Friday, December 5, 2014

Look it up

I wrestle often with the question of technology in the classroom. Part of me wants to remove it completely -- no watches, books or shoes ("machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge") and have a good, old fashioned Socratic chat with the students, inviting them to think in response to challenges about what they think they know and/or believe. At other times I wish that I could plug each student into the internet and take for granted that basic background information has been assimilated and integrated into the world view so I can move onto the good stuff.

I think that some of this tension derives from the experiences of my teacher mentor, Charlie Moore.

Charlie Moore worked with an honors class back in the late eighties and it wasn't an easy class. You had a geek who was into math, a preppie guy who was hyperintelligent and good looking. There was a prodigy, and angry black woman, the artsy ditz, an immigrant and a motorcycle dude who was ashamed of his own intelligence and didn't want to be confined with the rest. Class periods were about 5 minutes long and there didn't seem to be any real curriculum but week in, week out, Mr. Moore tried to impress upon his students that facts were only a starting point and a real interaction with thought happened when students challenged themselves and each other and saw how the dry facts relate to their world.

Also in the class was a student named Dennis Blunden. Dennis was somewhat overweight and was a computer genius. In 1987 the idea of a computer genius resonated with me because I aspired to be a computer genius. Here is a picture of him, sitting at an Apple, way beack then.

Didn't I mention that this was a TV show? Maybe I should have mentioned that.

This was a TV show. A prescient TV show.

Dennis didn't just have some PC sitting in front of him (ironic that that picture has him at an Apple product), but one that had all the information one would need to second guess a teacher. He had sort-of internet like connection to an encyclopedic range of information. Now back then, I had a computer too. It was also connected, via a 300 baud modem to other bulletin boards. Eventually, I moved to 1200 and then 2400 so the dial up systems I accessed could present ways to hack public phones at what seemed like light speed. I didn't have an encyclopedia or access to one on my computer - when I finally started using Gopher servers, I could still only get information piecemeal, nothing like what Dennis could produce in 1987.

I mention this because I have classes full of modern-day Dennises, and this constant influx of information (assuming they aren't shopping or playing a game...Dennis never seemed to be shopping or playing a game) is a double edged sword. Anything I say is subject to fact checking by a raft of teenagers who can decide my worth as a teacher based on whether or not Wikipedia happens to agree with my understanding of a piece of literature. Now, sure, this keeps me honest (whereas my professional integrity would do nothing of the sort) but it also distracts students from thinking about ideas because they are looking to find chinks in my intellectual armor. Often this does encourage students to pursue independent lines of investigation but sometimes, that is to the detriment of their being exposed to the ideas I am discussing at that given moment in class.

Yesterday, while covering a question of logical, literary and stylistic import in our analysis of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a student went into his virtual world and came back with, "Douglas Adams was asked why he did that and he said 'because I wanted was a joke'." He assumed, and the class followed suit with the assumption, that this not only answered my driving question, but undermined the validity of my holding the conversation and exploring a variety of options. Technology stifled thought. In fact, I was able to reframe the topic and show them how there was still literary value in both the question and the process and that Adams actually supported my position. Fortunately, I can still out-think a bunch of high school students so I saved that class but the threat is there constantly. The presence of excessive factual resources allows students to subcontract their memories, sure, and that might be a good thing, but it also puts too much value on those external thought processes.

SO I am torn. Having a Dennis in the class can be very useful. When a student asks what a word means, I can point to a dictionary or tell the student to look it up. When I can't remember a fact, or make a cultural reference, I can be sure that some kid will plug the gap in either my memory or find the song, show, book or other media piece which will highlight my point. And I can even imagine a class built solely on that skill, finding and making bizarre connections, as popular and useful preparing students for an online interactive future. But when the finding of things steps on the valuing of the self as a source of knowledge and innovation, or when it suborns a subversive approach to the classroom, encouraging students to devalue what the teacher is trying to accomplish by empowering them to focus on the minutae of what is said instead of the ideas presented, it corrodes the vitality and utility of the classroom. Dennis would never have done that to Charlie. Dennis realized that Charlie had more to contribute and had an expertise in thinking and appreciating the whole world and he realized that THAT was what he was supposed to be learning about.


  1. Funny, in 1987, I was taking a class in Modern Art, and was discussing Jasper Johns in class. He also answered a question in a similar manner to Mr. Adams (Why did you use that stencil for that piece? That's what was available in the store.) I liked that straightforward, simple approach that he took toward his art. When I noted that, another student responded something to the effect of "that's not the real reason." She refused to acknowledge the artist's experience. Technology issues aside (the info that I presented was in a bool that I had read in preparation for class), maybe it's worth acknowledging that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  2. Sometimes a cigar IS just a cigar and that was part of the classroom discussion as well but sometimes, you have to consider "what if it isn't?" In this case, there was an aspect which was clearly arbitrary (though even this would be argued by deconstructionists) but there was an aspect which was significant and needed explication and exploration. The students conflate the two because of the interview/quote and then tune out. That is dangerous.


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