They might not be paying attention

If you could secretly observe each of your students during class one day, what would you see them doing?

I hope I would see my students all on task, listening intently to me (or their classmates), contributing to discussions, taking thorough notes, working collaboratively during group time, and getting the most they can out of each lesson.

That’s what I think I see, for the most part, when I scan the room or walk among the tables during class. But we all know that student behavior changes the moment we make eye contact or approach. Phones are slipped into pockets; notebooks are opened; computer games are replaced by google docs. Teacher Over Shoulder.

Last week, my AP Psych students completed a “naturalistic observation” project, in which they quietly and anonymously observed one classmate’s behavior (in any class) for 10 minutes out of each class period all week. The point of this activity — which I got from another AP teacher — was simply to practice structured observation skills and see if their initial hypotheses about student behavior were right or wrong.

What they found was a wake-up call to me. The students coded the behaviors they observed — for example, “A” for “listening attentively to the teacher and/or taking notes” and “P” for “looking at or touching phone.”

Some of the data sheets they turned in were just rows of Ps. Phone, phone, phone, phone.

Our students are spending enormous amounts of time on their smart phones, and they’re not using them to research current events or look at school web pages. They’re using them to distract and entertain themselves, all day long, rather than engaging in class.

When they weren’t on their phones, many of them were “D – dozing off” or “HW – doing homework for other classes.” Too little time was spent focused on the lesson. The time we spend talking about curriculum, preparing lessons, and writing tests just seems fruitless if we can’t get the students to engage.

What can we do about it?

First, we have to recognize this problem. I know I don’t see it happening in my class, from my vantage point, but I’m sure that only makes me naive. No matter how compelling I am, I can’t always compete with Twitter and Instagram. We need to gather this data on ourselves.

Then we need to figure out what we can do differently. One of the interesting findings in my students’ research was that their classmates were not always off task. Engagement was lowest at the beginning of the hour, but after 5-10 minutes, students started to settle down to work. Also, students were far more likely to be engaged if they were participating in a discussion (a Socrative seminar, for example) or completing a group task, like a lab.

We need to work on transitions, not just assume they are ready when the bell rings. And we need to study our students’ engagement patterns, so we can develop strategies that exploit this information. If students are really on task after 10 minutes, that’s when I should be presenting critical new information. If students are more engaged when they have group work time — which is contrary to my perceptions — then I need to incorporate more of that.

The tricky part is getting the data. I can’t hire Psych students to conduct these covert observations all the time. They need to engage in their own school work.

Fortunately my school has embraced the “micro-teaching” evaluation system, which involves recording your class for 10-15 minutes and reviewing the video with colleagues. To that end, the school recently bought a few GoPro cameras.

I joked it about it at first, but I think I’m going to ask one of my students in a back corner to wear the GoPro, so I can see what really happens from his or her vantage point. I’m a little worried about what I might see, but if it can help me improve, I’ll try it.

If students aren’t engaged in our classes, they aren’t learning. And if they aren’t learning, then we aren’t really teaching.