Learning Spaces & the 1 to 1 Classroom

Recently, it seems like the idea of using and not using technological tools during interactions with other people is ripe and alive in the media. I have just finished listening to a podcast of “On Being” from American Public Media entitled “Alive Enough,” and featuring a conversation between host Krista Tippett and Sherry Turkle, who is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. The title of this show/podcast refers to a moment Turkle had with her daughter at a Darwin exhibition while they looked at a Galapagos turtle. Her daughter, who had been exposed to animal robots from an early age due to Turkle’s work, remarked that a robot would have been “alive enough” to substitute for the turtle, without anything really getting missed. Reflecting on what works and what doesn’t for me so far in a 1 to 1 classroom, the idea of “alive enough,” and a number of other key points raised in the broadcast illuminated interesting questions for me. In any classroom, space matters, as I learned from Harry Wong’s classic The First Days of School. Space should be managed cooperatively between students and teachers, and the laptop opens a window the size of the Earth in each student and teacher’s personal space. What are the best ways to teach, learn, and cooperatively manage this new space? Additionally, I’ve been realizing lately how often I engage in conversations in our staff office while reading an article, or scanning emails, or flitting back to the screen from eye contact. I’m not fully present in the conversation, and both I and the other end of the conversation lose something as a result; the same happens in the 1 to 1 classroom, and I wonder what the best ways are to create moments of maximum human engagement, or if others are thinking about this. Finally, as our personal computing technology and network technology matures, what does this mean for education?

Obviously, in the 1 to 1 classroom, we can close the laptops and bring everyone out of the technological space and into the physical space, from an attention standpoint, at least momentarily. Of course, students have been distracting themselves from classroom instruction and activities since the dawn of classroom education, and a big reason for this is teacher-centered activities. When students are working on engaging, authentic, and self-directed activities to build their own understanding of topics and fluency in skills, they are more likely to be attentive, technology or no. However, the rise of “multitasking” and its attendant challenges has led, in my informal observations, to students who cannot stop the mini-distractions that arrive through their connected laptop and who don’t fully engage with something that I really believe they would otherwise. It is clearly arguable that the task isn’t engaging enough in such a case, but come on – they distract themselves from Facebook with Skype, so I’m going to state that something new is happening here. Tippett and Turkle discuss “sacred spaces” in their conversation, and the ideas could easily apply to our connected, 1 to 1 classrooms:

Ms. Tippett: You do use this phrase “sacred spaces.” One moment of insight that I had about technology was when I was talking to Jon Kabat-Zinn. Do you know him?

Ms. Turkle: No.

Ms. Tippett: He’s a scientist, but he’s worked on bringing meditation into medicine. He made this really simple observation that technology goes 24/7, but we don’t. I mean, biologically, physiologically, we can’t. It’s this boundarylessness. I mean, this gets back to your point that it’s not just a matter of choices. At some point, it’s a matter of survival we have to set boundaries. When you talk about sacred spaces, what are you talking about there?

Ms. Turkle: To make our life livable, we have to have spaces where we are fully present to each other or to ourselves, where we’re not competing with the roar of the Internet and, quite frankly, where the people around us are not competing with the latest news off the Facebook status update. They may not have anything new. They may just be there being in a way that needs attention… Anyway, I guess I’m saying that sacred space is for me the places in your daily life where you want to keep them for yourself and the people who you need to give full attention to.

Note, this isn’t a discussion of paying attention to stuff, like how to punctuate an end citation, but to each other. I’ve had great success with motivating and engaging students through cooperative projects, and I’ve had some success with cooperative projects using technology like Google docs. However, when students are having a guided small group discussion in a self-selected space, I so often walk upon them and find one student ignoring their peers partially or completely through their laptop. This runs counter to what I expect from teenagers – the drive to be a part of the group. Sometimes, I’m sure it’s an escape from interpersonal friction of some sort, but how serious? How minor? When the space between students is thinned or undervalued and the cyberspace escape is before them, choosing the escape is totally predictable. Prioritizing the interpersonal is essential in all classrooms, but I can see clearly that this must be addressed explicitly in the 1 to 1 classroom. How? Probably modeling. The discussion continued:

Ms. Turkle: I have very simple rules. I mean, so far as I have rules for how to know you’re close to one or in one or should be having one: It’s dinner, it’s sharing meals with your family, it’s that moment at school pickup when your kid looks up and is trying to meet your eye. You know, you’re looking down at your smartphone and your child is trying to meet your eye.

I have enough data from children who’re going through this experience to know that it’s a terrible moment for them. It’s on the playground. Very bad when your child’s on the jungle gym and is desperately trying to have you look at them, for them to be taking hands off the jungle gym to try to get your attention — accident time. I mean, be in the park. Be in the park with them. Spend less time there, but make it a space. Make it a moment. These are important moments.

Ms. Tippett: It’s so interesting that you’re talking as much as or more about adults not setting boundaries with this, right? I mean…

Ms. Turkle: Oh, absolutely. Well, this is data-driven. I mean, this is data-driven in the sense that this is one of the surprises to me in doing the research. I thought when I started this research that I was going to be telling a story of children driving their parents crazy.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Turkle: And I’m not. It ended up that it was a story of parents — as much a story of parents leaving their children feeling lonely and alone and modeling the very behavior that then they came to find irritating in their children.

While the focus in this discussion is parenting, the parallels to the classroom are clear (and fascinating – what are we modeling?). Even in this piece, I am struggling to define the anti-social (in anal0g) behaviors that I do, such as partially ignore a colleague in the staff office, while tracing the contours of similar student behavior in the classroom. So, what are the signals for interpersonal space, for interpersonal digital space, for solo space or solitude for thinking, or for solitude in digital space, which can be so hard to find in Web 2.0? Tom Ashbrook, in a recent “On Point,” discussed texting in a fairly facile conversation, but he covered the expressive abilities of teenagers to signal with an eyebrow that they are still listening, but need a moment to read and respond to a particularly important or provocative text message. Should we create explicit classroom structures that delineate specific times for specific spaces, as listed above (or including spaces I haven’t considered), sending the “eyebrow message,” if you will, that it’s time to work alone on a short written response, and that this alone time should mean close the browser, shut off the Skype alerts, turn off the music, and everything else for a little time alone with your mind? I think this could do a world of good. As they continued the discussion, they addressed the idea of what schools and universities could be doing in this regard:

Ms. Turkle: That’s great, you know, but knowing how to do that and getting good at doing that, this is the art and science of 21st-century communication arts and sciences. It needs to be nurtured and developed, and I think that’s the problem that we’ve had in education where, you know, you set up the ability for people to have WiFi in classrooms, you put them in big lecture halls, and they shop [laugh]. You know, I mean, was it just because we put them on WiFi that we thought they were going to be setting up exciting fora in which they would be bringing things to a higher level?

One university after another is rethinking this and, as I go around the country, you know, we talk about it, we laugh about it because everyone who’s a professor today pretty much, you know, a senior faculty were there when this was set up and we remember what was on our minds and now we stand in the back of those classrooms and watch our students, you know, ordering from REI Sports and Amazon and on Facebook and on J. Crew. You know, we didn’t give it enough thought, so that’s what I mean.

Ms. Tippett: So that’s part of the growing up.

Ms. Turkle: Just this is part of growing up. Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up and it’s not.

You know, what are the things that, if we don’t pass them on, even with this new technology, we’re going to feel we didn’t do our job? (emphasis added) And I know the ones for me. I mean, I have the ones that are important to me. I feel very strongly about privacy, a very important conversation. You know, I can’t necessarily make that conversation come out the way I want it, but I want to make sure that my voice is heard in the mix. That’s very important to me, and then solitude, the importance of solitude.

Ms. Tippett: And this question of where leadership lies in starting these important questions about how we shape technology to be humane and sustainable, and the possibilities of that answer are more interesting because of the nature of this technology, right? There’s a possibility for everyone to be a leader on their Facebook page or as they reshape their family lives. I don’t know.

So, because I value thoughtful classroom spaces, I value shaping classroom structures that mimic thoughtful human interaction or solitude in digital spaces. This is new territory for students and teachers, and I can imagine an action research project in which we work together to shape these new classroom norms. Using syncing technology to block internet connectivity for digital personal space doesn’t feel right to me, because it is authoritarian and inauthentic. Nobody learns how to take care of themselves more humanely in an authoritarian structure. If students work with me to shape these spaces, they will be censoring their own flow of information and connectivity, which seems like an essential skill for our brave new world. Connectivity is like cookies, and ultimatums like: I will no longer eat cookies! tend to go nowhere. We need to work together to find a way to moderate our cookie intake to something healthy and protective of the essential deliciousness of the cookie (too far with the metaphor?). As pointed out in this program, the internet itself is new, and Web 2.0 is newer; we’ve gorged. Now, as the web matures, technology matures, and we mature as users and people, what new practices are best for the connected 1 to 1 classroom? Many practices, like student centered, constructivist approaches will always be fantastic. However, my thoughts for next year are as follows:

  • Work with students in transparent action research to create  signals and processes for creating cooperative interpersonal space in the physical classroom, cooperative interpersonal digital space,  solo physical space or solitude for thinking, and solitude in digital space for thinking.
  • Model interpersonal engagement during interactions, and avoid the eye flit, the microdistraction. In short, be present with others.
  • Prioritize a cooperative environment in the physical classroom through cooperative structures, as I may have been blinded by the technology and let this slip a bit.
  • Continue reflecting on what I value in learning and build classroom structures that support that.
  • Reflect and respond to the maturing technology in ways that support learning. I am really thinking a lot about Google Chromebooks, and have thoughts on this that will follow soon. But, that’s for another day.

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