Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Progress for the sake of Progress?

ISTE was an exhilarating, thought provoking, and transforming experience. I’ve never been a part of a conference that big before; Jewish education is too small a field for that! I learned new things, met new people, and thought about things from a fresher perspective. What I found most grounding about the whole experience was the foundational message of the conference was to refocus us educators on the children.

Perhaps, however, we ISTE bloggers haven’t been advocating for why technology is such an important part of education. Today, Rabbi Aaron Ross, wrote the following on his blog:

It seems that we have reached at least the third level of computer involvement in education. Once upon a time, computers were more or less for typing up papers - glorified typewriters, if you will. The next level was computers as a communication tool (email) and then sliding into a role as a classroom aide (smartboards, etc.). The current level is computers being used as a more collaborative medium, as blogs, wikis, googledocs and so on allow students and students and/or students and teachers to work together on projects, lessons, and an ever-widening variety of educational experiences.

However, I write this post as a necessary caution for myself and all other like-minded educators who willingly embrace the next wave in education, and particularly if technology is involved. To my mind, much good has already been achieved through our adoption of various technologies, and there is much more good still on the way. However, we have to bear in mind Rav Amital's question - what kind of children will we raise if we hand over significant portions of the education process to machines?

And I categorically agree! In fact, Rabbi Ross’ argument was made years ago by the curriculum theorist Ted T. Aoki:

“[h]ow should we understand computer technology? Is it a tool? Human activity? (Heidegger, as quoted by Aoki, 152)?” The essential tension before us is that, “[w]e acknowledge our indebtedness to technology; [but] we refuse to be enslaved to technology.” (157)

Aoki, Ted T., and William Pinar. Curriculum in a New Key : The Collected Works of Ted T. Aoki. Ed. Rita L. Irwin. Danbury: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Incorporated, 2004.

Throughout my not-so-positive SMARTboard experience in my classroom Aoki’s quote was my credo. It affirmed that even though my technology didn’t work properly and even though I never had enough time to really maximize that technology I could still be an excellent teacher. This was and is true.

There is a huge caveat to this line of reasoning and a slippery slope that ensues from it: the justification for not staying current. It is simple to dismiss those new fangled ‘whatevers’ because they’ll be replaced soon enough. The familiar: it is convenient to reuse a lesson plan because it worked in the past. We all know that it is easier to stay in a comfortable place.

I would even argue that sometimes it is better. That is certainly Professor Aoki’s cautious observation.

BUT how do you know when it isn’t better to rest on your laurels if you don’t keep challenging yourself to think differently?

Sometimes it is a better way to do things – a colleague at ISTE reported on using QR codes help students organize a timeline. I love timelines – they are so important to understanding so many of the Biblical stories I teach. I hate assigning timelines because they never come together neatly. During Rabbi Adam Simon’s description I realized that timelines aren’t really 2 dimensional and that is why using a QR code, which is ‘2-d’, to point to media which is ‘4-d’ is a genius solution!

We also have to keep in mind that we have a responsibility to ‘meet students where they are.’ This means accessing something that is meaningful to them and using those very things to draw them into whatever they are learning. Sometimes incorporating technology is precisely to begin building the relationship with your students. For those of us in Jewish Education our imperative isn’t simply to teach kids a subject that we love but to model a lifestyle that informs our identity and gives meaning to our lives. If we fail to embrace the world around us we make mistakenly allow ourselves and our disciplines to be discounted.

I’ll end by saying that I know that Rabbi Ross and I agree fundamentally. However, both sides of this conversation need to be articulated so we develop a good balance for our students and our classrooms. It promises to be an interesting journey.

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