Are you irrelevant?

(attention to my international friends: This post is very much targeted at an American audience)

I hope the words in that question terrify you. It does me.

This terrified me

This terrified me

I want to take a moment to bring your attention to something which is crucial for us, as leaders and educators and administrators and parents to understand.

I have one real fear in my professional career. It is not fear of failure while in front of a classroom of students. It happens sometimes. It is not fear of something out of my control happening in my class. On a daily basis things happen at school that affect my classes-but over which I have no control. It is not that students will shy away from a class they want to take-even though it is time consuming and demanding—in fact we are seeing our numbers rise. It is not that I may submit a proposal to a conference and get rejected. That happens. It is not that students are going to strongly react to a really challenging project or test. They do. It is not that I am going to get a surprise visit from my boss to observe my class. The door is always open. It is not that I might try a project or explore new technology that fails miserably. It can. It is not that I might have an off-day and lead a bad class. Last semester I had one of the worst classes ever! (and it was my fault). It is not that a planned speaker cancels at the last second. They could. It is not that I might miss an opportunity to recruit an awesome kid into my program. I do miss those on occasion (and I still kick myself)

Nope, none of those. Everything I just described above happens, and has happened, to all of us(hopefully)

My fear is of a different magnitude.

Students might be angry at me

Students might be angry at me

Here is what I do NOT mind: If a student is angry (at me?) because a project or test was so tough that (s)he was not able to complete it in the way in which (s)he hoped. A student might take my class and not appreciate or like the way I lead a project-based student-centric class. A student might want to take another class instead of mine. A student may not be willing to put in the work necessary to earn a spot in our program. A person might have been offended by something I said or did in class. A student may have heard that the class was too time intensive and chose not to apply to be in our program. A student may not relate to my personality. A student may quite simply not like me. All of those I can handle.

The fear that I have is that one day I might be irrelevant.

And that terrifies me. Because what that means is that what I am doing, what I am offering, the time and energy I put into my classes is not even noticed, not even on the radar of those around me. It’s not that they don’t like it, but that they don’t even have an opinion about it because they don’t notice it.

Yes some of that might be because of factors out of my control.

But there are some things we can control.

One way in which we become irrelevant to students is to be so out of touch with the current life of a student that they simply tune you out. I am not talking about a student after lunch who dozes off during class, or the day before spring break your kids are dreaming of beach volleyball. I am talking about something much bigger–I am talking about students who don’t even consider your class, or you as a teacher. I am talking about fellow teachers who do not even ask your opinion because your response is not valued. I am talking about not even being part of the conversation.

And that is WORSE that being a mean teacher. It is worse than being a bad teacher. It is worse than having a colossal failure in class. It is worse than having colleagues perturbed with you. It is worse than having your boss call you into the office because of something you did or did not do.

In computer science, we have a word for this….it is called “null”. It is not negative or positive. It is not 0. It is not infinity. It is not true or false. It is not right or wrong.

It is just “nothing”

And there are lots of reasons it might happen. I’d like to talk about one.

One of the key elements of this in our schools today is technology. Not any technology but the technologies that are important to our kids. Smart phones, tablets, laptops, iPads, Smart watches. We, the current “middle-agers” all remember a time when we did NOT have them, and so we still appreciate them in ways that others cannot. I am one of those. I remember dad and I getting Compute Magazine and entering in pages of pure hexadecimal code in order to play a game or run a program. It took hours, even days. I remember starting to “load” Jumpman from a cassette player into my Commodore 64—that would take a couple hours, so by the time I can home from school, I could play it.

But kids of today, students of today, do not want to hear about the days where we did not have that. In the same way you can’t relate to your parents going to the picture show for a nickel. In the same way you cannot relate to even seeing a silent movie. It is such a difference in experience that not only can we not relate to it….they cannot even really imagine it, much less appreciate it. They don’t want to hear about the card catalog in the library or the Encyclopedia series in the shelves. And don’t show them your slide collection. Don’t say things like

I am not good with technology.

….because for them there is no “good or bad with technology”….it is just something that is part of you, like your wallet. I don’t hear people talking about having difficulty with their wallet(although I do get frustrated when someone cannot figure out the debit card machine at Wal-mart) When your mouse acts up, don’t freak out and give up the entire lesson. When the projector does not work, don’t act like when your car does not start. When the sound is off, unmute or plug in the speaker wire. Right? Just fix it in the same way you would plug in the lamp next your chair at home. In fact, the kids might even enjoy helping you troubleshoot. Technology of today can be troubleshot. If your car does not start, there is not a bunch you can do, but if your laptop acts up, there are many things you can do. Teachers doing things the old way “because I don’t get technology” or “I tried it once and it did not work”–those days have to end. awesome tools in the classroom, one of which is technology itself If you need to get a book and read it to learn—DO IT. If you need to take a class -DO IT. If you need to spend the summer practicing–DO IT. Get to a point where the technology is one of the tool you use as a regular part of your class, like markers, homework, erasers, , projects, textbooks, light switches, discussions, desks, chairs, presentations, and whiteboards. Let it help you bring to life your content in ways the other tools cannot–and that is why you are using it. Get to a point where the technology itself is not amazing, but what it does for your class, FOR THEIR LEARNING….that is what is amazing.

We are still having conferences and discussions about whether or not to integrate technology. WHAT?! People, we are past that. We are passed the day where Facebook was evil. We are passed the point where you cannot get email on your phone. In fact, FB for many students is yesterdays news. We are passed the day about whether or not we will. WE WILL. WE ARE. WE HAVE BEEN. It is not a fad or a trend. It is here to stay. I am not suggesting that EVERY technology be part of a class. I use my car to get work, but I do not have my students sit in my car during class. I have several tools in my garage that I do not bring to class every day(although I imagine Kael Martin does). Find the tools that allow you to do WHAT YOU DO BETTER. Think about the lessons, or chapters, or content areas where the kids always struggle the most (or you struggle)…is there technology-based idea or device that might be able to enhance the learning?

Imagine your facilities manager doing a presentation about whether or not to, or how we might, incorporate electricity into our classroom. Gosh the things we could do in our classroom if there were power! Then the human resource director is going to do a presentation about the value of using our cars as tools to get to and from work. Then the English dept is going to do a short presentation on the value of using paper and pencil to record ideas, opinions, and statements in permanent form on this “paper” thingy. And we’ve got an entrepreneur businessman coming in to talk about this new technology called radio where you can hear voices from people located in different locations as you. Ridiculous right? That is what some of the conversation schools have sound like to students. We are becoming irrelevant.

I went for advice on health insurance and there were 2 people there. One was savvy with new vocabulary of the industry, could get around their website with ease and control, and could pull up anything you needed quickly and effectively, and spoke in language that made sense in relation to the current climate (Obamacare, HMO, HSA, major medical, etc). That was not the guy I got. I got the guy who had been trained in the old school way, was using expressions that were not really part of the discussion today, using statements and vocabulary that was just not relevant. He did not seem up to date on current offering. He could not use the “new technology (called a web-page). He even struggled to get the mouse to work correctly. We were not able to find the information we needed. In the end, he leaned over and asked the other guy for some information, which was the most valuable information I received that day. A complete waste of my time….and his. That man, that experience, was irrelevant to what I needed. The “other” guy was not even a particularly likeable man, but he was effective and in command. I wish I had gone to him instead.

Administrators: Have your students said this about classes your school offers?

Recently. I asked my students to do a daily 2-3 sentence summary of progress they made each day during their capstone project. I really wanted to them to do it on a piece of paper so I could collect them and staple them together and read them all at once—-and flip through as quickly and as needed. They begged to do it digitally. One students said he would even print them out for me, staple them as I wanted. I was blown away. Something so simple to me, yet so important to them. So, I created a blog page for them to enter, as we had done before. They thanked me several times. They wanted the ability to edit on their phone, their laptop, wherever they are. they did not want to be tied to a single sheet of paper. I did not get that but they did. But, I heard them and learned my lesson. And I did not let an anthill become a mountain. I understood what they meant–and now they were connected with my assignment. All of that happened in less than 5 minutes.

Question. if psychologists and scientists did a study that said using red pencils had some huge type of effect on students such that they were in tune with their learning better, or helped them write better? The stores would be sold out of red pencil. We would have closets full of red pencils. Every student would have one.

blog, chat, discuss, evaluate, share, collaborate

blog, chat, discuss, evaluate, share, collaborate

Well, the red pencil of today is internet, cell phones, tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices. Every kids has 1, many have several. Heck, they sleep out in the BestBuy parking lot to get one. The option we have now is to figure out a way of reconsidering how we look at these devices. Students do not even consider the device in their hand a phone. It is the way in which they connect with the world around them, their friends, school, sports teams, clubs, hobbies, and family. And much of what they interact with is images. Can we not take advantage of that? They love video and images and commenting on each others comments. Your students may already Tumblr BLOG? Gosh, is there some hidden value in texting? They love responding to someone else s thoughts. They love the instant communication. They love images of faces. Is there not someone out there that can look at all of that and design some learning environments where that is PART of it, instead of exact opposite. For example, have your students pretend to be a historical figure, or author and send out Instagrams and Snapchats about their life. Have them have an online discussion on FB between two historical figures discussing their decisions and issues. Have them post their essays or short stories to a common area and each kid responds, not to the whole thing, but to parts of it. And then other students respond to those responses. Those examples were far from innovative but it is what I came up with as I was typing without thinking much about it. Imagine what an entire department, and hey ask your kids to help design something, might come up with. Do your students lead online discussions? Do they evaluate each others work. Do they post their work for the world to see. Do they accept criticism or suggestions?

I think there was a time when the only option for content delivery, in a typical classroom was one-directional lecture. When there was no internet, no smartboards, no cell phone cameras, no Powerpoints, no email. There was only 1 way to get across ideas and connections. Then as modern technology started to offer some alternatives, we suddenly had other options. Those options were very different than we experienced when we were in school, and so for those who were going to take the leap, it required learning an entirely new paradigm, pedagogy, and learning experience. And if they embraced that and took advantage of the technologies, then it also allowed for a different experience for the students. It allowed them to be more active, they could “find”, discover, and interact with the content instead of just receive it. Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park said, “You can’t suppress a million years of evolution…..TRex does not want to be fed, he wants to hunt”. The same can be said for students. They don’t mind working for it if the reward is there. And yes, understanding and accomplishment can be rewards–in fact HUGE rewards. The human spirit thrives on curiosity. It is what drives us, sometimes even gets us into trouble. How do we know this? the moment you tell a teenager not to do something, the first thing they do is THAT THING. Not because they are rule breakers, but because you have sparked their curiosity. And they do not want to be told, they want to experience it, even at the risk of a negative consequence. Can we not do better at tapping into that energy. We can set up our learning environments such that their are lots of opportunities for that discovery?

I fear that if we do not, our schools—our teachers–our classes-our educational system—becomes irrelevant.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC
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