As I took my seat in a high-school auditorium recently, I noted with surprise and a bit of subversive pleasure that our speaker, a prominent author and professor of creative writing, had requested only a podium and an ancient, Little House on the Prairie-looking chalkboard as his stage setup. For the next forty minutes, this awkwardly charming middle-aged man held his audience’s rapt attention as he spoke about truth, language, and the writing process. In my classes later that day and throughout the days following, students enthused, mostly unprompted, about how much they enjoyed the author’s talk, how his way of thinking resonated with them, and how intriguing they found his notion of the relationship between the truth and the stories we tell. It was a lovely period of collective intellectual excitement.
A relentless cacophony of educational consultants and ed-tech evangelists would have us believe that this sort of endeavor is outdated if not retrograde, and certainly neither engaging nor relevant to today’s students, those tech-savvy digital natives with their “gaming dispositions.” (A hyper-crafted TED talk might be tolerable, perhaps, if it clocks in under twenty minutes and is supplemented by sleek digital images.) There is a tendency among consultants concerned with 21st century schools and digital learning to make sweeping generalizations about high school students’ abilities, interests, and learning preferences as part of their call for “disruption” of an educational system that is supposedly obsolete. The primary accusations hurled at contemporary learning are that it is teacher-centric, irrelevant, and stifling of creativity. The straw man that the 21st century learning movement seeks to destroy is a Dickensian hellscape of droning, digitally-illiterate teachers peddling useless content to suffering, disengaged children.
As we careen forward, grabbing at everything that blinks or glows and hurling it into classrooms, digitizing, game-ifying, and dripping with the flop-sweat of 21st century panic, might we pause to ask whether we are short-changing our students with all of this indiscriminate flailing? Are we underestimating students when we assert that the way they learn is so significantly different from that of all humans who have come before them that we must completely overturn our educational system?
The school at which I work is fully tech-enabled; the students all have laptops smart phones, and access to the web at school and at home. I wouldn’t wish it to be otherwise; these tools are enhancers of learning and an inextricable part of our daily lives. And yet time and again I’ve observed that the most engaging community events seem to be those in which a single speaker addresses us from a place of deep knowledge and experience about the work they do and how they derive meaning from it. The best speakers ask us to be present and engaged together for a common intellectual purpose. Rather than trying to grab students’ attention by dumbing down or “blinging” up the material, pandering to some assumption about teenagers’ short attention spans or an imagined need for showmanship, the most engaging speakers bring their audience with them in a way that broadens our worldviews and inspires deep reflection. They are adults who live lives devoted deeply and authentically to their work, to which they have committed decades of study and labor, and they serve as important models to young people. The lesson isn’t just about the writing process, or the artwork, or the scholarship; the lesson is about how to craft a meaningful, rich, honest and rewarding life centered on work that is genuine and important to you.
This is not an argument for a lecture-based or tech-free approach to education, by the way. Far from it. Good learning ought to be varied and engaging in a way that is appropriate to the subject matter and the age group of the learners. Good teaching is nimble and flexible and constantly re-examined. And student-centered learning can be high tech or low.
But I suspect that if we were to create a speaker series of specialists in 21st century digital learning and educational technology to address our community, the result would be dispiriting. Because when it comes to modeling meaningful and deeply-considered work, the ed-tech and consulting industries simply have little to offer. What the players in these industries share is a desire to profit from the aggressive and mercenary promotion of indiscriminate technology use in the classroom, a market of some fifty million potential consumers. They promote that end by engaging in a sustained campaign of demagoguery based on the fear of an uncertain economic future, then promise that their services or products offer a sure solution to this uncertainty. This marketing campaign is accompanied by the vicious demonization of those with questions or concerns, who are denigrated as obstructive Luddites working against the interests of children. To be sure, there are many tech-evangelists who are sincere and well meaning; credulous bandwagon-jumping about digital learning is rewarded in powerful ways within school systems, and a teacher or administrator perhaps can’t be blamed for avoiding the slander that very nearly equates questioning the value of ed-tech with child abuse.
If we wouldn’t invite dishonest profiteers to speak to our students, then why do we let them into our classrooms in so many pervasive, insidious ways? Why do we hire them to speak at teacher in-service days? Why do we push e-books and social media into classrooms even when our students tell us year after year that they hate e-books and really don’t like when teachers intrude on their social spaces? We’ve abandoned the courage of our convictions about what meaningful, engaging, important learning looks like, and we’ve let the barbarians of ed-tech run riot through our classrooms. And in allowing this to happen, this thoughtless, breathless, haphazard denigration of critical thought, we’ve abandoned our responsibility to our students. If it’s our job to help students to become well-informed critical thinkers, then maybe the teachers and administrators who have been part of this damaging onslaught ought to start by healing themselves.