Much of what occupies a Headmaster’s time these days (and, a parent’s time, for that matter) is the consideration of young people’s relationship with technology . . . or, ANY person’s relationship with technology, if we’re really being honest. Questions related to how we choose to use, or not use, this “device” or that “application” can make a huge difference. Unlike in the recent past, that difference doesn’t just relate to our individual productivity—whether in the workplace or the classroom—but it also relates to the impact it can have on our own happiness, our relationships to ourselves, and our connections to other people, communities, and institutions.
As I’ve been thinking about this, our Chief Technology Officer, David Robertson, shared the following article with me from Vanity Fair: The Human Factor, by William Langewiesche. In his piece, Langewiesche uses the crash of Air France Flight 447 as a case study, prompting us to think critically about how dependent we have become on technology. In a striking and unexpected twist at the end, Langewiesche actually suggests that the answer to the problem raised by AF447 is not less technology, but more.
Contrast this viewpoint with that of Dr. Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, who presents a much more cynical and cautionary tale of life in a hyper-connected world. Citing tragic and pervasive disadvantages that technology provides related to more control and convenience in our interpersonal relationships, Turkle argues that even though we may feel more connected than ever, we are becoming hollow men and women doomed to shallow relationships bereft of real intimacy.
Here is the rub . . . at least as I see it and captured in a fascinating observation from Langewiesche’s article: “It seems that we are locked into a spiral in which poor human performance begets automation, which worsens human performance, which begets increasing automation. The pattern is common to our time . . .” This same sentiment has been spoken in virtually every context one might imagine. In fact, it was likely said in the educational field twenty years or so ago at the advent of a movement like “Chicago Math” and with technologies like the graphing calculator. Proponents of both argued (and they argue still) that we should use available research and technology to liberate children from “doing math” so that they can “think math” instead. Fundamentalists (and I use that term in its most literal sense) in Math Departments everywhere lamented each of these individually as the end of a student’s ability to accomplish either; two of many outcomes have been that all major textbook companies now offer some type of “conceptual approach” to mathematics, and college entrance exams now require graphing calculators.
Another example more intimate to teachers and pedagogy is this one: the “technological” advance of introducing blackboards in the United States in the early 1800’s took the concept of the “personal slate” and made it into a communal display. The resultant shift in pedagogy transformed the teacher from individual mentor or, as we like to say in educational circles, from the “guide on the side” to the “sage on the stage.” Two-hundred-plus years later, we are trying to reverse this trend . . . partly because of the revolutionary introduction of our generation's "personal slate"--something called an iPad.
Enter the key question on every Headmaster’s mind . . . and every parent’s mind, too: How do we use the many evolving tools around us in ways that promote “human performance” rather than worsen it, connecting to Langewiesche’s quote above? That’s the real rub, isn't it? We master it, or it masters us. (And our track record in this isn’t great.)
How do we promote “human performance” while avoiding “mastery by technology”? In education, particularly, I think we first have to consider the context of that performance and then ask a few key essential questions:
- What skills will be valuable in that context?
- What skills that we have traditionally taught will NOT be valuable in that context?
- Does the creative and purposeful use of technology, in that context, afford teachers and students the opportunity to accomplish some set of learning goals that could not be attained in the absence of that technology?
We need to view technology and any of the other countless “innovations” emerging in the educational paradigm through a clear lens focused on learning—both student and adult learning, for that matter—rather than one focused on the fanfare surrounding the technology or innovations themselves. This is the view that we try to promote at Presbyterian School. After all, when was the last time you heard your child or a teacher rejoicing over the transformative impact of a pencil . . . or a textbook . . . or a blackboard?
As we usually do at this Convocation, let’s talk about this year’s Essential Question. Each year we grapple with one of these as a school because hard questions uncover big ideas; they make us think really seriously; they might even get us to think about other questions; and (if they’re really good) they’ll keep coming up throughout the year.
This year, we want to think about the broad question, “What matters?”
It seems like such a simple question, doesn’t it? We might hear it in any classroom of the School at any time of the day. Even our friends in Kindergarten can answer this question, can’t they? At the same time, it’s a really comprehensive question that I can imagine more than one dinnertime conversation being focused on the answers discussed the day, the week, or the month before. Finally, it’s such a substantial question that I can foresee very different answers emerging over the course of a year in which all of our children will grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
In fact, as I wrote to parents this summer, I’ve been considering this year’s question myself and planning on the sorts of answers I might provide:
- As an active participant in a world filled with interesting people, I seek friendships that matter, but I wonder if relationships matter more. Friendships can be one-sided, can't they? We might say someone is our “best friend” one day only to have them disappoint us the next. Relationships, on the other hand, imply a more two-sided mutuality: each person has just as much invested as the other. Maybe this is why we say we HAVE friendships but that we are IN relationships . . . just a thought.
- As an old English teacher in love with language, I’m reminded that the denotations of words matter, but I wonder if the connotations of those same words matter more. Consider one of my least favorite words: RETARDED. Now, this word’s denotation (its dictionary definition or what it’s SUPPOSED to mean) is pretty harmless: characterized by slowness or limitation. However, its connotation (what it REALLY means or, has come to mean) is very harmful and insulting: stupid or dumb or worthless. It seems to me that this one example would tell us that words matter . . . a great deal.
- As a professional educator, I truly believe that knowledge matters, but I wonder if understanding matters more. Knowledge is knowing the formula for calculating something--like surface area. Understanding is being able to use that knowledge to figure out how much paint it would take to cover the sanctuary on our campus. Imagine how useful that would be!
- As a citizen immersed in the immediacy of the digital age, I know that the message matters, but I wonder if the tone matters more. Here is a challenge to parents and students: email and text messages are very efficient ways to get your message across; conversation, particularly one that happens face-to-face, is a much, much better way to convey the tone of that message.
- As a leader who prides himself on having good ideas that seem pretty important, I believe (perhaps too often) that being right matters, but I still wonder (perhaps not often enough) if being kind matters more. Here is a challenge to our teachers: if all we are teaching this year are the RIGHT answers to simple questions, then we are just covering the “visible” or the “expected” curriculum. If we are exploring harder questions, focused on the KINDNESS at the heart of our Core Values, then we’re getting at the “hidden” or the “unexpected” curriculum.
- As a flawed and sinful follower of Christ, I find that it’s not difficult to hear loud pronouncements that belief matters; it’s harder to hear the still, quiet admonitions that suggest faith matters more . . . Dr. Billy Graham is known for saying that belief is in our heads but that faith resides in our hearts. I'll confess to feeling that battle between head and heart wage all too regularly in my own life.
- Finally, and this one may be the most difficult to wrap my mind around. As a husband and father, I know how much life matters, but I really wonder if love matters more. Life is a BIG, BIG thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s the most valuable gift that God has given us, and we should view it as that gift and try to savor each and every minute of it that we have here on Earth. At the same time, I think LOVE resides in all the little things that make up our lives during those savory minutes . . . LOVE and the ways in which we give it and receive it are our gifts back to God, don’t you think? And there’s no better day than the first day of school to see all these little displays of love. Take, for example, two examples from my own morning today.
- My little boy Richard loves nothing more than running into his sister’s room to wake her up EVERY morning. He dashes across the landing upstairs from his room to hers, labors to crawl up into her bed, and then just buries his head in her long, blonde hair, giggling all the time. He’s been doing that since before he could walk, and he’s still doing it today. This morning, despite the hustle and the bustle of the first day of school and the eagerness to get up and get going, we still enjoyed this important, LITTLE, ritual of LOVE.
- My wife Laurel loves nothing more than taking pictures of virtually every family occasion. First day of summer? Picture time! Second day of Christmas vacation? Picture time! Pair of new shoes? Picture time! Car wash? You guessed it—Picture time! So, you can imagine what the first day of school must be like for her. This morning, again—despite the hustle and the bustle of this kind of a day, we still enjoyed this important, LITTLE, ritual of LOVE. (And judging by the number of pictures I was involved in at school this morning, I’d say our family is not alone in this practice!)
So, what matters? Little, tiny bits of everyday love that live inside relationships, connotations, understanding, tone, kindness, and faith all matter . . . and all these little, tiny bits of everyday love live inside of each and everyone of us and should work together to remind us that what really matters is captured in Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:33: that we should steep ourselves in the will of God, so that we can rest assured that our own needs and concerns are met.
So, that means we matter, too, especially if we are seeking to do the will of God every day. One last thought to take with you from a very wise person in my own life: “Those people who really matter don’t mind; those people who mind, don’t really matter.” Think about that . . .
Let’s have a memorable school year—one that really matters!
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