Friday, November 23, 2012

Technology: Tool of Engagement or Distraction?

Editor’s note: I believe
technology can be used as a tool of engagement, empowerment, and creation but there are also educators who believe that technology can get in the way of learning. In this post, guest blogger Rod Baird shares some cautions to consider when using technology. Take a look and if you are so inspired, comment with your thoughts.  

Guest Post by Rod Baird

At New Canaan High School students are
not banned from using tech or blocked from sites.
Like Lisa, I am a huge advocate for the constructive use of technology in teaching.  Tech’s merits are widely and appropriately celebrated. But today I want to play the role of devil’s advocate, if for no other reason than to remind us that technology in the classroom is so vital that we must do everything possible to appreciate it, and the best way to do that is to avoid taking it for granted.
My book, Counterfeit Kids, describes how high schools are graduating more and more students who can’t reason, reflect, make much sense or apply what little education they were exposed to in high school largely because their education has been turned into a crass college acceptance contest instead of Aristotle’s pursuit of wisdom and, we need to be honest with ourselves: part of the problem is the race to use technology whenever possible.  But Tech can and does too often deprive our children of their minds. Of course, that happens mainly when technology is used excessively: excessive texting, tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing. When used constructively, technology will be the progenitor of our civilization. But still in its infancy, and therefore unknown and dangerous, like any new wild thing, technology has to be used carefully.
One way I check up on myself and my students each year to make sure we are still in touch with reality, and not residing in some virtual reality, is a project I do with them called the No Technology week. We do it after reading Kakfa’s The Metamorphosis, the story of a young man so lost in the self-deception of living according to other people’s expectations of him that he becomes estranged from reality, waking one morning changed into a monstrous vermin. 

After we study it, I assign my No Technology project, designed to provoke them into discovering the Kafkaesque surrealism of their own young lives. The No Technology project involves this: For one school week, commencing on a Monday morning the moment they wake up until the bell ends the school day on Friday, my seniors are required to live their lives without the distraction of their technologies. This means they are not allowed to use their cell phones, which means, of course, no picture-taking, and, the big one—no texting. Also, they can’t watch TV and listen to music: no iPods, no car radios. No video games. And no computers, which means no Facebook, YouTube. And they must keep a log reflecting on their experiences. There are some caveats, of course. Although I don’t want to, I must allow them to use their phones when a parent calls. They may also use their computers for schoolwork, but they must disconnect the Instant Message feature.

When I present them with the project and announce that it will be graded like a test or essay, they groan and complain and tell me I can’t do this to them. I describe the possible benefits, but they are mostly unconvinced. Some are intrigued by it, though, and begin predictably to talk it up in class. I count on this small support each year. Somehow it is as if a few students have been longing all along to be set free in this way, to be yanked from habits they somehow know are hurting them. Once the week begins, I don’t have to ask them each day how they are doing. They eagerly share their stories, as if they are having some strange adventure. At the end of the week I collect their journals.
The problem with technology in the classroom is that we eager teachers offer up to our students a dizzying, delicious array of exciting diversions from the hard job of sitting still, paying attention and allowing the mind to engage intellectually instead of being stimulated, by sights, sounds, motions. Even in the twenty-first century human beings will still need attention spans. Concentration is not a thing of the past. Instead of always the bells and whistles, maybe we need to slow the kids down first, free them to roam around inside their own minds for a while, and this requires a skill they sorely lack, imagination.  But we teachers, and the administrators who guide us, seem to be relying too much on external stimulation, when our kids are already over-stimulated. Our kids already have too many things on their plate. Their brains can’t handle it all. Yes, we need to amaze them, but not so much by the fancy animations on our Smart Boards as by our own commitment to and knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subjects we teach, by the look in our eyes as we stand before them, by our body language.

But instead we always seem to be dismissing them, getting them up out of their seats every ten minutes or so, or spicing up our lessons, say with the latest gadgetry—blogging, tweeting, video conferencing. This stimulation damages to our students’ attention spans. The result is that kids have developed selective hearing. They hear what they want to, then they zone out, exonerated. We are teaching kids that they cannot learn unless the experience is as entertaining as their video games. They are addicted. They cannot function without sizzle. Or they are like athletes who load up on steroids and hit lots of home runs. What is knocking the ball out of the park, their skill or their artificial musculature?

What about the quieter wonderment and awe of Hamlet’s soliloquies, Chamberlain’s heroics at Little Round Top Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg, the chemical composition of a strand of DNA? What about the ultimate wonderment and awe of an amazing teacher? I don’t want to drift too far from traditions that work. Technology is great but it can never replace the truly gifted teacher who as tour-de-force can bring a whole class to its collective knees. “I’m going to major in biology,” a student says proudly. Chances are techno-wizardry didn’t inspire this. A teacher did.

Rod is a high school English teacher, writer, and author of the recently published book, Counterfeit Kids: Why They Can’t Think and How to Save Them.