As a teacher, I spend some time in the front of a classroom. Because of the nature of my full-time work—one-on-one academic support—I generally teach only one face-to-face class each year, but it is enough for me to track the changes in educational engagement through the years. Or is it?
As I stand in front of the class, with students working away on their computers, I (used to) make the assumption that they are taking notes or otherwise engaging in educational activities that will ultimately enhance their learning. That’s what I want to believe, so I create that reality in my head.
Fast forward to this summer, when I am taking a face-to-face class. This is the first time I have been a student in a physical classroom in many years, though I won’t say how many. I mean, I have attended various trainings (as recently as this past February) which mimic a classroom situation, but in those “classrooms,” it always seems as though people are interested in learning the material so they can bring it back to their own workplaces and put it to use.
This week was my second class in a summer-long Masters-level research class. I am not in a degree program; I am taking the class because I have research I want to conduct, and I don’t really know the best way to start. At this week’s class, one of my work colleagues was seated on my right. She and I were actively taking notes, discussing the topic, and beginning to get excited about our research projects.
On my left sat a fellow classmate, a young woman I have seen before, but I don’t know. She arrived right before the class started, took out her computer, and immediately picked up a message stream that she had left mid-conversation. To her credit, she also opened a document window where she could take notes during the 2+ hour class.
Class began, and she continued to occupy herself with messaging. Somehow this new generation of students hasn’t learned that they can say, “Hey, I’m in class right now. I’ll message you later,” and they don’t find it important to do so.
But this woman wasn’t engaged in class at all. Before 4:30, she removed a glass container from her bag and opened it on the desk. Inside was a nice looking dinner salad. She removed another container from her bag, opened it, and poured dressing onto the salad. Then she spent the next fifteen minutes crunching away on her dinner. (Did I mention this is a two-hour class? Have a snack before class, and you can have dinner at 6:15). When she was done, she dropped her metal fork into the glass container (not even attempting to be quiet), snapped the cover on, and put the container back in her bag. Then, she promptly returned to messaging her friend.
While I was trying to pay attention to the professor and concentrate on the material, I had developed a deep curiosity as to this woman’s non-stop in-class extra-curricular activities. Weren’t these activities just as effective when done from one’s couch in the comfort of one’s living room? Why would someone commit the time and money to a class when she wasn’t going to exert any effort beyond being physically present?
When I looked at her computer screen again, she was browsing the Crate & Barrel website, scrolling through dishes. The woman sitting to her left was commenting on the ones she liked best. In class. While the professor was lecturing. Clearly, taking a class means something different to these women than it does to me.
Perhaps I have an archaic notion of classroom behavior, left over from my student days long before the advent of portable computers. However, I don’t believe that respect for someone teaching a class has completely gone by the wayside. And I know for certain from all the studies I read that the best way to learn is to actively engage with the material.
We are only two classes in, and this experience has been eye opening for me. When I stand in front of my class in September—a class that is designed to help students make connections, discover how to learn, and serve as a foundation and resource for college life—I will tell my students that our classroom will be technology-free. Because sometimes, the best way to learn how to make connections is to disconnect.