Ask the kids

My Listening Ears


I have grown a pretty thick skin over the past few years dealing with questions like “What difference can digital technology REALLY make in schools?” For the record, I loathe ‘electronic worksheets’ and my mantra has long been “if you can do it better, simpler, faster in pen and paper then…use pen and paper.” But try to come close to this without digital technology:

Earlier this term our school Moodle site got a nice new design. But things did not just look nicer. The aim was to make Moodle more ‘owned’ and used by students. To my delight, the biggest change has proved to be participation in the student ‘Have Your Say’ forum, now made prominent by a big clickable picture right on the top of front page.

From the very first day, students have jumped on it. Within two months, our forum is sporting over 60 conversations (another dozen already deleted as they lost currency or were clearly spam). They range from the inane, “lolz-full” to very serious, thoughtful stuff in many of the forum’s conversation threads, some with 40 posts or more.

A number of staff have actively joined in some of the conversations questioning, explaining, supporting or sometimes challenging the kids as equals. I have heard a number of comments along the lines “I love checking the kids forum when I get a spare minute, it’s addictive.”

Through the forum, the school community has had a chance to safely bring out in the open and many times incredibly thoughtfully discuss the issues that were considered ‘off the table’. Our forum is in an environment that is open (in mind and method) and very egalitarian. Yes, there are some ranty posts, immature responses and all, but to actually see the kids write and speak out in public, then be prepared to have their views scrutinised, confirmed or challenged is something that is not cultivated in many (formal) classes or so often gets the ‘educational’ label that suffocates the real and raw. This is huge for a school that is (still) suffering from the mentality of fear of standing out, amplified of course by teenagehood itself.

There is no other physical or virtual space like it at our school to bring together students of all ages and year cohorts to speak to each other. There is no other space like this where kids have time, space and (to many) a very familiar method to respond. There is no other space to bring students and staff together to share their ideas safely, and with the reasonable choice of (non)participation that breeds real maturity and responsibility. There is no hiding behind fake names – everyone stands behind their words, for good or bad. There is no shouting, interjecting, excluding, bullying … we are equal.

Technically, the forum is just your stock-standard garden variety of a Moodle Standard Forum, set up in a couple of minutes. The forum rules consist of one line: Keep spam and swearing to yourself. Now, let me remind you that we (our school) are not exactly stereotyped as ‘well behaved’ but rather the other way around. So one would think there’d be lots of trouble?

I moderate the forum with the help of four students (two junior, two senior) and so far, we have only had to intervene twice (spamming) as moderators. At all other times, it has been the students themselves who reminded each other about what the forum is for and what is (not)appropriate. Guess what sticks more – being told by a teacher or told by a bunch of your peers?

The forum has given our administration, teachers, Student Council and all the students indeed enough material to think about for months! And more …

One could ask “What has all that got to do with education?” My response: “Everything!”

It is touching what we, teachers are there for and we should be listening to every day – student voice. It is a crazy, young, hormonal, loyal, moody, clever, honest voice of people we are trusted to spend so much time and achieve so much with. Slowly, things like this are changing the kids from mere cooperators to true collaborators (Cooperate= work together to achieve the requested/ordered. Collaborate= work together to achieve shared goals & agreed methods of achieving them). It moves them from compliance to consideration, from being told to telling, from sharing what they think to shared thinking.

I know that some of my colleagues would knee-jerk at this point: “So you want the kids to be always right and run the show?” If/when it ever comes to that I’d just post the statement in the Have Your Say student forum for the kids themselves to answer probably with far greater maturity, passion and eloquence than expected.

And if by any chance think I am making this up, here’s one of the posts from the forum:

“Keep your opinion to yourself” is a phrase I see constantly repeated in this forum. Have your say is here for the purpose of having one’s say in matters.

Yes, one may say something others may find offensive but I’m sure a lot of which is just poorly worded. It happens, especially when so many people abbreviate and don’t proofread their writings. Anyway, telling someone to keep their opinions to themselves defeats the purpose of this very liberating setup, I could go so far as to say it undermines our democratic state and rights of “free speech” – it’s somewhat over exaggerating, but it’s the truth in a sense.

With people keeping their opinions to themselves mankind would not have gotten anywhere, if Charles Darwin had not observed animal variation and voiced his opinions we would not know of evolution now. If Karl Benz didn’t share his idea of getting from point A to B faster and more efficiently we would not have the ever-popular automobile. If Mr. Lasic had not been so in-touch with our generation and modern learning we would not have moodle and intern this forum to voice our opinions.

Some opinions are somewhat ridiculous (look at mein kampf!), but I am sure we are all mature enough to dismiss such frivolous propositions without the need of jumping on the “keep your opinions to yourself” bandwagon.

Feel free to elaborate on this.

Thank you.

And they did! 20 posts later, the thread is still going. I have used it in my Philosophy & Ethics class too (excuse the gratuitous flattery of my name there 😛 )

What has that got do with education? Can digital technology REALLY make a difference in schools?

Just ask the kids. And listen. Carefully.

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