Technology – Blessing or Challenge?
What an exciting world in which to live! The gidgets and gadgets we have at our disposal to make our lives easier and minimize the distances between people around the world increases rapidly. Furthermore, many of them are a pleasure to learn to use and work with.
Years ago in the university classroom, a university professor shared his conviction that change would be a constant theme in our lives. The more years I spend in the classroom, the more convinced I am that such a perspective has indeed been accurate. One area in particular in which the pace and extent of change that we have had to face is technology. This article explores a number of questions surrounding the impact of technological change in our school's classrooms.
In any society, it has been and continues to be essential for children to learn skills relevant to the world in which they live. Years ago, a child growing up on a farm, as many children did, needed to know how to feed a calf or milk a cow, how to split wood or make a fire, how to collect eggs or make a meal from scratch. While learning and appreciating the importance of these lessons, these children also learned to read, to write, and to develop mathematical literacy. Critical skills that they needed to master included developing neat penmanship and accurate spelling, memorizing sizeable portions of literature, organizing information in binders and books, expressing thoughts clearly and fluently orally and in writing, and listening attentively to and understanding lengthy presentations (think of political debates, sermons, and hours-long speeches that were common). But today, it would seem that many skills that students were previously taught in the educational system are no longer quite as relevant as they once were.
Life has changed; the world of yesterday is quickly disappearing and is being replaced with a world in which technological developments have made a profound impact. The consequences of technological progress for today's youth are far more profound than might initially meet the eye. Consider the following examples of areas in which change is very evident.
How long can people maintain focus? It appears that in general the ability to focus on a particular task has significantly diminished in the last few decades. This is evident in the advertising industry: there has been a relentless increase in the number of different images that are presented in a single commercial on television. It is also evident in the corporate boardroom or the school classroom: PowerPoint presentations need to be increasingly high-powered in order to retain people's interest. There is hardly time any more for a quiet and sustained focus on something that takes time to absorb; today people are used to being bombarded with highly stimulating and ever-changing images. Students share how they do their homework: they read their textbook, text their friends, analyze what they have read, Facebook with acquaintances near and far, write a few sentences about what they have read, play an online game like Angry Birds, and then consider their homework complete. Multi-tasking happens more and more frequently, with the consequence that the skill of focusing for a set period of time on a particular task is not being developed. Multi-tasking is considered a very valuable skill to have. Give the trend we have been observing in the last few decades a bit more time, and where will this lead? Will most people still be able to focus as necessary on tasks requiring sustained focus?
Previously students were expected to memorize content. But that has changed as well: information retention is rapidly become significantly less important than previously; what matters now is someone's ability to retrieve or discover information. We do not need to have all the facts stored in our heads as long as we are able to access it quickly. That is true not just for students in the classroom; people in the work force operate the same way. A doctor, for example, in practice might no longer need to have hundreds of drugs memorized as the right solution to a particular problem; his smart phone or equivalent will confirm his best guess or provide a responsible alternative. How many people do not search for answers on their phone or computer by Googling it, or asking Cha-Cha? The convenience of these types of search engines ensures that they will remain with us for a long time to come.
Societal expectations regarding spelling and grammar are rapidly changing. Schools are left with the unenviable task of trying to convince skeptical audiences that spelling and grammar really matters, even though regular forms of communication have been pushing downwards any expectations in these regards. The texting (can you believe it: my spell-checker did not recognize that word!) phenomenon is the quintessential example that highlights the irrelevance of spelling and grammar conventions. It is indeed difficult to peer into the future to see what will be the implications of this phenomenon in other areas of the written word.
Remember those projects that were normal in school just twenty short years ago? Sometimes they involved literal cutting and pasting, sometimes they demanded coloring, and always they demanded an attentiveness to physically manipulating things so that organization and neatness were evident. Today, children are increasingly adept at using computers, and accomplish most of these tasks in profoundly different ways. It appears no longer to be quite as important to teach a child how to use scissors or crayons; today just the mouse needs to be manipulated. That might impact the need to develop some aspects of fine motor control.
As these examples indicate, technology has changed not only communication patterns and methods, but is also impacting what society considers important. It becomes evident that in the area of technology, we cannot look in the rearview mirror for guidance as we prioritize curriculum needs and other tasks in the coming years for our schools. What people considered important previously is no longer equally relevant for today. Current youth, known as the "net generation," are far more technologically astute than previous teens. The evolving consequences for our youth are being debated in a wide variety of forums.
That begs some important questions. I believe it is fair to say that in most of our Reformed schools we have curriculum which is fairly content-rich. Is it appropriate to maintain such a focus? Why or why not? Consider as an example the history area of the curriculum from the school I serve. From third grade to sixth grade, our history program is based on Veritas history cards. We are hoping to lay a foundation (=content) of broad brush strokes of the flow of history. During the higher grades, much more information is added to that foundation. Tests given in high school provide students an opportunity to show that they have absorbed the content presented in class, and that they understand the correlations between ideas and events, or one event and the next. Other schools or programs might focus more on other areas of curriculum, and attach much less importance on content. One might ask what is the value of learning content when current society does not place as much importance on "knowing stuff" as previously? Schools – Christian or otherwise – might well wish to make the case that we ought to know our history, but that is clearly going against the predominant current cultural grain.
It is much easier to ask questions in this area than to provide concrete answers. Since technology is changing rapidly and will continue to impact every area of our lives we need to be seriously grappling with questions surrounding technology. As Reformed Christians, we cannot like Luddites retreat into some little world that does not recognize technological advances related to communications. Rather, we need to work diligently to ensure that technology remains a communications tool rather than a means to an end in itself. As Christians who embrace the Word and who worship the Word (John 1), we are going to have to remain deliberately counter-cultural to some degree, however challenging that might be. The preaching of the Word, the understanding of the Word, and the living out of the Word demand continued focus on skills such as reading, retaining, focusing, and listening. If we fail to provide an education that enables children to develop those foundational skills, which are admittedly not considered mainstream or "cool" by much of the culture around us, then the generational transfer of love for God's Word and his service will likely be even more difficult than previously. For example, if we address classroom management concerns primarily by enhancing teacher presentations technologically, in the end we might not have done our students as much of a service as we originally believed. (To be sure: much more is going on than addressing classroom management problems when technology is used successfully in the classroom; the goal is to successfully engage the students in learning worthwhile material.) To underline that thought, consider a parallel statement related to Sunday worship services: if we address congregational apathy by enhancing preacher presentations technologically, in the end what have we done?
The Christian life is characterized by knowledge, self-control, focus, and consistent practice. Are those characteristics more likely to be developed in traditional classroom environments as opposed to environments in which students (or parishioners) are texting each other rather than focusing on active listening? How will technology really help our students to know what they need to know in life? (And that is not touching the question of what it means "to know" in the context of the educational setting - to what extent is "knowing" related to content and to what extent is "knowing" related primarily to process and practice?) The cultivation of skills and dispositions related to self-control, focus, and consistent practice need to remain a predominant concern as technology continues to make its high-powered advance. Consider the growing popularity of activities such as yoga meditation in our society. Is that in some way perhaps a response to a growing societal need because of technological developments?
Which is all to ask: Are we really comfortable with the way in which technology is used - or not used – in our schools? Are we using technology deliberately in a particular way for particular outcomes, or are we being swept along by the popular current and forgetting to ask ourselves and each other hard questions? The changing character and role of technology in our school societies is a good one for our communities to grapple with in deliberate ways.