• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

On Banning Things in Classrooms

What does it mean when we decide to ban something (like laptops) in the classroom?

November 26, 2017
 
 

 

 

The great “laptops in class” debate flared yet again over the holiday weekend following the publication of a New York Times op-ed by Prof. Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan who has decided to “generally ban electronics, including laptops, in my classes and research seminars,” (with a few exceptions). 

I don’t really care to re-litigate this particular debate. I’m pretty comfortable with how my policy on electronic devices has evolved over the years.[1] In general, I’m a believer in instructors being allowed to teach in ways most consistent with their values and goals. Best practices in the classroom are a process, not a product, and my best practices may not be everyone’s best practices. This should be a debate we continue to have, even as it seems very little new ground is broken each time we have it.

But I am interested in some of the ideologies and assumptions that seem to underpin this discussion. When we are talking about “banning” something, it’s worth asking why, and to what end. Maybe this can broaden or deepen the discussion a bit.

The evidence against electronic devices suggests their use inhibits learning and leads to lower grades. One of the studies Prof. Dynarski cites involved students watching TED Talks some randomly assigned laptops, others pen and paper for note-taking purposes. Those who used pen and paper scored better on the standardized test measuring understanding of the lecture than those using laptops. 

Reading this particular study, I couldn’t help but think if it’s a choice between banning laptops and banning courses where students watch TED Talks and then take standardized tests on the material, I’m good with keeping the laptops and junking the uninspired pedagogy.

Another study meant to test the potential for contagion, where the device use of one student distracts another, involved a “professor” following a memorized script for a lecture, again followed by multiple choice questions testing both basic retention and application of the material. 

Isn’t this kind of presentation tailor-made to induce students to crave distraction? In an effort to find an experiment with appropriate controls, I feel we may be replicating learning situations with very limited applicability to the lived experiences of students.

As persuasive as Prof. Dynarski finds these studies, I cannot help but see the limits of each of them.

Prof. Catherine Prendergast of the University of Illinois offered up several Twitter threads over the holiday illuminating some of those limits that are worth reviewing, including this one:

 

 

Collectively, I believe these studies suggest a better route than banning laptops is to ban lectures entirely, though I would rather see a more comprehensive discussion about the purpose, use, and limits of the lecture than some kind of administrative fiat banning them. If we blanch at the thought of this kind of exercising of administrative authority as an infringement on faculty freedom, it's worth asking if we extend the same courtesy to students.

And if we are interested in banning something in the service of student learning, before we worry about laptops, we should instead address the far more harmful effects of a nearly ubiquitous classroom practice.

Grades.

As Prof. Susan D. Blum of Notre Dame recently reminded us here at Inside Higher Ed we have literally decades of research and insight which demonstrates the disconnects between grades and learning. 

We can champion the use of grades for other purposes in academic contexts – primarily sorting and ranking students – but as a tool for learning, particularly what education researcher Ken Bain calls “deep learning,” “learning that involves conceptual understanding and critical thinking and leads to ‘adaptive expertise,’” there’s very little research to support the efficacy of grades. 

How one views this debate depends quite a bit on how one views the instructor role in shaping the student experience. A laptop ban suggests the instructor’s job is to focus students on “grades” and “achievement” (though not necessarily “learning) in the class.

I also think it significantly depends on how large a circle one draws around the concept of “learning.” Imagine a class in which laptops are not banned and students are instead guided in ways to be mindful about how and when they use these devices. Some students  who are more easily distracted will likely see lower grades as measured by their understanding of the course material. But they may also learn a lesson about how to better manage their device use if a better grade is something they desire.

Or maybe they’ll decide they don’t care all that much about grades. Personally, I’m okay with this too. Others might be troubled by this.

I am uncomfortable with “bans” because my philosophy and values bend towards a privileging of student agency and responsibility. They have the right to make bad choices which may result in poor grades or a diminished intellectual experience. That right does not extend to harming others, but this is why I frame the classroom as a community with an ethos including responsibility to others.

I believe one of the purposes of education is to require students to run over as many potholes on the way to learning as possible. Some of those potholes should require them to confront their own habits and values. I don’t want to dictate those values for them. For students to learn, they cannot be passive consumers of content provided by others. They must also be creators of knowledge, some of which will be self-knowledge. In my view, achieving this requires maximal freedom.

One of the most significant potholes many of us will struggle with going forward is the temptation of electronic distraction. What happens to students when there is no one to ban their behavior?

Whatever choice one makes about classroom policy electronic devices, there’s a price to be paid on the opposite side of the ledger.

To me, banning anything in class will always be a blunt instrument, and unnecessary when I can require students to chose their instruments for themselves.

So let’s definitely keep talking about this stuff, but maybe let’s do it in a way which forces us to confront whatever is underneath the desire to ban something. We may find a better route to what we most desire.

 

 

 

[1] My policy has significantly evolved over the years, from an outright ban (including punitive action when violated) to inculcating an ethos asking students to be responsible to themselves and others when they exercise personal agency over whether or not to use electronic devices. In other words, if students decide a device is helpful to their learning, I trust them to make that choice, even if I believe they are self-deluding. However, if their use (or rather misuse) becomes an unwelcome distraction to others, they must act to eliminate those distractions.

 

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