Ensuring mediocrity while preventing disaster. . .

I gotta tell ya, Mike’s recent comments about teachers and students connecting in digital forums for learning beyond school hours have still got me riled up.

Not only did he suggest that any teacher who uses digital tools to communicate with students is likely to wind up “on the news” for inappropriate behavior—-which makes offensive generalizations about the intentions of the majority of teachers based on the actions of a reprehensible few—but he also adamantly insisted that communication between teachers and students outside the confines of schools should “never, ever” happen.







by  psd 

He wrote:

“To that end, teachers should never, ever contact students outside the boundaries of their legitimate and narrow duties. Teachers do not contact students outside the classroom. To do otherwise is to open them to charges of inappropriate interest or influence. That such contact is through texting, the internet or any other trendy method changes the reality of such contact not at all.”

So I did a bit of digging around this morning to see whether or not I’m crazy to suggest that digital forums might just have potential for improving the teaching-learning transaction in schools.  Interestingly enough, the first post in my feed reader was this Dean Shareski bit about underinformed efforts of districts attempting to control teacher and student access to social networking tools.

Dean argues that district decisions to ban any kind of communication between teachers and students in digital forums are less about protecting students than they are about protecting themselves from liability for the potential consequences of poor decisions made by an incredibly small handful of the 3.2 million teachers in our nation.

He writes:

“Why are most policies of this nature intended to curb the behavior of a very small minority instead of supporting the great work that could potentially come when teachers can, if they choose, be a part of student’s lives?  If we believe that learning is not an isolated event, why would we make policies that assume it is…What is the cost of this control?  Not only are there dollars involved in monitoring this, but the cost of mistrust, loss of innovation and demoralizing relationships might be difficult to recover.”

Shareski’s suggestion that the greater cost in these kinds of decisions are the loss of trust, demoralizing relationships and loss of innovation is echoed in this Ted Talk, where Barry Schwartz argues that our propensity for rules ends up ensuring mediocrity in the name of preventing disaster:

To bring the voice of school leadership into the conversation, check out this comment that Chris Lehmann—-principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia—-left on Shareski’s post:

“Restricting access to powerful communication between students and teachers is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Surely we have to be smart and thoughtful about the ways teachers and students interact in the age of ubiquitous communication, but to simply ban it is to miss the point.

I’ve had midnight conversations with students about academic work, about their lives, about sports and politics…you name it.  I’m always careful to let them know that I’m still the adult/principal that they see in school, but those communications are priceless. The teachers who take the time to set up those dynamics find powerful bleed-back into their classrooms.”

Where does all of this leave us?

Back to the central point I argued in my response to Mike:  The fear hiding behind policies banning any digital communication between teachers and students is a sad commentary on the state of our society.

While I understand that there have been horrible incidents where teachers have crossed the line with students and that they are unacceptable at best and morally reprehensible at worst, these incidents have resulted in an environment where teachers are constantly second-guessed—and second-guessing themselves.

It’s shocking that we’ve gotten to the point in our country where parents, community leaders, and education professionals doubt teachers so vehemently that they’d use the phrase, “teachers should never, ever contact students.”

We argue that teachers are professionals capable of making professional decisions, yet we seem to have no faith in the ability of teachers to set responsible boundaries for—or to define just what—interactions with students in digital learning forums could look like.

What’s that about?

I guess I believe in the ability of—and the need for—-professional educators to craft responsible models of teacher-student participation in learning-centered digital forums.  Whether we like it or not, education has to respond to the reality that digital communication and networking are going to be the norm rather than the exception going into the future.

Which means we’ve got two choices: The “Ban ‘Em All” approach, which argues that teachers and students should “never, ever” use digital tools to communicate with students for any reason—or the “Let’s Innovate a Bit and Trust Our Teachers” approach, which argues that responsible communication patterns centered on promoting learning can—and should—be crafted by educators sooner rather than later.

I’ll bet you can guess which side of that argument I’d fall on!