Powering Up Your Brightest Lights: Technology and Its Place in Education
As many schools struggle during the current economic recession, and as our economic flourishing has come to seem inseparable from the unceasing development of modern technologies, educators often feel compelled to update the way they teach in order to prepare students to compete in a technology-dependent working world. Educators are also understandably encouraged to develop curricula that invite students to operate on the global scene using tools that will connect them, at least virtually, to people and places on other parts of the globe and to see themselves as citizens of the world. Current computer technologies seem fit for the job since most young people already own them and use them daily. Furthermore, computers have the ability to connect us rather cheaply to the other side of the globe, and this makes computer technology particularly tempting to teachers who want to help their students feel personally connected to a wider, contemporary universe. But in an effort to be at the forefront of progress, are we, in our enthusiasm, using computer technology for educational purposes discriminately?
If we are invited to replace, or at least heavily supplement, long-standing teaching methods with approaches mediated by the latest technologies, we ought to come to our curriculum meetings buoyed by research on technology and education, not as detractors of progress. Still, in order to encourage reflection upon our educational goals and the means we employ to achieve them, we should consider what we might lose in our pursuits of bald progress. For while computer technology has been a helpful, even life-saving addition to human culture, it has not been interpreted universally as an unmixed blessing. Culture critic and former teacher Neil Postman warns that computer technologies, like all technologies in the past, are essentially “Faustian bargains, giving and taking away, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes more in one way than the other. It is strange—indeed, shocking—that . . . we can still talk of new technologies as if they were . . . from the gods” (The End of Education 41).
We often assume that we are in control of our tools, that we can use the Internet, for instance, at whim or by design, that our tools stand ready to serve our needs, educational or otherwise. But reflection upon the history of implements and their development may tell a different tale–our tools often change us without our awareness, or, more disturbingly, while we think we are in control of an implement, the implement has already gained control of us. Of course, this can seem quite natural. Yesterday’s complaint about papyrus vanishes in the happy use of paper, and we change for the better accordingly. The computer age, after all, is not unlike the age of Gutenberg, whose invention transformed an oral, memory-centered culture into a reading, writing, and documenting culture. The clock, too, permanently altered our perception of time from natural to mechanical, and without it, capitalism would have been impossible; even pre-historic bludgeoning devices transformed helpless, soil-grubbers into formidable hunters, leading triumphantly to our survival as a species. But our tools can be just as harmful as they are helpful. Cars and planes can help us get around, but few today would deny that they’ve done considerable harm to the environment as well.
Our tools are undeniably powerful agents of change and should consequently not be utilized light-mindedly or hotly embraced with unquestioned confidence, as if anything else were a mortal sin. We have good reason to think that our burgeoning technologies will help tell us who we are and what we are likely to become. We see this reflected in language, which is often a surer guide to how we see ourselves than what we say explicitly about ourselves. Do we not, for instance, often describe ourselves unthinkingly as “hardwired” or “programmed” to prefer one thing to another? And do we not humanize our tools when we diagnose them with “viruses” or “infections”? (Postman, Technopoly 111-13). Current uses of language tell us that there is very little difference between humans and their machines. Observe the following sentence written by education futurist Stephen Wilmarth: “When each photo pixel or bit [in a Photosynth project] has been tagged and coded with information about the information, a truly intelligent Web, with powers of reasoning emerging from its DNA-like features, will make it seem as if we’ve gone from the Stone Age to the Industrial Age” (90) [My Italics]. The examples here seem harmless, but these words, these metaphors, betray our tendency to both humanize our machines and assume we ought to behave like them (or to have more faith in calculation than in human faculty).
That the tools we create come to change us is, of course, nothing new; it’s Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (7-21) and his precursors (Marx, for instance, but also Plato). However, we would be remiss in failing to consider more deeply the possible consequences, as well as the rewards, of becoming fully engaged with the tools of our own age. More specifically, and much less ambitiously, we should consider what we risk losing, not simply what we assume we will gain, in consciously intensifying our reliance upon computer technologies to educate the young. For this purpose, I have read several studies and reputable, scholarly investigations addressing this very task, and here touch briefly upon several salient points of paramount concern to educators.
The Internet and Brain Development
I begin with the biological and cognitive consequences presented in The Shallows, a book-length study by Nicholas Carr, highlighting the effects of computer and Internet usage upon the brain. It is no longer cutting edge to say that the brain is far more plastic than we used to think. Brain development does not end with the advent of adulthood: the brain continues to change, to sprout neurons, to make new connections, and even to create new chambers as we absorb new information, create short-term memories and, with repetition, deep, long-term memories. But when students wander in the vast netscape, explains Carr, they are encouraged to skim the surface of what they see and hear. They flood their working memories with disparate drops of information that never sink deeply into that part of the brain that organizes information into complex schemas or concepts. In short, the Internet is a powerful distracting force that actively prevents deep immersion in one (finite) thing (123-6).
Champions of greater web usage in the classroom counter that the ubiquity of hyper-links may be distracting, but they lead students to new topics and may open up fresh avenues of interest, new connections to novel ideas, and more information worth investigating (Jacobs, ACIS Conference). But this suggestion overlooks an important worry elucidated by Carr (115-29). In electronic reading, for instance, one may settle into a short story or an article, but hyper-links compel the naturally distractible mind to discover the mystery behind every link, and every other link in turn, until the reader loses the story’s progression or the train of logic in the argument. Stephen Wilmarth promises that hyperlinking will give way to a system of organization in what is called a semantic web, but in the distracting world of the Internet as we now know it, students miss the chance to follow the workings of logical, clear-headed thinking. It would, of course, be good for our students to be able to construct complex arguments of their own; but this they learn to do, I think, largely by imitation of powerful models and precursors who make their points clear by deploying their complex thoughts and impressions, not simply in a non-linear creative way, but also in a very necessary linear and intelligible fashion (Wilmarth implies that linear processes are inferior). Furthermore, our students, particularly teenagers, are at an age when they crave social connection, and this, too, leads to further distraction and the reinforcement of poor thinking and poor skills. They often worry that they’ll be out of the loop if they miss a thread of Facebook commentary between friends, wondering if they are being discussed, if the content is negative, or if they are simply being forgotten. As long as they’re online, the temptation is too deliciously palpable not to constantly check up on their virtual social lives, further adding to the scattering effect.
Of course, if students are required to use the Internet during class, teachers will monitor them to insure they are making the best use of their computer time, a situation similar, perhaps, to the typical note passing and other furtive student communications teachers have always tried to halt. But what if students must complete their work outside of school hours? Although we can never control all of the physical and emotional contingencies our students face while doing their homework, Carr’s report tells us not to expect much deep reading and learning to occur on the Internet. Depth is achieved when, for instance, a reader analyzes a poem or a story, determining why the author chose one word over another, and how this choice animates meaning. Depth of reading requires the sort of attention to detail often propelled by annotating a text. In history, it can mean slowing down to comprehend the rhetorical power of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or follow the logical, linguistic, and dialectical brilliance of the Declaration of Independence. It can also mean surrendering oneself to something outside of oneself, attending to a poem in the making, a musical piece unfolding, or an emerging solution to an ordinary differential equation.
For so many students, the Net is part of their lives, already shaping their brains in ways that may encourage rapid decision-making and visual-spatial intelligence, but that can erode or leave under-developed the neural circuits devoted to concentrated reading and learning (I pick up this thread below). However, there exists a strong belief in the busy environment of the Internet as excellent conditioning for learning. In his 2005 book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson contrasts the brains of computer users with the brains of book readers, concluding that “reading books chronically understimulates the senses” and therefore provides less mental stimulation than does computer usage. This may be true. But, as Carr reports, the quietude required for deep reading and deep thinking leads to a sharper mind. Carr sites as evidence a series of psychological studies out of the University of Michigan over two decades, demonstrating that spending time in nature, out of the way of excess external stimuli, allows the brain to relax, the sort of condition needed for better overall cognition. Subjects of the Michigan study who spent time in a natural setting performed far better on cognitive tests than their counterparts did after walking through the city (Berman In Carr 219-20).
Empathy and compassion also require a calmer mind, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio discovered in an experiment where subjects listened to stories of human suffering. While the subjects’ brains reacted very quickly and primitively to descriptions of physical suffering, the process of empathizing with psychological suffering took much longer as the brain worked to transcend the “immediate involvement of the body” to make sense of “the psychological and moral dimension of a situation” (Damasio In Carr 220-21). Clearly the capacity for deep thinking and empathy can be activated best in calming conditions, and inviting students into a rural setting divorced from hyper-stimulating environments is a great way to facilitate deeper feelings and cognitive connections that require patience and quietude.
I may sound like a Luddite, but I admit to my delight in using my Mac to compose prose, ferret out easy answers to practical problems, purchase airline tickets and Groupons, find great music, and contribute to collective commentary on important and not so important matters. The almost limitless utility of computer technology is elating. As a teacher, I have long used computer programs and the Internet to facilitate many learning opportunities. But, in the evenings, I can also find myself checking my social accounts too often when I should be engaging in more important and salubrious activities. As an adult, I have the awareness and character not to become the passive hostage to a system designed to scatter my attention and draw me further into its dazzling vortex. I grew up largely in a time when such scattering forces weren’t as pervasive as they are today, and I can sense when my mind is becoming a juggler’s brain (Carr’s terminology 115-43) rather than a focused brain. Throughout my development, I was able to collect a few deep stores of knowledge by concentrating for hours on the ideas of one thinker or one novel and writing about them for many more hours. I know the difference between a quiet mind ready to get serious and the onset of prolonged distraction; like so many of my own peers, I can recognize it, and I can force myself to step away from the screen. I can skim, but I can also dive, but only for as long as I can protect the sorts of conditions that foster depth and contemplation.
But what about my students? If they truly do prefer Johnson’s brand of overstimulation, then is this because they have another choice they have genuinely tried or have been required to explore? Should we, as educators, mold our pedagogy to this general preference because it is truly a best practice? Or should we emphasize more emphatically, but reasonably, that in the absence of discomfort in extended and concentrated efforts, the brain does not develop in important ways? To return to the point, when we leave our students to their electronic devices, we cannot assume they have the foundational learning experiences and brain development to take action against the derailing effects of pop-ups interrupting an already shallow reading of rich literary prose riddled with colorful hyper-links, for students with brains already shaped by hours of online activity seem ill-suited to keep certain forms of technology in their proper place and time. Is it too brazen even to suggest that some students may be more like addicts who need to be removed from the kind of environment that supports biological and/or psychological dependencies?
Computer Aided Learning
This last point of concern harmonizes with the philosophy of the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos, California, better known as Silicon Valley. Although the Silicon Valley school is one of 160 Waldorf schools around the country that emphasizes hands-on learning and little-to-no computer gadget or screen time, many of its graduates go on to top-rated colleges and universities. But here’s the rub: 75% of the school’s student body consists of children whose parents work in executive capacities for Google, Apple, Yahoo, and the rest. Why do these 21st-century tech professionals send their own children to what looks like a retro-school where elementary students are denied technology (with little-to-no usage at home), with only minimal usage in secondary school? According to a 2011 New York Times article, “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute,” it is because “computers and school don’t mix” and “computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.” Google executive Alan Eagle has two children at the Los Altos Waldorf School. When asked about the need for technology, he said, “I fundamentally reject the notion that you need technology aids in grammar school. . . . At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.” Other Waldorf parents echoed Mr. Eagle’s sentiments, including Pierre and Monica Laurent, who worked, formerly, for Intel and Microsoft, and said “engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers.”
There are many online programs, such as Khan Academy, that claim their programs are not about replacing human interaction or important classroom activities, but about practicing the basic skills some students fail to solidify before moving on to higher-level concepts. The idea is that teachers can have students practice, for instance, math problems at their respective skill levels on computers during part of class time. One teacher who uses Khan Academy claims that before using this program, his students wanted to quit working math problems because they got too frustrating. The online program activities offer hints at each step to help students solve problems or to retrace the steps that initially result in incorrect answers. Students have so much fun learning that teachers have to pull students away from their screens, another teacher insists. Certainly, such a program is inviting, both to the teacher and to the student. The students receive something like automated, differentiated instruction, which also takes some of the pressure off of teachers to find creative ways to customize lessons to speak to each individual’s needs and skill level. What a relief to simultaneously help some students sharpen a foundational understanding of how adverbs function while giving others a chance to work ahead on complex sentence structure. To do so without having to manage the disruptions of disengaged students is an added benefit.
I applaud Khan Academy for at least admitting to its subordinate place in the classroom and would probably receive a program like this as an opportunity to make reinforcing basic skills more manageable and less time consuming. However, even here, there are reasons to tread watchfully in this brave new world. In 2003, a prominent Dutch psychologist, Christof van Nimwegen, launched a revealing study of computer-aided learning. Using the controlled methods of objective scientific research, he asked two groups of subjects to work the same puzzle. While one group used helpful software to complete the puzzle, the other group used minimally helpful software. Then, Nimwegen brought both groups back eight months later to rework a variation on the same puzzle. In the earlier session, the group using the unhelpful software initially made correct moves more slowly than the other group. But as the session progressed, the initially lagging group was better able to plot strategies and to solve the puzzle more fluently, while the other group relied more on trial and error. This outcome held strong eight months later, with the conclusion that the group using the less helpful software showed “more focus, more direct and economical solutions, better strategies, and better imprinting of knowledge,” indicating a very strong correlation between software that assumes more problem solving and the failure to build the kind of schema needed for learning and applying new concepts (Nimwegen In Carr 215-16).
Another study of this stripe out of the University of Chicago measured how on-line research actually affects the breadth and depth of scholarship. The noble hope in putting research online is, of course, to broaden the information helpful to students, scholars and researchers, and to make it easier to access diverse articles from current and past decades. However, James Evans discovered that the opposite was happening, that, in fact, researchers were citing fewer articles, and the ones they were citing included only the most recent and the most popular. This was due in part to the nature of search engines, which, as we know, determine the order of their article lists according to popularity. To put it concisely, the broadening of online information in this case led to a “narrowing of science and scholarship” (Evans In Carr 217). Aside from helping our students look beyond the first page of titles, we should do so with the understanding that more information does not promise more knowledge.
The Virtual and the Real
Another educational trend in recent decades is virtual schooling and the use of pre-recorded lectures. Heidi Hayes Jacobs in Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World suggests that part of every school day might be regularly spent in virtual space: “Imagine if your school could offer students a virtual curriculum menu. Students could peruse a set of options that they could work on at home on their own time as opposed to using seat time at school” (68). While virtual learning can be helpful for students who missed a week of classes once in great while for good reasons, it can become a tool of regression for both students and teachers if used too regularly. A student who learns a subject in this way practices passive learning. Even if students do their homework, pay attention, and take notes, their competency in the subject will rarely become mastery. Hubert Dreyfus in On the Internet compares and contrasts online learning to using robots for disembodied planet exploration, where the robot stands physically between a person and the potential for serious harm. But this is where the world of robotics and learning depart, explains Dreyfus.
Risk is essential to good learning and to good teaching, and it doesn’t just boil down to the irrefutable need to learn how to interpret subtle cues in a person’s eyes and head movements, gestures, and social context to effect authentic communication and social development. When the teacher and the students are embodied in a class together, both assume risk: students must demonstrate understanding by answering and posing questions or working collaboratively to construct their knowledge, while the teacher constantly strives to learn what strategies and examples do or do not work, what material is better than others for invoking discussions, and what questions he or she may not be able to answer when put on the spot. When teachers work with their students interactively, achieving success and, yes, making mistakes, they are modeling the dynamic process of learning and the importance of risk-taking (and failing) in becoming better at something important. By interacting with us, our students see that learning is an on-going process, and that mastery doesn’t simply materialize in perfect form forever closed to new ideas and fresh growth (Dreyfus 53-8). The more we encourage students to develop healthy relationships with more mature elders (including model older students), the more we not only show them how to be effective learners and interlocutors, but we help them to engage in discussions about worthy topics and concerns. In turn, students are taught to move beyond their own narrow and self-obsessed universe, which helps to minimize their adolescent worries, giving them the faith that teasing, letdowns, and egocentric fragilities will pass into a more enlightened stage of life, something that teen-saturated social networks effectively defy with reinforcements of ignorance, illiteracy, and triviality (Bauerlein).
I cannot pick up the virtual world thread without attending to one of Stephen Wilmarth’s most alarming points in his essay contribution to Curriculum 21. Indeed, of all of the pro-technology essays in this book, his seems to border on the apocalyptic, which makes it at once disturbingly and deliciously provocative. Any person with time, education, and skill could probably write a book-length response to each and every one of his claims, partly because he throws out but does not flesh out what he, himself, means by such complicated concepts as knowledge, reality, knowledge construction, experiential education, ethic, and more. For example, what sort of conception of reality can Wilmarth have in mind when he tells us the following about a virtual universe in which you can construct your own identity?
Second Life is such a 3-D social landscape, with all of the elements found in the real world. . . . And when the virtual world achieves a level of sophistication that makes virtual social interactions nearly indistinguishable from real social interactions, our world and our system of education will be transformed. (92-3) [My Italics]
It is not that I or any other educator does not know these terms or where they came from; it’s that I am suspicious of Wilmarth’s own understanding of them, given the contexts in which he uses them. In any case, his essay gives me an irresistible need to sound out my concerns about his apparent complete confidence in virtual worlds to replicate and enhance reality itself:
In a sense, virtual worlds will become not just a portal into various media, entertainment, and communications services but also a window into a potentially richer real life. Virtual worlds will become the place where we can conveniently engage in familiar real-world activities such as family reunions and shopping trips with friends or in thrilling, only-in-cyberspace adventures. . . . When you approach an avatar in Second Life, you know there’s a real person on the other end. . . . And when the interactions nearly indistinguishable from real social interactions, our world and our system of education will be transformed. This will happen in a matter of a few years. (92-3)
If what he means by “a potentially richer real life” is similar to the life of someone reading a work by Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard (or even a field guide) to enhance her or his own experience of nature, then I am intrigued. One might think, too, of the way an artful film can help viewers penetrate more deeply into some important real-life experiences (such as love, loss, and death) shared by all. And it would certainly be exciting to create a virtual world that might, in some way, be similar to the worlds called into fictional being by the writing of stories and screenplays, with fictional places and characters. Thought-provoking movies or stories present to us types of virtual worlds that can pull us out of our narcissism and give us something important to ponder.
The truth is that all of our experiences are mediated by something. But these mediators lie to us about what is real. Can we be sure, for example, that if we didn’t live in modern homes with climate control and easy access to clean water, that nature would be such an attractive place, filled with bucolic scenes that animate good feelings? If we didn’t have good shoes and rain jackets to protect us from the elements, would we be less likely to aestheticize nature and more likely to bemoan it? So many of our ancestors who lived in much more unmediated circumstances saw nature as a hostile place that had to be harnessed if it was to be inhabitable. To admire the natural landscape was uncommon. I don’t think it is a leap to say that the more refined our technologies, the less real the reality. This is not to say that I’d rather live unaided by the comforts of technology or undermine my own thesis, but this conversation leads into a more nuanced point about where virtual worlds can fail miserably when it comes to human development.
As I have said, the types of virtual worlds found in books and movies can give rise to many helpful reflections, ideas and conversations. But they can also encourage sentimentality, by which I mean the sort of indulgent crying devoid of any true or abiding feelings of sadness. It is to experience things like death without the risk, the kind of risks Hubert Dreyfus means in his discussion of student-to-student or student-teacher interactions. It is the sort of risk-taking that comes with true consequences and responsibility. Albeit, good stories that can achieve a satisfying degree of verisimilitude can demonstrate safely, without unproductive psychological disruption, what happens when a person makes a wrong choice, which can lead to great opportunities for conversation and temporary reflection. However, they cannot bring to fruition the sort of integrated, holistic capacities of a soundly developed body and mind catalyzed by interacting in the real world with real objects, face-to-face interactions, and real choices.
And this is one of the points Wilmarth misses in repeatedly evoking John Dewey. Yes, experiential education in Dewey’s sense is about constructing knowledge, about being active rather than passive, about learning as you go rather than simply regurgitating the words of the master. But it is all predicated on an assumption that students are doing all of these things, not only in preparation for citizenship in a participatory society, but to prepare them to navigate in a world over which they (and we) have little control, in which there are infinite ways to make mistakes and to recover from them. Experiential education stakes its claims upon a mutual understanding that we are embodied beings in an embodied universe with a need to cope with our embodiment in successful ways. Can a trip to a virtual Moab, Utah be superior to all of the contingencies a person must consider and risk in an embodied trip to Moab? There is true risk in venturing out to such a real place, and that takes forethought, cooperation with people you may dislike in other circumstances, and decision-making sharpened by the potential for real consequences, not to mention the discomforts of interacting with a physical environment that doesn’t care if you live or die. It is an environment largely unmediated by technology, and one that is not just seen and heard, but that is resistant and influentially felt, without virtual rattlesnakes, virtual sunburns, virtual bone fractures, and virtual exhaustion, hunger, and tummy aches.
To be fair, most of the contributors to Curriculum 21 agree that there is no suitable substitute for exploring and navigating another world than being there with a purpose to accomplish and openness to the unexpected. And while some schools have the means to give their students real experiences in places that differ vastly from their own, many others are at a severe disadvantage. In this case, virtual experiences of places like Moab are a good option, if it is done intentionally, with real purpose, and with genuinely enriching outcomes. There are also those places where students cannot or should not go, such as places riddled with civil unrest, past and present, or the moon and Mars. For example, a teacher asks students to create a virtual Afghanistan based upon an understanding of its current physical and structural states, and the civil, religious, and social circumstances of the human beings who live there. Indeed, these seem to be appropriate vehicles for making remote places and events less alien or less a matter of indifference. They can also be great motivators for learning in order to create, similar to doing research in order to write historical fiction or to put on a living history event.
Bright Tools, Dim Lights
While much of Curriculum 21 offers some exciting suggestions about what education can look like, I want to insist that in my (as Wilmarth puts it) “cry of angst for the downside view,” I have not written this essay because I want to rest comfortably within a rut or am fearfully fortifying myself against those forward-looking professionals who want to promote growth so that I can indulge my nostalgia for the good old days. I know not a single teacher who resembles this straw man erected by Jacobs in Curriculum 21. What I fear is progress of the most ephemeral or else reductive kind without healthy skepticism, and the subjugation (conscious or unconscious) of the quest for real progress, human progress. I have before me Jacobs’s introduction, in which she calls for a change in our approach to education, physically, pedagogically, and epistemologically in order to better prepare our students “to enter a [21st century] global economy.”
Jacobs posits a variety of reasons to support her proposal, which include giving students the tools to operate on the global market, to prepare them to “care for their world and their future” (2), and to compete academically with other nations. She claims that old methods, materials, and outdated tools are to blame for our low academic rankings:
Johnny might not even know that his classroom experiences are not providing him the tools to enter a global economy that changes exponentially. Maria’s gap in knowledge about the last 50 years of history is not helping her make sense of the contemporary world she lives in. Is your curriculum replacing older methodologies with new tools for communicating and sharing? Or is the use of technology an “event”? Are your students learning world languages that will be dominant and influential when they are adults? Or are you primarily, and painfully, focused on the next state test based on textbooks from the 1950s? It is no wonder that we are behind other nations in international comparisons of academic achievement when our school structures are fundamentally based on an antiquated system established in the late 1800s. (1) [Italics are mine]
Without attending to the non-sequiturs in this paragraph, I would like to focus on the final sentence, which is a giant leap of logic. First, where is the evidence that these are the reasons for our low rankings? Second, there are many schools and types of schools in the United States. Is she thinking of public schools or parochial schools or independent schools or home schools, or all? It doesn’t matter, for in order to make this claim convincing, she would have to appeal to specific studies measuring social, economic, ethnic and regional differences, among other factors. Based on the lack of evidence, I might as well add to the mix other possibilities, including students spending too much time being mindlessly entertained by a media-saturated world or not being forced to sit obediently in the classroom for six days a week like many of their East-Asian counterparts. I know my mother would add to the list the assertion that there is too much divorce and no one to attentively and properly raise the children. A nutritionist might blame sugar-heavy, imbalanced diets. A conservative conspiracy theorist might blame the Illuminati. A Midwestern church pastor might cite the outlawing of prayer in school. A sociologist might proffer the generalized feelings of hopelessness and despair in impoverished communities.
This lack of evidence should fruitfully undermine one’s confidence in Jacobs’s assertion that learning with fresh technology is part of an effective, sustainable remedy for some of our big academic problems. Yet, I do agree that we should continually search for better and more relevant ways to teach, which I think many are already doing. I would, however, emphasize the importance of a teacher’s creativity and flexibility, since without it, no up-to-date method or tool is likely to vitalize any academic lesson. I also do not envy the poor teacher who must teach to a state test with grandma’s old textbook. And in reference to chapter 8 in Curriculum 21, I would advocate strongly for aggressive approaches to teaching media literacy (Baker 133-52), including, but not limited to, informing students (through their own research?) about how certain practices negatively impact brain development and why we may ask them to leave their gadgets at home when embarking on a new world experientially. There are also many reasons to be excited about global learning and facilitating deeper knowledge of other world cultures, issues, and languages (Stewart 97-114). Moreover, I think it is a superb endeavor to reignite critical conversations about more relevant ways to teach, and in this sense, Jacobs and the authors of Curriculum 21 do a great service to educators. Making “learning irresistible” as did Tim Tyson of Mabry Middle School in Cobb County, Georgia with his all-school film festival, is what all committed teachers long for and enjoy when it happens. What I’d like to highlight most brightly, though, is Mr. Tyson’s express efforts to subordinate the tool to the greater, collective purpose:
The overwhelming percentage of time spent on this five-month, schoolwide project does not involve technology (the digital video camera or the movie-making software) at all. Learning the technology was never the purpose of the project. The time is consumed delving deeper into curriculum, doing more research, pitching movie ideas to the team, coming to consensus on the project’s thesis . . . . This is a very public execution of collaborative design and personal best to achieve a shared goal. This is art. This is learning. (124)
And this is ultimately my point. There needs to remain a guiding, overarching purpose not based upon reducing learners to commodities that must compete in the global market place, bound by bureaucracy, consumerism, and commercialism, or upon using new technology for its own sake because so many kids are drawn to it or live in it. Yes, we need to connect with our students and prepare them to participate successfully in a contemporary capitalist, global society, and sometimes this means replacing our collective toolbox. But more than that, we need to inspire them to soar above themselves and to give priority to our more universal, human-centered goals, which are more likely to create the kinds of individuals that can make our society livable and enriching: reflective, civilized individuals who learn how to subordinate their own interests to the good of the group, care about others and treat them with respect; individuals who react humbly, flexibly, and with dignity to their failures and triumphs; and who take responsibility for their behaviors and commitments. No reasonable person would disagree with any of this, of course. But no matter how obvious it may seem, I want reminding: It is never a waste to reexamine the highest purposes of education, whatever that comes to mean, even as new technologies, methods, and fads greet us, leave us or remain. Coming to a better understanding of the dangers or pitfalls of using certain technologies in education will help us better choose the right method for the right objectives, employing intelligently whatever supports our highest purposes and jettisoning any bright tools likely to dim our students’ own best lights.
I want to thank James Reid for discussing with me some of the more philosophic and complex points presented in this essay, particularly the pregnant implications of some of the claims made by Stephen Wilmarth. Although the research animated this piece, it did not come without advice from and captivating dialogue with the deepest thinker I know.
“About Khan Academy.” Khan Academy. Web. 15 June 2013.
Baker, Frank W. “Media Literacy: 21st Century Literacy Skills.” In Heidi Hayes Jacobs Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2010. Print.
Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone under 30). New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. Print.
Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.
Dreyfus, Hubert L. On the Internet. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Jacobs, Heidi Hayes. Upgrading Curriculum & Assessment for the 21st Century Learner at Graland County Day School, Denver, CO: Association of Colorado Independent Schools Conference, April 14, 2013.
Jacobs, Heidi Hayes. Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2010. Print.
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Candace R. Craig has taught students at every stage of development, from pre-kindergarten through college. Currently, she is an English instructor at Pikes Peak Community College. In her free time, she works on a variety of scholarly, literary, and entrepreneurial projects, including a book of autobiographical vignettes, a series of classroom guides to literature, and a book-length study of the films of David Lynch.