The Middle (Ground)


By Dan Koch @danvkochHey, don't write yourself off yet; It's only in your head you feel left out or looked down on. Just try your best, try everything you can. And don't you worry what they tell themselves when you're away.” - Jimmy Eat World

Yes, I’m a sucker for late 90’s/early 2000’s jams, but lately, I’ve found myself referring to this lyric line from the insanely catchy 2001 single “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World in reference to our current state of mind about students, technology, and education in general.

Let’s back up. Since I’ve started blogging with my two #EdTechAfterDark buddies Zac and Alex, it’s caused me to be more reflective than I’ve ever been on my practices as an educator. What’s working? What isn’t? What am I doing in the classroom and at the school level that’s more for me and other teachers and less about what’s best for students? I’m sure these types of things go through our minds daily, as our profession is one of the few granted the incredible task of bringing up the next generation of human beings. This reflection has also caused me to seek out other educators and their professional wisdoms. Twitter has allowed me to do this in spades--I’ve been able to discuss everything from pedagogy to digital classroom tools from teachers around the world on a daily basis.

Over the past few days, I came across two blog posts from two different educators. One was titled, “The Student Cellphone Addiction Is No Joke,” and the other “It’s Official: The Kids of Today Suck.” Both pieces of writing make valid points, and one even satirically mocks our preconceived notions about students. After reading both of these articles and thinking about conversations I’ve had with many teachers, it’s clear: many of us are thinking about the current state of education, students, and technology with the wrong mindset.

Disclaimer: I truly see both benefits and caveats of using technology in a school setting. To quote Steve Gardiner’s article,

“There are legitimate reasons to have cellphones out in class. There are applications that work exceptionally well in most subject areas and make the cellphone a good learning tool. Even during those situations, however, a majority of students will be off task and doing something besides the assignment. They cannot control good use of the device. It controls them.”

There are times in which students will be asked to complete a task in class, and yet, for whatever reason, they disengage and find themselves avoiding what the teacher has instructed them to do. Instead, these students occupy themselves by gaming on their phones, checking social media statuses and “likes,” and have mastered the art of closing apps on their phone when a teacher walks by with one hand and one finger (a skill that does require some practice and dexterity). I take issue with the second part of this statement: “a majority of students will be off task and doing something besides the assignment.” This is unfair. This predetermines that all students, regardless of your classroom atmosphere, are victims of phone addiction and social media mania and cannot help but ignore the teacher. To assume this is to do all students a huge disservice, and I believe it sets a precedent in the classroom: “I don’t trust you.”

Are we so engrossed in our content, so tasked with “getting through” our curriculum maps that we can’t stop and ask ourselves, “Would I want to be a student in my classroom?” If your argument is that the students need you to pass their end of course exam or provide them with practice problems or work in class, the reality may actually be a tough pill to swallow: they don’t.  While there are exceptions to this truth, teachers are no longer the pillars of knowledge in the classroom surrounded by eager students insatiably waiting to learn. Much of the content they need to know for their state exams can be found online. For free. YouTube is the world’s largest video content library in existence. To ignore this reality is akin to sticking our collective fingers in our ears and shouting “NANANANANA! I can’t hear you!”

I don’t say this to be crass or to discredit teachers. There truly are students who exhibit behaviors that are not appropriate in a classroom setting. There are times when we should be using technology in the classroom and times where it simply would be an impediment to real understanding (ever tried to have a conversation with someone looking at their phone? Infuriating). Instead of making blanket statements about how we are doomed as a society because of the ineptness of our youth, let’s come together as teachers to design learning spaces for them that require real, authentic uses for their devices. Have them research and present their own knowledge. Discuss where they obtained their information. Build a community in your classroom.

Kevin Kerr’s article included another cited quote about the youth of society:

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for elders, and love chatter in place of exercise.”

Sounds like something you may have heard yesterday, right? Well, this quote is credited to SOCRATES FROM THE FIFTH CENTURY. Kerr posits that students’ preoccupation with devices or vehicles of entertainment is not a new concept, and that the advent of new technologies has actually provided more time for students to create--not always mind-blowing works of art, but in addition to consuming content, kids are actively participating in the creation of new media in the form of Vines, iMovies, and other tools. I encourage you to read Kevin’s full article here (especially the 1904 excerpt from The Psychology of Adolescence, in which the author warns about the dangers of playing chess).

This brings me back to my reference to Jimmy Eat World and “The Middle.” As educators, we need to find some middle ground here. We need to stop looking at and speaking about students and technology in such hyperbolic, divisive language. There’s got to be a middle ground somewhere:

“It just takes some time, Little girl, you're in the middle of the ride. Everything, everything will be just fine, Everything, everything will be alright.” - Jimmy Eat World