Monday, June 18, 2012

The High Priest at the Altar of Technopoly

In chapters 3 and 4 of Technopoly, Postman explains the shift that he observed moving American culture from Tool-using (technology has value, but tools have limited value to specific situations) to Technocracy (technology plays a central role in culture, and tools vie to take over culture) to Technopoly (technology is culture, all other cultural aspects are subservient to the tools, the tools use us.) Postman mentions that at the time of his writing--1992--the United States was the only Technopoly in the world. (I might argue that most western nations are now Technopolies of one sort or another, and many East Asian nations as well.)

I first found this idea of our whole culture being somehow subservient to technology a little ridiculous, but the more I've reflected on it, the more true it seems to me. For example...
  • I expect my doctor to show me evidence of some medical test to back up his claims. Not that I know any better...but somehow it "feels" better to know that there is a test to confirm his diagnosis.
  • I have no idea what is wrong with my car, and perhaps neither does the mechanic until he plugs it in to his computer to see which widget needs to be replaced. 
  • How much of my free time do I spend in front of some sort of a screen? 
  • How much of my working time do I spend in front of a screen? 
  • Do I really care what my high school classmates are broadcasting on Facebook? But how often have I thought--while doing an activity that is actually meaningful and enjoyable and non-technological--"I can't wait to post about this online!"

But true? I do think Postman might be on to something here. In our culture, it seems that the prevailing thinking goes: Technology is omnipresent. Technology can make our lives better. Technology can save us.

Then let's think about school. Have we bought this idea at school: "Technology will make our students learn better. Technology will make us teach better. Technology can save us." Ouch. I'm thinking now that my most recent job in an elementary school was Technology Coordinator speaks to Technopoly. We need to have a full-time person in a school of ~420 students and 30+ staff members to coordinate how we use technology, to teach students how to use technology, to coach teachers in how to effectively allow technology to enhance their teaching practice, and to fix all those lovely technological toys when they misbehave.

And even that--I describe the tools/toys as though they are alive if they might really choose to behave badly!


And yet...teaching in the 21st Century in North America...could we not teach with technology? I mean, if push comes to shove, I'd rather my own children have roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-your-hands-dirty kinds of learning experiences to virtual ones that happen via website or iPad app. At the same time, I think we, as distinctively Christian teachers, need to speak prophetically to our culture, and that means a level of understanding of our culture as well, right?

So I'm torn. I'm advocating for teaching kids the technological literacy skills they need to be successful as 21st Century citizens, but that the same time I'm advocating for being very aware of the hidden messages embedded by adopting any technology.

Perhaps Technopoly is idolatry, fundamentally. That's a scary thought for the Tech Coordinator! Suddenly I have a crazy mental image of a pagan high priest in garish costume, ascending to the altar of the gods of Technopoly, and all the people gathered around, prepared to solicit his blessing, his access to the gods. (Okay, that's a little overly dramatic perhaps...but you get my point?) That's a horrible image, isn't it? Yikes!

And yet, I cater to it, to some degree at least. I quickly fix people's problems without taking the time to explain what I did to them, shrouding my work in mystery. Sometimes I even wave my hand at the machine while I'm working on it. (This reminds me of the story of Naaman the Leper in 2 Kings 5--upset with Elisha for not "waving his hand over the spot" to heal his leprosy. Check out the story here.) Scary stuff--having a higher caste of the technological elite.

Which leads me to my question for you all:
Do you have a designated person on your staff who has the responsibility to coordinate how technology is used at your school? And if so, how much do you rely on that person to be your resident high priest on the altar of Technopoly? Or if you don't have such a designated person, can you speak to why not? Is it a conscious choice made by the school? Or perhaps a matter of pragmatism?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Does Technology Change School Culture?

In Chapter 1 of Technopoly, Postman lays out an argument that new technologies always influence the culture around them. He defines technology quite broadly, including not just what often pops to mind when we here the word “technology”--computers and TV and the like--but also other tools, such as windmills and plows, and even more conceptual tools such as writing and geometry. In the book he argues that technology--every technology--has an affect on the surrounding culture, actually changing the way people think.

I’m inclined to agree with him; I think technology in school does affect school culture.  I’ll use the Internet as an obvious example.  My students, when presented with a situation requiring them to research a topic they know very little about, almost automatically gravitate towards an online option.  Good grief, I say that my students do so as if I don’t myself!  The quick and ready access to (not to mention the overwhelming volume of) information available online makes it seem almost foolish to use a print encyclopedia or to head to a library full of books (gasp!) to look something up.  (Side note: I find it interesting that Postman published the book way back in 1992...before the Internet really exploded and PC's--not to mention eReaders, smartphones, iPads, and the like--became fixtures in the normal American experience.)  So, the easy access of information online really has changed the way I think about finding information.  Technology affects culture.

This does make me wonder what my students (and I) might be losing out on in the process.  I do find my students don’t really know how to conduct research…they just type their question into Google, click the first link they find, and copy and paste the information without really thinking it through.  It seems like they might be winning, by finding the information faster…but perhaps they might be losing by not understanding the information they are accessing, and not synthesizing it into meaningful learning.  Maybe Google really is making us stupid.

Postman, too, uses the idea of “winning” and “losing” when it comes to technology changing culture.  On page 9, 1st paragraph, Postman states: “There are, as it were, winners and losers.  It is both puzzling and poignant that on many occasions, the losers, out of ignorance, have actually cheered the winners and some still do.”  Can you think of any example in your school that would be a case in point for what Postman is describing?

Monday, June 11, 2012


 I'm teaching a couple of classes this summer in Dordt's M.Ed. program, which I've done before and always found to be a blessing--I think I learn as much by teaching the courses as they students do by participating!  One of the courses is called "Enhancing Learning with Technology." (Isn't that a loaded title?) :-)  In this course, we're really going to examine how technology affects learning--for good or ill--and try to capitalize on the "good" while we minimize the "ill" in our respective teaching practices.

To (hopefully) foster some stimulating discussion about this, I've assigned the class to read Technopoly
by Neil Postman.  I first read the book during my own M.Ed. work--probably around 2004--and I'll confess that it really shaped how I think about the ways in which technology influences culture, and not always for good.  The book is clearly about a lot more than just education, but I think it has a lot to say about the way we consider why we are using technology in our classrooms.

Anyway, to anyone else (outside of our class) who might be reading this, hopefully this background gives a little insight into next few posts.  As a class, we're going to be chewing over some of the issues raised by Postman, and how authentically Christian teachers might respond.  Happy reading!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Even After All These Years, Mr. Rogers is Still Teaching Me Things

A friend recently shared this video on Facebook. I have to confess, I've watched it at least half a dozen times in the past few days--it totally hooked my attention. If you watched Mr. Rogers at any point in your childhood, it's worth taking a couple minutes to view it...

This video was a fun reminder for me of a show I loved in my childhood, but seeing it also got me thinking about teaching Christianly again.

I watched Mr. Rogers regularly as a child. I loved that show. Somehow, Mr. Rogers came up around our supper table a few weeks ago (before I saw this remix even) and my kids were fascinated to hear how much I remembered about a show I last watched regularly 30 years ago. I loved the Trolley, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe (even Purple Panda, who apparently terrified other kids--who knew?), and how Mr. Rogers went to visit his friends who could tell him more about things he was curious about. There was a time in my life when I tossed the shoes I was putting on from one hand to the other, because that's how Mr. Rogers did it.

This was a good reminder for me about the brilliance of Fred Rogers. As a teacher and a parent, I'm looking back at Mr. Rogers' influence on my life, and thinking with appreciation about how his quirky, kind way left fingerprints on my childhood. Maybe I'm just reminiscing a little fondly, but here are just a few things that I remember from the show that I think I've carried with me throughout my life:
  • Mr. Rogers always had a song about everything. The show was full of music. Music has always had a key place in my life as well.
  • Mr. Rogers taught us the importance of taking care of your things and being responsible. He never said so, but he showed it, by feeding the fish, cleaning up the toys he was imagining with, etc.
  • Mr. Rogers was incredibly polite, always grateful for the help of others.
  • Mr. Rogers told us over an over again that it's okay to be who you are, that it's okay to have the feelings that you are having, and that it's okay to be proud of yourself when you have achieved big things.
  • Mr. Rogers was incredibly creative. (Obviously!) Anyone who could play a dozen or more puppets, all with developed characters of their own is a genius.
  • Mr. Rogers always had a positive outlook on life. Every day was a "beautiful day in the neighborhood."
As I think about this man from an educational standpoint, I admire his thoughtfulness about not just what he was teaching the kids who tuned in every day, but also his thoughtfulness for how he was teaching it. He was both enthusiastic and humble, both curious and polite, and always direct and honest. What a role model for teachers!

I once read that Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister before he began working on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (Wikipedia confirms this for me...), and I wonder how much his faith informed his approach on the show. From what I remember, there was never anything overtly religious in Mr. Rogers' TV personality, but he exhibited much of what I would hope my students might "catch" from me as their teacher about living a faith-infused life: honesty, morality, kindness, concern for others, openness to new ideas, wonder about the world God has made, and a desire to use the gifts God has given me to be a blessing to others, just to name a few. This makes me think a bit of what I wrote in my last post about teaching from a distinctively Christian perspective. Perhaps it's less about spouting Scripture at students...and more about beginning from the perspective at which I hope the students will end up, and being mindful of the way my faith informs my teaching practice, and how I interact with my students, and weaving a Biblically-informed view of the world into every lesson I teach.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Rogers. Thank you for having an influence on my childhood.