A Room Full of Computers and a Cocaine-Addicted Mouse

Six years ago, I was teaching in a charter school in rural Utah that had technology as its charter.  Because of that, I had a full computer lab in my classroom, and my students were expected to complete their work paperlessly on the computers.  As will be discussed in other posts, this is where my love of innovation and creation came from since I had to figure out how to run a paperless classroom without Google Classroom, which didn’t exist back then, or Canvas, which we couldn’t afford back then.  But, that’s a different story about my love affair with Google Apps Script.

I noticed as my students worked that they were distracted by their computers.  At first, it might seem that social media would be the problem, but my students were distracted by something more surprising (and more sinister): the online gradebook.  It seemed like every time I walked by, several of my students would be obsessively checking the online gradebook, hoping that it would magically change and their grade would look better than it had before.  I would tease the students about their obsession and point out that they were missing important parts of my class to check their grades, but it had little effect.

One day, after being fed up with the obsession, I accessed the hosts file on each computer and modified it to make the gradebook unavailable.  In hindsight, I should’ve asked for permission before doing this, but it seemed like a good idea at the time, and I just knew it was for my students’ own good.

Long story short, when students complained to the principal that I had blocked access to the gradebook in my classroom, she made me undo what I had done despite my pleas that it was necessary.  She also told me to find another solution to the problem that didn’t deny them access to the gradebook.

The next day, after begrudgingly unblocking the gradebook, the students and I had a heart-to-heart.

I began by telling them that we had a problem.  The focus of our classroom was not where it should be.  Instead of focusing on learning and growing as English students, we were focusing on how to gain points and get the grade we wanted.  We were playing a game, and the game was robbing us of our education.

After naming the problem, I talked with them about the online gradebook and its role.  Many of them had been using the online gradebook as a planner.  They would wait until work appeared as missing in the gradebook; then they would do it.  I explained that not only was this out of bounds of what the gradebook was designed to do, but it also meant that they were doing every assignment late because they didn’t hit the gradebook until after the due date.

I also told them a story about an experiment that I had read about where researchers put a lever in a cage with a mouse.  When the mouse would push the lever, a day’s worth of food would be released into the bowl.  They found that the mouse would push the lever once a day, eat the food, and leave it alone until the next day.  When they replaced the food pellets with cocaine pellets, however, the mouse would push the lever over and over again, obsessively trying to get its fix.

My students were acting like the cocaine-addicted mouse, obsessively clicking the refresh button on the online gradebook to see if their grade would magically change.  Many of them were checking 10 times in a 45-minute class period.

I challenged the students to make a change, to start with one day that they didn’t check the gradebook at all.  One day without cocaine.  I even made them chant, “one day without cocaine!” over and over again.  I challenged them to go to class, pay attention, learn the material, and do the work.  I promised them that if they would focus on that, their grades would reflect their hard work.

While some of them took me up on the challenge, many didn’t change at all.  The game of school was too ingrained in the culture.  Grades had become abstract and meaningless, easily manipulated by finding a point here or losing a point there.  School had lost its focus on learning.

I’ve spent the last 6 years trying to shift the focus back to learning.  This blog is a place for me to explore what I have learned and share with other like-minded teachers thoughts, strategies, and ideas on how to make this change.


2 thoughts to “A Room Full of Computers and a Cocaine-Addicted Mouse”

  1. Amen! I hate putting things and updating Skyward all the time for parents and kids because of this. I wish I could block grades in Canvas and still let them see feedback at times. However, this whole thing would take a district/community shift and mindset as well.

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