Think Glocally?…Technology, Place, and Teaching

broken-monitorOver at EdWeek during the break, Bill Ferriter and I duked it out over the place of technology in the classroom: what it gives us and what it takes away. We use the lens of the “local vs. global” debate, which has provided for some fascinating discussion over what those terms mean these days, exactly, with the kudzu-like advancement of Web 2.0 into our daily lives.

Bill credits me for a lot of his recent thinking about tech, and I can only return the favor. As I examine which tech tools, approaches, and skills are essential for my kids, he has been my guide. I’ll plug his book on this topic here, which should be on every teacher’s bookshelf.

My first salvo in the debate, in the form of a letter, is below; Bill’s response is here. And of course, laughingly, I could go on and on about it (ex: “You think I’ve made a point, Bill? One measly little point?”)…but I’m more interested in the readership’s response. Folks who commented at Ed Week were not kind, which I enjoyed thoroughly, but it does make me wonder if my continued tech skepticism is really that irritating– and more importantly, why.

What do you think?

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Dear Bill,

Teaching can be very accurately characterized as an unending series of tough calls: one triage after another. It’s Monday, and I have 10 minutes to eat lunch and prep my next class. What do I do? It’s fourth period, and my ESL student is struggling with vocabulary, while my student with an emotional disorder is picking a loud fight with his best friend. Who gets my attention?

Or this triage decision, perhaps the one which plagues us most: I have 50 minutes a day with kids, if the fire alarm doesn’t go off. What do I teach?

It’s ironic, and sad, that when I look for understanding and inspiration for these tough calls, I don’t actually think first of any experts in education. Too often, they’re operating in the ether: distracted from, or unaware of, the facts on the school grounds. My EMT, instead, is Paul Farmer.

As director of Partners in Health, one of the most successful medical nonprofits in the world, Dr. Farmer spends every waking hour making triage decisions. He described one in a recent biography by Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains. The worlds in which Paul Farmer operates—Kazakhstan, Rwanda, Haiti—are places where decisions are defined, more or less, by what’s right in front of you. Farmer comments in the case of evacuating a young patient to Boston for surgery:

The bottom line is, why do we intervene as aggressively as we can with that kid and not with another? Because his mother brought him to us and that’s where he was, at our clinic.

And that’s where our kids and their worlds are, too: right in front of us. So what are examples of needs right in front of us, as teachers?

Here is one that came up only this week.

New York is now determining whether to allow hydrofracking—a process of injecting water and chemicals into underground rock formations to create fractures and release natural gas—on our piece of the Marcellus Shale, a large deposit of marine sedimentary rock extending through the Appalachian Basin. The drilling could give many of my families some needed income; that is, if the environmental and health risks don’t outweigh the jobs. The kids who belong to these families may have a hard time wrapping their minds around these issues, though, because none of them really understand what the Marcellus Shale is, or where their water comes from. Too many also don’t know what town they live in, their ZIP code, or how to spell the name of their own street. (I discovered that horrific fact while teaching friendly-letter format.)

When I am confronted, then, with the daily, even hourly, decisions to triage my time, money, and effectiveness for my kids, I tend to go for the needs that are right in front of me. There’s another name for this that floats around environmental and philosophical circles: localness.

Now, Bill, you’re going to tell me that technology doesn’t necessarily demand an either/or choice between the local or the global, and you’re right. E-mail, for example, quickly puts my kids in touch with my principal and garners an authentic response within minutes. The Internet’s denizens research and document local issues of all types. Webpages and wikis can enhance the community of the classroom and open it to wider community circles of families and friends. All true and good.

But I find myself asking the same question of educational technology that author and cultural critic Neil Postman did. Several years before Google and iPods, in 1998, he wrote the following:

All technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. … Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, “What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently.

So what does technology in the classroom undo for us? Over time, I’ve identified five conceptual places where, when it comes to the local versus the global, technology may undo a lot more than we think.

1) The Shallows. Nicholas Carr’s book, by the same name, explores how the Internet may change the very way we think: substituting inefficient multi-tasking and short bursts of attention for sustained engagement and academic stamina, affecting everything from how kids pay attention in class to whether they can stick with a good novel and think deeply about it. And having the desire and the skill to give deep attention to our surroundings, of course, is the heartbeat of localness.

2) The Sensual Connection. Much of “paying attention” is inextricably linked with a well-developed sense of the physical: our own bodies and their interaction with the environment through the senses. Computers not only overwhelmingly tether us to a small, confined space physically, but strip our senses from five to two. This has major implications not only for how—or if—our students retain information, but also for the most local interaction of all: face-to-face communication. New York University has established seminars for its freshmen to re-teach them how to do this. Amazing, isn’t it?

3) The Energy Issue. Something I rarely see mentioned, but which concerns me deeply, is the increasing shift of our informational and social interactions to technological mediums that rely wholly on the production and use of non-renewable resources, miles from our localities. From the plastics that make up your laptop, to the electricity required to run them, to the fuel used to ship them, to the garbage they create when we junk them, computers are wasteful—and vulnerable. No less an expert on communication than novelist and poet Margaret Atwood says:

Think of what a computer is and what it runs on and what interferes with it. What do you do in an electrical storm? If you’re smart you’ll unplug it, because one sharp crack of electricity can wipe your whole thing and there goes your life. … [D]o away with the cheap, available energy supply and … you’ll be going through the rubbish heap, looking for discarded printed texts, because guess what? Once they’re there, all you need is sunlight.

4) The 19th Century Schoolhouse. But let’s assume for a moment that technology does come out on the right side of the cost-benefit analysis. Is it still something we want to invest in before, say, getting the asbestos out of the walls of our inner-city high schools, or solving the problem of the 1.3 billion dollars teachers spent out of their pockets on basic classroom materials last year? This is what I mean about triaging for the local. What good is a laptop that takes them to the four corners of the world, if I can’t even give my kids pencils?

5) The Crap Detector. Ernest Hemingway said this: “Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.” Neil Postman argued that society’s crap detector should be the schools—the one certain place where children should be taught to examine the world critically. Yet if we suffuse our kids’ educational experience unthinkingly with the very technology they need to think critically about (and are also engaging with for multiple hours a day outside of school), what exactly are we doing to the nation’s crap detector?

In the end, I come back to Paul Farmer. Every teacher out there, I think, is a little bit like Farmer: scrabbling for the best possible outcomes, sometimes with the most meager resources, under very challenging circumstances.

Given the perspectives I’ve outlined above, am I going to spend our precious, rare classroom time and my own resources on anything less than what I am certain the kids need? Am I going to sacrifice opportunities for local citizenship, critical thinking, physical awareness, conservation, and an authentic connection to the building blocks of our very lives, in order to saturate my pedagogy in technological tools as yet unproven in what they give and what they take away?

Tough call, isn’t it.

Yours,
Dina

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See Bill’s response here.

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