Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Break the Ban Debate

Barry Bachenheimer over at the  A Plethora of Technology blog challenged me to push back on his response to my latest post about breaking the ban and giving students the freedom to learn. You might want to take a look at that post and comments first.  When I get comments like this, my hope is that they’re asked because of a genuine desire to have thinking pushed. I hope I’m right because there’s a whole lot of mind shifting that needs to happen for kids to be allowed to have the freedom to succeed in the 21st century.

To follow is Barry’s comment, with my responses embedded.  

First, let me begin by saying that in theory, I agree that we should have learner freedoms to learn as they want and schools should provide all the resources needed.

With that said, I don't think it is an simple as flipping a switch and letting kids use their cell phones, laptops, open sites, etc. any time they want to.

1. As Patrick said above, bandwidth. Not just the tech bandwidth, but the human bandwidth as well. I believe in teaching students how to use the tools in an ethical and responsible way. Do we have the staff and the training (not theoretical, but in reality) who have the skills and time to immerse this into the classroom?

Response: As one of my blog contributors Peter Kent says, “Teachers need to get over the PD excuse.” Read this for more on that. And, the reality is, kids don’t need to teachers to know how to use the tech.  The teachers need to get out the way and let kids use the tools they love to meet their learning goals.  Empower the students to own the learning and stop trying to dictate the tools they need to do it. The reality is kids not need teachers can develop policies for acceptable use when it comes to tech. Jason Suter and other teachers have had great success with this. Here’s an example.

2. I believe that part of what school is should be "coercing" kids into being exposed to things they would not choose if left to their own devices. If on their own, kids would choose ESPN, Facebook, and video games. Very few, if any would choose Shakespeare, Calculus, and Advanced Physics. Part of the mission of school is exposing them to this so they know what (or what not) to study when they get older.

Response: WTF? Really?  You think we need to coerce kids to expose them to things?  And, why must these things be crap like algebra and calculus most of us will never use or Shakespeare who many of us could care less about.  It may be important to some people, but for others it’s the reason we hated math and English.  We spend all of elementary school exposing kids to stuff.  We don’t need more of the same in a secondary education. When we overexpose kids, what we end up doing is getting students that know.  I HATE MATH. Or worse, as the movie RACE TO NOWHERE reveals, we get kids with stress, anxiety, stomach pains, or worse, they end up dropping out or even committing suicide as a result of being forced to do well in subjects that they’re just not good at or don’t care about.  

So, what if we let kids spend more time on ESPN, Facebook and video games???  Well, my cousin was a sports fanatic.  His dad had a sports memorabilia business.  He watched ESPN and the like all the time.  His parents embraced that.  He got in on the ground floor of College Sports Network which I believe was recently purchased by ESPN and he’s still there.  Say they loved social media and were on it all the time.  Maybe they’d do what Rahaf Harfoush did and intern as a social media advisor on the presidential campaign.  What if they loved video games like Aaron Iba did? His school psychology report identifies him as a multiple problem child who acts if nothing in the world matters besides video games. Google just paid Aaron 10 million bucks and gave him a full time job as a result of an online app he made.  His favorite year in school was as a fifth grade when his teacher let him sit in the back of the room with the computer all day. Everyday.  

3. They are still kids. As a parent, as much as I believe in letting my kids self-explore and have access, they are still kids and lack self control and make ill-informed or poor decisions. I don't think a lot of kids (let alone adults) have the self control NOT to be distracted by many of the tools that are "banned". I was at a PD conference recently where the teachers (adults) were not listening to the speaker and instead were playing on their phones, surfing the web, and shopping. If educated adults can't control themselves, how can we hope kids to?

Response: I know a whole lotta parents and children who’d be really pissed at a statement like that.  They’d push back and say, kids don’t have self control because school doesn’t give them an opportunity to have it.  They tell them what to learn, shuffle them from class to class, tell them when they can talk and who they can talk to.  But if we gave them more ownership over their time and their learning they’d be amazed at what kids could do.  

I had the pleasure of listening to Sandra Dodd last night who brilliantly explains just how successful her more peaceful approach to parenting can be. I asked her about how she feels about screentime for kids. Her answer went something like this:
How can controlling someone else teach them *self*-control? She has three children herself and several other parents in the room have children who they empower to make their own decisions.  They explain that the end result of not limiting screen time is that my kids learn to listen to *their own* inner guidance about how much is "too much". They are learning what *they* enjoy, not what others think they should enjoy.

This is a much talked about issue.  Recently when listening to This American Life on NPR it was interesting to hear what happened at the Brooklyn Free School when kids were empowered to determine how much screen time they should have.  Guess what? The kids figured out how to use technology respectfully and responsibly. 

This is another example that just came in to my Facebook feed from a Librarian who helped break the ban on social media in her school.  Students use Facebook freely.  Here's what they do with it when given the trust and freedom to learn.
Facebook Group  as Collaborative Research Log from michelle luhtala on Vimeo.

As far as adults not listening to a speaker at a conference, who cares?  The audience members were voting with their attention.  Maybe the speaker sucked.  Maybe s/he wasn’t engaging.  Maybe the audience just didn’t care what the speaker had to say. Maybe the speaker was great for some and not for others.  Perhaps some of them were like me listening to the speaker and capturing and Tweeting great thoughts and ideas, making connections, and later writing an article to share with a wider audience.  

When I speak I have the entire audience get out their cell phones.  My presentations are interactive.  I talk to my audience through their responses.  They have their technology out.  We think outside the ban.  They focus.  It’s great.

At my tech professional development sessions we have a no ban zone.  At many sessions we ask teachers to bring their students with them.  They have computers, phones, video cameras, smart pens etc.  They are doing fun work.  Creating, exploring developing.  When all this tech isn’t taboo and people are given freedom, you’d be amazed how the self control follows.

4. I am all for innovation. I think the tools should be available for teacher discretionary use. If they want to use FB or cell phones for a lesson or unit- great. But it shouldn't be open access, all the time. Give TEACHERS the power to control student access based on their needs and skill.

Response:  Ugh, when I hear teachers say things like “Give teachers the power to control students” it makes my skin crawl.  Why not give students the power to develop self-control.  Why not let students own the learning and use the tools they want to use.  Why make it the teachers discretion when we all know the kids are usually more likely to know the best tool to use.  Give up control, you might just be lucky enough to discover what happens when students own the learning like Keith Ferrel explains in this post.

5. Economic realities. I wish we had unlimited funds. Now with a 2% cap in NJ, hard choices need to be made. It is a hard sell to the public (who 100% fund our schools) to say that class sizes are going up and we are letting teachers go, but we are buying laptops and hiring support technicians.

Response: Don’t buy more tech.  Let students use their own tech.  For students who don’t have tech, help them figure out ways to get it.  Options are endless.  Write this sentence. "Kid needs your old technology."  Post on Craigslist.  Post on Facebook.  Post on Twitter. Post at the supermarket. Post at a fancy car dealership. A student I know just did this and got a laptop. I did this and got a computer lab DONATED. Then I got 50,000 in books DONATED. Let kids and their teachers take ownership and agency over getting what they don’t have. We need to stop always looking for others to give us what we want and need. When we allow students to use their own learning devices, you suddenly have a whole school of technicians because they have ownership over their devices in sickness and in health.  When they break, they fix it or replace it.  

6. Educating parents and community. People "know" school as they were educated. Not that it is right, b/c it isn't...but that is what they know. Look no further than the current rhetoric of what a "bad" teacher is. Most likely that impression is not based on skill or results but on how a teacher made you or your child feel. The public needs to be educated on what 21st century needs are...and businesses don’t seem to be pressuring schools to change their ways.
-Providing information for others is what this blog is all about. 


  1. Lisa you are dead on. Patrick is still thinking as a twentieth century educator, seeing limits and a finite set of resources. What he is missing is that once we open up education to the 21st century possibilities there will be an EXPLOSION of energy and possibilities that will totally blow away people with their heads still stuck in the Industrial Age. My short-term advice to you? Two part answer: 1) keep fighting the good fight to transform education, and 2) put a capon how much time you spend trying to get the Patricks of the world to see what you see....they will need to experience t for themselves once we get there. IMHO if they still want to argue against it once it has arrived, they need to get out of the profession and find something more last-century on which to focus their efforts....

    Sure there are practical considerations we need to negotiate in getting from here to there...and there's a huge institutional bureaucracy in our way...people who want politics and money and curriculum and standards to dictate the dialogue....but that doesn't prohibit us from opening things up for the good of students and our collective future. But while we're at it, don't let the push back drive you crazy. :)

  2. I applaud your frank and honest comments, Lisa. I would add a couple more thoughts. I concur with wmckenzie that Patrick is "still thinking like a 20th C educator" and nothing says that more strongly than the notion that the power over students and learning will remain in the hands of the teachers. The stage is set; all the pieces are in place for independent learners to . . . learn independently! Students actually DO own the tools and the learning already, they just haven't realized it. Your responses and blogs point to this and show many ways to bring it about.

  3. wm....give Patrick a break, :) ... this article is a response to Barry.
    If this education philosophy is even going to get a test run, then at some point you have to face the majority and get someone to listen to it. You can't just "put a capon" on everyone. :)
    Lisa, as usual, the ideas are great. Obviously, there are obstacles. Bandwidth IS easy, if schools want bandwidth, they will find a way to get it. I've seen schools built and staffed in an "economic crunch". I've seen teachers laid off and programs cut during the same years that multi-million dollar auditoriums have been built. If you want something bad enough, you can find the money to fund it. Some-one try to argue with me that districts
    don’t find a way to be “creative” to get things funded, please :)
    I come at this debate from two sides: Education background with having parents in grandparents long embedded in the public system, and having done some teaching
    on a higher level. I also come from the technology side. Also, I'm a parent.
    The biggest fight is indeed the perception(s) of not just the administrations and government, but the general public and parents.
    Also, you can never forget the "liability" factor that comes into play, and how sue happy people can be when unhappy with "the experience". (Not even taking into account
    the disciplinary action(s) involved with the “cloud”- that may be a off-topic issue). Liability is a very real problem, however, and it shouldn't be overlooked or dismissed. (That poor substitute teacher in the computer lab from a few years back, isn’t .... I guarantee you.)
    I imagine that must like politics, the best place is somewhere in the middle of the extremes.
    I agree with you on school experience: short of the people, I can't remember much at all from high school, much less middle school / elementary. College affected me the most - but the first two years seemed a waste of time. Once I got into my major though, it didn't seem like work, and I think that point touches on what you are referring to: The freedom to learn what you want.
    On the other side, the kid that got hired at ESPN, probably had some "classic skills" developed in school that benefited him into getting on with that organization, and perhaps even help him still in the way he does his job and thinks about things, in general. Even though it may not have been "fun", it may have been worth it for him. College, helped me in the way I think, but I just can't :)
    I like what you are saying, but I'm not ready to completely "throw the baby out with the bathwater", if you get my drift.
    Maybe if there was a way to just give kids more of say in k12...maybe through a higher education style, core / major type system, or hybrid, thereof...would
    be a start / or a good middle ground.

  4. (cont)I would like to say, that I could have found my way to where I am today or even better, without the structure I had to deal with, but I can’t say that because wasn’t an option for me. In the end, I turned out all right (I’m happy enough and can talk to people on a personal and professional level). Maybe some of the “free-er” schools that you have blogged about will show some long –term successes. That would be a nice thing to see. But’ I’m not just a tech geek. I love music and art, photography, writing, and sports (not just football), and like to be well rounded. So make sure that the “free” kids can develop the self – discipline it takes to be well-rounded AND productive. I haven’t figured out if they will just find it on their own yet.
    But again - I'm hopeful :)
    Folks, coming from a technology standpoint: Don't let technology limit you and your work. It's there to service you and help you do what you do best, if it isn't you need to ask for it to do so.
    If your district technology isn't beneficial to your teaching, then you need to open up talks with school administration, district offices and school boards (not only the tech folks, they are generally just doing what the policies in place tell them to do and the budget afforded them). And don't stop talking and pressing, change(s) won't come any other way.

  5. It is so far beyond time for schools to stop wielding policies that punish the masses for the potential mistakes of a few. Blocking social media is censorship. End of story.

    I work in a free-range media school, and we use facebook FOR INSTRUCTION! It is awesome! Find student testimonials above. We have surveyed students from other schools and have learned that kids in UNBLOCKED schools spend

    12% MORE of their Facebook time doing school work
    8% LESS of their Facebook time sharing photos and videos
    6% LESS of their Facebook time discussing music, movies, and books

    Still collecting data on this. Please help disseminate survey

    Facebook is the perfect tool for teaching the 4Cs - creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. Using it for instruction teaches students that social media is a tool for productivity rather than a distraction.

    These resources won't be blocked forever, and kids need to organize time management in the presence of social media - a skill best mastered early on.

  6. Lisa,

    Thanks for the reply. My response back was too long for a comment so I crossed posted on my bog at

    When a disagree with you, I don't do so fully, and know it isn't personal by any means.

    What fun is blogging if everyone always agrees with what we write anyway?

  7. Lisa, I think you pretty much nailed it with your response, but I have a little more to day in response to Barry's first four points:

    1."Do we have the staff and the training (not theoretical, but in reality) who have the skills and time to immerse this into the classroom?"

    The teachers might have more time if they could stop fighting the technology and instead embrace it and run with it. If the teachers don't know how to use the technology, then maybe they could learn from (gasp!) the students.

    2. "Part of the mission of school is exposing them to this so they know what (or what not) to study when they get older."

    If you want to expose your children to a different country or culture, do you drop them off there for a year by themselves, or do you take them for a week and show them a good time?

    Since when does "exposure" mean forced study every day for 13 years (as in math), and weekly tests of progress? How many days of math class does a person need before he knows he doesn't like/understand/want to understand polynomials or euclidean geometry? Real exposure would look like *offering* classes in different subjects, and letting students choose which ones to take, when, and how far. What if we only tested kids who want to advance in each specific subject? It would certainly improve test scores, that's for sure! Some people DO like math (I know, because I'm one of them). But we can't make everyone like math or anything else. And there is no need to try.

    3. "If educated adults can't control themselves, how can we hope kids to?"

    Were these adults not properly "educated" to control themselves? Did they miss the part of school that was supposed to teach them that? Maybe it's not possible to teach self-control. You don't need to be taught to pay attention when someone else is speaking, all you need is to care about what they are saying, and be engaged by the way they say it.

    I like how Lisa encourages technology use during her presentations. What a fantastic idea! If I hadn't had to worry about "sneaking" the technology when I was a student, it would have made a big difference in the amount of concentration it took to write a text under my desk.

    4. "Give TEACHERS the power to control student access based on their needs and skill."

    I agree with Lisa's response to this one too. Also, teachers have no control over the students' minds. If they doesn't care to pay attention to a lesson, then it doesn't matter if they have Facebook access or not. Daydreaming is all they need to keep them from hearing the teacher. If the lessons are engaging enough, then access won't take away from the learning. If the lessons incorporated the technology, then bonus! People are good at doing two things at once. I know I can email or text during a talk and it doesn't mean I can't hear what is being said. And I did it in school too.

  8. thank you so much for this post!
    Beth Kappus

  9. @Anonymous, I wonder if we’re going to have a generation of students suing schools for selling them a bill of goods, causing them undue stress, and anxiety, and not providing them, or allowing them, to use the tools necessary for success.

    As far as giving school credit for my cousin who works on College Sports (found out CBS bought them), my thoughts on that is that school always tries to take credit for our successes. I don’t own school any credit for my success. Like many others, it held me back. Taught me to dislike subjects, and forced me to do work in a non-creative way.

    I agree with you about giving kids more in K-12 what they get in college. Choice. Ability to choose class times. Option to have a light or heavy load. Ability to test out of a class and get credit for it. Yes. That makes sense.

    As far as the free schools/unschooled, you betcha. The way they show success is not by irrelevant test scores. They provide profiles of their alumni and they’ll blow your mind. These kids move on to do great things and they are happy and satisfied with their lives and feel successful. Do public schools do this? Nope!

    As far as kids in freedom schools, you should visit one and you’d see it’s all about supporting kids in their ability to own the learning. Unlike traditional school they are responsible for themselves. And, I’ll challenge your idea that everyone has to be well-rounded. We don’t. It’s good for those who want it/like it but not everyone does and that’s okay. Einstein, Picasso, Beethoven, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. etc. are hyperfocused on what they love. That is okay.

  10. The type of school you describe is a school that I dream of working in or creating. I've been increasingly frustrated with the status quo, testing, common core, race to the top etc. Growing up, I gave my all in the subjects that I was interested in. The subjects that I disliked made me hate school.

    I now teach math, the subject I hated most and I am determined not to give kids the same experience I had. For the the most part, I've been able to give my students a positive experience based on feedback from them and their parents. I've scrounged up computers, have begun to incorporate cell phones and have pushed the polices (banning just about everything) about as far as I can in order to make learning enjoyable and relevant. I give the students a certain amount of freedom by using learning contracts which allow them leeway in planning their week. The students notice the difference when they are taught in this manner and while I can't say I have 100% success which I don't believe will happen in a compulsory setting, teaching this way has been more effective that anything else I've done in 16 years.

    I say all that so that you know where I am coming from when I say this. I was hired to teach math & have a high stakes test that means a whole lot to a lot of people. Students will continue to be placed in my class regardless of their preferences. So ultimately, giving students choice in WHAT they learn is not withing my control. However, HOW they learn it is. I am setting up my class to give my students the ability to go at their own pace next year, which I'm excited and nervous about.

    So my question is this - is there more that I can do? Am I thinking like a twentieth century educator?

  11. Interesting exchange. I enjoy your blog and agree that the limitations on technology and social media are holding back education. However, your reaction about whether adults need to coerce or control students is unrealistic. Coercion is a strong word but let's face it, there's an element of coercion in raising, educating and preparing a human being for life, even if you discuss everything calmly, provide choices, use "time outs" and all the current nurturant methods our society believes in. You only have to look at how resistant some adults are to learning new technology to realize that sometimes employees need to be "coerced" (i.e., teacher inservice no one would choose to go to) into trying something different. Yes, people want to be engaged in stimulating tasks but sometimes we all need a nudge to get on track instead of being passive. Perhaps manipulation is a kinder word than coercion and manipulation is something that people do to each other all the time, in a basic sociological sense.

    Also, this may be very 17th Century of me, but I do believe that we need to give students a basic background in content areas and sense of historical perspective. Individualized learning is a fantastic opportunity but I worry it could have the same effect as people who only watch Fox News or only watch MSNBC News--they are only exposed to more of what they already know and never use critical thinking, skepticism, or allow themselves to be exposed to things that upset, challenge, or excite them in new ways. School used to mean creating "well-rounded citizens"--doesn't it still mean that, despite squabbles over structure, delivery, tools, environment, and curriculum?