Monthly Archives: February 2016

Powering Up and Down

After a unanimous vote by the Academic Council a few weeks ago, our school decided to do a “Power Down Day” with students. No devices in classrooms (we are 1-1) and no cellphones in free time (we have an otherwise open policy). We wanted to see what would happen if we didn’t use technology in or out of class for one full school day.

We timed it to follow a visit from Patrick Cook Deegan who spoke to us about mindfulness, wellness, and education. As a college student, Deegan took a leave from Brown University to bike through Southeast Asia. He spent 10 days in meditative retreat, 10 hours a day.  His experiences led him to dive into a life of global activism, local social justice work, and innovative educational design.

We didn’t think our students would have Deegan-style revelations after one day without technology. But we thought it would be interesting to test an assumption about technology in schools — namely, that it has contributed to stress by creating higher levels of both distraction and, perhaps counterintuitively, accountability.

One of the biggest concerns we had was that students wouldn’t know what to do in their free time without technology. In preparation for the day, we gathered old-school materials like art supplies, soccer balls, board games and cards for those times in the day when students would otherwise be turning to their phones or computers. Teachers made handouts rather than uploading materials to Haiku, and students used pencils for note-taking rather than pecking at their keyboards or screens.

There was a palpable difference in the atmosphere as students arrived to campus on the morning of Power Down Day. Specifically, they weren’t looking down at their phones while walking. In study hall, some groups of students who didn’t have homework or didn’t want to get started on it sat on the floor playing Clue, Monopoly, and Scrabble. Students were considerably louder and more engaged with each other in the outdoor spaces and in some classes, there appeared to be more group work taking place.

In most aspects of the day, though, it was business as usual. We polled students and faculty afterward to see what they thought about the experience, and most felt that while powering down showed us how much we depend on technology, it did not dramatically improve our lives to set it aside. For some, the negatives outweighed the benefits. Many people said that it was just a “lost” day — somewhat more fun, but definitely less productive.

Regardless, I hope we do it again. Mindfulness is not simply taking time out of our usual habits and practices to think and reflect — but in order to be mindful, we do need to do just that at the very least.

We are back to normal this week — cellphones and other devices in full use everywhere, all the time. I stacked the games up in my office and invited students to come play when they need a break from it all.

I’m not holding my breath, but I did have one taker so far after school yesterday — my 7 year old. It was nice to hear her laughter when, after beating me soundly, the yellow and red Connect Four pieces fell to the floor.

Static in the Feedback Loop

Feedback (n): “Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.”

In Visible Learning, John Hattie says that for feedback to be meaningful, it needs to not only be timely and detailed, but also to clearly point students toward future improvement or success. He calls this “where to next.”

Hattie is right about one of the things learners need in order to progress – they need to know how to do better. They need teachers to show them where they stumbled and point them in the right direction for next time.

But as any teacher or student knows, giving and getting thoughtful feedback takes real time and focus.

I feel for teachers. It can be hard to deliver meaningful suggestions in a timely manner given all of the other responsibilities on our plates. It can also be hard to give enough feedback, especially when we think a student has succeeded at, but not transcended, an assignment.

I feel for students, too.  It can be hard to wait for feedback, especially when we think we have done well but suspect that we may have missed something in our presentation or preparation. The desire for affirmation or critique only grows with time.

All of this causes static in the feedback loop. But we have always had to live with waiting for feedback while moving forward. And while feedback is important, it is also as important if not more so for students to think critically about their own work and identify the places where they themselves want to improve, regardless of input.

Waiting for someone we trust and admire to give us feedback on our work is one of the hallmarks of (school) life. And filling in the blanks while we wait is, as well.