Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Maybe being glued to a computer screen late into the night isn't a bad thing

Thinking* Chapter 3: The Lazy Controller, part 1

There are many reasons why electives such as Journalism and Yearbook are so important ... and fun to teach, which is why I think all classes should be more like them. For one, these are two classes that create products that are distributed to the school and wider community, that become records of the school year. How many classes require students to do real work that is then seen and critiqued by an actual audience? Not enough. Speaking of being seen, publications get everyone in the school actually reading, hopefully getting the young and old into the habit of picking up professional newspapers and magazines. Another reason is that everyone loves to talk about the importance of critical thinking skills (without ever really defining them), and producing a school newspaper or yearbook requires those skills -- students don't discuss critical thinking in some abstract way; instead, they discuss, debate, investigate, and make decisions about big ideas. Student leaders get a chance to practice real leadership, staff members get a chance to collaborate and stretch their creativity, and administrators get taken to task for decisions and policies. What I love best about teaching these courses is what is known as flow.

Several years ago, on the day before deadline, students decided they would stay in the computer lab after school until they were done. They were working on issue 1 of the new year, and the new editors vowed to improve on last year's group who had missed the monthly deadline a couple of times. The design editor hooked up his computer to the projector so that others could see what he was doing. The editor in chief alternated between her screen and the classroom's big screen, snapping instructions for headline sizes and photo placement. The copy editor, curled up in a corner of the room, shouting occasional frustrations at articles submitted earlier that day: "What's the matter with these people? Don't they know how to use quotation marks?" The photo editor, oblivious to the hustle and bustle around her, sat with headphones on, patiently cropping and improving images. Hours passed, and work continued. When it all appeared complete, everyone gathered around the big screen, carefully examining each page and rushing to their own computers when someone spotted a mistake. No one was tired. No one needed to go home. Good thing it was Friday, because they finished well after midnight.

I've observed similar scenarios at different schools -- at an inner city Chicago school, a boarding school in India, an elite international school in England. Each time, when a group of committed students with a shared goal get together, they work. In the moment, they're not worried about grades or college applications or future contests. They're worried about putting together the best possible publication they can. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, which is when people "expend considerable effort for long periods of time without having to exert willpower" (40). While experiencing flow, people "lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems." I've seen it many times, and it's interesting how the same teenagers who can be described as lazy or apathetic by some teachers all of a sudden gain focus and willpower when working on a real task.

Surely a very small percentage of any group of students would experience flow in Journalism class, but there are many activities across the disciplines that can grab students similarly. This is why I believe students should do real work in their classes. They should do the work of scientists, historians, mathematicians -- whatever that work is, as long as it's real. Not all students will become passionate about all (or even most) of their subjects, but wouldn't it be something if many students could regularly experience flow in the classroom? In order to help students become passionate about something, it is important to find passionate teachers. The most impressive question I've ever been asked at an interview -- the question that made me think that I want to work for this principal -- was this: What excites you about your subject? If teachers are excited, students will be swept up, and the only problem we'll have to worry about is making evening phone calls home to explain that we're almost finished with this month's work.

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