Wrong medium for this student’s message

May 18, 2013

Published in The Carillon (Steinbach).

“The medium is the message.” That prescient observation was made in 1964 by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Basically, McLuhan meant that the way in which a message is transmitted was just as important as the message itself.

For example, those who watch a political leader’s speech on television may react very differently from those who listen to the same speech on the radio. As a case in point, people who watched the famous Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates on television judged Kennedy the winner while those who listened to the radio version preferred Nixon. Kennedy looked better on television and, for many viewers, this outweighed the substance of what he and Nixon had to say.

McLuhan died in 1980, long before the advent of the internet. Were he still alive today, he would probably be amazed at how the internet has confirmed his theory. Release one video on Youtube that goes viral and you can achieve instant worldwide fame. In fact, a young person’s entire future could end up being determined by one video clip.

Last week, Jeff Bliss, an 18-year-old Texas high school student, found out just how easy it is to become famous. Frustrated with the quality of instruction he was receiving in his world history class, he challenged his teacher in front of the class and let her know that he thought she was a terrible teacher. One of his classmates recorded the exchange and uploaded it to Youtube. In only a few days, the 90 second video clip was watched more than 1.7 million times.

To be fair, much of what Bliss said during his rant makes sense. He talked about the need for teachers to be more active with their teaching and engage students face-to-face. He also correctly observed that simply handing out worksheets and expecting students to figure out everything themselves is not a good way to teach. Bliss apparently wanted to take a more active role in his own learning and this is commendable.

However, the way he went about expressing his views was not commendable. In fact, his poor attitude and disrespectful tone overshadowed the good points he made during his rant.

“And if you would like, I’ll teach you a little more so you can actually learn how to teach a freakin class,” said Bliss as he left the room. These types of statements made Bliss look arrogant and rude. No matter how upset Bliss was with the quality of instruction, insulting the teacher in front of the class was the wrong way to express his concerns.

During an interview on the Roy Green Show, Bliss acknowledged that he did not discuss any of his concerns with the teacher before his public outburst. If Bliss really believed in the importance of face-to-face interaction, the least he could have done was meet with the teacher privately to express his concerns. Publicly attacking her without warning displayed poor judgment and undermined the point he wanted to make.

Will this 90 second video clip lead to a serious examination of teaching practices in schools or will it simply provide further confirmation that too many young people no longer respect authority? I think the latter is more likely than the former. In contrast, had Bliss met with his teacher privately to express his concerns, registered a formal complaint with the school principal, or written a thoughtful op-ed in his local newspaper, his message might have been taken more seriously.

In the internet age, it is more important than ever that we choose our medium carefully. For Jeff Bliss, this 90 second video clip was the wrong medium for his message.

Common sense needed on school safety

January 8, 2013

Published by the Winnipeg Free Press

The horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, sparked a continent-wide discussion about school safety. This renewed interest in security is understandable — everyone wants students to be safe at school. Unfortunately, common sense seems to be in short supply as many proposed measures are not particularly helpful.

For example, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty reacted to the Newtown massacre with a hasty pledge to implement a “locked-door policy” in all elementary schools. Along with requiring schools to lock their front doors when classes are in session, McGuinty’s government will spend $10 million to make sure all schools come equipped with security cameras, buzzers, and locking doors.

Turning schools into miniature fortresses, however, will not guarantee student safety. The front doors at Sandy Hook Elementary were already locked — the killer simply shot through the front door and forced his way into the building. Short of turning every school into Fort Knox, it is nearly impossible to keep out a madman intent on inflicting damage.

Any public place, whether a movie theatre, shopping mall, church, or school is a possible target for someone determined to harm as many people as possible. No amount of planning can make any of these locations absolutely secure against intruders. The public needs to guard against politicians overreacting to tragedies that, fortunately, remain extremely rare, particularly in Canada. The last thing we need is to turn our schools into virtual garrisons.

There are more immediate safety concerns. Rather than obsessing about the remote possibility of deranged gunmen entering schools, administrators should instead focus their attention on student discipline. Cracking down on bullying, maintaining orderly classrooms, and preventing physical altercations in the hallways are the types of things on which all school administrators should focus, which would have impact on safety. Students have the right to a safe and orderly learning environment.

Sadly, when it comes to student discipline, schools often veer into one of two extremes, neither of which is particularly helpful. At one end, some school districts implement draconian zero-tolerance policies that remove all discretion from students, teachers and principals. While zero-tolerance policies may look good on paper, they often lead to absurd disciplinary actions.

For example, a public school in Maryland recently suspended a six-year-old boy for pointing his finger at another student and saying “Pow.” It is unlikely that his fellow students feel much safer knowing their school is cracking down on dangerous finger guns!

Other zero-tolerance absurdities abound in the public school system. Students have been suspended for things ranging from bringing a butter knife to school to drawing a picture of a gun. In 2009, a six-year-old boy in Delaware was even ordered to attend reform school for 45 days for bringing a camping utensil to school. These incidents demonstrate how zero-tolerance removes the ability of teachers and principals to use their professional judgment and leads to ridiculous decisions that make a mockery of the rules.

At the opposite extreme, some schools bend over backwards to accommodate troublemakers, even those who persistently disrupt the learning environment of others. Progressive educators often place so much emphasis on keeping troublemakers with their peers that they refuse to punish students who repeatedly disregard the most basic rules.

Alfie Kohn, a regular speaker at teacher professional development sessions, is a key proponent of this soft approach. In Kohn’s view, schools should be fully egalitarian communities where rewards and punishments for students are nonexistent. According to Kohn, behaviour problems in schools disappear when teachers provide students with engaging lessons.

However, Kohn’s permissive idealism is based on a hopelessly naive understanding of human nature. Some students intentionally choose to disrupt class, bully their classmates, and destroy property, regardless of the quality of instruction they receive. Teachers who fail to enforce clear boundaries from the outset often end up with unruly classrooms.

In order to provide safer settings and more stable learning environments, schools must avoid the equally misguided extremes of zero tolerance policies and permissive idealism. Rather, school administrators should set and enforce clear standards of behaviour for all students, and do so in a way that allows teachers to use their professional judgment. Rules need to be carefully designed, clearly explained, and consistently enforced.

While no school can devise a foolproof plan to protect against every outside violent attack, all schools can and should establish effectively safe and orderly environment learning for their students. When it comes to school discipline, common sense is needed now more than ever.

Cell phone lawsuit should be thrown out

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, August 25, 2011. Original link

A recent lawsuit against a Saskatchewan school division threatens to undermine even more the ability of schools to establish a safe and orderly learning environment. The case directly pits the privacy rights of students against the right of administrators to maintain order in schools.

The circumstances behind this lawsuit started out with a routine matter of discipline. A 12-year-old student was caught using his cell phone in a Prince Albert school where such devices are banned. The teacher confiscated the student’s phone and turned it into the office.

However, things soon became more complicated when the vice-principal discovered text messages on the phone about a recently stolen vehicle. Because of the illegal activity involved, the vice-principal contacted and handed the matter over to police. Upon meeting with the student, the police told him to send a text asking about the location of the vehicle. The police used the response to track down the stolen vehicle and then released the student.

The student’s grandparents allege the vice-principal violated their grandson’s right to privacy when he looked at the text messages on the confiscated cell phone. They further allege the actions of the police made it possible for criminals to identify their grandson as a police informant. As a result, they lived in fear of retaliation and drove their grandson out of Prince Albert every weekend to stay with relatives. Eventually, their grandson moved away to live with his mother on a permanent basis.

The grandparents are now suing the school division for $50 000 in punitive damages along with an additional $1424 in travel costs. They also allege their grandson has anger problems and his grades have dropped as a result of this incident. In their view, all of their grandson’s problems stem from the vice-principal looking at his cell phone.

This lawsuit epitomizes much of what is wrong in society today. Instead of affirming the importance of the teacher and vice-principal enforcing clear disciplinary policies, these grandparents sided with their grandson even though his actions were the direct cause of his predicament. Parents and guardians should not take school administrators to court simply because they disagree with the way rules are enforced.

As for this particular case, it’s unrealistic for a 12-year-old student to have an expectation of privacy when using a device banned from the classroom. It is well established that teachers who confiscate notes passed from one student to another during class have every right to read those notes. Text messaging on cell phones has, in many ways, become the 21st century version of note passing. If there’s something on your phone you don’t want the teacher to see, don’t use it in the classroom.

While it is true that section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right “to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure,” the courts have also ruled that students in school cannot have the same expectation of privacy as the general public.

For example, in a 1998 decision known as R v. M (M.R.), the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a vice-principal who searched a 13-year-old student for drugs in the presence of a police officer did not violate that student’s right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.

In that decision, Justice Peter Cory, writing for the majority, affirmed the importance of giving school administrators the authority to enforce school rules and maintain discipline and order. “School authorities must be accorded a reasonable degree of discretion and flexibility to enable them to ensure the safety of their students and to enforce school regulations,” concluded Justice Cory.

As for the student’s fear of retaliation from criminals, it seems patently obvious that his situation was entirely of the young man’s own making. He chose to bring a cell phone into class despite knowing it was banned, but he also chose to use that same phone to communicate with a car thief. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging their grandson to take responsibility for his decisions, the grandparents chose to blame the school system.

Teachers and school administrators face many challenges in trying to maintain order and discipline in our schools. Frivolous lawsuits like these are part of the problem rather than the solution.