Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Low Fences; Clear, High Expectations

It occurred to us that when discussing technology/media, and our kids' exposure and time spent in the digital world, it might help to understand where we are coming from as educators with several years of experience in the field. You may disagree with our opinions, or have experiences that shape your current inclinations toward cell phones, texting, social media, etc., that differ from ours, but we'd still like to share with you the things that have shaped our attitude toward technology use in general.
Holly: My first year of teaching (1994) was in a school that was considered to be the cutting edge "technology school" for a local school district. It was a new building, with state of the art wiring (at the time), email was still in its infancy, and the world wide web was a fascinating place to explore. Public school districts had (and still have) Acceptable Use Policies that all students and parents were required to read and sign, sort of a legal contract outlining what the school was providing, expectations for use, and potential consequences of network abuse. In the first few years, educators endlessly discussed and debated how to effectively communicate the expectations and what steps we would take if/when a student crossed the line. We discussed firewalls and filters, what to allow, what to restrict, how we were going to keep kids safe, and how we were going to guide them in using the Internet effectively. I remember a colleague at the time who expressed a concern that no matter what technical protections we had in place, kids would always be able to find their way around them. He was a much bigger advocate of the "low fences, high expectations" school of thought, not only because he believed it would be better for kids in the long run, equipping them with the knowledge, confidence and skills to navigate the digital world, but also because the more content/access we tried to block in the interest of safety, the more we inadvertently blocked for education. After working with students and building my classroom management strategies, I quickly came to appreciate this perspective and have used and promoted it ever since.
Sam: Like Holly, I started teaching in 1995. Technology access (or the lack thereof) wasn't really an issue until I moved to the Puget Sound area in 1999 and began teaching at an organization that formed a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In short order I became the technology specialist/librarian and we got some technology. Without much preparation, we became beneficiaries of a wireless network, state-of-the-art desktops and laptops and a connection to the Internet. We played a lot of catch-up and found that our students, super excited about access to technology they didn't have at home, needed some guidelines and we needed some training. A few years later I found myself at my current school with colleagues that consider technology, and its implications to curriculum and student learning, very seriously and cautiously. An important part of this conversation was the idea of low fences. We focused on strategies we used to address expectations of students during the rest of their school experience and applied it to technology: communicate clear guidelines, have high expectations and place boundaries with low fences. Students almost always rise to the occasion and those that don't face natural consequences based on individual situations. The faculty consensus is that the benefits of allowing students to explore, with adult guidance, technology related choices (and consequences) in real-world situations far outweigh the benefits of high walls and strict boundaries.
First and foremost, we are teachers. It is our job to TEACH our kids how to use technology appropriately, and guide them with some strategies for handling situations that may make them (or us) uncomfortable. Communicating expectations is a huge part of what we do every day as educators. But in addition to laying the groundwork with clear expectations for acceptable use, we must also be there to supervise, explore with kids, have conversations when questionable or uncomfortable things happen, perhaps enforce consequences when boundaries are crossed, and simply be present in the digital environments our kids inhabit. There are so many learning opportunities when we engage with our kids, for us and for them. Though in some cases it may be the only realistic solution, building walls around things to "protect" our children doesn't always work the way we intend it to. We believe that open and ongoing conversations, clear expectations, and helpful guidance benefit our kids more in the long run, because they are equipped with the skills and knowledge that help them make good choices. Even when they reach the age where no one is looking over their shoulder any more.

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