Technology, teenagers and books


Ripley St. Thomas Academy, Lancaster

It has been nearly three years since I wrote a post which considered the question of the role of books in today’s digital world – That post led to a surprisingly heated discussion about the value of books and a comment quoting Iain McGilchrist.


“Life can certainly have meaning without books, but books cannot have meaning without life. Most of us probably share a belief that life is greatly enriched by them: life goes into books and books go back into life.” (p. 195, The Master and his Emissary)

This week I have watched a BBC documentary that seems to support McGilchrist’s view. The title of the documentary was ‘The School that got Teens Reading’. It caught my attention because it was filmed at a local secondary school, Ripley St Thomas Academy in Lancaster which is purportedly the biggest state school in Lancashire and has received an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted Report. Despite this the Headteacher bemoaned the fact that too many of her teenage pupils could not be persuaded to read a novel. Her attempt to solve this problem was to call in the help of actor and comedian Javonne Prince who owned to having left school at the age of 16 without being able to read properly, but who was introduced to Shakespeare and the power of books in drama school and now believes that discovering books changed his life. The Headteacher gave him three weeks to convert 15 reluctant and resistant teenagers into passionate readers. These pupils were selected because they admitted to not having read a book for the past two years or more.

Needless to say Javonne found he had a tough job on his hands and after a rocky start had to call in the help of two friends, Helen Skelton, a children’s author and TV presenter and Russell Kane, another comedian and actor. Ultimately through the use of a variety of strategies they achieved success, at least in the short-term, with 11 of the pupils. Only time will tell whether these teenagers become long-term passionate readers.

What was interesting were the initial attitudes of these teenagers, who said things like ‘I don’t do reading’, ‘Reading is boring’ and that books are not relevant to their lives. They claim not to have time to read and would prefer to be on Facebook, or watch films on Netflix, TV or YouTube. If they need to know something they Google it on their phones. They like a ‘quick fix’ to any questions they have. A shot of the pupils at the end of the school day in the school grounds showed most of them on their phones. One pupil said, ‘I don’t think I have the attention span to get into the book and understand the character’.

During the documentary reference was made to various pieces of research, clearly selected for the purposes of the documentary and unsubstantiated in any way, but nevertheless interesting and no doubt it would be possible to check on them. The following statements were made:

  • British schools’ teenagers don’t like to read. Reading novels has fallen out of fashion all over the country.
  • Year 10 (14 & 15 years old) reading rates have declined
  • The percentage of 11-17 year olds who don’t read at all has more than doubled in recent years from 13 to 27%
  • Research shows that teenagers who read for the joy of it are much more likely to get a better job as adults.
  • Research shows that teenagers who spend just an hour a day playing on their screens can drop the equivalent of two GCSEs
  • Parents play an important role. Primary school children who are read to every day are more likely to enjoy reading into adult life.
  • Most teenagers spend 4 hours a day online which is double the time of 10 years ago.
  • Reading is one of the best ways to strengthen empathy. Some American psychologists believe that reading literary fiction helps us recognise other people’s emotions and understand how they feel.

Iain McGilchrist has also talked about how children are losing the ability to empathise –

The documentary did not at any time suggest that the problem lay with technology; rather it attempted to make the case for the valuable learning that can come from reading novels. One thing that did come out of the programme is that there is little point in having the whole class read the same book, since each child/teenager has their own unique personality, skills and interests. What was not discussed was why the teenagers were asked to read a hard copy of the same book. If they had used technology (Kindle, phone etc.) they could each have read a book of their choice, but presumably this approach would not fit with the school’s assessment constraints!

Engaging learners with technology

How do you ensure that learners engage with the technology?

This is the second question from my list and my immediate response is similar to my initial thoughts about the last question. My primary concern, as a teacher, is to engage learners with learning. Technology is only a tool – a means to an end.

Most of my career has been spent in teaching face-to-face and I have taught all ages from four year olds to fifty-four year olds and older. I like to think that I have been a successful teacher, although teachers are never satisfied with their work. But I was never a ‘performer’ type of teacher – so I didn’t engage students through the sheer weight of my personality. So how do I engage my students with learning?

Sometimes we just can’t engage our students – we and they for some reason are together in the wrong place at the wrong time. But mostly I think teachers can engage students through their own passion and enthusiasm for and expertise in the subject, through always having the students’ learning interests at the forefront of everything we do, through recognising learners as individuals and building mutually respectful relationships (although this is tough with large numbers of students, it is not impossible) and through ensuring that the activities we plan for them are worthwhile. Humour, or a sense of fun is also very useful!

So how do we do this, if we can only meet our students online? First we need to establish an online presence and obvious though it may sound, we can only do this by being online. It still surprises me how many tutors will set up online courses and then disappear, leaving the students to get on with it. These tutors then complain that their students won’t engage online. I think it is possible for tutors to take a back seat once the course has become established but not at the beginning!

Overall we have  to be there as much as we would in a face-to-face situation. I always think that the beginning of an online course is critical – that’s the time when I work the hardest to engage the learners – I model and demonstrate (Stephen Downes’ definition of teaching – see Slide 36); I ensure that students get all the technical and ‘wayfinding’  (Darken and Sibert) support that they need (100% access throughout the course is paramount to a good learning experience), both through my actions and through the information I provide; I negotiate and so make explicit the norms of the online learning community; I socialise and build relationships and encourage students to socialise and build relationships with each other; I do a lot of ‘back channelling’, checking on students who haven’t come on line, asking if there is anything I can do to help; and I recognise that for some students they will be doing two things – getting to grips with the subject matter at the same time as becoming comfortable with an unfamiliar environment. I also have to ensure that all this happens within worthwhile and meaningful activities, so that students don’t think – this is a waste of time – and go away never to return!

Writing this has reminded me that when I used to teach school children, I would allow at least one week and sometimes two at the beginning of a new term for this process of familiarisation with my expectations – introducing the classroom norms, my expectations of how we would interact, negotiating classroom rules and learning about their expecations. When I moved on to teaching undergraduates, I would spend  the first session doing this – although sometimes their initial behaviour wasn’t a lot different to that of school children and I would need to spend more time establishing norms!

Engaging students with technology is similar to engaging them with the library, or introducing them to the students union activities, taking them on a campus tour and so on. We need to do the same things online, because without time spent on this famialiarisation process students will not feel safe enough or sufficiently comfortable to engage fully with the learning process.

So have I answered the question? To summarise – the key points for me are:

  • focus on learning before technology
  • use all the strategies that you would in a face-to-face situation

But a final additional point is  that I wouldn’t dream of using a technology that I wasn’t familiar with myself, unless I had negotiated with the students first that we needed to learn about it together – and for that to happen, the technology would need to be at least as important as the subject being taught, or enable the learning of the subject to be enhanced.

I think I have rambled a bit. Hopefully I will be more concise and succinct when I am actually asked this question!

Concept/Mental Mapping

I’m interested that this has been chosen as an assessment tool for this course. If my understanding is correct then people that have signed up to be assessed have to produce a mental/concept map on a fairly regular basis.

I’m interested in this because I first began to explore concept maps at least 15 years ago. At the time I was a primary school teacher (ages 5-11 in the UK) and I was a science graduate with an interest in developing science knowledge and skills in the children I was teaching. Concept mapping seemed the ideal tool. I read up on Novak and Novak, and although their work was never originally intended for applying to young children, the primary science journals at that time were full of it. So I tried it out on the 5 and 6 year old children in my class

I won’t go into how I set it up, but what I found extremely interesting was that it wasn’t the children that I expected to be good at it who were. I had some extremely bright boys in my class that year, who just could not get their heads around it. And then there was Valerie – youngest in the class, wouldn’t say ‘boo to a goose’, was never noticeable in any other way, who was a complete whizz at concept mapping.

So is Valerie brighter than Ian and Stephen (the bright boys who couldn’t do it). No I don’t think so. Valerie just learned in a different way and internally organised her knowledge and information in a different way. The boys and Valerie just learned differently.

So this worries me a bit about using concept/mental mapping as an assessment tool, as some people simply don’t learn this way. It doesn’t make them any less able as a learner. They just learn differently.

Discussion via Ustream (120908)

This was more enjoyable and productive than the Elluminate meeting earlier in the week.  I attended both simply out of curiosity about how the technology works, particularly the Ustream session – since I haven’t attended one of these before.

I nearly abandoned the Elluminate meeting in the middle. I’m afraid I got bored. There was a lot of background ‘chatter’ and we never seemed to get to anything substantial to talk about. I haven’t yet worked out how to get hold of the microphone and am not even sure that I would want to.

The difficulty I have with Elluminate and Ustream and similar audio/video sessions is that I can’t cope with the chatting/drawing etc. that goes on at the same time as the speaker. In the Elluminate session the chat was simply that – chat – so it was fairly easy to ignore, but in the Ustream discussion there were parallel conversations going on. I know the youth of today are supposed to be able to do about 10 things at once, but I can’t. I need to be able to focus, concentrate, listen and channel my thinking, to learn. So I focussed on the speakers, but there was also interesting stuff going on in the chat and I felt I was probably missing something. I do take my own notes at the same time though, so I am doing 3 things at once – reading, writing and listening – I just can’t read, listen and write in two places at the same time!

Three key points for me in the Ustream session.

1. The skeptic thread. I was interested that this was raised at the beginning of the session and I think the view was suggested that vigorous debate could be offputting, i.e. might be preventing some people from engaging in discussion forums. This possibility is worthy of further discussion (although I didn’t think the Ustream session was the place for it) and I might come back to this in another post.

2. There was brief mention of the relationship between connectivism and communities of practice. Either SD or GS said that a community is really a certain type of network with a particular shape that restricts certain types of activities and enables others. (Presumably we’ll be talking about types of networks later on in the course). I’ll probably come back to the relationship with communities of practice. I think I have read somewhere that Etienne Wenger thinks there is a distinction between networks and communities, but I’ll have to find my reference and check it. I know that EW thinks that it doesn’t matter what you call a CoP and SD also said this. In his words – a CoP is a place where learners can see practice modelled and demonstrated. According to SD words don’t have fixed meanings.

3. I did ask a question in this session  – ‘Could they comment on how the theory of connectivism could be applied to children’s learning?’ My question got lost in the chat, but someone else must have asked something similar as GS started talking about K12 children. I didn’t find the answers here very satisfactory. It was suggested that some contexts such as young children’s classroom need more structured learning and SD suggested that the connectivism theory needs to explain how cats learn. I’m not sure how serious this was, but I would say ‘yes it probably does’, just as it probably needs to be able to be able to say something about how young children learn. Piaget, Dewey and Vygotsky all had something to say about children’s learning and Skinner and Pavolv worked with animals. If I’m going to make sense of connectivism as a learning theory, I need to be able to be clear in my own mind about how I would practically apply it in a classroom with any age of learner.

So some questions arising for me out of this session are:

  • Do learners who can multi-task have the edge when thinking about connectivism, or will this multi-tasking lead to learning being spread more thinly and possibly being more superficial?
  • Does online discussion lead to lack of rigorous debate, criticism and challenge?
  • What is the difference between a community of practice and a network?
  • How can the theory of connectivism be applied to children’s learning?