During a recent class activity with high school sophomores, I was surprised to find students checking phones and laptops. They were working in various locations near the classroom, to which I had sent them with a small set of basic materials: a paper copy Gordimer’s short story, “The Ultimate Safari;” a paper copy of study questions on which they could record notes from their conversation; and a pen or pencil. When I visited each group to assess progress, I ended up asking what they needed the phone or laptop for. Since I had imagined them discussing the main question together and coming up with a workable answer to report to the whole class, I was caught off guard by seeing the phones and laptops. Because of my own imagination and assumptions, it had not occurred to me to ask that they leave these devices in the classroom. I will next time. This time, though, as calmly as I could, after all groups had finished reporting, I asked each individual to email me with a brief explanation of the behavior pattern: three groups and three different reasons for accessing the phone or laptop. I asked for individual emails to help me understand the origin of this behavior. In apparently honest and clearly expressed emails, each student offered his or her own analysis. What follows here is a paragraph summarizing their responses.
Either explicitly or implicitly, all of the emails indicate a pressure to please or perform. The pattern across the emails shows how these students experienced and then responded to the pressures. For example, one student expressed the pressure to be “good enough”: “I personally think that the reason all of the groups went outside the resources is because often we don’t think that our work is good enough. We always are striving to get the best grade possible, and sometimes we feel as if we need a little bit of extra help.” For this individual, the pressure is tied tightly to grades, even though I never said anything about this exercise being graded. Apparently, sometimes students operate according to this likelihood, whether or not the teacher mentions grades in the instructions. A second kind of pressure appears in another student’s email: “In doing a group presentation there is always the pressure to make your presentation pleasing and good for the teacher.” Even if grades do not go in the grade book for an exercise, students still make decisions according to the impression they think their work will make on the teacher. This same student went on to write that “At certain times people struggled with interpreting the question and no one understood so they looked to outside resources like a laptop for help” [emphasis added]. Not being sure that their work would please the teacher, they turned to an easily available additional resource. Pure ease of access helps explain their response to various pressures they felt. A different student explained the principle this way: “I guess it was an automatic thing to grab the thing that we are most familiar with. The laptop provided more comfort with the assignment.” Not only was the laptop readily available in this particular case, but it has been available for long enough that reaching for it is automatic. In other words, it happens without conscious thought. To put this principle in the words of yet another student, “Another reason is the accessibility of electronic devices. All the groups had an easy time opening their laptops or phones just for a little help.” Accessible. Available. It was as easy as easy can be to reach for one of these tools. Finally, not only is access easy, but the thinking, the intellectual work is easier, when google comes to the rescue. As one student beautifully expressed it: “I think the origin of what happened in all three groups going outside of the resources provided is just our dependency on technology. We’re in the age where everything can be found on Google and it’s easier and more convenient to just look it up rather than racking your brain when you have limited time.” Ease of access breeds automatic behaviors. Such behaviors, as shown in this email, cause dependency. Unnoticed, unconscious–some might say thoughtless or mindless–dependency. I love this student’s reference to “racking your brain” because students need to wrestle with the pressures of performance, and with uncertainty in the face of challenging questions. They need to turn to each other, and listen to each other, in such exercises. They need to stay close to the text, as I had imagined they would, rather than outsource their thinking. At the same time, in order to encourage this wrestling, I need to find ways to reward evidence of struggling. What does such evidence look like? I don’t know, but I’d like to wrestle with the question.