Is silence golden?

December 04, 2015 by Bill Ivey

I was browsing Twitter early this morning when I read this tweet by John Spencer: “Ugh. Her biggest complaint of iPads was silence. Would she say the same about books?” in reference to the article “I gave my students iPads — then wished I could take them back” by Launna Hall. I wrote back in agreement, “It's like criticizing families who read morning news on their phones but praising those who read newspapers. Ugh indeed.” and clicked to read the article.

Ms. Hall is a third-grade teacher in a school that recently instituted an iPad program, so right from the start, I knew her experiences and goals for her students might well, and of necessity, differ in some ways from my own. But it turned out our learning goals were, content aside, largely the same. For one, as she said, “They need time to learn communication skills — how to hold your own and how to get along with others. They need to talk and listen and talk some more at school, both with peers and with adults who can model conversation skills.” Indeed, I feel like these are the sorts of important skills on which one, ideally, works throughout life. And iPad use can indeed detract from that process.

But need it? In my own class, the first item in the daily routine is “iPad readiness” - which means closing all open apps, ensuring notifications are turned off, and putting them away and out of sight and ready for morning announcements and/or morning reading. Most days, the iPads remain out of sight for 45-60 minutes or more (usually at least half the class), and some days, our conversations and group activities last so long that we never take them back out.

And of course, iPad use itself can be positive. Ms. Hall described how, “Even with my rookie stumbles, my students did wonderful things. They made faux commercials that aired on our school’s morning news; they recorded themselves explaining math problems; they produced movies about explorers, complete with soundtracks. I recorded mini-lessons for my students to watch at home, so we could 'flip our classroom' and discuss the information in small groups the next day. And I knew we were just getting started.”

And yes, as John noted, silence isn’t automatically bad. Sometimes, in fact, it’s a sign that kids are focused and engaged on individual work. And certainly, my students never hesitate to call me over if they have a question or need feedback, or to ask one of their peers for help and advice; "choice time" can take place in complete silence or with a low hum of conversation depending on what the kids each need.

So is the age of our students the main difference between Ms. Hall’s take on iPads and my own, acknowledging that we here at SBS have several years with the program under our belts now while she and her school are, as she herself points out, still working out details of how to best use the tool? Quite possibly. Certainly, my students seem to be pretty oblivious to the iPads in their backpacks, while she notes her students’ gazes periodically turn to the back of the room during classroom activities that don’t involve iPads. That may reflect developmental differences. Even then, though, I know the school district in Auburn, ME has had a positive experience giving iPads to kindergartners (as detailed in this early report; Mike Muir, who helped with the initiative and now works with the Maine Department of Education, continues to promote and present on the program).

So maybe the main point here is about how best to use iPads as a tool. And that must of necessity vary by age - and, as I’m learning, from class to class depending on the individual kids and the dynamics of their shared community.

In the end, too, everyone in these conversations is focused primarily on learning, and on what kids need.

Exactly as it should be.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: Technology, Education, iPads