So there I was at WEMTA (Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association) listening to Rushton Hurley, the quite fabulous educational reformer / Japanese linguist / edtech enthusiast, while chatting via keyboard to other audience members in the room.
As he waxed poetic on what’s most needed in education today, my co-texters shared thoughts, Q&A’s and laughs, toying with his ideas, taking them in divergent directions, sharing quirky stuff we do in class: my fake mannequin hand as a SMART Board pointer won me some in-room popularity (these people actually thought I was hilarious - shared ideas and an ego boost to boot).
Rushton played a quirky video of Japanese Businessmen dancing. He simply asked: “What do you think of this?” A few dozen of us backchanneled about it as we watched it. Our chat was intense and interesting and quick and smart, metaphors and analogies flying. When the clip was over, he asked us to talk about it with the people at our table. Some said a few words, but the texted chat during the video was far more rich than the table talk. Instead of 45 minutes of “sit and get,” by offering a backchanneling opportunity, Rushton turned my lunch into sustenance of body, mind and spirit as I listened, chatted, pondered and interacted.
And so I thought, what would a similar opportunity mean for students? The chance to share ideas, challenge each other, interact with the topic at hand during class instead of the “sit and get”?
Much is being written about the use of backchanneling and Twitter in the classroom to increase student engagement. Some say this is clearly the way to connect with students, it’s clearly their preferred mode of communication; others say it’s a distraction, allowing students to tune out and preventing them from concentrating on difficult concepts.
Much has also been written lately about the fallacy of multi-tasking. That while we would like to believe we can do many things simultaneously, the fact is that we trade doing a few things well for doing many things poorly. This is a problem.
I know that while I was eating lunch and listening to Rushton, I was wholly engaged thoroughly enjoying myself and at a heightened state of awareness. I was having fun.
I suspect if we were given a quiz after Rushton’s presentation, I would have scored lower than many in the room. I wasn’t hearing every word he said; backchanneling reduced my ability to accurately regurgitate, but it also increased the value of my experience, allowed me to co-construct meaning with others in the room, to process what he was saying, to figure out how it related to my experiences as an educator and how I could use it to improve my practice.
And isn’t that what 21st century learning is about? Leveraging information and gleaning real-world experience? And isn’t multitasking how our digital natives operate? And isn’t it our charge, then, to help them multitask more effectively, help them manage their world and function well within it?
Maybe it’s not an either/or; maybe there’s a compromise between the “sit and get” and Twitter that would allow teachers to be fully heard and students to fully process. Harvard Educator Eric Mazur’s “Just in Time Teaching” comes to mind - offering short bursts of lecture followed by students immediately interacting and applying and questioning.
One thing is certain: we have more questions than answers in education today. We know what we’re doing isn’t working. We have ideas. We have energy, but we have more questions than we have answers. We know we need to engage more authentically with students, we know we need to prepare them for an ever-changing and increasingly digital world. To do this, we need to change the paradigm, give up some of the control, embrace uncertainty, and forge ahead.
But it’s complicated...