Neil Postman had a critical eye when it came to educational technology. I agreed with many the concerns that he noted in his article, “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change.” When, however, he suggests that “Sesame Street undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents”, I have to speak up.
According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the simple definition of “undermine” is: to make (someone or something) weaker or less effective usually in a secret or gradual way. The more complex definition includes the statement: to subvert or weaken insidiously or secretly. The expectation here is that the “thing” (person, idea, strategy, etc.) that is being “undermined” is, in all ways, good, fair, just and worthy of living an unquestioned existence.
An example of “undermining” would be the impact that stereotypes have on the stereotyped groups. In a 2014 Smithsonian article, author, Rose Eveleth, describes how a stereotype, such as, “Girls are bad at math” can truly undermine the performance, effort and achievement of females in that subject area. Is it good and fair to impede the progress and passion of female students who are studying math? Most would agree that it is NOT fair. The notion of allowing girls to succeed in math or to work to the best of their ability would likely be viewed as “worthy of living an unquestioned existence”.
I must ask myself, in response to Postman’s blog, if “the traditional idea of schooling” is, in all ways, good, fair, just, and worthy of living an unquestioned existence. Two decades ago, my answer would have been a resounding ‘yes’. I like(d) school. I liked the rote drills and practice. I believe that they served their purpose (for me). Even one short decade ago, when I entered into the wonderful profession, I would have supported the notion of “traditional school” and you would have witnessed that approach (instructivism as a learning paradigm) in my classroom.
As I described in my last post, however, in the past two years, I have started to move toward more of a contructivist view of learning; a student-centered approach to teaching. I give students the freedom to explore ideas; this often results in fantastic learning on my part! They collaborate (in class and online) and – I hope – submit to long-term memory some pretty relevant concepts. I digress…
The point is, that very loaded word – “undermine” – does not quite fit in this situation because, as I’ve suggested in the previous paragraph, “the traditional idea of schooling” should not be considered immune from criticism or exempt from change. Traditional schooling does not meet the needs of all learners, nor is it fair to keep students from experiencing some of the amazing opportunities that exist with the help of technology in the classroom. Teachers can engage students and create meaningful learning experiences using, for example, SMARTBoards. Here just a couple of links that show the creativity and connections that can exist for children of all ages: “Ten Ways to Get Smart with SMART Boards” and “11 Things you Never Knew You Could Do With Your SMART Board” I have only created one SMART Board lesson thus far in my teaching career (I desperately need more time to experiment with this product!); I likely learned more than the students in that situation, but they were definitely engaged! So, after one successful SMART Board lesson, does this mean that I will use technology in every lesson, in each course that I teach? Not likely. I believe in the old saying, “everything in moderation” … even when it comes to including technology in my classroom.
Some teachers are each to invite students to bring devices to school (no need to wait for a laptop cart to be available or to require students to do “at home research”). My fear of BYOD – something which I’ve very, very recently allowed in my classroom, for a specific purpose, on one occasion – is that it shines a spotlight on the socio-economic disparity within the group. At my school, some students come from some of the wealthiest households in the city, while many others come from some of the poorest homes. Our school uniforms cannot camouflage this inequality when BYOD is a part of our classrooms.
Economic disproportion aside, BYOD can certainly give students the opportunity to become engaged, explore, and take control of their own learning. My grade three daughter just had her first BYOD day at school. She had to speak “lots and lots of French” (so she tells me!) to earn the privilege of using a personal electronic device at school for 45 minutes. It was with great trepidation that I placed our family iPad in her backpack! It came back safely, and she was thrilled to have had the opportunity to play games for ¾ of an hour. Her teacher’s use of BYOD as a reward is an example of a Token Economy approach (one of B.F. Skinner’s various behaviour shaping practices).
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I know that the criticisms of this kind of behaviour modification are plentiful … but, I’m hoping that speaking “lots and lots of French” becomes commonplace for my daughter and her peers – to the point where the reward can gradually be eliminated, but the positive behaviour ensues.
With gaming, apps and screen time being such a “huge draw” for children nowadays, where does this leave us as educators? I know that I, personally, can’t compete with the exciting noises, colourful graphics and fast-paced characters that come with ed tech programs but, at the same time, they can’t compete with my ability to listen to a student’s concerns, understand a problem, offer guidance or simply a genuine smile. It’s the human connection that is most important to students (whether they know that or not!); and no machine can truly replicate this. As John Rakestraw recommends in his article, “Teaching Thoughtfully with (and without) Technology”, I will “continue the exploration and use of these new technologies, being careful to consider how and to what extent they facilitate good teaching and learning.”