Category Archives: What I’m Reading

Banning Phones in Class Might be the BEST BYOD Policy.

A recent report  from , and the University of Texas at Austin has me questioning my professional decision last year to allow students to bring their cell phones to my classroom.

In Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity (summary, full report), Ward, Duke, Gneezy and Bos argue something that I’ll bet all of us have experienced:  When your phone is present, your brain is not because you are constantly wondering what is happening in/on your device.  The urge to check your phone — to look for new likes or favorites in social media spaces, to answer the latest email and/or text message that has landed in your inbox, to check your news feeds for the latest celebrity blunder or political disaster or blockbuster trade — can be impossible to resist even when you are determined to attend to the world around you.

Specifically, Ward and her colleagues found that the presence of smartphones — whether they are turned on or turned off — had a negative impact on the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in their study.  

Working memory is the ability of an individual to select, maintain, and process information relevant to current tasks and/or goals. Fluid intelligence is the ability of an individual to understand and solve novel problems.

Another finding was that the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in Ward’s study increased consistently as their phones were put in locations that were less visible and accessible.  Participants who were asked to put their phones in their pockets or their purses did better on tasks requiring high levels of working memory and fluid intelligence than participants who could see their phones.  Participants who were asked to leave their phones in another room, however, did the best on those same tasks.

Figure

What’s interesting is that participants could not detect the impact that the presence of their smartphone was having on both their working memory or their fluid intelligence.

When asked, participants in each of the three control groups reported that (1). they weren’t thinking about their phones and that (2). the presence of their phones had no impact on their performance.  Evidence from each experiment, though, tells a completely different story.  “This contrast between perceived influence and actual performance,” writes Ward and her colleagues, “suggests that participants failed to anticipate or acknowledge the cognitive consequences associated with the mere presence of their phones.”

What’s also interesting is that working memory and fluid intelligence were impacted the MOST in participants who reported high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their smartphones.

Stated more simply, the participants who did the worst on the tasks designed to test working memory and fluid intelligence were the ones who reported the highest level of agreements with statements like “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone” and ““Using my cellphone makes me feel happy.”

Ward and her team make a few recommendations and draw a few conclusions at the end of their study.  Perhaps most importantly, they note that the only strategy that worked to mitigate the impact that smartphones have on working memory and fluid intelligence was separation from the device.  Their testing showed that participants still struggled with working memory and fluid intelligence even when utilizing common mitigation practices like turning devices off, leaving them screen-down on tabletops, or leaving them in pockets or purses.

They also suggest that their research is specific to smartphones only — primarily because of our persistent and complex relationships with our phones.  “The role of dependence in determining mere presence effects suggests that similar cognitive costs would not be incurred by the presence of just any product, device, or even phone,” they write.  “We submit that few, if any, stimuli are both so personally relevant and so perpetually present as consumers’ own smartphones.”

So what does all of this mean for classroom teachers?  Draw your own conclusions, but I’m thinking that the BEST BYOD policy might just be to ban smartphones from our classrooms in most circumstances.  

I know.  That feels like blasphemy, doesn’t it?  Schools have raced to embrace technology at every turn.  We know full well that digital tools can make incredible things possible in our classrooms.  Students can ask and answer their own questions using digital tools.  They can connect to new information and individuals, find partners to think with and learn from, and direct and document their own learning using devices.  They are excited about their phones — and we figure we can leverage that excitement to do great things.

Just as importantly, we bear at least SOME responsibility for teaching kids to use their own devices productively, don’t we?  If our kids don’t recognize the power sitting in their pockets, backpacks and purses, we are failing them — and we can’t just assume that kids will automatically figure out ways to leverage their phones for learning on their own.  That’s the kind of expertise that WE can bring to the table and pass on to our students.

But here’s the thing:  We are also failing our students if we don’t help them to recognize how to mitigate the negative impacts that those exact same devices have on our lives.  

As educators, we tend to give technology the benefit of the doubt, assuming that more technology is always a good thing.  Ward’s study proves that’s not always true — and we owe it to our kids to help them see that sometimes — particularly in spaces where working memory and fluid intelligence are important factors for being successful (read: classrooms), the best plan for maximizing your ability to concentrate and to develop strategies and to find novel solutions is to leave your smartphone in your locker unless it is absolutely necessary for whatever task you are trying to complete.

In the end, that may just be the MOST important lesson that we can teach our kids about their personal devices.

Need some specific recommendations?  Try these:

  • Revise your BYOD policy.  Make sure that it explains that smartphones will be allowed in classrooms only on an as-needed basis.
  • Start a conversation about Ward’s research with everyone (parents, students, teachers) in your school community.  Emphasize the importance of working memory and fluid intelligence to classroom success.  Detail the positive impact that separation from smartphones has on working memory and fluid intelligence — particularly for people who report high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their phones (read: students of darn near any age.)
  • Begin recommending to parents interested in providing their children with devices that they invest in Chromebooks and/or tablets instead of smartphones.
  • Remind everyone in your school community that technology isn’t ALWAYS additive and encourage everyone to think more deliberately about the costs of the technology used in your classrooms.

 

 

Does Your School have an “Avoid at All Costs” List?

A few weeks back, I shared the story of Carl, a principal friend of mine who was frustrated with the pockets of innovation in his building.

While he knew that good work was happening at all grade levels and in all subject areas in his school, that work was inconsistent.  Some teachers were running with technology integration but ignoring a school-wide reading program.  Others had made PBIS work on their teams or in their classrooms, but did little to integrate the 4Cs into their day-to-day instruction.

My push back to Carl was simple:  Pockets of innovation are almost always evidence of a lack of focus in a school building.  Carl’s faculty wasn’t being resistant by letting important school-wide initiatives fall by the wayside. They just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to make several different significant changes at one time and had decided to prioritize some practices while tabling others.

That’s a survival strategy, y’all.

So what can YOU do to avoid falling into the same trap?  Start by stealing an idea from Warren Buffet and developing an Avoid at All Cost list!

Here’s how:

1).  Make a list of 25 things that your school is currently working on — or that you anticipate working on over the next few years.

Include everything that matters to you and/or your district.  Are you rolling out new devices?  Has your state mandated new diagnostic testing for students in specific grade levels?  Are the NGSS science standards pushing their way into conversations in your district?  Is your school tinkering with intervention or enrichment periods?  Write it all down.  And then have your teachers review it to be sure you haven’t inadvertently missed anything.

2). Circle the five most important items that you find on your current list of projects, programs and priorities.  

Are some of the projects, programs and priorities listed in step one more important than others?  Why?  How do you know?  Which ones are valued by classroom teachers?  Which will have the most direct benefit on student learning?  Are some mandates that can’t be ignored?  Do some have the support of the communities that you serve?  Is your school uniquely suited to implement some initiatives over others?  Structure conversations — within learning teams, during leadership meetings, with parents and students — to get feedback about your five priorities.

3). Invest EVERYTHING into moving forward on your five most important priorities.

Now truly invest in your priorities.  Every purchase that you make should have a direct connection to one of your five priorities.  Every scheduling decision that you make should be tied to one of your five priorities.  Every faculty meeting that you have, every professional development session that you provide, and every message that you share with your parents, teachers and students should focus on one of your five priorities.  Practice what Doug Reeves calls lifeguard leadership and keep your attention on the things that really matter.

4). Turn the remaining 20 items that you have been working on into an Avoid at All Costs list.

The real mistake that schools make when trying to drive change is focusing on too many different projects all at the same time.  That makes every single one of the remaining items on the list you generated in step one a potential pitfall.  Sure, they matter — but when everything becomes a priority, nothing gets done.

So make it clear to everyone in your school community that those items are to be avoided at all costs until the five priorities you settled on in step two have become a part of the fabric of your school.  No matter how much potential you see in the remaining 20 items brainstormed in your original list, you have to push them completely aside if you are truly setting priorities.

You see what’s happening here, don’t you?  

The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward isn’t just identifying a small handful of priorities.  The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward is identifying a small handful of priorities AND actively pushing against everything else that threatens to draw your collective time and attention away from the things that matter most.  Developing an Avoid at All Costs list can help you to do just that.

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Related Radical Reads:

Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

School Leadership is a lot Like Lifeguarding

How Clear is YOUR Vision?

Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Poking through my feed reader this morning, I stumbled across a Mindshift KQED article that I think every educator ought to read.

Titled How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty, it makes a simple argument:  Instruction centered on facts that have already been settled fails today’s students.  “Without insight into the holes in our knowledge,” author Linda Flanagan writes, “students mistakenly believe that some subjects are closed. They lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit.”

Slide - Scientific Discovery

I worry about that argument because I’m held accountable for teaching a massive curriculum that is slam-packed full of settled facts.

While I believe in the importance of developing students who are willing to grope and probe and poke their way through moments of uncertainty — who are as comfortable NOT knowing as they are with having the right answers — the simple truth is that facilitating experiences that allow students to wrestle with uncertainty takes time that I just don’t have.  If moments of genuine discovery are going to make their way into my classroom, something has to give — and that ‘something’ is going to end up being content that is currently listed in my ‘required’ curriculum.

And THAT’s what drives me nuts about being a classroom teacher in today’s world.

There’s a constant tension between what we SAY we want our students to know and be able to do and what we LIST as priorities in our mandated pacing guides.  Almost twenty years into the 21st Century, we continue give lip service to the importance of things like creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, but we create no real space for that kind of content in our school, district and/or state curricula guides.  Worse yet, we do nothing to assess those skills.  Instead, we are still holding students and schools accountable for nothing more than the mastery of settled facts.

That has to change.  Plain and simple.

#truDATchat

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Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

Bulldozing the Forests

The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness

Yesterday, I had the chance to do some brainstorming about Design Thinking with John Spencer — a thinker and a friend that I greatly admire.  During the course of the conversation, I asked John why he thought that Design Thinking should play a role in modern classrooms.  His answer was a huge a-ha moment for me:

“Design thinking builds grit by giving a lot of slack.  We have this idea that perseverance comes form a buckle down and get it done mentality.  Design Thinking says you develop perseverance through tons of iterations and freedom to make mistakes and time to make revisions and improvements.”

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  John’s right:  We DO define grit as the ability to “buckle down and get it done,” don’t we?  

I’m not sure if that definition is a result of our compulsive obsession with bootstraps, our one-time belief that hard work is the Golden Ticket to Heaven, or the fact that we’ve been told time and again that instruction in our schools isn’t all that ‘rigorous’, but defining grit as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences is a poisonous myth that harms students because it suggests that learning has to be painful in order to be meaningful.

Worse yet, defining grittiness as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences provides built in excuses for educators who are unwilling to rethink their learning spaces and for policymakers who are unwilling to rethink the relevance of our required  curriculum.   Instead of working to improve our own practices, we peddle the notion that surviving bad lessons is a rite of intellectual passage.   “Sure, school is going to be boring,” we argue, “but it will be GOOD for you. It will teach you to work hard even when you AREN’T having fun — and I hate to break it to you, but life isn’t always about having fun!”

#sheeshchat

What if we believed that ALL learning should be fundamentally joyful?

Could students still learn to persist even if they were studying concepts that moved them in deep and meaningful ways?  Is it possible to demonstrate grittiness while constantly iterating on an idea that has the potential to change the world for the better? Aren’t people driven by passion MORE persistent than people who are driven by intimidation?

THAT’s Design Thinking in a nutshell, y’all.  It is built on the notion that people — regardless of who they are or what they know — can identify problems that are worth solving, propose and prototype solutions that are worth trying, and systematically improve on their thinking from one revision to the next.  Design Thinking sends the message that no final product is perfect and that dedicated learners are always ready to improve  everything that they create.

That sounds a heck of a lot like grittiness to me.

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Related Radical Reads:

How Gritty Are Today’s Learners?

Will You Be Relentless?

This is What a Growth Mindset Looks Like in Action

 

 

Want to Drive Change? Stop Planning and Start Acting.

I read a really interesting Matt Mullenweg article this week detailing one of Apple’s greatest strengths as a brand:  Their willingness to ship first and polish products later.

Mullenweg points out that every game-changing Apple device — including the iPod, iPad and iPhone — was panned by reviewers when it was initially released.  And in many cases, reviewers were right:  The earliest versions of many of Apple’s most successful products were far from perfect.  Sometimes, that imperfection was a result of flawed product design or important features that the company hadn’t anticipated.  Other times, that imperfection was a result of an inability to access required component parts at costs that could make each individual product affordable.

But perfection wasn’t the goal for Apple.  Usage was — and usage matters WAY more than perfection when you are trying to drive change.  As Mullenweg explains:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world…

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.”

You can see the implications for education, can’t you?  

All too often, we spend MONTHS — or even YEARS — polishing ideas instead of pushing them out into our buildings or our classrooms.  We get bogged down in committees who meet monthly to study and to research and to brainstorm and to build consensus and to raise awareness and to prepare — and all that happens BEFORE an idea is ever even introduced to a faculty.  Every change effort — think starting a 1:1 initiative or designing a school-wide remediation or enrichment period or integrating the 4 Cs into our instruction or moving to a project-based curriculum — becomes a long-term goal dependent on extensive planning and preparation instead of taking any kind of action.

But here’s the hitch:  When every change effort is seen as a long term goal, nothing ever changes.  Worse yet, when every change effort is seen as a long-term goal, your willingness to change direction when something isn’t working drops because you are completely and totally invested in a bad idea.

Mullenweg — who also happens to be the founding developer behind WordPress, open-source software that powers over twenty percent of the web — has a simple rule for pacing change projects:  He argues that if you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of anything that you “ship,” then you waited too long to get started.

So whether you are a superintendent, a principal or a classroom teacher, let Mullenweg’s “be embarrassed” rule drive your thinking this year.  Quit concentrating on developing the perfect initiative, project or lesson and start committing to an act first, polish later orientation to change.  Doing so gives you a better chance of developing something that you can be proud of.

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Related Radical Reads:

Hitting Home Runs 50 Feet at a Time

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver