“…It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
Dickens: Tale of two Cities
We live in an age in which those who have knowledge, the thinking goes, have power. Nations compete with nations to climb up the greasy PISA tables in the yah boo sucks gameplay of our kids are better than your kids! Information is available on computers, on phones and every classroom is bedecked with technology in the mistaken belief that it is the machine that will get our kids to succeed. It’s the zeitgeist: this is ‘the information age’, in which children need twenty-first century skills in order to survive! But for all our cumulative wisdom this is also an age of foolishness and our biggest folly is found in the technological distractions in our classrooms. As Nicholas Carr puts it in his book ‘The Shallows’ (p116) “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”
In “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” Michael Oakeshott wrote that: “As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors… of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.” The conversant classroom is central to a civilised education in which pupils begin to pursue wisdom through human relationships, a teacher unfolds ways of seeing the world by introducing pupils to knowledge, thought, questioning, argument, articulate conversation and practice. In her book ‘Reclaiming Conversation, the Power of Talk in a Digital Age’ Sherry Turkle writes that: “We face a flight from conversation that is also a flight from self-reflection, empathy and mentorship.” It is through our fetishising of technology that we threaten to ruin our pupils’ sense of self and sense of others that is at the heart of the pursuit of wisdom. The more we fill our classrooms with machines the central pivot around which all conversations permeate is lost. Instead of their conversation becoming extended and more articulate, young people converse in shorter, less articulate, fear filled, aphorisms and grunts.
We are told that the jobs that have yet to be invented will require multi tasking individuals who can adapt easily to whatever situation in which they find themselves but these mythic individuals are ones that will live entirely in the shallows. Multi-tasking is impossible, instead of doing one thing well, you end up doing two or more things badly. Brain-dying, the multi-tasker might be able to function as a servant of a well oiled machine and deliver burgers quickly, but as high functioning individuals or, indeed, team-workers they will forever be looking for their next instruction or target to get them up to the next level in the computer game shaped lives the machines envisage for them.
Instead of saving our youth from this fate, far too many schools sell the souls of their students so that they might cohabit with the tech devil. School students face innumerable interactive whiteboards, they stare at hand held devices, they moving quickly between one class and another where more screens face them, with ever more jazzier and faster imagery ‘pimped up’ to catch the attention of the kids’ tiring eyes. Pupils write and research with screens, their eyes flit between one link and another, and they never arrive at an in depth reading of anything. Sure, pupils can cut and paste, and look for superficial links, as long as wikipedia or an algorithm or two leads them that way. But they can’t concentrate.
Some teachers encourage this shallowness by filling their lessons with little tricks which perpetuate the idea that kids can’t concentrate. The teacher who adapts her teaching for ever shorter concentration spans is part of the problem. Instead of slow, attention building activities these teachers base their entire lesson on the mistaken belief that what is needed are more ‘engaging’ activities. “More pace!” And one task is hastily replaced by another. Worksheets, and display material add to this impression – all headlines, bullet points and no substance. Most destructively, instead of a conversational classroom, discussion is replaced by a quick fire collection of questions blurted out by a teacher, a randomly targeted child is chosen quickly followed by one after another in quick succession for their bullet pointed responses. And then, quick, a video is needed! – get onto that Interactive Whiteboard – no longer than six minutes mind!
After school, the kids go on their journey home, staring at phones and at home they stare at their screens with the light disturbing their every night into the darkest and earliest hours and into the darkest recesses of the online world. Severely tired when they are woken up to get to school, they stare at their phone whilst munching on a cereal bar or a piece of toast, disengaged from life for another day to stare at screens at a school that hopes technology might engage them.
How will any child learn in this environment? Yes they will get through a delivered curriculum, but they won’t understand much of it. Education takes time. It also takes boredom, that moment before sense is made. So strip your classrooms of all technological devices, yes, tear down those IWBs. By all means have a room with tech in it, technology has its place, but its place should not be ubiquitous! If you bring it into classrooms ensure that tech is the slave to the pupils and not the other way round.
Schools must offer something quite different, they should be almost spiritual places of study. Just as a place of prayer can offer sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of our increasingly fraught lives, so schools should offer something different. Instead of looking into the dead eye of the iPad, we should get pupils to look into each others’ living eyes, and listen to each others vibrant voices. Students and teachers should belong to a ‘conversant order’, worshipping the slow and steady pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment. We need to replace the age of distraction with the age of conversation and for this to occur teachers need to cease worshipping at the altar of technology.