On his Twitter account recently, economics professor Daniel Lin humorously posted the following: “Based on the number of students who read Facebook during my lectures, I’m already teaching an online class.” Daniel Lin (@DLin71)
Funny? As of this writing, 94 retweets and 29 favorites later, it would appear he’s on to something that many teachers can relate to. Technology in the classroom is a double-edged sword. This fact of modern-day life hit college campuses first, where a laptop on every desk is the equivalent of Hoover’s chicken in every pot (students can Google that allusion in real time, of course) — and now it’s spreading to high school campuses and even some middle and elementary ones where school districts are making the technology leap and brandishing the 21st-century skills as their war cry.
Which brings us to this cautionary tale: In Natick, Massachusetts, thousands of school-issued computers were “fried” when students downloaded an application to bypass the school-installed filters designed to keep them off Facebook as well as gambling and pornography sites. The students downloaded a program called Tor to foil the school’s software. The “Empire” struck back with something called the Casper Suite to cull Tor out and reinstate the original filters. At some point during this electronic fracas, a bug wriggled its way into the behind-the-scenes battle, and the entire district’s computer system was brought to a halt for three precious days.
Brave, meet New World.
In my district, every high school teacher has a laptop (compliments of the school) and every high school student has a device of some sort for use in the classroom. Meanwhile, standing on the 8th-grade precipice, I look around myself and see all the 20th-century skills still in action. Here students are forbidden to carry cellphones. Here students still take notes with pencil and paper. And here whiteboards, SmartBoards, and laptop carts remain the technological wonders du jour.
So we have a ways to go — that’s the bad news. Now here’s the good news: I at least know when students are taking notes and when they are not. I have eye contact when I speak, and give it when I listen. The same holds for students listening to other students. No one has a laptop open in front of her to “take notes” while really noting what’s going on in e-mail, on Facebook, at ESPN or Sporcle — to name but a very few in a field so vast that no filter could possibly cover it.
Of course, even without a device in every hand, many teachers in this brave new world have embraced technology not only wholeheartedly (OK) but lopsidedly (not OK). In these classes, with teachers who are either themselves technologically-gifted or convinced that good education in the 21st century is wired, just about everything is done with a web site, an app, or a gadget: Clickers, videos, podcasts, Survey Monkey polls, Wordled this, Moodled that, Wikis, blogs, tweets, instant messages, educational games, Power Points, Prezi, Edmodo, Glogster, YouTube, Google docs, Khan Academies, Vulcan Academies, etc.
In this vanguard’s view, if you don’t use technology, you’re dated goods, of less use than an Edsel or a typewriter. Though you are not openly branded a “bad teacher,” the implication that you are cheating your kids by treating them to a dinosaur act is there. The message is compounded if you tread the Twitterverse, where “21st-century” teachers vie to impress each other with technological lessons, websites, apps, and ideas. Motto (with apologies to Gwendolyn Brooks): “We real cool. We left Old School.”
No doubt, less savvy teachers can and should learn from these educational pioneers. But we can’t lose the baby with the bathwater, either. Technology should complement, not replace, sound educational practices that still march under the banner of 20th-century skills. These are the ones that teach students that they sometimes must disconnect to connect; the ones that teach students the necessity of working alone sometimes and focusing at great length; the ones that teach students that silence can be and forever will be a precious commodity in the learning business — even (no, especially) in a world of steady electronic stimulation.
Once I took part in an instant messaging discussion with another teacher’s students about a literary work they had been reading. The kids loved it, and no doubt it had its allure even for me — at least when caught up in the moment. The problem was similar to my own experiences on Twitter, where educators frequently pre-arrange times to “meet” and “talk” about a specific topic. So many messages fly back and forth that 70% of them are lost in the shuffle or ignored, unless you’re well-known or have something called “Klout” (sorry, not available on amazon or any big box store). Posters with “Klout” can tweet something as banal as “Reading puts the ‘fun’ in ‘damental’” and get retweeted and favorited dozens of time. (Hey, make an irony lesson out of it if it amuses you.)
I wondered if the IM middle school discussion was similar, with popular students gaining more responses no matter what they typed. And I also considered what was lost in classrooms where such IMs replace instead of play background vocal to real speaking and listening, where students can be taught to go deeper, to dwell on topics that merit further discussion, to provide more than 140-character bites of analysis.
In the case just mentioned, students were under the care of a teacher who knew the importance of balance and of nurturing real-time discussion by building on the instant messaging lesson. It didn’t just stop with a teacher patting herself on the back for using technology. Instead, the 21st-century IM discussion was followed with 20th-century, in-class questions like, “What are some of the ideas and claims that came up in our IM discussion on this book? Let’s list a few and then see if we can elaborate on some or maybe even challenge a few.”
But the lesson got me to thinking: What if there are teachers out there who consider such activities the end and not just the means? In cases like that — where there is no balance — too much technology is as bad as too little, yet many in education doubt such claims. “This is where the world is going,” they say. “Students must learn to collaborate and think on-line. Students must have all the tech tools at their disposal. And besides, we can archive the IM discussion for later reference. Either get on the bandwagon or get run over.”
Well, yes and no. Skype or not, our students will someday have to interview for a job, present themselves, speak forcefully, understand and respond to face-to-face subtleties and interactions. Being human is a 21st century skill, too, as is knowing how to relax and focus on words — either by reading or writing — all alone.
Sometimes I fear that 21st-century students will be so skillful at technology that they will have zero patience for sitting through, say, a 23-page short story (never mind a 230-page novel). Writing? Revision? Too time-intensive. And too low on entertainment value. Self-editing? That’s what spell check and grammar software are for. Some students can’t even be bothered with the shift key, referring to themselves as “i” instead of “I,” thus setting English back to pre-Chaucerian days.
Of course, you could hide under the cloak of shoulder shrugs and life marches on. The language, after all, is constantly evolving. We must too. But it is the wise English teacher who adopts a middle course, who teaches her tech savvy students not only the advantages of technology in learning, but the timeless necessity of meditation, concentration, extended focus, and — dare I say it — silence, too.
As Robert Frost once wrote: “May no fate willfully misunderstand me.” I am no blogging Luddite, no refusenik or naysayer. I am merely an advocate of balance. “Old school” is no more a pejorative than new school. And tech-savvy 21st-century teachers have as much to learn from very good 20th-century teachers as veteran teachers do from their wired brethren.
Let us not look down or up at each other, then. Let us learn and teach the merits of both centuries — 21st and 20th. Like yin and yang, the wisdom of a balanced approach will move students through the Common Core era and beyond.