The Rip Van Winkle Effect: Back in the Classroom after Eight Years

Last September I knew I had to make a change, and so I took the plunge and moved back into the classroom after eight years in distance learning.

I decided to leave DL because I really missed the classroom. I wanted to work face-to-face with students again, and embrace the challenges and rewards that come from working with adolescents. Also, to be frank, I felt myself getting a bit stale: the marking drone syndrome was starting to set in at my DL school, and I couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my career. It didn’t help that I wasn’t building curriculum any more; my courses required only the occasional tweak, I didn’t have time for major re-builds, and I didn’t want to develop curriculum in Moodle, our flavour du jour LMS. (It’s a content development platform I despise.)

037-Rip-Van-Winkle-portSo, after a year back in the classroom, what was it like to once again teach in a fairly average suburban school? I suppose the most noticeable change was cell phone use. Back in 2003, I didn’t deal with many cell phones in the classroom. Once I awhile a student’s phone might ring in her purse or his backpack, but the phones would be quickly turned off and the student would be contrite and embarrassed.

But no longer! I feel like a pedagogical Rip Van Winkle; I haven’t been asleep for 20 years, but times have certainly changed. Now the sense of entitlement has vastly increased. Of course I have the right to cell phones in the classroom! Of course I can [not may] text at will! At least most students still understand that taking a phone call is inappropriate. In any case, dealing with cell phones has been a major cause of expended energy, and a largely unwelcome factor in the harried life of a secondary teacher. I’m still considering my policy on cell phones, and I might write about the topic at a later date.

Another major change is the decline in leisure reading. This is not so much a major change as an acceleration of a trend that’s been developing since at least the advent of cable TV. I was aware of the decline during my tenure at DL, of course, but most students who succeed in online education are, by their nature, self-disciplined and relatively well-read. So I wasn’t quite ready for the degree of disengagement from reading exhibited by my classroom students. The majority of secondary students simply don’t read anything outside of school, except – at best – snippets of text or short, digestible (non-fiction) articles.* It’s really quite amazing.

And the effects are tangible. Their capacity to deal with elaborate sentence structure, advanced vocabulary and complex ideas is, I hate to say it, simply less than when I started teaching 20 years ago. If you want to teach literature, almost every unit requires an intense period of pre-teaching. Otherwise, students will have no context within which to frame their understanding. In this kind of world, irony recedes and allusion is dead.

Does this make me a cranky curmudgeon? If it does, then I offer my apologies. But there is simply no other way of saying it: our students have changed, and, academically speaking, not for the better.

This growing realization brings me to a final point. Much is being made of 21st century learners, and how we need to adapt to their “different learning needs”.  However, isn’t this just a euphemism for cultural decline? And if so, is our job as educators to cater to those changes (i.e. to drop standards) or struggle mightily against the tide? I’ve commented on this before (here and here, for example), and will need to reflect on it more as another school year approaches!


*Yes, indeed, this is anecdotal, but my conversations with students consistently support my generalization! Nevertheless, I need to spend more time on research. Here is an interesting starting point for further discussion. This might also help illustrate what I’m talking about.

UPDATE: My son alerted me to a fascinating academic article on the difference between “deep attention and hyper attention”, and the growing predominance of the latter. Thanks Brennan!

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