Stop Staring at Me — Tech Tools Remove Embarrassment, Make Room for Learning

Today in a crowded inner-city classroom, a teacher will ask, “Are there any questions?” and although he desperately wants to raise his hand, one boy in the back row won’t. “Okay then,” the teacher will say, and she’ll spin around, erase her white board and move on, taking the mass of nodding students with her […]

Today in a crowded inner-city classroom, a teacher will ask, “Are there any questions?” and although he desperately wants to raise his hand, one boy in the back row won’t. “Okay then,” the teacher will say, and she’ll spin around, erase her white board and move on, taking the mass of nodding students with her and leaving the boy in the back row behind. In another school, in another packed classroom, an instructor will pose a question, then ask, “Who knows the answer?” and although the girl in the first row does, although the subject is one she spends hours of her own time eagerly exploring, she’ll keep her eyes glued to her paper instead of speaking up. And again, the teacher will turn on her heels and continue with her lesson plan, never knowing the carefully concealed interest hiding behind the eyes of that girl in the front row.

Every day, students shy away from valuable learning opportunities, not because they’re stupid, lazy or arrogant, but because they’re the victims of a force far more insidious — fear. In a world governed by social status, the badges of class idiot and class know-it-all are an equally bright shade of scarlet. Teachers may have trouble recognizing it, but the fear of embarrassment builds concrete walls between what students want to learn and what they do learn. Luckily, tech tools can help.

Students Speak up with the Help of Tech Tools

tech toolsIn a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, author David Bornstein discussed the efforts of CFY, an education-centered non-profit, that recently provided home computers and discounted broadband access to low-income children. It introduced those same childern to a learning platform called PowerMyLearning. The middle school students of the Bea Fuller Rodgers Middle School in Washington Heights responded with higher participation rates and increased test scores. Bornstein reports, “Despite a November start, the program appears to have made a big difference especially for struggling students. The school reports that the percentage of last year’s sixth graders with learning disabilities who met or exceeded standards in math (testing at level 3 or 4) increased by 36 percent, while the percentage of students who had been below standard (testing at level 1) decreased from 23 percent to zero.”

While these results show that the program is clearly having an impact, that impact isn’t just the result of the knowledge imparted by tech tools like PowerMyLearning. Bornstein asserts that it’s also the effect of the supportive, non-judgmental environment fostered by the use of digital learning tools:

One of the biggest challenges teachers face is creating environments in which children feel safe to try out ideas. When children are asked questions in class, it’s inherently stressful — like being on stage. When you learn from a person you’re always conscious that that person is thinking about you. In his classic book, “How Children Fail,” John Holt noted that, unlike toddlers who are undaunted experimenters, many children in grade school become more concerned with avoiding embarrassment than learning new things.

After years of embarrassments or failures, some children grow so guarded they won’t even make eye contact with teachers. That was a problem that Tristan Wright faced with one of her eighth grade students, who resisted her efforts to connect. Then, one day earlier this year, she handed him a laptop opened to a math game that dealt with the concept of slope. “The next thing, he was doing it,” she told me. “And then he started asking questions. He showed up to my next session and we agreed that he could continue working with the computer. He still struggles with effort, but it opened up a door. It changed our whole relationship.”

Think about it — when was the last time you stopped a friend or colleague mid-sentence to ask them to define a word they’d used that you didn’t understand? Probably not too recently. But when was the last time you read an article online and googled a term you didn’t know? When we remove the scrutinizing gazes of our peers, we’re more likely to ask questions and to explore — whether we’re 15 or 65. One of the reasons tech tools make such a big difference in student learning is because they dilute that pressure and the fear of embarrassment that comes with it. When students aren’t wasting their energy second-guessing themselves, they’re free to take chances, to ask questions and ultimately, to learn.

tech toolsSpecialized Paths Without the Stigma

Every student learns at a different pace. In traditional teaching models, educators dealt with this issue by breaking students into groups. It’s a solution that allows for some level of specialized attention — but it’s by no means a flawless system. As Bornstein asserts, “No matter how the labels were disguised — you could call one group the Eagles and the other the Falcons — the kids knew the difference.” Working with tech tools is one way to help focus on student needs without doling out the labels that stigmatize and stunt learners. Eighth grade teacher Tristan Wright talked to Bornstein about how she felt PowerMyLearning and other similar tech tools helped promote deeper levels of engagement:

“People aren’t going to believe me when I say this,” she added. “But when the kids are using technology, they don’t care what other kids are doing. They’re just focused on the activity.” The students are less self-conscious, so they try more experiments. If an answer is wrong, the computer gives feedback, and they can adjust — quite a different experience from saying the wrong answer out loud. Technology offers students different ways to visualize information. And students can continue working at home. “Sometimes the teacher doesn’t explain it to you as well as a computer,” added Lisa Lora, a seventh grade student. “And there are no interruptions. No one is shouting answers. You can concentrate and go at your own pace.”

Instead of being lumped into a group of kids who are “bad at math,” students can utilize digital learning tools to understand their specific weaknesses. A student who’s a whiz at dividing by polynomials but who’s completely stumped when it comes to graphing inequalities is far less likely to swear off math as a whole than the kid who’s convinced he’s terrible at math period. Removing the stigma caused by grouping children into classes based on ability is just one more way tech tools can be used to support real, lasting engagement.

When it comes to educational tools, there’s nothing wrong with bells and whistles. It’s okay to fall prey to the siren song of flashy new apps or the buzz surrounding the social learning site du jour. But as parents and educators, we should learn to look beyond these features to ask ourselves what students are truly gaining from their experiences with the learning tools we place in their hands. One thing we should never forget to measure is their voice. We need to listen closely to hear when the introduction of digital devices helps amplify children’s voices. Students who learn to speak up, who ask for help and who share excitement, are students who are more able to learn. Let’s give kids the tech tools that will help them push past their fear of embarrassment and push open the doors to their future.

Published September 25, 2012