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Tech for Tech’s Sake Isn’t Good in Our Classrooms

By Dave Stuart Jr.

One of my students this fall — we'll call her Rachel — has a problem with technology. Whenever she's on a Chromebook, it's as if her fingers take on a mind of their own. She's almost never on task when I come around to see the thesis statement she's supposed to be typing into PollEverywhere, or the Quizlet test she's supposed to be taking, or the Google Classroom task I've assigned.

She's not malicious about her off-task behavior, and she doesn't go to dark places on the Internet or anything like that.

She just gets… lost.

It's just so easy to open a new tab, Mr. Stuart. Control + T. And then you type in what you want.

If your rosters are like mine, then you're probably nodding your head. Rachel's struggle, it turns out, isn't all that strange.

But we need her to practice using technology, right?

Right now, I'm typing this blog post on a computer. I've done this about 500 times over the past six years, and the cumulative effect of that techno-activity has altered the trajectory of my life. I delight in the opportunities of the information age. My family is fed through the work I do publicly on the Internet. My impact as an educator is multiplied.

Shouldn't my students, then, be writing blogs too? Wouldn't that be an authentic writing assignment, and therefore a better one? Wouldn't that be education aimed at the future?

Maybe it's the parent in me, or maybe it's the writer, or maybe it's the educator, but my instinct for questions like these is caution. My hunch is that the answers to all of them is no.

You see, when I was in school, we rarely used computers. I had a strict keyboarding teacher in middle school (thank you, Mr. Nash), and a clear, business-oriented computer applications teacher my ninth grade year (thank you, Mrs. Cobb), and I took a computer science class in tenth grade (thank you, Donna), but otherwise, my time with computers was minimal. Once in a while, my teachers would sign out a computer lab so we could type up a paper or do some online research — research that we would then, in one class, record on index cards.

My point is that, as a 14- to 18-year-old at the turn of the millennium, my school was a far cry from 1:1. Devices weren't the norm, and when we did get on devices, there wasn't all that much to do.

And here I am, twenty years later, flourishing in the twenty-first century.

I'm not a teacher-writer today because of the amount of time I spent on devices in high school. I'm able to do what I do because of how much time my teachers invested in having me read, write, speak, listen, build knowledge, and argue. (My teachers tended toward this approach.) Basically, I graduated literate and knowledgeable with belief that education mattered even if I didn't always love it. And so as blogging technology came of age and people started posting their life's work on the Internet, I was able to start playing around with the intuitive technology — which every day becomes easier to use, not harder.

I worry that Rachel's education has been so focused on “engagement” and “differentiation” and “self-actualization” that she's missed a critical mass of opportunities to build lots of knowledge, read and discuss and write about all kinds of things, and along the way develop the capacity to fight off distraction for the sake of deep learning and work. Her teachers, so exhausted by the inhuman effort required to do all the things that they're expected to do —  with excellence — have often been performing at less than their full capacities (it's just science — too much pressure hurts performance).

The omnipresence of desire

What's happening when Rachel logs into a Chromebook?

In their study, “What People Desire, Feel Conflicted About, and Try to Resist in Everyday Life,” researchers Wilhelm Hofmann, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Roy F. Baumeister gave 205 people little beepers, and whenever the beepers went off in their random interviews, the folks in the study had to answer a few questions about the desires they were experiencing. In a later book meant to popularize his research, Baumeister summarized the study like this.

From Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

Desire turned out to be the norm, not the exception. About half the time, people were feeling some desire at the moment their beepers went off, and another quarter said a desire had just been felt in the past few minutes. Many of these desires were ones they were trying to resist. [One of the most difficult to resist desires, the researchers found, was the desire for media use.] The researchers concluded that people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires — between three and four hours per day. Put another way, if you tapped five people at any random moment of the day, one of them would be using willpower to resist a desire. And that doesn't even include all the instances in which willpower is exercised, because people use it for other things, too, such as making decisions.

The implications for classroom practice are, I think, profound.

Let's go back to Rachel. Although nearly all of her peers struggle with the same kind of Ctl + T temptations when on their devices, Rachel's distraction is exceptionally powerful. Recently, a colleague and I discovered that Rachel had purposefully not turned in her English essay on time so that she could spend her lunches on a Chromebook “getting the paper done.” When we looked at her Google Doc revision history a couple of weeks into this, we discovered that the paper had been hardly touched.

I need to stress, again, that Rachel is a great kid. As with all of my students, I admire Rachel, and I seek to teach her as if she were my own child. I delight in seeing Rachel and her peers each day — that is a central part of my work. And so I'm not saying, “Oh man, these darn kids.”  I'm saying, “Shoot. We've got to address this. We've got to be better guides here.”

In a time when more and more of our schools are shifting to 1:1, research like Hofmann, Vohs, and Baumeister's needs to be in front of us. We need to wrestle with the questions. For example, given the omnipresence of desire — especially for media-related distractions– are we strengthening our students' ability to resist distracting desires in school, or are we harming them? Consider the immense willpower required when we place a child like Rachel on a Chromebook to type a paper. It's so easy to open a tab, so simple to access all kinds of “school appropriate” websites that crush one's ability to focus. Such easy access to distraction forces our kids to either use intense willpower or to repeatedly find themselves unable to sustain the depth of thought required for a process-written essay.

I'm not putting forth any answers here. My hope, rather, is to make sure we're thinking about this. Tech for the sake of tech is right up there with new for the sake of new. I understand the pressure toward it, but I'd like it if more of us view that pressure as a kind of undertow, as a thing to be wary of.

Let's keep thinking, even while we do our best to help our Rachels build the foundations of flourishing lives.

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