Don’t blame the kids

David Warlick writes one of the most popular blogs in the education and technology space. He has inspired quite a few educators to take a harder look at technology. David often writes about how students are using technology outside of the classroom in ways that surpass their use inside the classroom.

But today’s blog, Be Very Careful about Student Panels, is a real shame that may do damage in the effort to create opportunities for authentic student voice. Warlick relates an experience where he was hired by a school district in Pennsylvania to keynote a day-long celebration of their new laptop program. After the keynote he moderated a panel of 12 students (four times too many).

The problems began even before the students took the stage. First, three students, “…apparently panicked at the crowd of teachers and fled out a side door.” Next, the remaining nine students didn’t perform as anticipated.

First of all, these were bright kids. They were funny and they were compelling — the kind of students any teacher would love to have in their class. But I could tell pretty early that things weren’t going where we wanted them to. My first question was, “How many of you use IM, text messaging, social networks, video games, etc.” The all raised their hands for IM and text messaging, and most raised their hands for Facebook (MySpace seems to be passe now). Only one, and finally two then three, admitted to playing video games.

I realized that many of the questions that I’d planned were not going to work, because I wanted us to learn what these kids were learning from their outside the classroom information experiences and how they were learning it. Instead, we learned that they all spent all of their time doing homework and considered video games a distraction, and the few minutes they spend with Facebook, they consider to be mindless interactions.

David analyzes the problem:

We had the “A” students who were enrolled in AP classes. These were the kids we don’t have to reach, the kids who do what they’re told and who have learned, from many years in the classroom, to tell us what they think we want to hear.

So, what is David’s solution? Just make sure you prep the kids to repeat your message:

But I know now that you have to be very careful in selecting the kids, and you might even consider holding a pre-meeting with the panelists to orient them to what you’re looking for. You want to get out of the classroom and you want to talk about (learn from) the information experiences that are distracting to them and disrupting to us. We want to learn about those experiences.

This is so wrong on so many levels.

  1. Student voice is not about kids talking. It’s not about having them parrot your message, even if you think your message is “subversive”
  2. Students do have opinions and different life experiences that adults can learn from. But we can’t expect them spill their guts in front of an audience and to trust a stranger who shows up for a few hours and will never be seen again.
  3. This cannot be fixed by simply picking different kids. Sometimes unconventional students will give you a better “show” but isn’t student voice about ALL students? Can’t we learn something from Type A students AND at-risk students?
  4. Student voice comes from action. It’s developed as adults and students work together, build trust and accomplish something real that’s worth sharing with an audience.

Now, a prominent voice in educational technology is warning everyone to “be very careful about student panels” – what a great excuse not to even try.

Kids shine when they share their work, and they get better at it when caring adults work with them to support their project development. They should be praised for real accomplishments and the ability to articulate them, not what happens to fall out their mouths. It’s a failure of adults not to create those conditions EVERY DAY.

Article coverI hope that some of David Warlick’s readers will take the time to read Sharing Student Voice: Students Presenting at Conferences. It’s a 12 page PDF based on decades of experience from Generation YES educators and experts on enabling student voice. You can find it, along with other free resources on the Generation YES website.

In it, there is a special section specifically about student panels. I blogged about that section a while back, because it’s such a misunderstood topic. David, I hope you read it before you attempt your next student panel.


7 Replies to “Don’t blame the kids”

  1. Good analysis of this event, Sylvia. Imagine asking 12 front-line workers to speak openly about their work in front of their peers, supervisors and executives of the company. There is a definite power relationship in school and I agree that there’s no reason for kids to spill their guts in front of the powers-that-be.

    It’s easy to speak out when you’re a consultant who has flown in for a day and has nothing to lose. I know; I am one 😉

    I have to agree with the kids though; Facebook is “mostly” a waste of time.

  2. Sylvia,

    thanks so much for this post. I think that you are probably correct in pointing out that the message in my blog may have seemed more like a warning than a caution. I have added some lines to the post, trying to minimize this, and pointing to your blog.

    At the same time, I have to say that you have pretty dramatically over characterize the event and our intent. That said, I think that what you’ve included here is important, and I’m very happy that you have added it to the conversation

    Thanks, sincerely, for all of your contributions…

  3. Sylvia, regardless of the intent of the post you’re responding to, the content of your own post is so right on.

    Thanks for posting it. Keep us on our toes.

  4. Sylvia,

    I agree with you about the power of student voices.

    We held student panels for our teachers over two days, in panels of four, and had excellent results and conversation, that was always different.

    We realized we needed more diversity gradewise, but by having students of many different grade levels and interests, we learned a great deal. Students have so much to tell us.

    I haven’t had a chance yet to read David’s post, which I will do–picked up yours from Twitter.

  5. I think that if we’re talking about how school could be different, sometimes we don’t want to talk with students who have been able to buy in to how the game is to be played, regardless if they like it or not.

    Likewise, finding a group of students who’ve not been able to buy in (especially at the HS level) would be easy, but perhaps not the group of kids who would be “eloquent” in the eyes of the audience.

    I agree that it’s challenging, but the piece we need to consider the most is that it’s often difficult to imagine what education could be like if you’ve never experienced anything different than status quo.

    While David’s blog has some merit, Sylvia, I agree that some who aren’t risk-takers will shy away from listening to students. I’ve taken students to present at educator-focused workshops and conferences and am stymied as to why we’d ever want to talk about school improvement (of all varieties) in their absence. I hold the map and compass to where I want the students to go, but dang it, it’s also my job to teach them how to use that equipment and also to stand back to watch them learn by experience too!

    (wanted to post this morning when you tweeted, but was too focused on NOT teaching kids!)

  6. My problem with so many adult educators who have left the classroom is that they don’t seem to any longer have any connection with any young people beyond their living room.

    It doesn’t have to be that way.

    But I blog about that all the time and get a stony silence, for the most part. 😉

    Here’s to gadflies, Sylvia. Please continue being mine, too.

  7. I appreciate both this post and your link to the 12 page PDF file on students at conferences. I am going to look at that carefully as we consider adding a student strand for K12Online next year. I wonder if situations like this call for a blend of asynchronous videos with interviews and documentaries about and by students, and then some interactive Q&A. If there are specific questions and “answers” conference conveners are looking for, then certainly those can be “controlled” more with pre-recorded video. Live student presentations ARE much messier and difficult to predict compared to pre-recorded video. I think your point about inviting student voices to a conference should be much more than just wanting to hear kids read a script, act the part of a parrot, etc. is well made. And, it is great that David is hearing you and responding.

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