Monday, 4 April 2011

The mediaeval octopus

Listening to colleagues, it seems that, in our less sanguine moments at least, we imagine the mind of the language learner as something we lay siege to.

It is a recalcitrant mediaeval town, refusing to pay homage to the sovereignty of Application and Diligence.

We must bring it to heel with all the shock and awe at our disposal, engaging the enervated cradle of idleness in every way possible - with the classroom equivalent of cannons and tunnels and plague-ridden corpses lobbed over the battlements.

The mightiest siege engine of them all, however, the trebuchet in the classroom cupboard, is the computer.

The computer works, it seems, by engaging the attenuated mind along the length of its attenuation, so to speak.

Learners do not have less attention; rather, they have dispersed attention. 

If you aim at only some of it, as in the traditional classroom, you are not only missing out on the learner's full attention, but also, perhaps, failing to grab any of it at all.

To be successful, you need to adopt what Jonathan Martin terms parallel processing.

In a revelatory post this week (on the always thought-provoking Connected Prinicipals blog), Martin describes how he operates a 1:1 school where every student has a computer in every lesson.

He reveals that he allows students to roam freely across the web (barring some adult content sites) throughout lessons, and he has found that, as a result, students have largely taken the responsibility seriously.

They use the computers to keep themselves entertained when the lesson is dull, and informed when the lesson is pertinent.

While the front of their minds is occupied on Facebook, the back of their minds is always on topic, digesting the teacher's input, and ready to utilise its frontal resources whenever it seems interesting.

Not every school can afford to furnish its learners with personal computers, of course, but then, they don't need to because every learner brings one with them in the shape of their phones.

It has long been a matter of courtesy to ask students to turn their phones off in the classroom.

They are the Devil's own distraction.

But what if they aren't; or, rather, what if they are, and this is what makes them so very valuable to our learners.

What if they need to be distracted to be engaged.

What if, in other words, the future of your lessons looks like this fascinating video by Carl Dowse?


  1. I'd be very happy to have my students posting their thoughts on their 'puters for us all to read as a lesson progresses but oh my! That video from Carl sent shivers up my spine. Were they in a class or just starting one?

    It's when this goes on before class starts or during coffee breaks that it's an issue for me. The thing is, I've known REALLY good coversations and learning stuff arising from the spontaneous communication that goes on as we start up or wind down to a break. It's a time when there's a natural social requirement (not simulated) for them to initiate conversation and bring up topics that will interest the group.

    With my last class I said look, if you want/need to check your email in breaks, I'm OK with it. I know things are going on elsewhere that need taking care of, but I'm here and I'm available to talk and we could all make use of the time for conversation - but it's up to you to decide what's a priority.

    They made an effort and put the ipads and telephones away and we did wind up having some good discussions. But what it meant was it became more of an effort. In the past it would have been viewed as simple free (FUN!) time, but now it has an element of deprivation.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Vicki.
    As I understand it, they were in the middle of a class and sharing things via their various devices. So, they were communicating with each other, just not with speech. And if they were learning the language too, then that's a good thing.
    As for depriving students - I think that's why letting them use their devices is a good idea. They're not thinking about using them if they are using them, and this frees them up to join in with the conversation, paradoxical as this may sound. If you deprive them, however, there is a silent yearning - and the last thing a class needs is silent yearning!

  3. Ah, so this was a within-a-lesson activity? In that case, I feel differently about it.

    It's when it happens at the starts and ends of lessons that it bothers me. When they're answering messages from all and sundry, they're not getting into an 'English class' state of mind. Am I alone to hanker for the days when our students would devote their attention to the class when they walk into the room?

  4. I don't think you're alone, Vicki, although I'm not sure they ever completely devoted their attention to the class - it was just less obvious when they didn't before phones, PDAs, and laptops.