The New York Times is ran a fascinating article yesterday about the role of social media in the classroom. And part of what makes the article so interesting isn’t in the article at all: it’s in the comments that appear after the article. They alternatively endorse and push back on the teaching strategies in the article. Many reference the image above and talk about what they first thought upon seeing it: gosh, there are a whole bunch of kids in a room, and nobody’s talking to anybody.
Then I looked closer at the image, as I couldn’t shake my own question: why are they all clustered so closely together if they’re “not talking face-to-face”? And then I saw it. The trio of girls in the center do NOT have laptops. They’re clearly engaged in a face-to-face discussion. Might this be a variation on the Socratic Seminar method in which an inner circle of students engages in conversation while the outer circle observes? This “inner/outer circle” really got under the skin of my SI 643 students this term when we debated the merits of book clubs versus Socratic Seminars, in part because half the group was muted and reduced to passive observation status while the inner circle got the cognitive workout. Neither role felt really fair to them.
With that possibility in mind, it seems that there’s no doubt that a Twitter-based (or other-based) backchannel could definitely enhance the observational experience for those currently resigned to passivity. There is definitely value to observing peers at work and talking about what you see. We have reams of professional literature that supports the value of peer observation as a means of growth, especially so when it is supported by discussion about what you see. As an example, the entire philosophy of Lesson Study, in which peers observe peers in instructional settings, supports this technique.
Watching others gives us new strategies for how to engage in face-to-face dialogue when it’s our turn. What the backchannel does is allow them to engage in conversation not only about the content but about the manner in which the discussion is unfolding. It takes an instructional method that has seen success (it’s not called Socratic for nothing … it’s been in effect for thousands of years) and deepened it.
Now I might be wrong, but it seems to me that the Grey Lady missed part of the story. So much depends on context, doesn’t it?