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One of my first roles as a teacher was to spy on students. I was offered a teaching job at one of the first schools in Ontario to have a school-wide network. The principal wasn’t entirely sure what a network was, and so she needed some help.

I was hired to teach grade 8, but I was also in charge of the school First Class network. I spent a lot of time reading students’ messages, flagging problems and revoking student privileges. I felt very uncomfortable doing this. I was relieved when a significant problem gave us a reason to shut down the chat function. Ever since I’ve been very uneasy with schools surveilling students.

Supervising students is important and necessary for safety, but secret surveillance runs counter to the goals of schools. How can we create safe, trusting learning environments, when we are secretly watching students? Internet filters and security cameras scream that, in spite of statements to the contrary, we don’t trust students.

Jane Mitchinson’s post “Big Brother in Our Schools” does a great job of outlining the issues with internet filters in schools. Jane explains that Guelph based company Netsweeper “…offered “free” internet filtering to the Waterloo Region District School Board on a trial basis”. This is the same Netsweeper that sold internet filtering software used to censor the internet in Pakistan. It’s a disturbing thought that schools might treat students with the same callous disregard an oppressive government shows its’ citizens.

Internet filters prevent learning. They are never 100% accurate, no matter how well managed they are. If a site is at all questionable it will be blocked. It’s frustrating to both teachers and students to find a legitimate resource blocked. Mitch Wagner outlines several examples of how internet filters harm schools.

As Cory Doctorow points out, internet filters have several other problems.

Internet filters don’t prevent motivated students from accessing inappropriate material. I’ve never seen an internet filter that a motivated 13 year-old can’t bypass. Internet filters don’t work even in China, home of the “Great Firewall“.

From "What is missing from the kids’ internet?"

From “What is missing from the kids’ internet?”

 

Internet filters also prevent students from becoming digital citizens.

“Is there anyone who believes that your kids will never get unfiltered internet access? When (not if) they do, how will you have prepared them to use it responsibly? What life-skills will you have equipped them with? Abstinence-based education is not evidence-based education.” (Doctorow)

How will students develop the digital literacy required to be responsible digital citizens if we never let them experience the real internet, and let them test the skills and strategies they need to be safe?

The presence of internet filters also suppresses student voice and discourages students from expressing contrary opinions. Expressing dissenting opinions online is already difficult, but internet filters add another discouragement. Recent research reveals that online surveillance “…significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out” and “may contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion”. It’s hard to see how any school that uses internet filters can seriously say they value student voice.

Finally, as Jessy Irwin explains in “Grooming Students for A Lifetime of Surveillance“, internet filters, desensitize students to surveillance. They make surveillance the norm, and make students much more willing to accept mass surveillance as adults. These practices threaten all students, but are especially dangerous when applied to our most vulnerable students.

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Given all this, why do we do this to our students? Why do so many schools use internet filters?

Certainly, students need supervision when they’re online, but part of the role of educators is to supervise and guide students. Why do we need another layer?

What’s really at fault here isn’t students or technology but how we combine the two in the classroom. Too often, technology is the focus of learning rather than a support that helps students learn. Rows of students staring glassy eyed at screens isn’t more progressive or effective than students robotically chanting their times tables. Schools trying to prevent students from accessing inappropriate internet content would do better to ensure that learning is engaging.

Internet filters, rather than being the cause of the problem, are really just a symptom of the misguided ways we use technology in schools. Our focus shouldn’t be on creating systems to help keep students safe, but rather on creating students that don’t need to be surveilled.

BYOD

There are many good reasons to question the increasing use of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs in schools. BYOD brings income inequity into the classroom in a way that directly affects instruction. Families that don’t provide “up to date technology” limit students’ ability to learn. BYOD also affects the kind of learning that can be done in the classroom and creates a host of technical issues for educators. In fact Gary Stager has called BYOD the “Worst Idea of the 21st Century“.

In spite of these concerns BYOD continues to become common practice in schools. People for Education’s 2014 report found that BYOD was used in 58% of Ontario schools, with more all the time.

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From Digital Learning in Ontario Schools: The ‘new normal’ (2014)

The popularity of BYOD in schools is driven by economics rather than pedagogy. Cash strapped schools are desperate to use more technology in the classroom, but don’t have the money to pay for it. So they turn to families, asking students to use their personal devices for learning. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Now we can add another reason to the list of reasons schools shouldn’t use BYOD. Student privacy.

Privacy, the right to be left alone, has, for a significant time, been recognized as a basic human right. However, that right is increasingly being eroded, especially with respect to online privacy. In fact, this trend has progressed to where privacy is increasingly a luxury.

Take Apple’s iPhone for example. Apple has branded themselves as both a seller of luxury electronics and the foremost protector of users digital privacy. Want to protect your privacy? You’ll need to pay top dollar for the latest iPhone.

If privacy is now a commodity, bought and sold, then privacy must be the new digital divide. As we approach a society where everyone is connected, what separates the rich from the poor is the ability to afford privacy. The devices poor families can afford are less secure, the poor more often must access the internet through less secure WiFi, and the poor often have to trade their personal data to get services.

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From “Privacy is the new ‘digital divide’”

 

When schools implement BYOD they require students from low-SES families to use cheap, insecure devices for educational purposes. Students use insecure devices over insecure public WiFi (libraries and coffee shops) for academic purposes. Now students must risk their personal academic data in order to learn. That’s not a choice any public school student should ever be faced with having to make.

How can the problems with BYOD be mitigated? Here’s a couple of ideas.

Many school boards have successfully implemented large scale “one to one” computing programs where all students are provided with a device. One-to-one programs are a clear statement that technology is an essential core requirement for learning, while ensuring that every student has a secure device for learning

One-to-one programs aren’t a theoretical notion. They are current practice. The first one-to-one laptop program started twenty-five years ago at Methodist Ladies’ College, an independent girls’ school in Melbourne, Australia. The best known North American example of this approach is the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) which has been providing laptops to all students in grades 7-12 since 2002. Notably, the number one stated goal of the MLTI is equity.

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Other notable examples of one-to-one computing programs are the “Dennis McCullough Initiative- Enhanced Learning Strategy” in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and the recent “Transforming Learning Everywhere” strategy of the Hamilton-Wentworth DSB.

A second way schools can minimize some of the issues with BYOD is to assist families in purchasing their own technology. This is what the Peel DSB did in 2014 as they negotiated with technology vendors, on behalf of the families they serve, to make the purchase of secure technology affordable for all students. Currently, families with students in Peel DSB schools can purchase a new $60 netbook or a new $110 desktop to support learning both in the classroom and at home.

The responsibility of schools to protect student privacy and meet the needs of students from low-income families can no longer be ignored. It’s time for schools to step up and implement technology plans that address the divergent needs of all families. It’s time we start ensuring school technology plans meet the needs of all our students, especially our most vulnerable.

 

 

Cursive

Some education issues are like zombies, they just won’t die. Like teaching cursive in schools. Every week brings an article explaining why cursive must be taught in schools, followed quickly by a response as to why it’s a dying skill that needs to be removed from the curriculum.

My experience with cursive as a student wasn’t positive. In my elementary school there was a heavy emphasis on learning “joined-up writing”, and we spent a lot of time practicing. The best samples were displayed on a bulletin board in the hallway so that everyone could gaze at them with wonder and admiration.

I remember very clearly how it felt to see my writing on the board, because it was preceded by months and months of failure. Months of me looking at the handwriting board, not seeing my writing up there and feeling embarrassed. Nothing seemed to help; not fancy writing implements, rewards, bribery, or practice at home. I just couldn’t get it right.

I now know, but didn’t then, that this is a common experience for boys trying to learn cursive. There’s significant evidence that boys struggle more with cursive because of developmental differences in how their brains develop.

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What would we call requiring students to perfect a skill they just don’t have the capacity to learn? Misguided? Cruel? How many students are turned off school at an early age by being forced to practice cursive?

I’ve had an extensive and thoughtful online discussion about the value of teaching cursive with PLN members like Aviva Dunsinger, Valerie Bennett and Cyndie Jacobs. I think it was those discussions that lead me to be interviewed about teaching cursive for Today’s Parent. After that, I thought the “cursive debate” was over. Not so.

Here, I’ll try to emulate Royan Lee‘s fantastic “Podcasts for Pedagogues” series and direct your attention to Freakonomics February 10, 2016 podcast “Who Needs Handwriting?“. If you’re interested at all in the issue of whether schools should be teaching cursive, I recommend you give it a listen.

(Who Needs Handwriting?

Some key learnings for me:

  • Cursive is very definitely on the way out. Only 15 percent of the students who took the 2006 SAT test wrote their answers in cursive.
  • “The Handwriting Effect” shows that there’s a correlation between good handwriting and higher test scores. I think this is probably a reflection of the kind of students who do well on tests and that some teachers think handwriting equates with intelligence.
  • Teaching cursive in schools is a relatively new development, only about 125 years old. There’s a time in the very recent past when schools didn’t teach cursive.
  • Taking notes by hand leads to better long-term comprehension. Fascinating. I’ve started taking some of my notes by hand to see if it makes any difference. This effect reminds me of the benefits of sketchnoting and how it helps with comprehension and understanding. Interacting with a text involves much more than just decoding. (Let me point out that the benefits are not for cursive writing, but any writing)
  • Many of the studies proving the value of handwriting are sponsored by pen and pencil companies.
  • If we needed a sign that writing by hand is dying, at least as an everyday activity, can there be anything more telling than notebooks and pencils have become highly prized luxury items?

The  most interesting part of the discussion about cursive is not whether we should or shouldn’t teach it, but why the debate persists? We’ve had many things added, changed or taken away from the curriculum without the angst cursive has generated. What’s the difference?

The reluctance of some to let go of cursive is evidence of a powerful force in education. Nostalgia.

How we teach and the schools and classrooms we create are, in one way or another, heavily influenced by our experiences as students. If those experiences were positive, we seek to recreate them for our students. If we were told, as a student, that having perfect cursive writing was crucial to your future success, and you were successful, you ascribe some of that success to cursive, and you want those same benefits for the students you teach. The same influences also affect parents and policy makers.

At the heart of the cursive debate is a question. What skills do we want our schools to teach? In a crowded curriculum, with many objectives, we need to make choices. What skills do we value and which are we going drop in order to make room for new skills?

Overall, I don’t think we have room in the language curriculum for teaching cursive. Any potential benefits of teaching cursive are outweighed by the damage teaching cursive does to young students, especially boys. Maybe the best place for teaching cursive is as a visual arts skill, but it’s no longer a necessary skill for communication.

I’d love to hear your experiences or comments on cursive.

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In the fall of 2013 Nancy Jo Sales published “Friends Without Benefits” in Vanity Fair. In her article she uncovered “…a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers”. Sales, who also wrote for People and New York, is best known for her writing about celebrities and celebrity culture. The 2013 film, The Bling Ring, is based on Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair piece, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.”

“Friends Without Benefits” confused me. As a father and educator who works with teens, tweens and social media, the teenage boys and girls profiled weren’t familiar to me. Sales wrote: “As quickly as new social media appears, teens seem to find ways to use it to have sex, often sex devoid of even any pretense of emotional intimacy. There’s sexting, and there’s Snapchat, where teenagers share pictures of their bodies or body parts; on Skype, sometimes they strip for each other or masturbate together.” Really? Read More

joe

Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects. – Dalai Lama

I struggle with report cards. They’re when the requirements of working for a large public bureaucracy directly conflicts  with what I believe is best for my students. Most years I swallow hard and just get it done, but four years ago was, for some reason, particularly difficult. I decided there had to be a better way, and my search for answers lead me right to Joe Bower.

Joe blogged about how he’d resolved his similar struggles with grading and report cards and I needed to know more. Was it really possible to do things differently? Even in a regular public school classroom? How?

I wrote to Joe:

After just finishing my term 1 reports I’m ready to give up on grading. I’m hesitating however because I’m required to do report cards with grades. How do you handle that?

Joe responded almost immediately. He was open, supportive, encouraging and made some suggestions. When our discussion went deeper he suggested we Skype to discuss further, which we did. I was amazed that he was so willing to take the time to talk with someone he barely knew about this. In doing so he fundamentally changed how I thought about assessment, and influenced how I teach still to this day.

As a result of that interaction I began to really pay attention to Joe and what he was doing. The more I read his blog, the more excited I became. It was thrilling to discover that a teacher could be open, outspoken, honest and fearless about the kind of schools and classrooms we should be creating. I aspired to be as courageous, uncompromising and passionate as Joe in what I wrote and said and thought.

Eleven months later Joe asked if he could share one of my blog posts and I delightedly agreed. I was now part of a select group. Joe thought my ideas were worthy of sharing. I don’t know how many others work he shared but I’m sure it was in the hundreds. He was generous and didn’t care who got the credit.

Joe and I connected through social media on and off and I was impressed with his progress. He was getting widespread recognition and raising the issues and concerns he cared about wherever he went. He was part of an elite group of people who were making classrooms better places for students and teachers and influencing how we think about education, and remarkably he was doing it while he was a classroom teacher.

In 2014 I was invited to be on a panel with a well known educator. As we chatted before the panel he said that he’d been reading my blog and that I reminded him of “…a bearded Joe Bower”. I’m not sure he intended it to be the compliment I took it as, but I was elated. To be compared favorably with Joe, to be mentioned in the same sentence, was as good as it got.

These stories I have about Joe aren’t special or unique. I’m only one of thousands of educators, and by extension hundreds of thousands of students, that Joe influenced. He lead by example, with the passionate strength of his convictions.

I’ll miss Joe’s leadership and support, and judging by the outpouring of condolences so will many others. We’ve lost a giant in the efforts to create more progressive and student centered schools. It’s a huge loss.

 

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