I recently attended a seminar on technology in education in Dallas. The keynote speaker was Maggie Jackson, author of “Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.” Contrary to the somewhat dystopian connotation of her book’s title, Ms. Jackson delivered a message of hope for a society that is both high tech and deeply reflective and contemplative.
That message was clearly tempered with caution, however. She noted that one of the results of our multi-tasking, technology-obsessed society is that we’re using the parts of our brains relating to short-term behavior, but cannot take that knowledge and use it in long-term ways. Discovering knowledge, building on an idea, is time-consuming- the idea needs time to roll around and germinate in our minds. Great ideas require creativity and elaboration, putting details on a basic concept. She expressed concern that multi-tasking, not focusing on one idea is creating a new form of ignorance in young people, leading to an unwillingness or inability to build on information, to synthesize in a way that undermines human flourishing. Jackson offered no quick-fix solutions, but acknowledged that technology is created with value systems behind it, and that those systems should be analyzed and questioned by educational leaders and others.
I couldn’t agree more. I would add, however, that when using technology for educational (or probably any other) use, one need examine not only the value systems behind the technology, but the value systems behind the users of that technology, namely, us. For Christian parents and Christian schools, I think we need a robust theology of technology to inform and guide how we use technology to educate our kids. I tried to elaborate on what such a theology might look like at the conference I mentioned, and you can find the full text of my comments HERE. But, when considering any technology employed in a Christian school, and certainly in our school, I think one should consider four theologically-driven questions.
First, does the technology under consideration for our school promote incarnational community? More simply, does it enhance the relationship between teacher and student, or among the students? Our God is a god of community, existing for all time in community, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As His image-bearers, He created us for community and for each other, to work, live, play, and learn together. Education is an inherently relational process, a form of discipleship. The relationship between teacher and student, the ability to communicate effectively, to interact with each other, to know and be known, is so important to the learning process that any technology, any artifice simply MUST enhance it.
And, that relationship cannot simply be a virtual one; it must be marked with physical presence. God created us as physical beings with a need for relational closeness. God could have chosen to reveal Himself to us in many ways. But, knowing how He created us, He chose to reveal Himself by becoming flesh and living among us. The idea of presence, of physical closeness, of “being there”, is and was so important to our natures. Kneeling next to a child while helping him with his math, putting the hand on the shoulder that says, “I know what you’re doing, and it’s time to re-focus”, the tone of voice that says, “I care”, underscores the fact that we’re not just cerebral beings who communicate data, but spiritual beings who have a very physical form and need. Technology that, either by its nature or the way that it’s managed, promotes further distraction or atomization among participants in the classroom needs to be avoided. That being said, classroom technology can be managed to promote greater communication, collaboration, and the deepening of preexisting relationships.
The second crucial question is: Does the technology enhance or detract from student learning? To some extent, this question ties in with the first, in that enhancing the relational connection between teacher and student does factor into whether learning occurs. This isn’t a question that can be easily answered quantitatively, as we do with so many other things affecting student learning. The research studying the connection between the use of tablets and laptops and higher standardized test scores does not establish such a correlation. But, I’m not even sure that’s the right question to ask. After all, pens and paper, dry erase boards, and markers are all forms of technology, yet no one expects those things, simply because of their use in the classroom, to lead to higher test scores: they’re merely tools.
Rather than whether technologies improve raw test scores, perhaps a more theologically-driven question in diagnosing technology’s effect on learning is whether and to what extent it allows us to teach to the various aspects of learners as made in the image of God? As God’s image-bearers, we are created to create things, to care for the earth and others, to think rationally, to discern and love beauty, to be moral actors, to contemplate and be reflective, and to be emotional beings. God is all of those things, and we image God in all of these ways. Good curriculum and instruction always seeks to teach to and develop all of these aspects of our students. So, I think the correct questions are whether the technology helps us teach students to create and appreciate beauty? To think critically and rationally? To make wise choices? To contemplate and reflect? To feel as God feels? Again, these are qualitative inquiries, rather than quantitative- but to the extent the tool significantly furthers our ability to do these things, it can be said to enhance learning.
The third question is: Does the technology aid in teaching its redemptive uses? I think this is one of the most important roles of Christian parents and schools vis-à-vis technology. As we’ve said, God is a creative God. He created the universe through Christ. Among those communicable qualities our God bestowed on us is the ability to create. In Genesis 1:28, God commands man to fill the earth and subdue it, to act as wise stewards over creation. We are also called to love God and others, and draw them into right relationship with their God, to be used to heal relationships fractured by the fall.
The way we say it around our school is that we’re called to be “caretakers and peacemakers”. The purpose of Christian education, of educating redeemed followers of Christ, then, is to teach them to be good caretakers and peacemakers. In other words, our job is to teach students to use their knowledge and those things given by God to steward the earth, to love God and to love others.
Technologies and tools are good gifts, given to man by God the gift of knowledge. But, because the world and man is distorted by sin, these tools can either be used for redemptive purposes—to bring salt and light to the world, to set up signposts of righteousness—or to corrupt and destroy.
The many, many ways in which these wonderful tools are distorted for sinful use are too numerous to mention here, and you’re all too familiar with them, anyway. It includes not only bringing in the corrupting influence of sin through appealing to carnality, but the corrupting influence of distraction, of drawing us and ours students away from the single-mindedness necessary for both learning and relationships.
Given digital technology’s mobility and ubiquity in every area of society, the rollout of apps and software, hardware upgrading and coming on the market daily, new social media sites, both helpful and dangerous, coming online daily, I believe it really is incumbent on the Christian school to partner with parents in helping their students use technology redemptively. Teaching students to be wise stewards of digital technology is a messy process; schools must be willing to embrace some degree of freedom to fail in order to teach through mistakes, those bad and, sometimes, evil choices students will make. As my former pastor used to say, “The problem with being a shepherd is that your hands end up smelling like sheep”. This is an area where I would contend that schools need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and get sheep on their hands. This is a very legitimate use of technology.
The final question to be asked is a practical one: Does the investment in the technology comport with principles of good stewardship? We have both an obligation in trust to be wise stewards of our parents’ tuition dollars, but, more importantly, a responsibility to our Creator to be wise stewards of the resources with which He’s entrusted us. These questions are pragmatic: How durable is the equipment? What are the infrastructure costs? How does the use of this additional technology impact personnel? Technology is of little use if the repair and replacement costs are so high as to make its use prohibitively expensive. Likewise, if the cost is so high that it outweighs the other factors, extreme care should be taken.
At 8:45 am CST last Thursday, I looked at the home page of Global Media Outreach, the ministry that shares the gospel worldwide online. As of that point, early in that one day, 324,753 people saw the gospel being presented through that site; 34,121 had made decisions for Christ, 1,272 people had talked to GMO representatives, and 7,994 were discipled online. Whether it’s the book, printing presses, the clock, or digital technology, Christians have always harnessed the technology of the day for the power of the gospel. It’s incumbent on us as parents and schools that we give kids the guidance and the vision so that they drive the technologies of today and the future for the furtherance of the Kingdom, rather than being driven by them.