Introverting the classroom

I’m struggling with the idea that the best place for kids is in school.

Maybe it’s because my most robust, most meaningful, most memorable learning experiences didn’t happen in school. I’ve written in the past about my experience with personal learning networks, and how the concept of meaningful professional growth seems to contradict the credentialing process. You can learn valuable things, or you can get a degree. But it’s hard to do both.

When I look back on all the crap I learned in grad school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I was in grad school. I certainly haven’t taken any real college courses in this century. But the primary reason why there’s no “Dr” in front of my name is because I found more value in the informal learning that comes from participating in a community of practice. And strictly speaking, I didn’t need more credentials. I don’t regret that path at all.

I’m an introvert. Myers-Briggs calls me an INTJ. True Colors says I’m analytical, intuitive, and visionary. Enneagram says I’m type 5: the Investigator. I’m supposed to be the guy who sits in the corner and has all of the answers figured out, and is just waiting for someone to ask the right questions. I’m the one you should want on your team, but who doesn’t really want to be there. Or maybe I’m the one who’s dying to be there, but is afraid to admit that.

I was in my late 30s before I could speak coherently on any subject without scripting it first. There’s a lot of painful audio of me on the Internet trying to figure that out, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve done it yet. Conversely, writing has never been a problem. My Freshman English teacher wrote at the top of my first composition, “You’re a good writer!” I believed her, and eventually, that made it true. Reading that essay now (“The Transumé of Scout Finch”), I don’t know what she saw in it. But I found much more success in feeding the analytical brain, and taking a measured, reasoned, calculated approach to everything.

Maybe that’s why I still prefer email to phone calls. I don’t do well with oral arguments. I’m working on it. Call it a character flaw. Just don’t call me to discuss it.

All of this is to say that I was the student who never raised his hand. I didn’t volunteer information. I was never the spokesperson for my group. Presentations were terrifying, and painful for everyone involved. Interacting with other people was difficult and often counter-productive. I hated group projects (except for Physics labs, where I was the dumb kid in the group). If I could have done school online, I would have jumped at the chance.

Of course, online wasn’t a thing back then. We barely had electricity. We had to bring in coal for the Franklin stove in elementary school. Shakespeare was still being taught in our Modern Literature class.

But when email and Usenet and bulletin boards happened in college, we suddenly had this asynchronous communication tool. I could be smart and witty and reasoned AND interact with other people. And those people, even then, were all over the world. Tribes were being formed, and if you looked hard enough, you could find yours.

As a young teacher, I worked tirelessly to try to figure this stuff out. I set up an online bulletin board that my students could dial into. I had to beg for a phone line for my classroom, because we didn’t have Internet access at the school. A couple years later, I set up a MUD and had students interacting in a text-based virtual world. I did research on asynchronous discussion forums in middle school classrooms, including a study examining the role of anonymity in online forums. A couple years after that, I was running an early learning management system for my school. Eventually, Moodle got invented and we switched to that. But by then, I was out of the classroom and I had to convince other people that these tools were worthwhile. That’s been an uphill battle.

If we really want students analyzing, synthesizing, creating, problem solving, innovating, collaborating, and publishing, we have to change the way we do things. We have to make room for those things to happen, and we have to do that by de-emphasizing listening and remembering. At the very least, we have to stop letting those things take all of the time and effort.

Asynchronous online learning can help with that. Here’s some content. Take 15 minutes (or 45 minutes if you need it, or 5 minutes if you’ve already seen it). Go consume the information. Now, here’s where the learning part happens: what are you going to do with it? Are you connecting it to something you already know? Are you reflecting on new ideas? Maybe you’re just practicing new skills. That’s okay too. But it’s a personal journey, and every student needs a personalized GPS. They need a navigation system that constantly recalculates based on where they are and where they’re trying to go. It’s hard to do that in a classroom with 25 desks pointed in the same direction.

And I’m not saying that we should redesign the entire educational system to match my needs as a student 35 years ago. We still need students interacting with one another. We still need people talking to each other in real time. Maybe if I had done more of that — in groups of 3 or 4 — I would have gotten better at it sooner. But if we’re forcing students to all do the same thing at the same time, we’re missing most of the advantages that technology is giving us.

The role of technology in education is to personalize learning. That’s it. You can throw out your SAMR models and your Apple Elements of Learning and your 21st Century Skills. If you’re not using technology to do a better job of meeting the individual needs of each student, you’re wasting your time.

Because of COVID, we’re still making all of this up as we go along. We still have the freedom to try things that might not work. Nobody is going to get fired this year if we don’t demonstrate adequate yearly progress. If you’re a teacher, you can try to do things that might not work, and everyone will see you as innovative. If you’re an administrator, giving your teachers flexibility to move away from some of the cultural traditions that we call “school” makes you a responsive, adaptive leader. If you’re a parent, maybe you can consider the idea that school doesn’t necessarily have to be like it was when you were there.

There is no direct correlation between time spent and learning achieved. A student spending two hours on Algebra will not necessarily learn twice as much as a student who only spends one hour. We have an opportunity to rethink how we use time. Asynchronous models might be the way to acknowledge that different students have different needs. We can be there to help the students when they need us, and we can get out of their way when they don’t. Online modalities give us a lot of flexibility to do that. It’s much easier to apply time flexibility to classes when you’re not tied to 42-minute class periods.

At some point, we’re going to settle on new norms for school, and this opportunity will fade. Before that happens, let’s try to find some new approaches that move beyond simply replicating the traditional classroom in a digital environment.


Photo credit: Robert Thompson on Flickr.