Digital Distraction? - Blog! - Two-Fisted History


Digital Distraction?

‘Mr. S, we’d learn better if we had iPads and didn’t have to take notes.’ I was told earlier this week.

‘Yeah?’ I asked.  ‘How would iPads help you learn what taking notes can’t?’

‘Umm. . . we could make movies.  Like in English class!’

‘What would you make movies about?’


Before we go any further, I’d like to clarify that I do value the place of technology in the classroom.  I just worry about the inexorable push towards EdTech as the solution to all of our educational woes.  It’s a line that’s been thrown at us so often and for so long that most people believe that the reason for student underperformance is the lack of the newest and shiniest piece of technology.

If I may channel my inner Colonel Potter, I think that’s a cartload of horse pucky.  An iPad or a SMARTboard alone isn’t going to magically make students learn better, which is what many people seem to think.  Technology is only as smart and dedicated as the people using it, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found that a particular technological problem occurred between the keyboard and the chair.

Technology is only as smart as the people using it. Last year, I was filling in for a certain teacher at a certain school.  This school had recently received a grant to provide each student with an iPad.  My assignment for the week-and-a-half that I was in this teacher’s classroom was to read over a pre-loaded .pdf of a note packet and have the students highlight the ‘important parts’ which the instructor was to provide for them.  Oh, there were some clever things, like being able to insert pictures of the people and places mentioned in the note-packet in the margins of these digital notes, but I felt sickened much of the time I was there.  What was the use of spending seven class days highlighting text?  What skills were being developed by this?  Certainly not critical thinking.  Certainly not active listening.  Watching a documentary would’ve been more useful than ‘Highlight that part,’ or ‘Start highlighting here and stop there.’

Technology is only as dedicated as the people using it. Ostensibly these iPads were protected against the unauthorized installation of apps; however, I don’t think a single student was without a copy of the Minecraft and Angry Birds apps.  I did become quite adept at coming up behind them and catching them while they were supposed to be following along (not that that should be the primary job function of a classroom teacher).  There was one student, however, who I feel only learned how to elude me during this class time.  No matter where I walked in the room, he made certain that his iPad was between him and me so that I could never get a clear look.

Further, I’m sure many of us recall the story of the school in Los Angeles whose students cracked their iPads in less than a day.  Perhaps the Mid-21st century jobs that don’t exist yet and that we are supposedly preparing are students for involve less critical thinking and more less-than-legal use of technology.  Honestly, I think that’s a pretty sad commentary on our culture when our students are more interested in circumventing the rules for their own pleasure and entertainment than with their education.  ‘If only they had used their powers for good. . .’

How many times have we been promised greater productivity at the hands of technology? And how many times do we find ourselves wasting more time on the technology instead of using it productivly?  How often do you check your Facebook feed each day?

Ethernet cable constricting an apple.

‘But Mr. S,’ I hear you say. ‘if we want to make any progress in education, we need to embrace the presence and use of technology in our classrooms.’  I’m not wholly in agreement with that, though.  As noted Early-20th century literarian G.K. Chesterton once said, ‘“progress” is a useless word; for progress takes for granted an already defined direction; and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree.’

With all this being said, however, I don’t want to take us back to hornbooks and quills either (though I can’t say I’m against the one room schoolhouse concept. . .).  EdTech brings us some really fantastic opportunities.  I’ve made lesson plans that use Google Earth and Google Maps to bring students on in-school field trips, allowed them to experience Tiananmen Square’s Tank Man, and even helped them learn how to parallel park.  But how often do we place total and complete reliance on technology? What happens if that technology has to go away for some unforeseen reason? What happens if that technology actually hurts us?  Kids today are growing so completely dependent on technology that, without a calculator, they are unable and unwilling to try to do so much as a simple Common Core math problem such as:


Jeans are usually $40.00.  This weekend there is a sale where if you buy two pairs, you get the third one at 35% off.  How much total will you spend if you buy three pairs?


Such a reliance on technology is not something that we should be glorifying as a way to help our students - our future Citizen Scholars - compete in a global marketplace.  It’s something that should be glorified only if we expect them to be merely the passive citizens that I’ve mentioned - serving their peers who have developed their critical thinking skills.

It’s not that I’m against education technology, I promise you.  I just worry that we place too much of an emphasis on it, and in doing so, we indoctrinate our students in a way that will be harmful to them later on.

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Tags : Education EdTech CitizenScholars CommonCore

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