efforts rests heavily on our shoulders?
Perhaps the problem is not the laptops, but a pedagogy that lacks all of the things that keep adults motivated to do good work.
In my grade 9 humanities class, we are studying World War I. One of the students’ tasks is to produce several documentary videos telling the story of the First World War–the causes, key figures and events, and the effects. Their laptops are vital tools in this project. They research their topics using the internet. They write and edit the script for their documentary film using a word processor. They find out how to properly cite their sources using online resources. They record their scripts, then create and edit videos on their laptops. In the process, they give and receive feedback as to how to improve their documentaries. They then share these videos on a social media platform so that others may learn from their work. The use of technology isn’t to make learning about WW1 more fun, nor is it a distraction from the learning. It is a vital tool in the process of completing a complex project where students learn, not only about World War 1 but about research, primary and secondary sources, how to discern internet sources, documentary script writing, plagiarism, providing feedback, voice recording, video editing, and a lot more.
Students are not passive; they are active and motivated to complete a project of high quality–they don’t have time to check in on their social media accounts. For a student passively listening to a lecture, it’s almost impossible to resist the lure of the distractions.
What is the problem here? Are the laptops the issue?
If your primary task as a teacher is to cover content and communicate information, and if your students are passively listening and taking notes, then this study shows that it is important that you “should draw back, return to pencil and paper and chalkboards.”
But if your students transform, rather than transfer information; if the boundaries between your classroom and the “real world” are blurry; if what your students are learning will have relevance 30 years beyond the exam. . .
then bring in the laptops!
Who ask the questions in your classroom? If the teachers had answered our questions when we were in high school, we’d have a better understanding of our world today.
Here is the studio version of a speech I made at an educational event, Learning Revolution.
In this inspiring “RevIt Up” talk, Trent DeJong describes one way in which a Learning Revolution may come about if educators would consider “deep questions” with their students. With examples from his own experience and a clever sense of humour, Trent is sure to make you think about how we can authentically engage the next generation of students.