Why So Many Kids Hate School – Part 1

There is nothing more humbling for a teacher than becoming a student.  This past year I stepped back from my role at iBardBooks and my position as a broadcast journalism professor at Sheridan College in Oakville, Canada to get my masters degree.  While my focus was on digital media and its impact on teaching and learning, what I got was an eye opener into some of the deeply rooted issues within education.

This is the first in a series of posts examining some of those issues.

I am surprised at how much my research has informed my perspective on the overall learning environment. Much of the scholarly work I encountered indicates that we are operating in a 20th and some would argue 19th century classroom structure.  Back in my own space at Sheridan the evidence surrounds me.

Greeting a group of 1st year students in a research class last week my first order of business was to show them a simple power point presentation. As I stood at the front of the class fighting with technology that eventually required 4 technologists to sort out, I looked out at a sea of computer monitors upon rows of desks. Behind the over-sized monitors I could see the foreheads and hats of most of my students. Unfortunately I couldn’t see the last two rows at all.

This is a course that requires interaction, discussion and often group work.  I spent the remainder of the class pacing up and down the main aisle trying to see them in order to engage them in discussion.  When it came time to work in groups the students struggled awkwardly to find a way to face one another to conduct the assigned activity. In addition to negotiating a long locked in table, they had to move the large computer monitors out of the way so they could find room for their own laptops. Irony?

I consulted one of the technologists involved in the room design and asked if faculty had been involved in the process.  He admitted a couple had but they weren’t very helpful. They didn’t think there should be any computers in the room at all but if they had to be there, they felt the desks might function better if they were against the wall so students could spin around for discussion.

As part of my master thesis I conducted a focus group with a group of high school students. I had the teacher reconfigure the rows of desks in a semi-circle formation so they could see each other and I them. My hope had been to have them sit without desks but they were required to, in order to provide a place for their laptops. One of the students walked in, stopped dead in her tracks and said: “We’ve broken the Berlin Wall”.

At the end of the class one of the students asked the teacher if they could leave the desks in this formation because it allowed them to see one another instead of the backs of heads. Who would think that such a simple move could garner such a response? Sounds simple but take a walk through most schools and you will see that same formation of desks that we’ve seen since the industrial revolution.

The reality is that technology is part of our lives. Most of us have phones, iPads, computers and various electronic devices within a short reach and we certainly would not want to get rid of them.  Don’t get me wrong technology is a wonderful thing and I love the infinite possibilities it offers.  Where we need to stop and reassess is how and where we are using it.  Classrooms with rows of desks masked by computers are simply not conducive to most learning environments, yet we continue down this path.  As Marshall McLuhan has shown us, we will continue to transfer old media to new media until we understand how to work with the new media.  In the mean time, this week I had my class turn the computer screens sideways and we rebelled by moving the desks. The discussion was much more lively.

Next time we will look at some hurdles that teachers face and some innovative experiments going on in the world of education.