Tuesday, July 31, 2012


My friend John Van Dyk--a long-time Professor of Philosophy of Education at Dordt, now retired--once encouraged me to put a sign on my desk that looks something like this:

"Theory"     --->       [gap]        <---     "Practice"

His point being: we are all sinful, imperfect beings who are works in progress...and this comes out in our teaching practice in the form of gaps (perhaps more accurately huge, gaping holes) between what we believe and what we do.

I was very convicted by this when he first suggested it to me. There are, of course, many things that I say I believe, but don't fully bear themselves out in my classroom practice. For an example, check out this faith statement I wrote years ago and had posted on my website when I was a middle school science teacher. Sounds pretty great right? Imagine what it might look like if I actually could carry out all the things I've written there, and fully put the Theory into Practice?

I'm NOT saying that such statements are not useful--I think it's very important for us to be clear about what we believe...or even what we hope we believe. But I offer it as an example, because it does outline what I hope to be true in my faith-life, even if it doesn't always come to full expression.

The hopeful thing about the diagram above is the arrows pointing toward the center. That is intentional too; Dr. Van Dyk encouraged us to think about how to look for ways in which we can decrease the width of the gap between what we (say we) believe and what we actually do.

As a practical example of such gap reduction from my own teaching practice: I believe that the students I teach are unique image-bearers of God. If I really believe this, I can't just lump them together as "the class" and then teach to the middle, right? So I started working on finding ways to differentiate instruction in my classroom. I do not have this all figured out yet--it's hard work, and something I have to continue to work at--but I've taken some steps down this road, and I believe I'm being more authentic in my classroom practice when I seek to reduce such gaps.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Loving Resistance Fighter

I want an iPhone.

I really want an iPhone.

But I don't need an iPhone. Oh, sure, they have their uses, and I'm sure it would be a lot handier to have my calendar, camera, iPod, and phone all in one device, not to mention all the useful apps I could have on it to make my life easier or more enjoyable.

Basically, it would be another toy, another gadget that I'd fiddle with in my downtime.

Here is my current phone...

It is a TracFone I bought for 10 bucks at WalMart, and I pay for my minutes upfront on an as-needed basis.

You can probably imagine that laughs I get from this phone. Especially when people make the connection that I'm the Technology Coordinator at school. "You don't have a smartphone? And you're the tech guy?"


I do not have a smartphone. I have a dumbphone.

But here's the thing...this is *really* all the phone I need. Sure, it's inconvenient to text on this rotten thing. (T9Word is akin to the 3rd circle of Hades.) But it does it's job--it allows me to communicate with my wife and few other family and friends with whom I share my number.

The old TracFone is getting pretty weather-beaten. My daughter accidentally closed it in my recliner a couple years ago, leaving deep gouges in the face of it. The screen is getting hard to read from getting scraped and scuffed for several years now. The back cover plate is loose and sometimes falls off, though I have yet to lose the battery when this happens, thankfully.

I'm going to need a new phone sometime. Probably in the next year or so even.

Will I get the iPhone? Much as I'd love to have it...I probably won't. I don't really need it. It's just one more thing that will get in the way of my face-to-face, meaningful communication with others. I'm not going to let Technopoly win. I'm a loving resistance fighter!

Plus...I already have an iPad. Do I really need an iPhone? :-)

Friday, July 6, 2012

From Chalkboard to SMARTBoard

Chapter 7 of Technopoly might be the most challenging chapter for me in the whole book. By this point, I'm starting to feel like Postman is not only a critic of society (which he surely is, in the finest sense of the term--he critiques the culture in a reasoned way), but also a bit of a whiner. But maybe that's just the Technophile in me rising to the surface.

In Chapter 7, Postman sets his sights on computer technology, and releases a diatribe against the way computers have taken over culture--leading to Technopoly. Again, I was amazed as I read this--he wrote the book back in the early 1990's, as desktop computers were really just taking off and becoming typical fixtures in schools and homes. And now, I sit at my desk banging out a (somewhat disgruntled) response (20 years later) on my computer. And I can scarcely conceive of my teaching practice without it.

As I'm reflecting on this, I'm feeling a little incredulous. When I started teaching in the fall of 1998, I did not have a computer in my classroom. I taught junior high math for two years--with no classroom technology other than a chalkboard (a chalkboard! A green one, with yellow chalk!) and an overhead projector (the kind with transparencies and wet-erase markers that stained the heel of my hand blue.) What a difference it made my third year of teaching, when I was given a cast off laptop that had been donated to the school by a local business that was updating their whole fleet. That brick of a laptop (must have weighed about 10 pounds) wasn't exactly an instructional tool, but it simplified my planning, and my grading.

When I moved on to another school and became a junior high science teacher, I was amazed by the tech tools I had in my classroom: an iMac and a video projector. PowerPoint and streaming video ruled my classroom presentations for the next couple of years!

Throughout this time as a science teacher, I kept a balance however, between hands-on science activities and technology enhanced presentations of content. Looking back, I know when this began to shift a bit. It happened in 2004, when we got a mobile computer lab: 25 laptops on a cart that could come to my classroom. Suddenly, how could I not use computers to teach my science classes?  We still did the hands-on activities, to be sure, but a shift happened nonetheless. Instead of me presenting so much material via PowerPoint, I got the kids busy using the tech tools themselves. My students were suddenly word processing all their papers, they were creating PowerPoint presentations, we began experimenting with iMovie and GarageBand to create multimedia projects...the kids were as infatuated with the tools as I was!

In 2009, I became Technology Coordinator. Suddenly, it was my job--spelled out in my job description--to set the vision for how our school would incorporate technology into classrooms. What an awesome responsibility! Under my tenure, we started plans to put a SMARTBoard in every classroom, and we got rid of our last computer lab of desktop computers, replacing them with a cart of iPads. My whole approach was to get the tech tools into the classroom as much as possible, where they would--in theory--be integrated as closely as possible into regular classroom practice, allowing my colleagues to enhance their teaching with tech tools easily at their disposal. I even blogged about this change in our tech vision. You can read about it here and here.

As I think about this progression--from chalkboard and overhead projector to SMARTBoard and iPads--I'm amazed. This all happened in a short 14-year span.


Could I still teach junior high math, without all the tech tools and bells and whistles? I think I could teach it...but cynically, I wonder if students would be as engaged by my weird story-telling approach to teaching math, without a touch-enabled iDevice in sight. I love tech tools (and toys.) I have a definite preference for teaching with technology.


Is teaching with technology always the best way to teach? I would say--along with Postman, I'm sure--not. I am recognizing that the tech tools I had available to me shaped my teaching practice. Postman reminds me: "It is important to remember what can be done without computers, and it is also important to remind ourselves of what may be lost when we do use them." (p. 120) So, what I'm wondering about now--painfully--is what did I give up by embracing technology in my classroom in this way?

So here's my burning question of the day: What have we given up by embracing computer technology in our classrooms?

The Problem with "Googling"...

Postman starts off chapter 5 of Technopoly with a great bit that I think sums up much of his view of the "problems" of infatuation with technology:

"Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution that is associated with traditional beliefs. Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity's supreme achievement...they also believe that information is an unmixed blessing....Technopoly flourishes when the defenses against information break down." (p.71)

I find that passage really interesting, because I find myself very comfortable with technology (not necessarily with the idea of Technopoly), and it makes me wonder if I'm a Technopolist in the making. Or maybe already made...and I'm just not fully aware of it.

In this chapter of the book he builds the case that there truly is such a thing as too much information, and that our culture actually celebrates having free and ready access to an incomprehensible amount of information. He talks about several institutions that once provided some "information control," but no longer do so--at least not in the same way that they once did--including the court of law, the family, and the school.

As a teacher, I find that last idea the most challenging. Don't we want our students to have more access to information? Don't we want them to interact with ideas outside of their own, and their classmates', and their teachers'? I suppose books have always provided new ideas to wrestle with, but how about the wild and wooly world of the Internet?

Yet, when I'm reflective about how my students think and act...I think Postman is basically right. My students gravitate toward the technological solution to their problems. When confronted with a topic they know little about, of course they google it. Google has made things so "easy" for conducting research (more on that in a moment), of course they'll just type in a question and go with what ever the first link is that pops up. If they have to write a research paper, they tend to first head to Wikipedia. And why not? Who wouldn't use a free online encyclopedia to find out more about a topic they know little about?

The thing is--and again, I think Postman would agree--these technologies are changing the meaning of words. Are students really doing "research" when they google a question? (And since when is "google" a verb?) If they just blithely accept whatever the top hit is on Google as the Truth, are they really researching? I've had students--okay, remember that they are middle schoolers--say things like, "But I found it online...it must be true, right?"


And this doesn't even begin to touch on plagiarism and how easy it is to pluck not just words and phrases but complete ideas from a website.

Free and easy access to all the world's information at the click of a mouse or swipe of a finger...it's overwhelming. I think Postman might be right about this: without some filters or baffles to control the flow of information, we're destined for Technopoly.

So what do we do about this? Shall we turn students loose on the World Wide Web for "research?" And if so, under what circumstances? And further, at what age is this appropriate? Elementary school? Middle school? High school? College? Graduate school?