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The Dying Art of Instruction in the Digital Classroom

Bibliotheque Municipale, Rouen, France/Bridgeman Images
Illustration of a philosophy lesson, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by Chretien Legouis, France, fourteenth century

Is it possible to lose a foundation stone of one’s culture without even having identified it as such? This year will be my last year teaching at the university; I’ve decided to throw in the towel three years before retirement age. There are a number of reasons behind this decision, but one is definitely the changed situation in the classroom. Even at post-graduate level, it is getting more and more difficult to feel that one has the attention of students or that something really useful is happening during the lessons.

Of course, teachers have been reporting a loss of control in school classrooms for decades. I remember in the early 1970s a high school teacher working in a poor area of Boston telling me she might as well simply turn the radio on as loud as possible and spend her lessons listening to music. Friends in Milan today, teaching at the so-called scuole professionali, report similar experiences: the near impossibility of making oneself heard, the need to resort to more and more aggressive tactics to focus the minds of the pupils, many of whom simply don’t want to be there and can’t see the point. Having youth unemployment at high levels for so long in Italy hardly helps.

Nevertheless, it was always assumed that such problems were specific to certain social situations or conditions of economic deprivation, that there would always be “good schools,” where “bright children” motivated by “attentive parents” behaved with respect and diligence and hence made useful progress. It seemed that if you had “well brought-up” youngsters and “serious teachers,” the formula of traditional teaching would go on working forever. Then came the computer, the Internet, and, crucially, the smartphone.

In his ground-breaking study Naven (1936), the anthropologist Gregory Bateson suggested that it is not what we learn that matters, but the way in which we learn, and that this was something that would be determined by the culture that we grow up in. He had been living with the Iatmul tribe in New Guinea, observing how the men in the tribe sought to know, or possess, extraordinary numbers of ancestral names (as many as twenty thousand) and the myths connected to them. Different clans in the tribe would challenge each other over such knowledge in open debate, asking questions over specific details, but at the same time never revealing an entire story, since to do so would put their possession of the ancestral names at risk. These curious circumstances, Bateson observed, had obliged Iatmul men to develop a kind of learning that was “directly opposed to rote remembering” of the kind used in the West. It was an extremely sophisticated system that affected their cognitive skills in general and the way in which they went about appropriating new knowledge in other spheres of life. The fact that different cultures developed different ways of learning, Bateson thought, might explain why one ethnic group might suppose another was less intelligent; each had different cognitive skills developed in different ways. 

The combination of computer use, Internet, and smart phone, I would argue, has changed the cognitive skills required of individuals. Learning is more and more a matter of mastering various arbitrary software procedures that then allow information to be accessed and complex operations to be performed without our needing to understand what is entailed in those operations. This activity is then carried on in an environment where it is quite normal to perform two, three, or even four operations at the same time, with a general and constant confusion of the social, the academic, and the occupational.

The idea of a relationship between teacher and class, professor and students, is consequently eroded. The student can rapidly check on his or her smartphone whether the professor is right, or indeed whether there isn’t some other authority offering an entirely different approach. With the erosion of that relationship goes the environment that nurtured it: the segregated space of the classroom where, for an hour or so, all attention was focused on a single person who brought all of his or her experience to the service of the group.

There was an element of seduction in this; it required a certain performance, the ability to impose what in the best circumstances you might call a collective enchantment. One thinks of the lesson that D.H. Lawrence, himself a schoolteacher, describes in Women in Love: Lawrence has his teacher, Ursula, “absorbed in the passion of instruction,” while her students are so hypnotized by her lesson that the arrival of an unexpected visitor is experienced as a shocking intrusion.

If the teacher was not up to it, of course, it was time wasted. I can think of no moments of my life more utterly squandered than my last high school year of math lessons with a pleasant enough man whose only aim seemed to be to get out of the classroom unscathed. In traditional schooling, where there is no authority, there is no learning. So it’s not hard to see why society began to look for ways of reducing its reliance on the charismatic teacher, imposing materials from outside (books, audio-visual aids, and so forth) and eventually looking for some more universal control in the form of a supreme authority that everyone could access at any time.

Introducing supports of all kinds to reduce reliance on the charismatic teacher also had the added advantage, we were told, of making the classroom more interactive. Students no longer simply listened and took notes (as if that wasn’t a form of activity); they participated. So long as interaction simply meant doing exercises in books, it was something that could be integrated into traditional teaching well enough. When it became a matter of working with a computer, the intrusion that broke the spell of Lawrence’s classroom became the norm.

In the late 1990s, I had my first experience of students bringing laptops into the classroom. At that time, there was no question of their having wifi connections. Since these were translation lessons, students argued that their computers were useful for the fifteen or twenty minutes when I invited them to translate a short paragraph. They translated better on their computers, they said; they could make corrections more easily.

Nevertheless, I noticed at once the tendency to hide behind the screen. Who could know whether a student was really taking notes or doing something else? The tippety-tapping of keyboards while one was speaking was distracting. I insisted laptops be kept closed except for the brief period of our translation exercise.

It was a long and losing battle. My university, in its determination to appear modern, introduced classrooms with laptop computers at every desk. I insisted that I be assigned old-fashioned classrooms. Students opened their laptops anyway. They ignored, or perhaps genuinely kept forgetting my rule. They had excellent dictionaries on their laptops, they protested. Wifi arrived. Now they could check things instantaneously. Now they could put a passage in Google translate or DeepL and simply edit the machine translation rather than translate.

I pointed out that in this way they surrendered the possibility of actually understanding an original text and rearranging a whole sentence in the kind of diction and syntactical structures that their sensibility told them were most appropriate in their language. They understood this, but the machine approach was always there, as a lure. It was a procedure similar to the other procedures they had learned to carry out. For, by now, these are students who have grown up with computers. “Digital natives,” as they’re sometimes called, have a different mind-set.

Still, I continued to fight my fight and keep the laptops mainly closed, and I was holding my own pretty well I think, until the smartphone came into the classroom. In his 1923 lecture “The Ritual of the Serpent,” Aby Warburg remarked that the invention of the telephone marked the beginning of the end of the idea of a sacred space; from then on, the German scholar predicted, the ancient practice of segregating an area so that it was free from any interference would always be an uphill struggle—every form of ritual requiring total focus would be threatened by invasion from without. And he could hardly have foreseen the mobile phone, let alone the smart phone. Recently, I have read in newspapers of priests answering phones during mass and football referees making calls while the ball is in play. How can you stop a class of adult students from using their smartphones?

Last year, the university told me they could no longer give me a traditional classroom for my lesson. So I have thirty students behind computer screens attached to the Internet. If I sit behind my desk at the front of the class, or even stand, I cannot see their faces. In their pockets, in their hands, or simply open in front of them, they have their smartphones, their ongoing conversations with their boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, or other friends very likely in other classrooms. There is now a near total interpenetration of every aspect of their lives through the same electronic device.

To keep some kind of purpose and momentum, I walked back and forth here and there, constantly seeking to remind them of my physical presence. But all the time the students have their instruments in front of them that compel their attention. While in the past they would frequently ask questions when there was something they didn’t understand—real interactivity, in fact—now they are mostly silent, or they ask their computers. Any chance of entering into that “passion of instruction” is gone. I decided it was time for me to go with it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the end of learning. It doesn’t mean, or doesn’t necessarily mean, that people will be stupider (though perhaps they may seem so to survivors of a different world). My youngest daughter recently signed on for a higher-level degree in which all the teaching is accessed through the Internet. Lectures are prepared and recorded once and for all as videos that can be accessed by class after class of students any number of times. You have far more control, my daughter observes: if there’s something that’s hard to understand, you can simply go back to it. You don’t have to hear your friends chattering. You don’t have to worry about what to wear for lessons. You don’t miss a day through illness. And the teachers, she thinks, make more of an effort to perfect the lesson, since they only have to do it once.

The advantages are clear enough. But it’s also clear that this is the end of a culture in which learning was a collective social experience implying a certain positive hierarchy that invited both teacher and student to grow into the new relationship that every class occasions, the special dynamic that forms with each new group of students. This was one of the things I enjoyed most with teaching: the awareness that each different class—I would teach them every week for two years—was creating a different, though always developing, atmosphere, to which I responded by teaching in a different way, revisiting old material for a new situation, seeing new possibilities, new ideas, and spotting weaknesses I hadn’t seen before.

It was a situation alive with possibility, unpredictability, growth. But I can see that the computer classroom and smartphone intrusion are putting an end to that, if only because there’s a limit to how much energy one can commit to distracting students from their distractions. The time has come to bow out.