I’m hesitant to wade into this problem back, as I have done before and saw my Twitter mentions and email capture fire consequently. However a week or so ago, the New York Times released yet another installment from the tired debate over if notebooks (or, by extension, some electronic devices) are bad or helpful to students. This op-ed, as has become the case with each one of these jeremiads, took the latter position. . These experiments definitely show, she claims, that notebooks are a distraction and consequently hurt student learning. Handwritten notes, she argues, are much better for learning. And, she concludes, not only is that true for school students, but “it is not a leap to think that the same holds for middle and high school classrooms, in addition to for office meetings.” As one may guess after seeing such a sweeping claim, Dynarksi bans her pupils from using notebooks in all her classes. What about students with documented disabilities that rely on devices like these for learning effectively? Dynarski says that she makes an exception for these, however:
This does reveal any student using electronics includes a learning disability. That’s a lack of privacy for all those pupils, which also occurs when they’re granted more time to complete a test. Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other pupils when notebooks are used in class.
So pupils with disabilities need to out themselves to everybody, which we understand discourages self-reporting and so accessing required accommodations, but hey…much better than other pupils suffering “learning loss” if notebooks were permitted to run amok at the lecture hall, right?
So what we’ve got here is a class structure that warrants the right to privacy for any student with a disability. That is highly debatable. As Rick Godden and Ann-Marie Womack have asserted, “the ideologies underlying lots of our traditional spaces and traditional practices often fail to take disability into account.” Banning laptops since handwritten notes are deemed better for learning, Godden and Womack assert:
Is all about the assumptions teachers make about pupils. It is all about the narratives educators construct about learning. Often, underlying discussions of proper student behavior and traditional best practices are sparse visions of pupils’ skills and classroom praxis. Seeing a study human anatomy as an undifferentiated group leads to rigorous rules and single alternatives.
Their monitoring applies, I think, to some pedagogical decision where a clinic is conceived of and/or implemented unilaterally. What are we saying to–and about–our pupils when we blithely create policies and procedures that radically shape the pedagogy of our classes? I don’t think the conversation about notebook bans (oreven more typically, technology in the classroom) ever engages this question. As Catherine Prendergast pointed out about Twitter, none of those hot takes recommending for notebook bans has ever presented any perspective from pupils themselves:
This entire laptop discussion is sorely lacking the listeners of all present pupils.
— Catherine Prendergast (@cjp_still) November 27, 2017
The entire debate for notebook bans has taken to a “we know what’s ideal for you” character, which could be OK when I’m attempting to get my son to eat something other than Go-Gurt for dinner, but fails miserably as an intellectual position about teaching and learning. That is a point made repeatedly by those of us who push back against those calls for notebook bans: effective teaching and learning requires nuance and flexibility, not rigid bans. In addition to my contribution to the argument, exceptional scholars such as Jim Lang and Jeff McClurken claim far more eloquently than I did so that unilateral technology bans such as those regularly extended in the op-ed pages of the New York Times are not the reply to improving teaching and learning in higher education. My intent here is to not repeat these debates, but rather further subtract what I find as the larger principles that inform these forecasts for notebook bans, and to interrogate the assumptions upon which these principles rest.
The arguments made by Dynarksi along with her predecessors rest upon study that, in their opinion, clearly shows that notebooks are a distraction and handwritten notes are far better for learning. But when we consider the research they state– most recently the Princeton and UCLA experiments Dynarski alludes to–it is clear they specify “learning” in quite particular, and I’d suggest debatable, ways. These research measured students’ retention of articles offered to them in TED Talks. Yes, you read that properly. Pupils were requested, in 1 study, to accept handwritten notes or notes on a notebook (disconnected from the internet) as they watched a TED talk. Then, following 30 minutes of distraction-filled interlude, they were tested on how far they kept from the talk, both truth and larger concepts. In the other study, students also watched TED discussions, and were advised to take notes because they normally would in a lecture. Both studies concluded that people who handwrote their notes did better retaining the “concepts” of their videos. That is apparently enough for a while to assert that notebook bans can help learning both K-12 and college, but I’ve got a great deal of questions. Can we assert distinguished learning outcomes following a mere half hour? Can TED talks represent the typical instruction and learning adventures encountered by pupils? If the notebooks weren’t connected to the World Wide Web, are not we just measuring typing versus writing notes, rather than the effects of distraction? But most importantly, why are we defining “learning” as merely retention of articles by slickly-produced bite-sized chunks of lecture? If that is what we’re likely to call “learning,” let’s just hand pupils a couple of notebooks, a few pens, and four years’ worth of YouTube videos and call it done.
How learning works? [1910 animation, French National Library]
Neither the Princeton or even UCLA studies, nor all of the other study I have seen mentioned in support of former calls for notebook bans, addresses the very important question of all : pedagogy. If a student is diverted while watching a 20-minute talk about Power Poses, is it because they’re writing notes on a notebook or because they’re no longer than a passive receiver of material that might or might not own a context and purpose to their learning? If pupils are not doing well in a course, is it because they’ve opened up Facebook on their notebook, or because they’re among 500 people crammed into a cavernous auditorium being requested to come after a fifty-minute monologue on State’s Legislation and Classical Economics? Every one of the calls for notebook bans choose the lecture class as their implicit norm, and it begs the question : why are not you studying for the ramifications of long-term lecture delivery on student learning instead of what modality their notes are made in?
If we follow the logic of those sweeping calls for banning technology in the classroom, then we are left with something similar to this: notebooks trigger distractions, so far better to require handwritten notes in order to mitigate any potential device-induced distractions. Yet the same argument can be made for exposing the pen, if doodles should be interpreted as evidence of diverted pupils. Where can we stop? Are pupils to utilize clay tablets along with a stylus to attend our words via cuneiform? The issue isn’t technology, it is distraction. And distraction introduces itself in several of ways: opening an internet browser class, staring from the window, doodling, setting your dream football lineups–just consider what our colleagues are doing on their apparatus through another faculty meeting to see each of the potential manifestations. Distraction stems not from some primal need to store online in the middle of class, but out of when pupils are not part of the learning experience. When pupils are not encouraged to engage in their own learning, but are anticipated to be merely passive recipients of “articles,” we’re guaranteeing that they won’t learn as effectively as they may, and that is true no matter how many notebooks are available from the classroom.
Finally, it comes down to the way we see our pupils. Can we see these as adults, or competent agents in their own learning? Or do we see them as potential adversaries needing policing? Can people see them as opposed to creating their own decisions and learning from the ones that aren’t necessarily the best ones? Or do we see them as requiring regimented coverages to keep them straight and narrow? Can we teach with attention towards participation and conversation–even if that conversation is unskillful or cacophonous? Or do we instruct while keeping our guard up searching for “disruptions” and being ready to pounce? How can we see our students? More to the point, how can our pupils answer that question?
No one is arguing to get a wild-west classroom where notebooks are blaring and anything goes at any time. What those of us who refuse to leap on the ban-wagon are stating, though, is that going too far in the opposite direction could be equally unhelpful. If there’s an activity or conversation where I’d like my pupils to totally revolve around the material and each other, I then ask them to place their notebooks and tablets off for now. If I want a classroom environment that fosters constructive involvement, then I invite my students to help me set the expectations for that environment. Nuance and flexibility are key. Our students learn differently, engage with material in various ways, and use diverse methods to take notes and study. One size most definitely doesn’t match. If it comes to the question of learning and technology, we need to be mindful of Abraham Maslow’s observation that when the only tool you need is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. We will need to get past arguing about notebooks once we should really be speaking about pedagogy, and we will need to invite student voices into the conversation. I’d like to see that modeled at the New York Times op-ed pages, instead of sweeping diktats inspired by sparse evidence, but I’m not gont hold my breath.