Dewey in the Digital Age:

Why bring technology into your classroom?

Mr. Johanson is a High School English Teacher who recently completed Classkick Certification and is writing a series of blog posts as a reflection on the experience. In this first post, Mr. Johanson examines why he chose to participate in the certification program. If you are interested in introducing technology into your classroom, you can become a Classkick Certified Educator too!

Despite the unprecedented wealth of technological resources available to modern teachers, positive sentiment about the rising tide of education technology is far from ubiquitous.

There can be a negative side resulting from inappropriate or overuse of technology, and that negative side can have serious and long-term consequences.

A significant concern from parents and educational professionals is that technology molds our students in undesirable ways, potentially hampering students’ attention and social skills. They worry that porting more technology into the classroom panders to students who already struggle to concentrate or interact face-to-face, compounding these already troubling developments. With a concerning lack of results from efforts to improve educational outcomes by introducing technology into our classrooms, these concerns aren’t easy to dismiss.

Nevertheless, working to successfully integrate technology into our classrooms is more important than ever before. As our world is revolutionized by technology, many of our students (65% according to WEF) will have careers that don’t even exist yet. Already, our concept of employment is being drastically changed by the growth of the “gig economy,” facilitated by the digital marketplace. If we are to prepare our students for their futures, we need to prioritize providing experiences of clear social value in this age of information, experiences that prepare students to contribute to their increasingly digital community.

This isn’t the first time the education system has faced societal changes on such a large scale. In The School and Society, John Dewey addressed the necessity of adaptation brought on by the first industrial revolution:

It is easy to see that this revolution, as regards the materials of knowledge, carries with it a marked change in the attitude of the individual. Stimuli of an intellectual sort pour in upon us in all kinds of ways. The merely intellectual life, the life of scholarship and of learning, thus gets a very altered value.

In response to these changes, the first chapter of The School and Society puts forth the idea that schools need to re-focus on introducing students to the realities of life. As education was no longer reserved for the learned few, it had to address the needs of many. Dewey argued that students needed to understand the “human significance,” the genuine need for their learning, so that they might be driven to contribute to the betterment of society.

This educational ideal is derived from Dewey’s conception of education in the pre-industrial household.

By way of example, let us imagine a boy named Hermon living in 1717. Young pre-industrial Hermon is told to help his father out in yonder field. Though young Hermon cannot run a farm on his own, he helps his father till the field and learns about the earth, crops, horses, tools and so on and so forth. Young Hermon is motivated by the reality that if the crops don’t grow, he and Ma and Pa might all starve to death during the long winter. This genuine motive produces genuine outcomes, and he gains a profound understanding of how man sustains himself living off the land. In time, young Hermon grows into a farmer in his own right, contributing to his community and raising his children, little Henry and Henrietta, to do the same.

Sadly, as was the problem when Dewey wrote in 1899, the modern education system often fails to illuminate the social value of the activities in which our students participate.

Let us imagine young Hermon, now several industrial revolutions later, living in 2017. Post-post-industrial Hermon is never told to help his father in a field; rather, Hermon sits at a desk for 8 hours a day for 12 years. His family finds sustenance not from farming, but from the supermarket. At school, Hermon learns how to fill in little bubbles on little sheets of paper. He doesn’t like algebra or biology or history — he has no motive to learn them as he doesn’t imagine ever solving for x, or wanting to dissect the eye of a cow, or needing to know the date that Napoleon rode to Russia.

Post-post-industrial Hermon is never told to help his father in a field; rather, Hermon sits at a desk for 8 hours a day for 12 years.
There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat. — Dewey

Because the outcome of his work is little more than the few letter grades his teachers constantly tell him to care about, schoolwork is a serious drag. As the world keeps spinning without his help, Young Hermon imagines the world will take care of him forever: he is content to play video games and watch endless streams of Netflix. When young Hermon grows up, he quickly learns that binge-watching Breaking Bad will not pay his rent, but struggles to find what he has to contribute to society or his role in the larger community.

Young post-post industrial Hermon’s educational plight in 2017 has significant implications for curriculum and pedagogy that are not alleviated by the simple inclusion of iPads or Chromebooks in the classroom. Education technology is not a cure-all: content will not be transformed into something intrinsically interesting or relevant to our students because it’s put in an app. Yet integrating technology into the classroom represents an exciting opportunity to change young post-post-industrial Hermon’s narrative. Education Technology makes possible forms of student-directed and student-centered learning that are simply unprecedented:

And when you’ve got interest, then you have education. — Arthur C. Clarke

While young Hermon may not be motivated by necessity to learn the content presented to him in school, the information superhighway allows Hermon to chart his own course. Working on a project for World History, Hermon discovers that he enjoys digital design, a subject that isn’t taught in any course at his school. Not to be dissuaded, he finds online courses in design that he completes after school. Provided his own motive and empowered by a wealth of digital resources, Hermon is able acquire an education anchored in his interests. With several of his friends, young Hermon creates a YouTube channel that generates a reasonable amount of traffic, and he can see a genuine outcome of his education. Hermon develops as an adaptive learner, setting his own goals and self-regulating. When he grows up, Hermon finds work as a freelance designer and is able to adapt to the rapidly changing world around him.

It is this active learning, this first-hand experience with societal realities, for which Dewey advocates. This kind of participation eschews the simple acquirement of knowledge for learning which has social value: real motive and real outcomes. As our world is increasingly defined by the rapid development of digital technology, it is these new realities with which our students need to interact. But when our students should be experimenting with computer code and digital media, they are stuck reading selections of The Odyssey out of textbooks. As an English teacher who will proudly invoke the muses in the future, I well appreciate the merits to such traditional texts, but the gap of relevance between what/how our students study in school and the realities of their experience is only widening.

While it may not be every teacher’s role to instruct students on how to create a website or program a robot, we can model the appropriate use of technology and help students to leverage the technological resources available to them.

The importance of this role cannot be understated. Desktops, laptops, tablets and phones are powerful tools for productivity that our students will inevitably use in their futures. But as with any tool, they have the potential to both harm and help. Pencils become batons or swords for students with a bit too much imagination, but they are profoundly useful for expressing ideas. Protractors look a bit too much like boomerangs to students who don’t realize that they facilitate otherwise difficult measurements. And I don’t need to expound on the relative merits and dangers of a miter box or stove top. The issue with technology is much the same: students often see the computer in front of them as little more than a game console or social-media machine and need to be shown the multifaceted nature of their tools. With practice, teachers in every discipline can use technology to improve their own practice and to facilitate student learning.

But as with any tool, they have the potential to both harm and help.

Yes, welcoming technology into the classroom comes with the risks associated with overuse. But it is important to recognize that the unwillingness to integrate technology into the classroom is only a step backwards. We may be able to shelter our students from the influx of technology within the confines of our room for 50 minutes a day, but their lives are awash with technology and their futures will be defined by this revolution in information. Better to participate in the revolution, to provide our students with instruction that will help them to develop as functional and responsible citizens of their increasingly digital world, than to remain in the past. If the education system fosters digital fluency, these tools might cease being distractors and start becoming enablers.

With this objective in mind — hoping to provide experience of social value and foster digital literacy — I have committed to using the technology available to me and my students as frequently as possible. I have begun reading ed tech blogs, experimenting with different digital resources, and participating in professional development to this end. The latest chapter of this journey has been my completion of Classkick’s certification program. Classkick is a platform for creating lessons that allows for teachers to monitor their students’ work in real time and facilitate peer feedback. Classkick has been a powerful tool in my own practice and for my students’ work. My next post will specifically focus on best practices in feedback and how technology has made possible an increase in effective feedback in my classroom.

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