Adult control is the enemy of a child’s learning.
Unnecessary mechanisms of control forge shackles that chain children together into groups, and herd them into corrals we presuppose for them. This is not empowering children, but is adult control, and adult control is not a desirable characteristic when it comes to authentic child learning. We must, wherever we identify it, seize adult control, drag it kicking and screaming out back, and put it down. We should proactively identify restriction that is not absolutely necessary to protect kids and destroy those constraints.
Blocking an internet-based resource writ large – YouTube is the most common example I hear about from lamenting teachers – in order to prevent access to potentially-troubling material is not an educational technology best practice and it is not mandated under law. To say that such large-scale blocking is “a legal requirement” as I sometimes hear is to fundamentally misunderstand not only ed law and case studies on the subject, but to ignore and indict in the same breath the progressive and thoughtful school systems that have paved the way to empower students who have a keen interest in learning from audiovisual illustrations as they may need.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act is extraordinarily simple: No porn. No bloody gory murder. Nothing that is defined as “obscene” under state statute. Those are three very clear definitions, and the vast majority of content that students are trying to access does not fall into any of those three categories. We should have basic internet filtering to ensure that students cannot access pornography, abject violence, and depictions of obscenity as defined locally, as is our legal charge, and then ensure that pretty much everything else under the sun is available to any kid, anytime, anywhere. Yes, some of this content will be low-quality. Yes, some of this content may be inaccurate, outdated, or incomplete. Yes, some of it may be inflammatory or controversial or downright stupid. That’s YouTube.
That’s also life. I believe we have an ethical responsibility to teach children about the world and to live in the world as it is and may be, not as if we would have it be in a sanitized petri dish. Such sanitizing strikes me not only as disingenuous and perilously close to lying to children, but miseducative.
How on earth are we to teach our cubs what rapids are too fast for them or are simply swift waters they can race upon? How are we to teach our cubs the difference between an empty hive full of yummy honey and an active yellowjacket nest? How are we to teach our cubs the difference between a friendly clawless spotted cat and a deadly leopard, if we do not occasionally aid them in interacting at least at a distance with our basic “mama bear” safeties in place? And how do we scaffold the transition from students who need more support (often earlier in development) to savvy users of complex information systems, if we keep things just as locked down for the 18 year old as the 8 year old?
When we focus on building fences and emergency lights and hazard signs along the sides of runways, we aren’t focusing on teaching kids to fly and empowering them to safely and thoughtfully choose their own flight paths and soar independently. This is not to say that we ought to abandon safety, scaffolding, or care. I recognize clearly that it is important sometimes for adults to act to protect children. It is in the mama bear’s nature to sometimes pull back her cub to prevent catastrophic harm. However, “I will protect you when I must” is very different from “I will control you all the time.”
These kinds of policies reflect non-educator thinking.
There are those that disagree with me, but so rarely are those people teachers, so I find. They are more often than not, in my not-insignificant professional experience in this field, voices of dissent from Luddites, anti-technology naysayers, or people that don’t believe that some resources have a place in learning because they don’t personally benefit from those resources. These attitudes are not rooted in empiricism, research, or experience, but are rather (often unlettered) opinions that have nothing to with setting the best policy we can, to ensure students and teachers are as free as possible and to ensure that they both have the fullest access to the fullest possible range of resources, tools, and techniques for learning, anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
The days of the pre-ordered lesson plan with pre-arranged everyone-together-now technology use for basic substitution and common productivity tasks are behind us. That was a 20th century relic of 19th century pedagogy, and every educational technologist worth a shake of salt knows that.
Individually blacklisting offensive sites is a far more precise and far more liberating way of approaching keeping kids safe than to carte blanche block a resource that has helped children around the world. I do not advocate that we force children to be autodidactic, but we ought not restrict autodidacticism when a child desires it, should not assume that these resources have no value and place in a meaningful teacher-child learning partnership, or restrict autogenic impulsive learning opportunities both within the school and without.
I often speak about love, because as I write in my upcoming book, I believe love to be at the center of learning and teaching. Love desires freedom and empowerment, and rallies against forces that deny these things to those we love. Teachers must love children, actively and meaningfully, in order to teach. Disabling access to information is an intrinsically-unloving act. It is, in my estimation, a terrible and totalitarian form of adult control to keep children in the dark, to shut off access to information, and deny them writ large resources from which they may benefit. Organizations around the country have striven tirelessly to provide connectivity and access to children because we know that knowledge really is power. Empowering students to access information at a moment’s notice for whatever reason, whenever and wherever, can only be helpful, if we truly believe that the way a child learns is more important than the way we teach.
Again: Those that disagree with me on these points usually believe at best that teaching is more important than learning, and at worst that neither really matters, so long as the institution’s control is maintained. This lattermost point is underscored notably in overly-restrictive hardware environments. The Albemarle (Virginia) schools have made their students full administrators of their 1:1 devices. Is it more work for their IT people? Sure thing. One of their higher-ups recently told me that they need to, in a given year, re-image about 50% of their elementary level devices, and about 10% of their high school devices.
So what? We exist to work for kids, not the other way around, and if the devices really are for their benefit… why not empower them? Given that most of the time there’s a problem with a device, we re-image it anyway, what’s the real net loss here, as compared to the massive potential gain?
Again, to love: It is unloving not to trust someone. Love does not assume wrongdoing or incapability.
When I go into a classroom, and students are typing on any device, my presumption is that they are individuals and thinkers who are innately deserving of my respect. I value their brains, I love their minds, I uphold their freedoms, I believe they have a right to learn as they naturally learn, to manage information as they choose, to annotate as the choose… I do not compel them to learn a particular way; I want to empower them to learn how their minds work and to get what they need, which may (and statistically, nearly certainly will) differ greatly from the other students in that learning space.
There are times when it’s best for me as a learner not to take notes at all. There are times when meticulous notes or illustrations of some kind are critical. There are times when simply videotaping is just better for me, and there are certainly times when accessing related information that is relevant and of interest that is helpful to my learning in that moment and enriches my comprehension and skill mastery and passion for the subject at hand, in realtime, in situ, is what’s best for me. And it is no one’s right to tell me I may not learn that way or that my brain must conform to anyone else’s command.
And yes, let’s be honest: Frankly, there are times when what the teacher or instructor or administrator is doing is irrelevant to me. Sometimes I already know the subject or skill cold, sometimes better than xe does. Sometimes I know it’s completely irrelevant for me to know bean one about what’s being discussed, and I find more often than not, so do most of the people in that room. I know how my brain works and in those moments I am absolutely pleased to extend into other things and subjects and interests during that otherwise-wasted time, because I am a thinking person.
I find it incredibly disrespectful to think that I as an adult must be told “put your phones away.” I hate it when this happens in meetings. “Everybody put your devices away. Everybody close your computers.” I shall not, and how dare you ask me to do so in the 21st century. It is arrogant presumption to assume that I am unable to “pay attention” with my device in front of me, let alone that what you are about to do is so flawless that it will completely meet the needs of every person in the room. Get over yourself. I am perfectly capable of running my life and learning what I need in the way that I learn, and rising to the challenges at hand, in the ways that work for me.
Why, then, do we insist upon doing this to children? Are adults by default “smarter” or “wiser” because they’re older? I think serious educators everywhere cannot help but chuckle at the idea, it is so absurd. Children are developing human beings, yes, neuroplastic and constantly changing, but they are human beings nevertheless, and I believe it is as sovereign a right to use any tool at hand to learn as it is to access unfettered resources using that tool.
Do I believe that all children have as full an understanding of their own learning modalities and brain functions as compared to a career professional well versed in the subject? No, certainly not, not the least of which is because I don’t “believe” that “All Children” are or do any one thing. But I do think that I owe it to the child to give them the benefit of the doubt to do what they need to do.
How do I know if they need help? Good assessment, of course. But creating sound assessment methods is not the same as “Johnny put that away” and “Sally close your laptop.” The latter is making a massive assumption about what that individual child needs at that individual moment.
If the child has mastery, it should not – and indeed, I purport that it does not – matter if the child did everything with a pencil and paper or with a smartphone or with a tablet or a computer or an abacus or a barrel of monkeys.
I refuse to presuppose the homogeneity of children’s minds and I have no desire to restrict them from using anything and everything they can to learn. I love them too much to do that to them.