Ensuring Mediocrity While Preventing Disaster. . .

I gotta tell ya, Mike's recent comments about teachers and students connecting in digital forums for learning beyond school hours have still got me riled up.  

Not only did he suggest that any teacher who uses digital tools to communicate with students is likely to wind up "on the news" for inappropriate behavior—-which makes offensive generalizations about the intentions of the majority of teachers based on the actions of a reprehensible few—but he also adamantly insisted that communication between teachers and students outside the confines of schools should "never, ever" happen.  
Fear Uncertainty Doubt by psd, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  psd 


He wrote:

"To that end, teachers should never, ever contact students outside the boundaries of their legitimate and narrow duties. Teachers do not contact students outside the classroom. To do otherwise is to open them to charges of inappropriate interest or influence. That such contact is through texting, the internet or any other trendy method changes the reality of such contact not at all."


So I did a bit of digging around this morning to see whether or not I'm crazy to suggest that digital forums might just have potential for improving the teaching-learning transaction in schools.  Interestingly enough, the first post in my feed reader was this Dean Shareski bit about underinformed efforts of districts attempting to control teacher and student access to social networking tools.  


Dean argues that district decisions to ban any kind of communication between teachers and students in digital forums are less about protecting students than they are about protecting themselves from liability for the potential consequences of poor decisions made by an incredibly small handful of the 3.2 million teachers in our nation.  

He writes:

"Why are most policies of this nature intended to curb the behavior of a very small minority instead of supporting the great work that could potentially come when teachers can, if they choose, be a part of student's lives?  If we believe that learning is not an isolated event, why would we make policies that assume it is…What is the cost of this control?  Not only are there dollars involved in monitoring this, but the cost of mistrust, loss of innovation and demoralizing relationships might be difficult to recover."


Shareski's suggestion that the greater cost in these kinds of decisions are the loss of trust, demoralizing relationships and loss of innovation is echoed in this Ted Talk, where Barry Schwartz argues that our propensity for rules ends up ensuring mediocrity in the name of preventing disaster:


To bring the voice of school leadership into the conversation, check out this comment that Chris Lehmann—-principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia—-left on Shareski's post:

"Restricting access to powerful communication between students and teachers is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Surely we have to be smart and thoughtful about the ways teachers and students interact in the age of ubiquitous communication, but to simply ban it is to miss the point.

I've had midnight conversations with students about academic work, about their lives, about sports and politics…you name it.  I'm always careful to let them know that I'm still the adult/principal that they see in school, but those communications are priceless. The teachers who take the time to set up those dynamics find powerful bleed-back into their classrooms."

Where does all of this leave us?

Back to the central point I argued in my response to Mike:  The fear hiding behind policies banning any digital communication between teachers and students is a sad commentary on the state of our society.  

While I understand that there have been horrible incidents where teachers have crossed the line with students and that they are unacceptable at best and morally reprehensible at worst, these incidents have resulted in an environment where teachers are constantly second-guessed—and second-guessing themselves.

It's shocking that we've gotten to the point in our country where parents, community leaders, and education professionals doubt teachers so vehemently that they'd use the phrase, "teachers should never, ever contact students."

We argue that teachers are professionals capable of making professional decisions, yet we seem to have no faith in the ability of teachers to set responsible boundaries for—or to define just what—interactions with students in digital learning forums could look like.

What's that about?

I guess I believe in the ability of—and the need for—-professional educators to craft responsible models of teacher-student participation in learning-centered digital forums.  Whether we like it or not, education has to respond to the reality that digital communication and networking are going to be the norm rather than the exception going into the future.

Which means we've got two choices: The "Ban 'Em All" approach, which argues that teachers and students should "never, ever" use digital tools to communicate with students for any reason—or the "Let's Innovate a Bit and Trust Our Teachers" approach, which argues that responsible communication patterns centered on promoting learning can—and should—be crafted by educators sooner rather than later.

I'll bet you can guess which side of that argument I'd fall on!

11 thoughts on “Ensuring Mediocrity While Preventing Disaster. . .

  1. Bill Ferriter

    K asked:
    How is what a teacher might do in front of children expected to watch them that different from what they might do with adults also watching?
    I agree with all of your points, K….and definitely think that there are real advantages to video recording classes.
    To respond to this question, I’ve worked in schools with parents who were incredibly assertive about my instructional decisions, even when they were pushing for practices that were ineffective.
    Spelling is a simple example. Most research shows that old-school spelling instruction—memorizing a weekly list and taking a test each Friday—is a waste of time, but most parents are comfortable with that school routine. I’ve had parents ridicule (and that word was chosen carefully) my instruction because I don’t teach spelling in a traditional way.
    For me, these situations are usually resolved by providing the appropriate research to the appropriate parents and explaining exactly what I’m doing with spelling. It involves a bit of professional assertiveness on my part.
    But how would that same scenario play out in the classroom of a new teacher? Would they have the knowledge of their practice to be able to articulate their decisions? Would they have the confidence to stand up to assertive parents?
    Would they have the support of the principal if parents took their complaints further up the ladder? Would they be willing to stand up to a principal that buckled under the pressure of parent complaints?
    Or would they just cave in and start giving traditional spelling tests to keep parents and principals off of their back?
    If I knew that video would be used to promote reasoned conversation about practice between parents, principals and teachers, I’d love the potential—-because reasoned conversations force articulation, and articulation = reflection, and reflection is never bad.
    I’m just doubtful that anything could possibly go this smoothly in a profession as transparent as teaching. Everyone thinks they know what good teaching looks like because they’ve sat in a classroom for 12 years, yet few really understand the reasoning behind teacher decisions.
    Does any of this make sense?
    Bill

  2. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    A few other questions on the video in classroom to take into consideration:
    1. How could the classroom video be used for authentic assessments of teachers and students?
    2. Might students who realize that their behavior is being recorded behaved differently, better or worse?
    3. Could recordings actually serve to protect from or defend against criticisms or issues arising from disputed incidents?
    You said something that left me a bit perplexed: “Knowing that they were being “watched,” wouldn’t many teachers—particularly those newest to the profession or those who were average but not accomplished—-take less risks about doing something differently because they knew that their decisions could be questioned by anyone watching from the cameras?
    Teachers are on stage constantly. The audience may be those to varying degrees younger than the teacher, but an audience all the same. Shouldn’t the teacher consider the risk or reward of doing something with that always in mind? How is what a teacher might do in front of children expected to watch them that different from what they might do with adults also watching?
    These days recording in the classroom happens. Cell phones house multiple recording options. Cameras so small they fit on a keychain are no longer the stuff of James Bond. We are all far more on stage and subject to an eye in the sky today in our day to day lives than ever before.
    We all are charged with the task of determining how to take the vast array of available technology and use it to our benefit while recognizing and attempting to do what we can to avert potential misuse.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    This has been a great discussion. Thanks K, Ariel, Adam and Sam for challenging my thinking.
    The strand that has been nesting in my mind are K’s comments about whether or not teachers should be videotaped while in their classrooms because it would offer parents greater assurances about what is happening “behind closed doors.”
    Personally, K, I have no problems with being videotaped myself because I know that none of my decisions are inappropriate. Having that confidence means I’m just plain not intimidated by making my practice completely transparent.
    Another advantage of a video camera in my classroom would be that underinformed parents and policymakers would get a real sense for what I do on a daily basis. I had a parent tell me the other day that I didn’t work a “real job” because my day starts at 7 and ends at 2. Almost went over the table on that one!
    So transparency originally designed to “protect children” might just have side benefits for educators by building a better awareness of just how amazingly difficult this job is.
    But I keep going back to something that Schwartz says in his Ted Talk: Constant monitoring through rules has a negative impact on innovation because the “employees” aren’t encouraged to think differently about their approaches to situations.
    Wouldn’t the same happen if we put cameras in classrooms?
    Knowing that they were being “watched,” wouldn’t many teachers—particularly those newest to the profession or those who were average but not accomplished—-take less risks about doing something differently because they knew that their decisions could be questioned by anyone watching from the cameras?
    Would parents begin to question every instructional practice that didn’t look like the instruction they got when they were in schools? And if so, what consequence would that have on accomplished teaching? How about on the increased communication demands—would teachers and school leaders be buried under email from parents looking for explanations for every decision? How would that change the teaching-learning transaction?
    Schwartz also talks about the demoralizing influence of rules—the sense that rules indicate a complete loss of trust. Would video cameras have the same impact on teachers?
    I mean, we’d essentially be saying that we don’t trust teachers to act appropriately so we’re deciding to monitor every action they take. That’s a powerfully negative message to send, isn’t it? Would teachers be further demoralized by that decision? And if so, what consequences would that have on the quality of person who decided to step into a classroom?
    This has got my mind rolling—my thinking isn’t complete on this by any means—but I’m enjoying the mental exercise.
    Bill

  4. K. Borden

    Adam:
    You said: “A few parents get upset about online communication and they bring a loud voice to the district and board. I believe we could get around this if we could create some standards and language around this issue and share with the wider community.”
    Bottom line, as a parent I trust my ability to monitor my child’s internet usage on devices in my home far more than I trust a teacher’s ability to do so with more than one hundred students each day. Stated very generally, I would be upset about online communications in schools, and language wouldn’t go far in changing my stance.
    Does that seem at odds with my belief that a significant number of students today should be learning remotely and largely via web enabled platforms which would involve online communications between students and teachers/staff? Not at all. The difference is in an important detail, who is ultimately monitoring the exchange. Is it a parent or an already overworked teacher or staff member.
    Mr. Ferriter hit an important point in his post when he said: “We argue that teachers are professionals capable of making professional decisions, yet we seem to have no faith in the ability of teachers to set responsible boundaries for—or to define just what—interactions with students in digital learning forums could look like.”
    It is not that I would dispute that teachers could and should devise wonderful online education opportunities for students. But, when they do break down the walls that physically secure the students from the outside world, teachers assume a great responsibility that parents must be fully aware of and directly involved with.
    Compare it to a field trip. Would it be wise for one teacher to take thirty students to a area known to have threats, crimes and dangers without assistance? Permission forms would be required. These days in our district a criminal background check is done on parents before they are permitted to accompany teachers and students on a field trip or for that matter volunteer in any way that puts them in contact with students (ex: read to the class).
    Do I trust teachers to take my child on an unmonitored field trip online without other eyes on the excursion? Heck no, just as the system doesn’t trust me to take those same young people anywhere without their eyes on the situation.
    Teachers have resisted video cameras in the classroom. And as Ariel noted, a teacher who is inclined to act inappropriately has ample opportunities to do so in school with or without digital communications.
    It isn’t the mode by which a person entrusted with young people might act inappropriately that is the issue. If the mode allows parents to monitor the exchanges that occur, we are able to intervene if needed.
    More standards wont solve the problem. That was the point of Barry Swartz’s TED talk.

  5. Adam

    Great discussion. I have been struggling with this for a while. A lot of the districts I work with have built the web 2.0 tools into their LMS so the kids can’t communicate with anyone outside of their walled online community. I know this doesn’t make sense, but it is being done. It still allows teacher/student interaction, but it can be monitored. The big issue in this district has not been the majority, but rather the minority voice. A few parents get upset about online communication and they bring a loud voice to the district and board. I believe we could get around this if we could create some standards and language around this issue and share with the wider community.

  6. Sam

    K,
    I’m in agreement, for the most part. I was just playing devil’s advocate when I said that digital communication is potentially difficult to monitor. I don’t think distance learning is for everyone, and I don’t know very much about successful models. But it’s certainly coming, or here. And I’m all in favor of lifting restrictions on digital communication between students and teachers (in case you thought I was saying otherwise).

  7. K. Borden

    Sam,
    Honestly, I find the entire discussion of whether digital communications should occur between educators and students anachronistic. For a significant number of students the system should be moving toward web-based, distance learning.
    The option offers green benefits, fewer overcrowded classrooms, and enormous cost efficiencies. The option also better reflects the demands of today’s workplace and the wired globe we populate. Yet here we are in the 21st century discussing whether it is wise to allow teachers to communicate digitally with students.

  8. Ariel Sacks

    I really don’t feel afraid of the implications and possibilities of communicating with students online. Anyone who is in the classroom every day and in a position of authority with students has many opportunities to take advantage of that power. I don’t think being online makes this any more of a problem than it already could be. However, I’m female and certainly don;t know what it’s like to be a man in this profession. But I’m inclined to agree with K that there is less gray area with online communication because it’s all recorded. Just keep personal myspace and facebook identities private from your students. My only real concern about being part of my students’ online lives is that I be able to set boundaries for my time, so that I’m not overwhelmed with communication with students outside of school hours.

  9. Paul C

    Bill,
    I have been struggling with this same issue for some time (see my recent post: http://scriptedspontaneity.com/2008/12/22/cyber-paranoia/), and I still haven’t found an answer. My gut tells me that it’s unfair to limit such a valuable resource, but I have seen fellow male teachers lose their jobs for nothing more than this. Even when there is no underlying ill intent, the simple suspicion that comes with communicating by digital means is enough to sink a career.
    Mike’s fear should be my own, but I refuse to let it be…and I pay my union dues for legal representation only.

  10. Sam

    K, I think you got Mike’s point right at the end of your comment. And I don’t think your interpretation contradicts Bill’s.
    I also think that you make an interesting point that, if I understand correctly, digital modes of communication actually enable us to trust less, because they leave us with a record. Although one might argue that there are so many more means of communication than there once were that it’s increasingly difficult to monitor teacher-student contact.
    Bill speaks to the “fear hiding behind policies banning digital communication.” Yes, policy makers are afraid. And that fear leads to another type of fear, on the part of teachers. There is an incredible amount of fear in Mike’s comment. Fear of being penalized, humiliated, embarrased. It’s not wrong. It’s real.
    And we can see how that fear illustrates Schwartz’s point that excessive rules ensure mediocrity in an attempt to prevent disaster. Because teachers like Mike are now asking, “What might open me up to a lawsuit?” The question is no longer, “What do I believe is the right thing for my student?”

  11. K. Borden

    Mike and Mr. Ferriter:
    If my daughter engages in conversation with anyone digitally I have a clear record of what was said and done. If my daughter walks into a classroom, I do not.
    Bill Gates in his Ted Talk mentioned the use of videotaping classrooms to allow for teacher evaluation and review. I wonder how many teachers would welcome an eye from above in their classrooms? How many are willing to go on the record?
    The capacity to monitor digital communication versus face to face interaction is far greater.
    Mr. Ferriter said:
    “Which means we’ve got two choices: The “Ban ‘Em All” approach, which argues that teachers and students should “never, ever” use digital tools to communicate with students for any reason—or the “Let’s Innovate a Bit and Trust Our Teachers” approach, which argues that responsible communication patterns centered on promoting learning can—and should—be crafted by educators sooner rather than later.”
    Far less trust is needed, in the sense of engaging in a leap of faith, where I as a parent can observe the exchange occurring than where I cannot. Mike’s point seems to be that it is unwise for teachers to open themselves up to the liability that may result from digital exchange.

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