Monday, October 24, 2016

Familiar Miracles and Ed Tech

I started typing this a few thousand feet in the air somewhere over Illinois. I worked all day the day before to get things ready to go, got up well before dawn, drove myself to Pittsburgh, where I boarded the first of two planes that will transport my to Seattle for the next several days. Now, after spending many days on the other side of the country, I am finishing up this post thousands of feet in the air, connected to the internet on a computer-based device.

Every step in that process is a small miracle. I could travel to the airport in about 90 minutes because of the big, smooth interstate highway system, as well as the technological marvel that is my car. Now I'm in an airplane, off to try to help out with my daughter's family, which recently upgraded from one nearly two-year-old to one nearly-two-year old and a new-born infant. I am going to miss my wife a great deal, but we can exchange pictures and words any time we like because smartphones. And I'm writing about this on an airplane that has Wi-Fi. Before we took off, I used a pocket-sized, wireless network enabled, computer to tell my family in several parts of the country how my travels were progressing.

We live in an age of miracles, but then, human beings usually do. Henry David Thoreau's family was in the pencil, a technological marvel that allowed people to write or draw with a handheld piece of wood that had ben implanted with just the right amount of material to make easily controlled marks. Thoreau thought the world was already moving too fast for people to properly appreciate it. And it was Thoreau's friend Emerson who noted that if the stars only came out every few hundred years or so, they would strike humans with overwhelming wonder and awe (and, added Isaac Asimov, panic and hysteria).

Miracles are a relative thing. On this plane I'm surrounded by people reading cheap, readily available books.  The fact that a million identical copies of a book can be printed and bound so that the very same reading experience can be available to just about anybody-- that's miraculous, but it's also been around for centuries, so very few people feel very much excitement contemplating a book.

Modern familiar miracles give us many responsibilities as teachers. For one, I consider it part of my job to remind my students that they live with miracles, many of which are relatively new. My eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Confer, frequently regaled us with stories of his boyhood, and we thought we were getting out of class every time he opened his mouth. Only later in life did I realize he had taught a hugely difficult lesson-- the world was not always the way it is now, and it will not always be this way.

It's also part of our modern gig to remind students that new miracles mean new possibilities. When miracles become familiar, they become transparent, and we forget to look and see and consider what else they can do. I-79 runs down to Pittsburgh, but it runs many other places as well, and if I think of it as just "the road to Pittsburgh,": I miss that. My students carry their own pocket computers, but for some these miraculous devices are simply their Snapchat machine, or their Instagram Access Device. They absolutely forget that other uses are possible.

Reminding these students what miracles can be achieved can also help us remember that devices are only as interesting as their uses. Familiar miracles don't look like miracles at all, and boy do we forget that. Since the first computer landed in a classroom right up until today, this minute, there have been folks who believed that a banal, bland, boring worksheet becomes an explosion of educational awesomeness if we run it through a computer.

It does not. Imagining that your stupid educational idea (let's have a really huge bank of worksheets and hand each student a specific individual one based on how she did on the last one we gave her) will be an awesome idea because you're doing it On A Computer -- that's dumb. Even dumber than saying, "This lesson will be super-engaging if we print it in a book!"

Tools are conduits, no better or worse than the pedagogy we send through them. A speedy delivery system can deliver crap as quickly as it delivers gold, but it doesn't transform one into the other. The fact that we find modern computer tools miraculous in and of themselves really means one thing-- we are old. Each generation experiences its own miracles, and each generation gets to see its miracles become dull, commonplace, familiar.

Yes, we should work hard to preserve and share a sense of wonder, an appreciation for miracles. But in the classroom we must recognize that our favorite miracles may retain little power to amaze in and of themselves (well, unless you're teaching the little ones-- then everything is new and amazing). That's the challenge-- to remain familiar but not jaded, amazed but not foolish. And now I could say more, but here comes the food cart. I will see you all later, back on earth.

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