Blackboards and Other Innovations
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?
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