Classical Schools and the Generational Struggle with Technology

Robert Littlejohn offers a plan for the responsible and God-fearing use of technology in all areas of school life.

Perhaps the most helpful acknowledgment toward understanding the very real challenges that we face with technology is that our schools are governed and managed by Boomers II and Gen X who hire Gen X and Gen Y educators to teach Gen Z students whose parents are Gen X/Y and whose grandparents are Boomers I/II. Each generation uses, responds to and feels differently about technology, and keeping it all straight could be someone’s full time job!

An interesting read for Classical Christian Educators is What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. His basic message is that technology is an irresistible (almost organic) force in our culture that is neither inherently good nor evil. It is up to us to interact with and use technology in ways that genuinely enhance learning, build community and effectively further Christ’s kingdom.

But, there is within the classical mindset a natural resistance to technology – and with good reason. However, given that Gen Z has never known the relatively tech-free world that parents and educators remember, we risk relegation to irrelevance and obscurity, even the death of a movement, if we are not informed, proactive and strategic in our technology policies and practices.

This is not about content. It is about a medium. Sheer exposure to (much more, immersion in) the new technologies forms the brain differently and, if unchecked, can actually limit the ability to learn through traditional means. At the very least, technology is profoundly changing the way our students learn. Ultimately, we must choose between meeting students where they are and facing dramatically declining enrollment.

We’ve long known about learning modalities, and that different students learn best through visual, auditory or kinesthetic modes. The most effective educator will “pitch” the lesson to all three “kinds of learners” while purposefully developing all three learning styles in each student. Developing skill is as important as gaining knowledge. If we haven’t prepared the visual learner for the still predominately auditory world of the college classroom, we have failed him. A similar approach to technology must now be layered upon the many responsibilities that today’s teachers juggle.

Communication

Our schools send letters, annual reports, donor requests, newsletters, report cards, transcripts and thank you notes via US mail. Some recipients love and depend on this form of communication while others simply pile it with the bills, magazines and junk mail until it is convenient to toss it (unread) into the nearest trash bin. Teachers may send class calendars, assignments and announcements home in homework folders, but increasing numbers of two-income and single-parent families would rather read it online.

Email, phone and even text broadcasts are becoming standard, resulting in conflicting complaints of too much or too little communication and the occasional request to “take me off your broadcast list.” Some stakeholders cleverly create unique email accounts for school communications, which can then be conveniently ignored. Meanwhile, individual email communication is beginning to consume an inordinate amount of time for teachers and principals, adding to the burden of teaching and increasing the likelihood of misunderstanding and professional burnout.

Additionally, most schools are adopting administrative software and/or website portals with individual teacher blog, dropbox and calendar capabilities to manage everything from lesson plans to athletic game cancellations. Each system has its limitations, and few schools are truly happy with what they are using. “To push or not to push” is becoming the new Shakespearean expression.

How people want to receive and process their information varies greatly with lifestyle and generation. And with increasing consumerism and a struggling economy, the savvy school will endeavor to communicate with stakeholders according to their individual preferences as much as possible.

Instruction

Among the unfortunate misconceptions that conventional educators and the popular media have cultivated among today’s parents is that student access to technology in the classroom guarantees better learning. A Christian school in our area is advertising that every 4th-12th grade student is provided a MacBook, and every K-3 classroom is equipped with a SmartBoard. Really? I suspect this is more about market pressures than pedagogy, and it may be the easier route to take than educating prospective parents in the genuine educational benefits of limiting technology in the classroom.

But, the reality, substantiated by educational research, is that computers in the hands of students (especially young students) are often a distraction from learning. At many, if not most, conventional schools computers have taken the place of the film as the latest version of in-class baby sitters, freeing teachers from the burdensome responsibility of actually teaching.

Further, technology in the hands of teachers, improperly used, can also hinder learning. While, Power Point can be a tremendous teaching tool, reading slide- after-slide of sentences can be even more effective at putting students to sleep than a dry lecture alone. Worse still is the time so often wasted when technology doesn’t work. Precious minutes slip by while a teacher (or his students) fiddles with buttons and cables, hoping that something he does will help the lesson begin or resume.

But, when properly understood and utilized as a tool to enhance teaching and learning, technology can elevate instruction to a whole new level while meeting Gen Z students “where they are.” Static or dynamic projection of a live Internet feed via LCD or SmartBoard can absolutely bring Art, History, Science and current events to life. And, while “feature-length” films will bore Gen Z, a brief YouTube clip on any of thousands of topics can capture their interest and imagination. Or Air Playing an excerpt from an iBook (iPad to monitor) can turn static textbook images, illustrations and graphs into interactive experiences. And, the creative use of a website or app can demonstrate in minutes what ordinarily takes a whole class period or a field trip in some academic disciplines.

The key, as with any tool, is that technology should be one among several methods used for effective instruction. The teacher who tethers himself to the keyboard and gives up hands-on activities, class discussion, solving problems or diagramming sentences at the board, and getting outside now and then will be a poorer teacher for his use of technology. While technology might be part of every lesson, it should not be ALL of any lesson.

Student Use of Technology

Those attending last summer’s SCL conference in Charleston heard Susan Wise Bauer advocate teaching proper QWERTY keyboarding and Internet search skills beginning in 4th grade. Whether schools takes this advice really should depend on their strategic placement of “the grammar of computing” in their whole-school scope and sequence and not on pressures imposed by what the school down the street is doing. Performance data (theirs and ours) is the better litmus test as to who is providing the better education.

A general principle of skills placement is that we don’t hold a student responsible for a skill until we have taught it to them. And, once we have taught it to them, we should immediately begin to hold them responsible to use it so as not to let them fall out of practice.

Schools must first ask at what level they will begin to regularly require word processed and Internet search assignments. No doubt a processed assignment is easier to grade, but at what stage is it best for the student? The answer must take a number of things into consideration. Among them: Will word processing and/or computer searches require additional home time for assignments, leaving less time for other critical practice and study? Will penmanship and the developmental (tactile) benefits of handwriting suffer? Will students be properly supervised/ protected in fulfilling assigned tasks using the Internet? And, can you be sure who has done the assignment? These issues must then be weighed against the concern that waiting too late to teach proper computing skills will mean having to overcome bad habits formed through self teaching. If not by 4th grade, students should acquire these skills at least by middle school, and use them regularly thereafter.

And, what of smart devices and laptop computer use in the high school classroom? Again, Gen Z students may find greater efficiency with note-taking and class participation using their technology. Smart devices can double as sophisticated calculators, and run quick Internet searches – on the spot. Obviously, clear guidelines and accountability are essential; devices out in plain sight, ringers off, no texting, no tweeting, use as directed.

Frankly, we are probably less than two years away from having every high school text available as an iBook or on Kindle. Some very fine texts are already available. This could mean a huge savings to schools and families, could lighten the back pack load and, with cloud access from any computer or device, could mean never leaving the book at school. But as much sense as this seems to make, we are wise to manage every transition incrementally – learning what works and what doesn’t work for us in the process.

The same applies to another personal prediction that computer labs will soon be a thing of the past, as schools begin to provide “smart spaces” and “hotspots” outside the classroom for wireless student/teacher interactive learning. Such spaces will feel like Starbucks with a SmartBoard, where anyone can easily send his device’s image to the big screen for group discussion, problem solving or creative development. It is already the case at colleges and universities that 80% of learning takes place outside the classroom. The question for us, as K-12 educators, is can Gen Z high schoolers be far behind their college counterparts?

Abuse of Technology

Parenting is harder than it used to be. Generally speaking, few parents know what their kids’ devices can do, or what they are doing with them. And, adult perceptions aside, kids are often genuinely naive about appropriate use of their devices. Both need instruction and guidance from us as educators.

On the one hand, Gen Z kids are far more savvy about technology than their parents and teachers. They understand what their devices can do, how to circumvent parental controls and how to set up dummy social media accounts for their parents to monitor. On the other hand, even “good kids” are so desensitized by prime time television, the popular music culture and peer attitudes that language and topics which are highly offensive to Gen X parents are just “normal,” even seemingly innocent.

Our new challenge, as schools in the classical and biblical traditions, is to adjust our thoughts and actions when it comes to partnering with today’s parents. We must still be ever so cautious not to usurp parental authority. It remains the case that our calling is as schools – not parents/ families. But parents are, perhaps, more in need of godly wisdom and assistance from educators than ever before. It is more likely than not that a parent’s first hint that her child is into something inappropriate or dangerous will come from a school official who has discovered it through the regular “buzz” about school. I have always erred on the side of leaving too much, rather than too little, to parental authority and responsibility. But for those reasons stated above and a variety of others, including the necessity of preserving a school culture that honors Christ, I am embracing a pretty substantial paradigm shift for one who has spent 21 years in classical Christian schooling. I am arguing that whatever a student posts through any medium, whatever he or she says or claims to have done, should be addressed as though it occurred at school. Discipline should not be left to the parent, but should be meted out at school for the good of the student and the good of the school community.

Students should be instructed (and parents informed) regarding what is and what is not appropriate for “virtual living,” and students should be trained in the godly behavior of holding one another accountable for living appropriately in the physical and virtual worlds. This is especially important when it comes to what is said about fellow students and authority figures. Cyber bullying and publicly trashing one’s school are injurious to both the perpetrator and the victim of such behaviors and will quickly undermine a positive school culture if unchecked.

Although our focus is solidly upon our students, perhaps we need to take more seriously than ever the notion that our schools are responsible to educate many constituencies: students, teachers, board members, donors, our broader communities and (saving them for last) parents. Workshops on topics such as Internet Safety, Cyber Bullying, Social Media, Classical Learning: What the Data Say, When to Let Your Student Drive a Smart Device, etc… will be great for some. But, remembering the generational differences of your intended audience, it may be best to push and post headlines with clickable links to pertinent articles or, better yet, YouTube videos on these and other important topics. The more our families learn, in ways that are best for them to learn, the more our schools will enjoy the benefits of a cohesive community of faith and learning, both physically and virtually.

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