When Clay Shirky (journalist, technologist, professor, visionary, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) wrote a blog post about his decision to ban laptops in his graduate classes, the blogosphere’s dialogue on technology in classrooms took on a new tenor. It became impossible to say that only Luddites believe screens and schools don’t mix. Both sides of the conversation were legitimized.
The next step in the conversation is to examine nuance between the poles of “screens always everywhere!” and “no screens whatsoever!” because the conversation at the edges of the spectrum has been well documented. Here’s the one place I want to zoom in: note-taking.
As far as I can tell, most of the negative pushback around screens and schools centers on note-taking. The act of students taking notes is, for many, what makes school look and feel like school. It’s embedded pretty deeply in our routines and our expectations. In my experience as a student, note-taking serves two purposes:
(1) To record the information explored in class. Having documentation of the things that fly by too quickly in the classroom can be valuable to return to later.
(2) To process information actively by organizing it and documenting it. Even if you don’t return to the notes later, the act of creating them can help you retain their contents in your head.
When I transitioned back to the other side of the classroom as a student this fall, I could not even consider taking pencil and paper notes. Dedicating hours and months and semesters to documenting words that would not be searchable, not easily editable, and available only on one device — that is, in a paper notebook — sounded like a terrible idea. I signed up for an Evernote account and haven’t looked back since.
And although I haven’t looked back, sometimes I look around… and that tells a very different story. I am studying Learning Science and Technology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and the level of second-hand distraction available all around me (classmates checking Facebook, writing emails, scanning Twitter) is astounding. Think of all of the layers of surprise here: graduate-level students — at a great university — paying top dollar for every moment in class — studying education — and specifically technology and education — and still there are abundant distractions available on my classmates’ desks. Many professors expect us to bring our laptops to class, and most students seem to take notes on their laptops. But here’s the problem:
Taking notes shouldn’t take more than, let’s say, about 40% of a student’s time in class. Any more than that and you are essentially transcribing what’s happening in class instead of synthesizing, organizing, and thoughtfully documenting what you are learning. Anything more than 40% and it’d probably be more effective to create an audio or audio-video recording of the class to return to later instead. (Apologies if that 40% strikes you as low — I recognize that I’m on the low-end of the spectrum. I probably stick around 20-25% as my cut-off personally. Think of it as x% if you’d prefer.)
The challenge then comes with the other 60% of the time (or 100%-x% if you’re following your own figures). What is the screen doing for you when you are not typing notes? Active learning happens in all of the moments in between those blips of documentation, and it’s surprisingly hard for students, young and old, to come to grips with that. Just because you can jot down a few notes between social media updates doesn’t mean you’re paying attention. I, as a teacher, have a tremendous responsibility to teach that to my students. I don’t want to get rid of screens in my classroom; I feel obligated to help students address that 60% of their learning experience. The fact that students everywhere seem to be failing with this doesn’t make me want to surrender to it and avoid it. There’s got to be another way.
So here’s what I propose: let’s stop having a conversation about whether or not we should ban laptops from classrooms. Instead let’s start a conversation about taking notes and see where we go from there. Here are some of the places I think we can begin:
- Why are students taking notes? Is it to have records of class material?
- If so, why should all students be taking notes separately? Could students take notes collaboratively? Or could two students per day be responsible for taking notes?
- Clay Shirky tells us that we live in an age of abundance, and information is no longer a scarce resource. Why should students race to take notes at pace with the class when there are dozens of other way to generate documentation of a 40-minute class? The nuggets of information that emerge in class should not be so hard to collect and preserve.
- Many students have positive note-taking experiences by having note-buddies to share note-taking responsibilities with, or by taking notes after the class is over (rather than during class). Why not spread these techniques to more students?
- How many students return to their notes later anyway? Are we sure these records are worth the expense we’re suffering to create them?
- Why are students taking notes? Is it to provide an active way to process material?
- Clearly note-taking on screens is not a good way for many students to process material. So rather than get rid of the screens, let’s reimagine our expectations about what it looks like to be a responsible student, and let’s try giving students opportunities to process material in new, even more compelling ways.