A Measure of Privacy

by Guest Blogger
February 11th, 2009

Shhh…. Stop thinking, spout out some keywords, earn us some points, and be done with it! What are you waiting for? You have been sitting there for like a minute saying nothing! Say something, anything, just get some words out there for the group! Hello? Hello? What are you, a mummy or something? Come on, it’s so easy, just read these words! That’s it, we’re getting a new group member. You’re bringing down our stats! Oh, look, Miss Cameron’s coming our way! She’s onto you!

Recently Robert Pondiscio sent me a link to an article about new software enabling teachers to monitor small-group online discussion in the classroom. Developed by European and Israeli researchers involved in the “Argunaut project,” this software offers real-time statistics on students’ patterns of conversation during class. Teachers can view instantaneous data on groupwork and receive automated alerts. The new software can:

… alert the teacher when one student is not contributing, or is being ignored, or is dominating the conversation. It also renders exchanges in a graphic manner, readily describing the ongoing discussion at a glance. And teachers can program the software to signal when certain keywords occur, such as when Napoleon appears in a conversation about the French revolution.

I will leave aside the implications for the future. The present is grim enough. The software casts light on conditions in our classrooms today, for instance: (a) the emphasis on process over content; (b) the changes to the teachers’ role; and (c) the influence of technology on curriculum. All of these merit analysis, but I will focus on a problem rarely discussed: (d) the erosion of privacy in the classroom. It is not that the teachers can read students’ thoughts, but rather that students are prevented from thinking privately in the first place.

The problem of lost privacy is elusive and rampant. We have become more isolated and less private at once. On the train we are treated to rude and raging cell phone conversations. On internet networks like Facebook, users keep their “friends” informed of their latest actions: taking a sip of coffee, confronting an employee, patching a leak in the ceiling, or calling an ex-spouse. We must step back from this revelatory muddle in order to keep something to ourselves. We must teach children to do the same.

Can schools teach privacy or even honor it? For the most part, a school is not a private place, nor can it be. Students regularly submit their work to their teachers. Administrators visit classrooms and observe lessons in progress. Visitors come to evaluate schools. Schools send reports to their districts. Adults must look out for the welfare of the children; nothing should escape their eye. Yet much learning takes place in the seclusion of the mind. To think independently and well, we must think alone, removing ourselves from distractions and passing influences. We do this when solving a math problem, pondering a historical question, or memorizing a poem. Schools may have forgotten the importance of this. In their mania for “student engagement,” they blithely discard private thought with no regard for consequences.

Classrooms around the country, from kindergarten into college, have replaced teacher-led instruction with the “workshop model,” typically a short lesson followed by small-group activity in which each group member has a specific task. One member may be the note-taker, another the timer, another the spokesperson, and another the moderator. As the group busies itself, the teacher actively monitors the groups and records their behavior on forms and checklists. Is everyone engaged? Are they practicing Accountable Talk®? Does everyone have a specific role? Are they producing evidence of their work?

Teachers must submit to the same model in their professional development sessions. In a typical PD, teachers are placed in small groups with chart paper and a task to complete. The facilitator moves from group to group, looking over teachers’ shoulders and making sure they are working. The session is supposed to serve as a model for the teachers’ own classroom processes. Everyone is supposed to be active all the time; everyone is accountable to the task.

When I was growing up, teachers did not peer over our shoulders or take notes on our behaviors. We were expected to participate, but we had the option of retreating into our minds. The subject was the main focus. Class time was not task-heavy; it was mainly devoted to the learning of new concepts and information. If, on a given day, we chose to stay silent, we could. Even if the teacher called on us, that would only last a few minutes, and then we could return to our thoughts. Certain classes (such as language classes) demanded more active participation, but others let us stay quiet for stretches of time.

Of course this had its own drawbacks: some students would participate much more than others. Some might make the most of their mental autonomy; others might doodle, pass notes, or hold back from asking questions. In a large class it is hard for the teacher to call on everyone or keep track of everyone’s understanding. Some students slip behind and then have difficulty catching up. Others pull through but with little interest.

For these reasons, some believe that the “workshop model” offers something that the “traditional” classroom cannot. It promises to involve all children in the lesson and to bring out those who rarely speak. Proponents of the workshop model sincerely believe that children will come to a better understanding of the subject through small-group discussion and activity. Not only that, but they see the model improving with technology. Soon teachers will be able to keep track of everyone at all times!

This is already happening. M.I.T. has abandoned introductory physics lectures in favor of Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL), a variant of the workshop model combined with technology. According to a New York Times article, TEAL relies heavily on handheld gadgets:

One of the newer professors, Gabriella Sciolla, who arrived in 2003, was teaching a TEAL class on circuits recently. She gauged the level of understanding in the room by throwing out a series of multiple-choice questions. The students “voted” with their wireless “personal response clickers” – the clickers are essential to TEAL – which transmitted the answers to a computer monitored by the professor and her assistants.

If any students value the life of the mind, M.I.T. students likely do. Do M.I.T. students regard these clickers lovingly? The article sings only praises of the program, but some comments clang dissent. One student scoffs: “‘Personal response clickers’? Ask any student how they feel about them and discover that they’d much rather hurl them into the Charles than actually use them, if not for the fact that participation points are oftentimes given out as inducements for clicking.” Another student observes: “The clickers, which have receivers positioned around the room on the ceiling, distract students from the physics concepts themselves.”

Ah, the concepts themselves! Students of all ages need privacy of mind. It may vary by grade, subject, or student, but it should not go away. Workshops and gadgets must not take over education, even if they have a modest role in it. If privacy of mind brings some risk of failure, we need that risk. Otherwise we give up the sanctuary of thought: the slow struggle with a problem, the frustrations and breakthroughs, the questions and insights, the romance with the subject. This is too great a loss. In the classroom we need just a measure of privacy, but that measure we must defend.

Diana Senechal teaches theatre and ESL at P.S. 108, an official Core Knowledge school in New York City.  She has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale. Her translations of the Lithuanian poetry of Tomas Venclova appeared last fall in a new volume, The Junction.


  1. Hey! I Googled you today and this is the first link that came up.

    Amen! Really speaks to my values and helps me to understand why my approach to teaching and research is not more highly valued at the university where I teach.


    Comment by Ron Squibbs — March 31, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  2. [...] the needs of 100 or more students, schools will likely purchase products, such as software that captures and analyzes student discussion, producing graphs of students’ speaking patterns, or clickers with which [...]

    Pingback by Is Personalized Learning a Good in Itself? « Diana Senechal — August 25, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

  3. […] so that they could be tracked at any time, for greater success. Additional monitoring might include discussion tracking (by computer programs that detect keywords), engagement measurement by means of skin conductance […]

    Pingback by District Mandates Innovation in All Schools | Diana Senechal — April 27, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

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