If technology is your answer, maybe you’re asking the wrong question

Cartoon of child reading a book, while his tv and other gadgets, in a pile behind him, wonder what he's doing.

This video and the success of the book Teaching Naked has me thinking about the almost fetishistic glorification of technology as the answer to all the “problems” with the current education system. Okay, that sounds very rational and adult. What I should say is that I threw Teaching Naked across the room by chapter 2 and I not only ranted to anyone who would listen about the video, I woke up at 2 in the morning so I could fume some more. I find both of these texts, and most of the “technology is the answer to everything!” texts to be insulting, wrong headed and even damaging to our ability to actually be good educators. In fact, I find that every single element of the educational system is simultaneously insulted and let off the hook by the technology-is-the-answer claims: students, teachers, society and learning itself.

1. Students. The Technology Advocates tell us over and over (and over) that this generation is different. They’re “Millennials,” they’re “digital natives,” they simply think differently than their teachers. They can’t help being distracted and rude–how can you expect them to pay attention to a person speaking when there’s texting!” If you, the teacher, aren’t showing a video, running a prezi, having them work in small groups, and passing out Adderall there is simply no way these students can focus on what you’re saying.

This is demonstrably wrong. I can’t be the only teacher who has managed (recently!) to have a wonderfully lively and engaged discussion in class without standing on my head.  And the claim that this generation is just different says more about our historical knowledge than our current generation. Chuck Berry sang about students not paying attention in 1957. In the 1880s, Harvard introduced remedial writing “until the crisis has passed” (the crisis being the under-prepared and lackadaisical student body). And winning the prize for earliest “kids these days” complaint is Socrates:  

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.

Considering this, I think we can safely make two claims. First, Og the Neanderthal teacher was making the same complaints about his students and second, students today are not singular and materially different than the generations before them. To claim that they are is insulting because it lets them (and us) off the hook–we as teachers can’t expect attention and interaction from our students, so why even try? Frankly, if I was going to argue that today’s generation is different, I’d argue that they have more attention, better ability to deal with frustration and set backs and greater ability to engage new information. I can’t even remember what all the buttons on a PS2 controller are, let alone actually make my character do anything!

2. Teachers. The reasons I find technology worship insulting to teachers should be fairly obvious, but I’ll run through them quickly. Administrators, politicians and speakers trying to shove technology down our throats and into our classrooms think a) we’re dinosaurs who are afraid of technology; b) what we’re currently doing is boring, stale, and out of touch and; c) we don’t care about our students at all, so we have to be forced or bribed into using tools that are demonstrably helpful to students. As Wang and Reeves noted (2003), “In the court of public opinion, teachers were viewed as free to utilize whatever technologies they thought were appropriate in their classrooms, but they simply chose not to use them” (51)

Do I really need to explain why those three beliefs are wrong headed parodies promulgated by non-teachers and their agendas? Good. Let’s move on.

3. Society. Here’s where I get really pissed off (you thought I was already really pissed off, didn’t  you? Wrong!). In 1983, Reagan’s administration published “A Nation at Risk” which famously warned against “a rising tide of mediocrity” (apparently this rising tide didn’t lift all boats. Tides are so confusing.). Since then the government (federal and state) and parents have demanded “accountability” from teachers. And while I have no problems with bad teachers being removed from the classroom and external standards being met, I do have a problem (a huge problem) with unfunded mandates that make education about national bubble tests, link funding to those tests and continually tell teachers they have no special skills or knowledge and anyone could (and probably would) do their job better. I have huge problems with society not funding schools and not paying teachers what they’re worth, cutting recess, cutting the arts, cutting after school programs and cutting support for poor and special needs students. Yet despite all that, pundits still complain that American education isn’t up to international standards and pretty much every year there’s a call to fix the “stagnation.” And while I certainly support raising standards and supporting great teachers, it’s impossible to do this without funding, which Americans have repeatedly shown a disinterest in providing.

And my problem with all this gets turned up to eleven when the society that has done all this turns around and tells struggling school districts to pay for every student to have an iPad, or to install smart classrooms, tells teachers that they’d better use their own time and money to learn these new technologies and completely redesign their classrooms to use the technology, and tells students that if they aren’t being entertained they have a right (perhaps even a duty) to complain and ignore the teacher (at least until the test, and then they’d better put down those cell phones and concentrate on the bubbles for four straight hours , damnit).

Society seems not to recognize the purpose of education–it is NOT to produce obedient worker cogs with the same packet of information neatly ordered; it is NOT to compete with India and Japan in a who has the better country pissing contest; it is NOT a place to stash children until they’re legally old enough to work. Education is a way to give young people space and structure while they go through the fiendishly complex process of becoming full realized adults, help them figure out what they want to do with their lives, and offer them tools to go and do that.

Which leads me to my final point.

4. Technology. Technology is a tool. It’s an awesome and fun (if occasionally frustrating) tool, but that’s it. It is not the answer, unless you are asking the wrong question. If your question is “what would make this class less work?” or “how can I impress my administration and get a raise/promotion/time off?” or “What will get the government off our backs for a semester?” then yes, an infusion of technology is the answer. Write a book about “flipping the classroom,” make a youtube video in which you suggest podcasts instead of lectures (because listening to a lecture on headphones is so much cooler [you did actually click that first link and watch it right? Can you believe someone suggested that with an apparent straight face?]), or write a grant to get students Ipads and clickers so they never ever have to interact with you or each other.

But do NOT try to tell yourself that you are doing something radical or cutting edge. Because technology is not new. The blackboard is technology. Photocopies are technology. Printed books are technology. Writing is technology. I’m sure that Og the Neanderthal was being told by the clan hotshots that he’d better incorporate that new flint technology into his fire lessons or he’d never keep the young ones interested. Technology is not new. And while any technology can make learning more accessible, or more fun, or more engaging, technology does not make learning. It is simply a tool. Learning only ever happens inside a student and we, as educators, are just facilitators. The only question worth asking is “how can I help my student learn?”

So I will continue to evaluate new technologies and see if I’m interested in using them. But I will also continue to reject those I don’t want to use (I am never going to have a class Twitter account) and not feel a shred of guilt. And I’m going to continue to sit in a room with a small group of students and talk to them about things I think are important, encourage them to express their ideas about those things, and challenge them to examine those ideas.

I call that teaching.

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2 responses to “If technology is your answer, maybe you’re asking the wrong question

  1. “And while I certainly support raising standards and supporting great teachers, it’s impossible to do this without funding, which Americans have repeatedly shown a disinterest in providing.”

    Truer words have never been spoken.

    While I tend to be more into incorporating tech into learning (because I like it and find it useful as a learner), there is no amount of gadgetry that substitutes for quality teachers. I have also been in classrooms, both in educational and professional settings where the tech was a major distraction because the person using it doesn’t know what they are doing.

    I had the opportunity during my practicum to work with my mentor and teach several of the trainings I had attended as an employee of DDS. My mentor is not a tech person, and I am so there were some marked differences in how the information was presented. Does it make one better than the other? No. Did some of the tech make a point that wasn’t able to be made prior because of it’s availability? Yes. Would I choose chalk boards and overheads with her teaching over me and my tech stuff? Any day.

    That’s not to say I’m a bad educator or that the tech doesn’t matter at all, but it is definitely no substitute for her many years of experience and rebel-rousing, fight the man! attitude.

  2. Though I’ve never heard you speak in person, I could hear the passion in your writing style. I agree with the sentiment that “technology isn’t new”, which is why I’m having difficulty understanding why the idea of a teaching working to incorporate today’s technology- which is undoubtedly part of the youth culture- is a maddening suggestions. Having worked at a non-profit (read: no funding) with at-risk teens, the frustration about funding for resources for education resonates fully. However, I support the suggestions that advocate for working within the teacher/schools means to incorporate whatever technology is available in order to add to a lesson plan. As Erin mentioned, incorporating technology is distracting, when the facilitator doesn’t know what he/she is doing. But then, aren’t all lesson plans distracting if the facilitator isn’t competent?

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