Standing in the Back, Watching the Screens

Standing in the back, I watched the screens.  The students had seen me come in, and a few clearly clicked away from the screen they had open as I entered.  I am, after all, their principal.

Our excellent teacher was lecturing.   Our excellent students were note-taking, almost all of them typing notes into word documents on their laptops.  We are, proudly, a one-to-one laptop school; we are also, proudly but somewhat controversially, a largely unfiltered internet access school (we do block porn and gambling sites, but not social media or gaming).

Standing quietly in the back of the room, the teacher lecturing from the smartboard at the front, it was remarkable how quickly the students forgot entirely I was behind them.   And then the fun began.

Now, at our school we are lecturing a lot less than we used to, and especially so since 1:1 adoption.  But that we are doing so less doesn’t mean we aren’t doing so at all, and it is not my practice as principal to insist otherwise (encourage otherwise, yes; insist otherwise, no).

As the teacher lectured, and she is a very good, very experienced, teacher, her discussion points varied– some of them with seemingly no connection at all to the present day and the world these students live in today, but other points fascinatingly relevant to today’s economic and political realities.

The laptop screens which I watched, from the back, corresponded in near- perfect correlation.   When the topics appeared relevant to students, the note-taking pages appeared; when the topics veered to the arcane and irrelevant, the screens veered to facebook, gaming sites, and other distractions.  Not all of them, of course, not at all.  But a number of them did, in close correspondence to the relevance of the topics.

When our very fine teacher moved towards more discussion, though, asking questions to facilitate conversation, something else fascinating happened.  Nearly half of the screens veered away from both note-taking pages and distractions; appearing instead were google, wikipedia, and other information source sites.   I carefully approached several screens, and took note of their search topics: all of them were dead-on the discussion subject.

Sometimes the queries or page-views were definitional– just seeking the plain facts of what was being discussed.  Some of them though went deeper, asking via google good questions about background to the subject or contemporary implications.  And sometimes, though not often enough, the information being gathered was then shared, orally, into the conversation.  I think of this as parallel processing, and it is going to be pretty hard to persuade me this is anything but positive practice by our students.

What to do?  What to say?

We aren’t going to stop being a 1:1 school, nor am I, as principal, going to wave a magic wand and prohibit lecturing (I will keep working hard to encourage moving away from lecturing).   I do try to assure teachers that they manage their classrooms, and if they wish, they can sometimes direct students to close their laptops and take notes on paper during lectures.  It is sad to me, though, that when we do so, we will eliminate the incredible power for our students of “parallel processing” in their learning, as described above.

We could choose to use wifi/internet filtering tools to block both gaming and social media (especially facebook); this is what I believe many schools are doing, and certainly this is what many are urging me to do.  But blocking is pretty much an all or nothing proposition: campus-wide, all day long.

In blocking and filtering, we are sharply limiting the positive value of social networking (for the value of this, see Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From or Lisa Nielsen’s many posts), and we are deciding that gaming has no place in learning (see Jane McGonigal’s TED talk).  We are also saying, when deciding to ban “distractions,” that every minute a student is at school they are under our dictates for how they spend their time, and that we have determined there is no value for them, even in their break times, to socially network or game; this is a hard proposition for this principal to endorse.

There are no easy answers; I am finding it hard to even find the right way to conclude this post.   What I keep returning to is an approach that favors

  • encouraging our teachers to move away from traditional lecturing and towards digitally empowered PBL (see Suzie Boss’ fine book, Reinventing PBL with Technology),
  • encouraging teachers who do lecture to work harder than ever to make their content relevant and connected to the concerns of students,
  • and keeping the internet open to all, even with the inherent downside that some of the time, some students will use it inappropriately.

I know that many teachers think and feel this isn’t supporting them, and this pains me: nobody wants to be a school administrator who doesn’t support the teachers.  But I haven’t found yet the alternative.

Have you stood in the back of the room, watching the screens?  What are your observations?


  1. Kyle Timms said:

    Jonathan, first off, I am amazed that your school can pull this off and that you can stand at the back of the room and watch kids “goofing off” on facebook etc.

    Lecturing is a skill that I hope never completely diappears, because oral language is so powerful in learning, especially with a master storyteller.

    The most important point you mentioned was that when the kids were asked to engage in a discussion, their first move was to find more information and connections to the discussion. These are kids that know how to learn!

    I hope to hear more about these successes as we begin to have them. I hope someday I can struggle to finish such a fantastic post about true learning.

    March 31, 2011
  2. Good for you NOT blocking those sites Jonathan. As educators, we need to give out respect to our students, in the way we want it returned. We need to teach our students that there is a time and place to check in on our social lives (which CAN happen during the school day) and that moderate use of anything is fine. Once we start realizing that this is part of our world and working with students to guide them through, our kids will be better off.

    I have watched the screens at our schools and our kids are doing amazing things, The best part is that my amazement is lessening because the engagement and output is continuously good. When it becomes the norm, that is when you have achieved success.

    Thanks for your post!

    March 31, 2011
  3. Aaron Akune said:

    Great post Jonathan!

    Although I don’t work at a school that is 1:1, like yourself, I work in a district that has chosen not to block social media sites. This does pose challenges for all of us. Teachers face the challenge of students being distracted by Facebook, etc. either on their phones or laptops. As you eluded to however, when students are highly engaged in their learning the technology no longer becomes a distraction. Rather, the technology becomes a tool that facilitates learning.
    As a vice-principal, I am forced to deal with instances of cyber-bullying and situations where a student has chosen to use his/her smartphone inappropriately. As much as it can be frustrating to work through these situations and sometimes challenging to convince students of the importance of using the technology appropriately, I see these as learning opportunities for students. In fact, in some cases it proves to be a learning opportunity for me also, as students demonstrate to me how to navigate through certain sites in the process of sharing their story. Finally, in debriefing these situations with teachers it also allows me to share a perspective of where some of our students are with respect to their use of social media and just how powerful social networking can be for students and educators.
    In a previous post, I wrote about encouraging the use of social media, not banning it. I invite you to check it out.

    More recently, a couple of our teachers were featured on the news for their use of blogs and social networks with their classes. In each case, it speaks to the importance of connectivity and student engagement. I have written more about it at

    Much like yourself, I feel like some teachers may interpret what I say as a lack of support for them. I’m not particularly comfortable knowing that feeling may be out there. However, as I look around at how professionals are conducting their work nowadays and I ponder how ‘we’ as a society are going to solve some of the global challenges that lie ahead, I ask myself “Is it possible to accomplish all of this without being connected to one another through a network?” And each time, I am left feeling more and more convinced that networking, both face-to-face and virtually, is becoming increasingly more important.

    Is there an alternative? Honestly, I don’t think so. As people who recognize the value and importance of not blocking and filtering, I believe we have to support our teachers in the use and implementation of technology and social networking so that they too come to embrace the social revolution.


    March 31, 2011
  4. Score a point for 21st century learners!
    Having been in a pen-based tablet PC classroom for the past three years teaching foundational math to first year college students, I agree. Our classroom is unique at my college, as the students also have the in-class use of pen-based tablet PC’s. (The repetition of pen-based is intentional – there really is no other way to do math/science than with a tablet that has a stylus – digital ink!). We decided at the onset that the critical piece was to connect to students. We have software that allows us to share screens, go into online groups, answer polls, give a status report, search the internet, chat etc. Teachers load a note ‘framework’ into the software, and students and teacher work together to develop a rich set of collaborative notes. Students can submit (without others knowing) a page to the teacher, just for a quick check over, to ensure they are doing it right, or teachers can ask all students to submit a page as part of an assessment. These can be viewed in class or returned at a later date. Each student stores their e-notes in a virtual binder that they can access from their home computer/laptop 24/7. For students that are uncomfortable letting others know they don’t understand, the level of participation is fantastic.
    Yes, students can get distracted by having the internet at their fingertips. However, it will always be there, so we need to help students to learn how to stay on task when distraction is available. (Besides they probably would have been doodling or day-dreaming in a pen and paper classroom). It is easy if using tablets, because if their pens aren’t moving, they are probably off on a tangent. These are adult learners though, so every 25 min or so we have a 2 min media break and they catch up with their ‘peeps’ either by text or facebook – I check into Twitter…

    March 31, 2011
  5. Casey Allen said:

    I am a student at USA in Mobile, AL. I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 Class and I am also a education major. I see the problems with computers in the classrooms and I also see the advantages. I know most students that bring there computers to the class rooms, in my college classes at least, are not using them for the education aspect. They are playing around on them. I don’t know how I feel about having younger students, highschool students, for example, using them in the classroom. I learned just fine without them. But, on the other hand I know the world is forever changing and technology is on the rise. I quess I play both sides with the using computers in the classroom. Thank you for sharing!

    Casey Allen

    April 1, 2011
  6. Congratulations on becoming a 1:1 school and providing the opportunity for teachers and students to accessing the internet. You articulated your vision for the school and have taken a huge step forward by not filtering gaming and social media sites. I’m sure the students love coming to school. I also applaud you for not chastening students who were “parallel processing.” Excellent post!

    Be Great,


    April 1, 2011
  7. Connie said:

    I’m a student assistant for DML Central at the University of California Humanities Research Institute. We here explore how we can take digital media and use it positively in many aspects, most importantly education. So it’s exciting to see how technology and social media can go hand in hand with education. I understand that it can be difficult to allow students be free to use these social media sites during school hours in fear of being distracted from school work. But, I agree that by not filtering those sites and stressing the importance of technological use over traditional lectures CAN guide these students to become more immersed in their learning. They’ll feel less restricted in their learning, thus it becoming their encouragement to learn and explore.

    April 1, 2011
  8. […] Standing in the Back, Watching the Screens | Connected Principals Some interesting insights into what might be going on behind the raised laptop screens in a 1:1 classroom. It makes a case for keeping network access reasonably open. (tags: 1:1 usqict laptop ttf) […]

    April 2, 2011
  9. Jonathan-
    What an awesome post! It is very interesting how you were able to “observe” (via the students’ chosen activity on their laptops) how engaging and relevant the lecture was to the them. Don’t we, as adults, do the same thing? Tune in and out… doodle? even grade papers during meetings when we feel things aren’t relevant to us? It really isn’t about technology.

    I also love the “parallel processing” part. I couldn’t imagine NOT being able to use the internet while I am at a conference. It’s how I learn… I want to find out more, dig deeper, figure out how to make connections and SHARE (via Twitter). These additional activities are “parallel” to listening and learning. Your students have figured out how to do this- it’s a necessary skill!

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    April 3, 2011
  10. Sue King said:

    Thank you for a very thoughtful and excellent post! As a middle school principal of a school where we also do not block sites and where we are moving towards 1-1, I found great food for thought in your comments. I believe educators and the public need to take a step back before they react to the “dangers and concerns” regarding students being able to distract themselves and engage easily in off-task behaviors that might involve visiting sites not appropriate for school or in cyber-bullying, etc.

    To say “we learned just fine without them” is akin to someone saying they learned just fine in a one room school house or by sitting at the feet of Socrates. Yes, students have learned in the past through various methods and structures. We have to continually ask ourselves, “What is it our students NEED to learn and how will our students learn best?” And in all honesty, educators must realize it is not about THEM. To say what we (teacher, administrator, parent, school board member) is comfortable with or what our opinions and feelings are is missing the point and I believe is one of the things holding our education systems back. Unless our opinions and feelings are grounded in something more than our personal experiences; unless we have carefully considered – based on what we know to be evident in the world as it is today – what competencies, skills, and habits of mind all of our students must develop in order to have opportunities for successful and satisfying lives – what we “feel” is irrelevant to the discussion.

    That leads me to your final comments about supporting teachers – I am a teacher at heart, even in my current role as a principal; I also struggle with the concept of “supporting” teachers. As unpolished and overly-direct as it may be, I truly am more concerned with supporting learning. The conversations I want to have with teachers are about the learning going on in their classrooms. I know this is often received as being critical or non-supportive – even when posed as the question, “So tell me what you wanted your students to learn from what I observed?” Having spent many years in the classroom teaching, I do not understand the negative reactions to that question. I think it is what every teacher should ask themselves as they plan and implement their lessons; I think that is the question groups of teachers should be exploring together (followed by several more questions such as “WHY?” ; “Did they learn what was intended – how do we know?”).

    From standing in the back of the classrooms with and without technology, I think your approach is “spot on.”

    April 3, 2011
  11. Angela Henderson said:

    I sat at the back of the recent Apple Leadership Summit (Singapore) and witnessed a similar scene – not with students, but with educators. Twenty years ago, an acceptable “distraction” was a smoke break. Surely a Facebook “distraction” is much healthier.

    April 4, 2011
  12. […] 10:42 pm in Pedagogy by Paul Left Jonathan Martin is the principal of a 1:1 laptop school school in Arizona. In a recent issue of Connected Principals he reports on his experience with observing students at work by Standing in the Back, Watching the Screens. […]

    April 12, 2011
  13. David Cicoletti said:

    I agree that laptops are incredible and powerful learning tools and I also agree that filtering should be minimal. The benefits of social media and many other websites far outweigh the potential dangers and in a properly monitored classroom, indiscriminate surfing shouldn’t be an issue. If it is an issue, it probably has more to do with classroom management issues that a need for more filtering.

    That said, I think your call for teachers not to lecture so much needs to be clarified. The word lecture has negative connotations when in fact, my educational background was filled with many interesting people and lectures. Teachers are often very interesting, well-traveled and highly educated people. They are elders in the society and to continually marginalize them, as they often are in the media, as out of touch lecturers who thrive on making kids bored is wrong. Teachers are state-contracted employees and they are often more educated in their field than the administrators who are supposedly their supervisors.

    If teachers want their students to put their laptops down, focus and listen to an actual human being speak of actual human experience, they have a right to do so without it being labled “sad” because of some personal quasi sociological pet terminology like “parallel learning” (or whatever you called it) being compromised.
    Also, though some of the ideas in your article are good, it is very poorly written and it just goes to show that the internet is filled with all kinds of poorly edited garbage. Lots of poorly constructed sentences and misplaced or extraneous adverbs. You should have had one of your “excellent, very very good” teachers edit this before posting it online.

    May 24, 2011

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