The Interstitial Classroom

The key to collaborative and autodidactic learning
Or, how an English teacher learned to stop worrying and love the Internet

Part of the title page of an 1812 manuscript. This is one of the frankly unbelievable things about Google: We can read thoughts from two centuries ago by clicking a link.

[W]e have to recognize that most great learning happens in groups — that collaboration is the stuff of growth. If we atomize people and separate them and judge them separately, we form a kind of disjunction between them and their natural learning environment.

~Ken Robinson, Changing Education Paradigms

Here’s something vaguely terrifying to start us off: Half of the 18–24 year-olds in this country don’t read books outside of work or school.

You could, of course, look at that statistic optimistically (half of them do read!) but even the article, a particularly smart one by Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic, struggles to hit that note:

Most importantly, the percentage of young folks reading for pleasure stopped declining. [In 2013], the NEA found that 52 percent of 18–24 year-olds had read a book outside of work or school, the same as in the pre-Facebook days of 2002. If book culture were in terminal decline, this is the demographic where you’d expect it to be fading fastest. Perhaps the worst of the fall is over.

Whenever the silver lining is that maybe we’re no longer in terminal decline, the news is bad.

As usual, xkcd has the best answer to the question of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full.

Still, it’s helpful that Weissmann avoids the usual jeremiad (that “TV and the Internet have turned American culture into a post-literate scrubland full of cat GIFs and reality TV spinoffs,” as he characterizes it), because this isn’t about optimism or pessimism. It isn’t even really about book culture. It’s about how complex systems evolve.

And the adjective there, complex, might be crucial. It’s often just a synonym for complicated ( seems to think so, at least), but for our purposes, we need to redefine the terms.

Just shy of anarchy

The clearest explanation I’ve found of the difference between complex and complicated comes from Jurgen Appelo, writing on his site, The Creative Networker:

Simple = easily knowable.
Complicated = not simple, but still knowable.
Complex = not fully knowable, but reasonably predictable.
Chaotic = neither knowable nor predictable.

For all the attempts by various state and national officials to treat learning as a complicated system — i.e., one that can be legislated and mandated and Common-Cored into making sense — those of us in the trenches see its complexities. (We also face those days of pure chaos, but even then, we have reasonable predictability: The bells continue to ring, after all, according to a schedule.)

In fact, one of the frustrating aspects of working in a complex system is a lack of agreement on how to organize, restructure, and police it:

Image from Managing Game Design Risk: Part I, by way of Appelo’s original post.

Which brings us to technology. In education, tech can be simple: a PC for word processing, a PowerPoint presentation, a movie shown in class. It can also be chaotic: cell phones ringing in class, the grammar of texting sneaking into an essay, students discussing hashtags instead of homework.

I’m an English teacher, and many of us have reached an agreement of sorts — a resounding, “Thanks, but no thanks.” We come from a place of easy resistance to technology in the classroom. No less a luminary than Carol Jago speaks for that resistance when she asks us to

consider the 2010 Kaiser Family Media Study. Their research reports that young people ages 8–18 consume on average 7 ½ hours of entertainment media per day: playing video games, watching television, and social networking. These are the same students who tell their teachers they don’t have time to read.

Those 7 ½ hours support every suspicion we have. The research doesn’t end there, either: Nicholas Carr has said that Google makes us stupid and that the Internet shallows our thinking; Douglas Rushkoff has argued that young people might no longer have the capacity to absorb narrative; and somehow more than 500 million tweets are sent every day.

Like Jago, I began my career by lumping all entertainment media together as one anti-English threat. And since I began teaching the same year that Facebook launched, it was even easier to view Facebook as the vector for a plague that wiped out close reading and made thoughtfulness extinct.

In terms of doomsday metaphors, Twitter would be an asteroid that kicks up enough dust to block out the sun. Snapchat is A Handmaid’s Tale, I think. (Image of TweetWheel via Mashable.)

The reality is more complex, I know. Facebook isn’t a proxy for the hybrid, myriad social media used by that 18–24 demographic, especially when most 18–24 year-olds say they don’t really use Facebook. Television has more intelligent narratives and complex storytelling than Neil Postman might have guessed. Video games might be evolving into an art form.

But it’s hard to think well of technology when you’ve seen students spend a study hall — 39 minutes uninterrupted by human contact — hunched over a tiny screen, tapping a tiny bird to the end of its Sisyphean life:

Little known fact: Camus was talking about mobile gaming when he wrote, “One does not discover the absurd without attempting to write a manual of happiness.”

Stunt driving

Of course, Flappy Bird is low-hanging fruit. (It’s also not a reference that will mean anything by the time this essay is finished.) But it’s a teachable moment to have a student immersed in that kind of mobile game — and not just the kind of “teachable moment” that ends with a curmudgeon shaking his cane and talking about how things were in his day.

We might read about the existential despair that haunts Flappy Bird, for instance. We might study Sam Anderson’s meditation on the addictive qualities of mobile games. There is a rich discussion to be had about video game originality and plagiarism, and even one to be had about how games manipulate player narratives.

That feels more complex and fruitful — the kind of unit that deepens thought and gets discussion going. We’re swapping literature out for nonfiction essays, but it’s still Jago’s idea that we “make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day.”

If you look closely, though, it’s a feint. We’ve changed only the textual aspect of English learning. That is a series of essays about digital learning, not the digital stuff itself. When I taught units on video games in the past, I printed copies of those same essays and ran them through the usual mill of annotation and discussion:

That 2011 unit was fun to teach and sparked real debate over issues of art, interactive entertainment, and narrative. But it’s the website that hosted some of those debates that eventually occupied my thoughts — the site I built to archive lessons and directions.

The key to the shift that started that year was, at least for me, a recognition that my goals hadn’t changed. They weren’t being compromised, either. Every teacher has the goal of helping students learn. If you can show us how interpretative dance will do that, we’ll learn interpretative dance.

I was always wary, however, of pedagogy like this:

And this:

Those are taken from the article, “Bring Twitter to the Classroom,” published last year in The Atlantic. It says all the right things. It looks to legitimize Twitter as a way to analyze symbolism in literature. Yet…

Truncating any thought, no matter how deep, into 140 characters just isn’t a good idea. That isn’t a lesson in concision. It’s what Neil Postman described in Amusing Ourselves to Death when he wrote of the inability for smoke signals to convey deep thought — the flattening of communication into fragments. It retains very little of the permanence and power of written discourse.

Yes, we need to make peace with technology, especially the Internet. We can’t cling to a paradigm that makes less and less sense. But this particular use of Twitter is steering into the skid — hoping that we can stuff our old pedagogy into digital machinery to engage students more.

How we all fit into the vehicle is a question for another discipline. (Illustration by Chris Philpot.)

I think, rather than a skid, we’re simply on a different road and maybe in a different car. And if we’re going to belabor the metaphor, I think it matters most that the teacher and student are both involved in mapping the route and driving the vehicle. It’s about utility and efficacy — what the teacher or student can do to improve learning.

Beyond the flipped classroom

The websites I built early in my career were largely archival. I pushed discussion when I could (here’s an early example), but there was nothing that interactive about what we were doing.

Then I learned about the flipped classroom. You can read more about it here, but this is the gist: Students listen to lectures and take notes on lessons at home; then they work out problems and collaborate with the teacher to master skills and knowledge in class. Homework becomes classwork, and the traditional, professorial kind of instruction becomes homework.

(Image created by Knewton and Column Five Media.)

Unfortunately, the only way to run a flipped classroom in ELA would have been to rob English of all its responsive, flexible strengths. I could post lectures and PowerPoint slides online — about books or essays or historical context, I guess — and then ask students to have discussions in class. The focus would have been on literary analysis, though, or on the retention of particular facts and figures that surround literature.

In a Google age, this feels superfluous. It might, I think, actively prohibit divergent thinking, albeit in an unintentional way. Joshua Starr, in an interview with NPR, said this:

I ask teachers all the time, if you can Google it, why teach it? Because we have so much information today. How do you help kids navigate that? That’s critical thinking and creative problem solving.

In literature-driven English classrooms, this is hard to overcome. I believe the only way to adapt — short of using an EMP to knock out all Internet access for the district before reading a book — is to realize that the paradigm shift the Internet has brought means only that literature matters differently. It has and will always have tremendous value:

This is the kind of video that could be used in a flipped classroom: a list of ideas with supporting details that a student would need to memorize for a quiz or a test or a discussion.

In retrospect, I can see a sort of triptych that took shape in my own thinking:

  1. How to protect the Humanities and traditional ELA instruction
  2. How to avoid capitulating to changes in student thinking
  3. How to adjust to mounting pressure on students

The hope was that this particular triptych would be somewhere between Rauschenberg and existential dread.

1/3: The enemy of my enemy

Technology and English — technology and the Humanities, really — are not at odds with one another. It’s been the thread through my thinking so far, but it ought to be made transparent: Nothing can replace the feel of a good book or the rhythm of a good discussion. But, of course, no pedagogy should replace those things.

What we see too often are facile arguments against using technology. Go back to Carol Jago’s essay, note this time her conflation of all electronic entertainment, and then read her conclusion:

With Steven Greenblatt, author of “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” — a Pultizer Prize-winning example of literary nonfiction — I believe with all my heart that, “literature is the most astonishing technological means humans have created to capture experience.” Let’s use that technology to make real change in America’s schools.

Literalizing a metaphor is dangerous. Literature is not a kind of technology. It is, by maybe every metric we have, the best way we have to capture experience and expand our horizons. But it isn’t technology, and that sort of equivocation sidesteps the whole discussion.

Pictured: not literature.

If we listen to the part of us — the atavistic English teacher in us — we lump most technology, and certainly all social media and video games and iDevices, into one giant straw man that we set on fire like Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man.

Jago is right to defend the Humanities, of course. I’m actually and somewhat awkwardly on the record as believing that no discipline matters more. And part of my resistance has always been a reaction to the equally facile arguments for using technology and the Internet.

Go back to those well-intentioned tweets about symbolism. Imagine having students create Facebook profiles for Holden Caufield. Let Google show you how many PowerPoint presentations recycle the Wikipedia page for Animal Farm.

“No, no, no. Symbols only ever have one meaning, children.”

If English isn’t the enemy of technology, traditional English might be. I agree with Paul Graham that literary analysis is a defunct skill, one that is “three steps removed from real work.” I wonder with him why our students “are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.”

When it comes to technology, it’s easy to imagine ourselves as John Keating, leading the charge toward poetry and prose and all the power they provide. It’s harder to acknowledge the complexities involved — and harder still to recognize just how bad a teacher Keating was.

2/3: Neuroplasticity and other difficulties

I used to teach a Mark Morford article that ends with this:

As for the rest [of our kids], well, the dystopian evidence seems overwhelming indeed, to the point where it might be no stretch at all to say the biggest threat facing America is perhaps not global warming, not perpetual warmongering, not garbage food or low-level radiation or way too much Lindsay Lohan, but a populace far too ignorant to know how to properly manage any of it, much less change it all for the better.

This was back when Lindsay Lohan had some cultural cachet. Anyway, it’s an old trope, saying that the younger generation is dumb because it doesn’t read. Harold Bloom was working that cliche in 2003, and he was responding to a book.

Instead of the usual jeremiad, I think we might want to figure out what has changed. We can start by fleshing out that earlier reference to Nicholas Carr, both as evidence of the shifts and as an illustration of how people access this sort of information.

Carr wrote The Shallows, which clocks in at 293 pages. If we’re after a quicker read, we can go to this original Atlantic article on the same subject. And if we’re really pressed for time, we can watch this video introduction:

This not a capitulation, though. We aren’t giving in to immediacy or the lack of stamina in our students. Instead, we’re using a mechanism that allows for choice — while stressing the need for depth.

As another example, consider Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock, which also got a mention earlier. That hyperlink takes us to where we can order the book itself. If we don’t have the time to read the entire book, we can read this review to get a quick idea of it. Or we can take ten minutes to watch Rushkoff’s TED talk on the subject:

Again, this is not capitulation. It is a necessary concession: Our students’ brains are different. So is the brain of every other person tapped into the Internet on a regular basis. Older and more educated folks have an advantage, however, in that we come to that kind of thinking, after a different set of experiences, including substantial ones with literature and fine writing. Our students were born into this world and into this way of thinking.

That is why the Medium essay you’re reading right now is designed to function as my pedagogy functions — with many layers and multiple points of departure. It is a ramiform sort of learning, but one that continually returns to a particular idea or crux. I call it interstitial learning.

I think you’re supposed to have an image every few paragraphs, so here’s the definition.

3/3: A system designed to destroy

The genesis for interstitial learning didn’t come from seeing students fail to process narrative or fail to think deeply, however. That would be capitulation, I think. It came instead from another difference between us older folks and the students we teach: Our students are subjected to a far more damaging and dehumanizing educational machine.

Ken Robinson is probably most succinct and insightful in describing what school does to our students, but his focus is on reawakening creativity. We need that, but we also need to recognize the other cruelty in public education: the manic pressure to do more, and to do it all in less time.

This kind of waking death can come from an anaesthetic, but it can also be caused by repeated stress and trauma.

This manifests in the contemporary obsession with testing, accelerating instruction, and testing again. It keeps younger and younger kids drowning in homework every night. It transforms high school into torture one endures for the promise of college.

Watching this explored in a documentary like Race to Nowhere is sobering enough, but there is always more anecdotal evidence. Elif Koc recounts how she cheated to stay afloat, for instance, while Morwenna Jones writes of her breakdown. Each story — and the hundreds like them — suggests that the pace of modern education is doing real damage to our students.

What this means for ELA educators is that our students are stressed, stretched thin, and increasingly incapable of navigating the rich complexities of the traditional Humanities. The best of them appear to be engaged, but we can’t be certain; we might be lying to ourselves, using hasty generalizations to save our own sanity, or it might just be what Elif Koc describes:

Smart, charismatic kids could go into English class without doing the previous night’s reading, listen to the class discussion for a few minutes, and then join in with ease.

We can’t abandon our traditions, but we don’t want to turn into street-corner preachers, either, our voices drowned out by a disinterested crowd.

What I propose means embedding the hard, desultory process of learning in the technology the students use already. It means we focus on a substructural strength that students lack — a set of traits and skills that can be honed in different ways. This is the process of grade abatement, which is explained here, and which you can see in action here.

If that’s the engine, the interstitial classroom is the machine. It begins to answer our concerns about the process of gradeless learning, and it and helps us to inculcate these universal skills and traits. Interstitial learning shifts and spreads responsibility without diluting the experience.

To pull it together, however, we must understand how each interstitial element interacts.

Click below (soon?) to read Part 2 of this interminable essay, in which the various tools and technologies that make up the interstitial classroom are delineated, with notes on how students and teachers access and utilize each one.