Schools can appear to be both naive supporters, and utter opponents, of technology.
With the one hand we give out laptops and ipads and install electronic whiteboards in classrooms: with the other hand we worry about the uses of the internet and mobile phones.
It is my view that technology is one element in a much bigger picture.
Schools need to be able to successfully both construct and deconstruct authority.
Examples of Constructions
School architecture and playground design communicates the manner in which we expect students to move about the campus. Some schools crowd students into narrow corridors to move between classes, and corral them into echoing canteens to purchase food. In United Kingdom I visited one school which had a t-intersection set of corridors, requiring a teacher to stand on a small raised dais and play traffic cop at the close of each lesson.
Other schools provide gardens and open pathways on which to walk. Wide staircases and open courtyards give a sense of freedom and responsibility.
In our Assemblies we provide students with our beliefs, values and virtues. Some school leaders inform, guide and enable students. Others instruct, berate and threaten. The range of tone in the teachers’ voices, the acceptance or non-acceptance of certain behaviours, and staff responses to everything from humble student initiatives to how student achievement is acknowledged, impact the construction of how authority is carried within the school.
Each school by necessity must be ordered but its view of its own authority is a significant factor in student culture.
Examples of Deconstructions
Whilst schools are continually articulating and reinforcing their authority structures, they also have a duty to deconstruct them. The student begins as a child, but finishes an adult. Along the journey school leaders and teachers have a duty to allow the students to understand that many rules are functional, not absolute. Some schools leave this process to the final years of schooling: I believe wise schools give responsibility as early as possible. Obviously, students work through many issues by themselves. They wonder about the purpose of uniforms, the subjects they don’t enjoy, modes of teaching and certain school rules. Courses that reflect upon matters of faith, politics, epistemology and the history of ideas provide scaffolds for student deconstruction of the school’s authority.
Connections to Technology
Now that we have our new technologies, students have a great deal more power to deconstruct the authority structures of the school. If they are upset with a teacher, they can text a parent. If they are researching a topic, they can read in areas not recommended by the reading list. If they are bored in class they can access Facebook on their laptop.
It is a move towards greater democratisation that opens tremendous possibilities, but doesn’t necessarily lead to more disciplined thinking habits. Students can access a million web pages on the arrival of the First Fleet, but might not be able to discern which sources are the more reliable.
Some schools have adopted a ‘bring down the walls’ approach to technology, whilst others are shoring up the bulwarks. Some see it as a threat, others as an opportunity.
In relation to student academic development, technology engages students with a polyphony of voices. Schools that successfully guide students so that they can critique these voices, schools that give them structures for analysis and those that have teachers who make their own thinking processes visible to students will empower their student communities. Students learn in clusters and help each other. I do see that there is still a strong, positive role for the teacher to guide the students through the curriculum. Students don’t automatically know the questions to ask, and they need to be led to those areas that they might fear. Too many students review the Mathematics they already have mastered at the expense of the topic with which they struggle.
And computer technology isn’t the only kind they need to encounter. They need paint and play and wood and ink and garden soil and Bunsen burners.
I worry about the schools that are scared of phone technology. I understand the reasons. Students might access inappropriate sites or they might cyber-bully in school. Schools are, however, places where students grow up. Some will make quite public mistakes. With or without technology, teenagers can and do sometimes hurt each other. We understand that as adults, because it sometimes happens to the adults in the school community too. Phone technology can provide us with an avenue to assist students to make better choices. We don’t need to ban it, but we do need to manage it. We do need to create an etiquette of usage.
And we need to be careful to not glorify the past. Steve Turner wrote: These are the good old days, just wait and see. Our own schooling wasn’t perfect. Whenever a technological change has occurred, we are quick to forget the sins of previous systems. According to the New York Times, in the early 1800s, between 100,000 to 200,000 horses lived in the city. A typical horse produced from 15 to 30 pounds of manure (with the average output about 22 pounds) and about a quart of urine a day, usually distributed along the course of its route or deposited in the stable (New York Times, June 9, 2008).Today, as a society, we are utterly committed to the motor vehicle . It is convenient, private and a relatively fast form of transport. Yet we know that we have too many road deaths and that carbon pollution is a significant problem. What a joy and what a monster the automobile must have seemed at the turn of the 20th Century! It is still that today. Yet we seek to teach our young people to manage it.
Technology makes our jobs as educators and parents both easier and harder. We have to think harder about when we construct authority structures and when we deconstruct them. It can lead us into some very helpful conversations
I wish to note a point about my own Christian faith here. It makes transparent my thinking. In Paul’s epistle to the Philippians he talks about the incarnation. In verses 6 and 7 of Chapter 2, Paul wrote: Jesus, Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
As the Principal of a Presbyterian school I seek to follow His lead. We build a learning community by both accepting authority and by seeking to release our authority. Some students require tighter structures for a time, but our goal is to assist them to become mature adults who are able to seek the truth, to have integrity and to be humble in relation to their own understanding. Truth, integrity and humility are difficult virtues: but they have always been an antidote to societal excesses. A technological world does not free us from our responsibilities towards God and others.