Age and the “New Tech” Fallacy
Fourteen years ago, when I was a student-teacher and still using a personal computer hijacked to run Linux instead of Windows, I did a lot of campaigning for Google Docs. This was wasted effort: Google conquers better than its creators.
When I was officially hired as a licensed teacher, I continued my early-adopter tech arc. I walked around the classroom with a school iPad, working out ways to fit into my normal routine. I also tested out most of the popular educational software: Padlet, Nearpod, ClassDojo, Pear Desk, and Flipgrid.
A year and half after I started using it, the iPad found its way into my desk. The non-Google educational software now lives only on my web browser bookmark bar in a folder called “Tools.” I cannot recall the last time my mouse has even so much as hovered over it.
I’ve since learned that this kind of tech-hype mindset–of always looking toward the technological horizon for the next thing–is very human. As a species, we are all process engineers trying to free up time for our mortal lives. The advent of fire and “cooking” food increased our calories per food item, freeing up time to do other rad things. No doubt the invention of something as small as “sharpness”–like that found on a knife–changed many things about our life. So it’s no surprise that we are ever curious about what new technologies can do for us.
But I’ve learned what more practical teachers–and humans–already know: “new” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” And it’s this re-imagining of tool evaluation that had me buying a Kyrre stool at IKEA for $15, on my own dime.
It’s odd that an animal species that shirked tree-life now reveres height, equating it with all sorts of status and power. We put penthouses on top floors and let kings and queens have a moment of height control when we bow to them.
Perhaps height allowed us to see predators more easily on the savannahs of Africa. Therefore we symbolically give that “save us” prestige to our betters? Maybe.
If you think of the traditional classroom–the rows or groups of desks, the teacher’s desk in the corner, the cinder block walls, the insulated drop ceilings, the whiteboard–all of it carries this sense of “height” power.
Recently, one of these symbols of power has been slowly phased out: the podium.
The podium (or lectern, which sounds way cooler) is a remnant of the theater-style classroom, where the lecture was central to a teacher’s methods.
A podium is a response to efficiency. It is a tool for lecturers to consult their notes–an accessory to paper, which is an accessory to memory.
But we forget that the podium is a standing throne. It is a tower for the one being in the classroom who gets to stand, talk at will, control the time, and, eventually, judge the progress of the rest of the people in the room.
I have to be careful here because what I’m about to say is going to seem like I think teachers shouldn’t have power. That cannot be. Teachers are authorities, and they use their professional judgment to help their students be successful.
What I want to point out is that the air of authority extends to teachers in subtle ways.
For instance, a teacher’s desk is related to the aura of a podium. It is the “throne” of a teacher (and I use quotation marks to emphasize that “throne” does not refer to quality but the existence of a place just for the teacher). Usually a detached desk and chair of some sort parked somewhere in the corner of the classroom.
It is the teacher’s room, and the teacher feels most at home in it. Why wouldn’t they? The barest reason is this: they are in that room more than any of the students they teach. There is no place you cannot walk.
In my classroom, I use a standing desk I built out of 2x4s for a podium. I have a large-ish “L” shaped desk near a stand-alone closet. I have a monitor connected to my laptop that is also connected to the projector. I am not alone in this setup. I’d say it’s one of the standard approaches to a classroom setup.
During group and individual work, I walk around the classroom. I do so to allow students the opportunity to, out of the convenience of proximity, ask me a question just as much as I’m watching for signs of struggle.
I’m all about students achieving autonomy. And during group discussions, it feels odd to wreck a good conversation by my being involved in it. I want students to take ownership of things. Therefore, I’ve always stayed outside of group discussions unless it is not a discussion at all: students just staring at each other, afraid to say anything.
This walking around, lingering (a very good word for what this is), communicates to students that I’m trying to make sure everyone is on task. My presence tells students that this is important, and you need to talk.
But, since I’m only lingering, I’m not really showing students how to have a conversation. Even when I step in. I’m not there to model important skills–like being a good listener, asking relevant questions, or prompting others to elaborate on something they said. We take these skills for granted, mostly because conversation is much of what being human is. But conversing in order to “build new meaning or knowledge” involve skills that we may not have learned.
I have to say that when I tear myself away from my in-class perspective, that lingering during group work, I find a different teacher. It’s more authority than community, even if that’s not my goal. And when I compare it to everything else I do in the classroom–things that are heavily modeled–I feel like I have missed something important.
I’m sure, in earlier times of my career, I’ve thought about this problem before. And when you lay out the solution in terms of modeling, there are many perceived drawbacks. For one, it’s hard to model conversations if all students see you do is linger, say a few things, move on.
I’m half introvert (which I suspect is the same for pretty much everyone, and if it isn’t genetic, it could be a Midwestern thing?), so I always feel like I’m intruding on groups if I’m walking around, trying to listen but not to bother. The air of observation is a thing.
But, I wondered, if I am in a group from the beginning of a discussion and stay through the whole thing, am I intruding? Or am I able to shrug off some of that observational mien and come close enough to be a part of the group, if I practiced the conversational skills that I want them to have?
This is modeling.
The con that has prevented me from doing this during my 14 years of teaching is that I worry about extracting my presence from the whole class–the lingering. Without my hawkish presence about the room, I would not be there to answer question or to put a group back on the rails; I would not be there equally, for everyone.
This is a strong pull in teaching, to be there. It’s not difficult to see why. You want to do your job right, and you don’t want to leave anyone out. Learning deficiencies and lack of confidence hide everywhere, a lot of times in plain sight, and the blinders are only seen with vigilance.
But I think part of the skill of being a teacher is letting go. We got into this profession because we care, but we can, with good intention, waste our resources by spending too much of our care.
We are constantly choosing between depth and breadth. And, so, I chose depth by buying a tiny seat.
The Kyrre stool is portable. I can pick it up by a leg and shake it around in the air. When I place it next to a group table, a gavel-like sound goes off. (I’m not sure whether this is good or bad. I’ve seen it startle some students. Furniture pads might go on the bottoms of the legs soon.)
I am no longer a ghost in the room, hovering. I am a part of the group. I am at their level in one quick motion. And since they see me model everything else in class, I hope they notice what I do in a group: they see me nodding at whoever is speaking; they see me interrupting and asking questions. It doesn’t matter if they don’t pick this up right away, but it matters that I’m showing them what real curiosity is like, even in someone who has been teaching for 14 years.
When there is no group work, it becomes a stool for students. My desk is hockey-stick shaped. At the end of it, pointing out to the center of the class, is a lip. This is where I place the stool when I’m not using it. There, it functions as a place for students to sit, furthering its symbolism as a tool to move around and discuss.
Sometimes, during group work, the stool works too well. I notice, as I do with Socratic Seminars, that students will look at me when they speak, as if this is why I’m there: Not to be a part of a group but to run it. I’m seeing, like Socratic Seminars, that this is a natural beginning, before the sense of freedom to speak and engage sets in.
Modeling means that teachers need to be open to being vulnerable in order to transparently illuminate their skills as both a learner and a reader/writer/thinker practitioner.
I think we often forget that the basics need attention. I know that teenagers these days are going to get more flak than pre-smartphone teenagers for not being able to have conversations IRL, but I think everyone can benefit from conversational skills, the kind that focuses on being curious and wanting to learn. Practicing such things has deep roots in our humanity. It helps us see our differences, but more importantly see our vast commonalities.
The unproductive groups that I’ve failed in the past were all too scared to let down their guards, to begin with a bit of throat-clearing and see what happens. I guess there are a lot of social woes attached to following directions when you are in a group. Especially when you are trying things out that the teacher invokes.
The point is to dash all judgment and hierarchy, to make room for evaluation, creativity, and play. Students will only do this if they realize that the teacher isn’t just teaching, but is learning right beside them too.
New Old Tools
I used to think that Google Docs would save the classroom, that when all of my students had a laptop, we could really just rip through all the writing and reading because we’d cut down on all the inefficiencies of the Ole Office Tools.
While I can’t decry the ease with which Google Docs has made writing and collaboration easier, there is another technology that I think is more important: the teacher.
The stool is more like Google than one would think.
Google started out as a search bar, which is the backbone of the internet (it’s a database, really), and the stool started out as wood, something we still use for almost everything, even in our high-tech steel world where there are now skyscrapers made of wood. The stool provides a way to give feedback with mucho collaboration, and it’s the way humans were intended to give the OG feedback: right there, in conversation with other humans.