At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Learning and Limits

Before you query any more deeply about the title, this is about technology.

You know, technology and its role in the classroom.

Like the use of iPads.

Yeah, something safe, designed to kick up no dust.

Well, let me preface this: I am sharing all this as an employee of a school where we have a growing iPad initiative in place. Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, we began to require--not without discussion--parents of entering seventh-graders to purchase iPads (or at least iPad Minis) for their children to use in the classroom. Also needed were the downloading of educational apps--both free and at cost to the families--which would be utilized as part of their educational experience here.

My purpose here today is not to ride the fine line of support and critique. The class levels using iPads have not risen to the place where I am having them as students, yet. So I can't say much for what the more widespread use of iPads and like digital technology brings to my classroom. I neither can nor will speak for my colleagues and their experience in trying to shuffle the deck and use iPads in their curriculum. I'd refer you directly to them if interested. It's only fair to let them speak for themselves.

However, as our daughter Lindsay began there as a seventh-grader this past year, I think I can speak as a parent-educator. Not to give a blanket endorsement nor scathing critique, but simply to say this: There are things that iPads can do and there are things they cannot do.

First, what they can do...

1. They can streamline materials, presentations, and transmission. And they do this quite well. I liked the idea of Lindsay having her math textbook downloaded on her iPad Mini rather than clunking around an 800-page monster rivaling War and Peace for denseness and my last meal for weight. Her presentations for projects in Bible and Geography classes could be ably entered onto Keynote. And ordinary vocabulary assignments could be completed on the iPad and sent to her teacher without the need of tracking paper. There's no doubt the iPad is more eco-friendly in that regard.
2. The iPad can encourage collaboration, and that helps students to see that education--as Socrates once said--is not the filling of a vessel, but a lighting of a flame. The more multi-sensory opportunities of the iPad can expand possibilities in the classroom, if managed effectively.
3. However, iPads can overwhelm and distract an already distracted and distractible student population. The sheer number of apps available can be more of a tidal wave than a manageable river at times. And a generation that is already addicted--yes, I went there...addicted to technology is having one more layer of white noise put into life's package. You're telling me that students aren't trying to multi focus, that they aren't playing games or doodling on their other apps when they should be paying close attention to class discussion of King of Mulberry Street? Yeah, tell it to the bull out back.
4. The iPad creates...nay, it mandates an additional layer of responsibilities for parents who must be watchful of what their child is putting on the iPad itself, be it pictures, memes, or whatever online sites are in their browsing history. We have to be very careful as schools in the message we are sending to conscientious parents who want their children to make responsible moral decisions in what goes from their eyes to their brains to their hearts and to their souls. Christy and I are watchful and check regularly, but I sense we're in the minority. And to be quite honest, it wears us out. Oh, what's that, you say? Your kid would never wander into questionable cyber-pastures? Because they go to a Christian school? Yeah, the bull is still out back.
5. The iPad can be a great drawing card for people who want a twenty-first century education for their child. (Of course, since we are technically in the 21st century, everyone is getting that kind of education...duh.) However, a school must give careful thought to how digital technology fits into the overall scope of the curriculum and the educational mission of the school. If the issue is competition with other schools--especially in private and independent education--then we must give pause. Eventually, teachers and parents will figure out if the reason you have iPads is to be able to tell prospective families that you have iPads. They're smart like that, you know.

And what iPads cannot do...
1. They cannot improve your attention span. The amount of information in the world doubles at a fairly rapid rate (every eighteen months, if I recall correctly...and IBM estimates we could hit a rate of every thirteen hours one day!), so I understand life doesn't slow down unless we are intentional about it. But don't expect tools like the iPad to help in that intentionality. Just saying.
2. They cannot give you a greater thirst for learning for learning's sake. No technological tool can do this. Occasionally, one might unlock some improvement and desire that was latent. But a student will learn more, apply truth more, and broaden their applicator wisdom better if that fire burns within them anyway. What an iPad can do here is so minimal here it is staggering.
3. By and large, they cannot make you a better reader or writer. More and more research is coming out about the differences between digital reading and the use of hard copy books. While people might read a higher volume of stuff with digital readers (Kindle, Nook, iPads with e-reading app, etc.), the ability to connect with previous locations in the book, prior quotes or events in a story, and in general the critical thinking skills that flower with deep reading skills truly grow and ferment well via the reading of traditional paper material. In a culture in which people read less and less (and in which some of my students can't remember the last time they read a book), we don't need to hamstring ourselves if that's what it might come to. And writing skills flourish best when students are expected to take notes and write responses by hand rather than typing
4. Technology cannot automatically make you a better critical thinker. You become a better thinker by reading, writing, and learning how to think. Yes, thinking is a skill that can be strengthened and improved. It can be taught. It can be learned. And there are ways to do this in schools (cough...teach Latin and logic in schools...cough). An iPad can take these strengths and help put them to use, but it is not substitute for a living flesh-and-blood human guiding someone through how to think well (for materials to help, go here).
5. And, an iPad will not make you a more moral soul, a more loving person, or an increasingly compassionate individual who has a concern for human flourishing. To do that, you need to be more attuned to looking others in the eyes and being drawn to their needs and soul thirsts.And to look other in the eyes, you need to get your eyes off digital devices. Just saying...

So, keep in mind this is not a diatribe. It's a call to sober judgment and careful discernment. Tools like the iPad can be very helpful in many areas. But they come with challenges, unanswered questions, and unintended consequences that we are obligated to navigate. No, I don't propose to remain a dinosaur myself, but I do have one final question.

Do we ever stop to think that we might desire to give our students what we didn't have that we forget to pass on to them what we did have?

Just one final question from me, a person who graduated from high school...before Google. I'd think that gives my thoughts some legitimacy.

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