Just when teachers figure out one new tech tool, a giant new one, like a wooly mammoth, towers over and crushes them. Teachers need to figure out how to balance the student (the acorn), plug the glacier (technology), without imploding like the squirrel.
by Matt Levinson
Regular contributor to the Gazette
June 1, 2009
The children’s film Ice Age opens with Scrat, the saber toothed squirrel desperately attempting to scale a giant glacier while trying to hold onto an acorn. As the squirrel inches his way upward, a crack in the glacier widens and water begins to shoot out. Scrat plugs the hole with one hand and holds the acorn in the other hand. Then, another crack opens, and another, and another. The squirrel uses his left foot, his right foot, and with no body parts left, puts his mouth over the last hole he can plug. His cheeks swell with water, the glacier finally explodes with full force and the squirrel is sent flying for miles as water crashes forth. The squirrel bounces up and down and contorts in all directions. Miraculously, the squirrel survives and ends up on dry land. But, just when he thinks he can breathe and see clearly, he is quashed by Manny, the wooly mammoth.
This scene captures where schools are with technology today. The schools are the squirrel, technology is the glacier, and the acorn is the student. Schools are at a loss as to how to balance the student (the acorn), and plug the glacier (technology), without imploding, like the squirrel. Just when they figure out one new tech tool, a giant new one, in the form of a wooly mammoth, towers over and crushes them. Technology is simply moving too fast. Students pick up new apps and tools every millisecond of the day. There is no point in trying to put stop gap measures in place to slow the pace. Instead, teachers need to figure out how to tap into student expertise and passion, and create authentic learning experiences with technology. This is no easy task.
Schools can build the tech infrastructure, and with new programs like Ning (the Facebook for schools), schools can even create portals for safe social networking, but the challenge is how to get teachers to actually use the tools. Blogs, wikis, the Google suite, Skype, etc., all offer different and exciting ways to engage students, but these tools are far off the radar and out of the comfort level of teachers who did not grow up immersed in this culture. In a teacher’s world, this is just one more thing to do, amidst an already busy school day filled with lesson planning, assessment, lunch and recess duties, and communication with parents. “It’s enough to just stay on top of school email,” one veteran teacher lamented.
Students, though, do not even think twice about ubiquitous technology. They flip screens, add widgets, and answer multiple mail accounts all in a matter of seconds. At school, they cook up recipes to circumvent the porous blocking mechanisms schools attempt to put in place. Schools have to take precautionary, protective measures to keep school safe, but in the global marketplace, it is misguided practice to think that schools can keep everything out. Instead, schools should take the teachable moment that arises when a student encounters hateful language on a blog post or false claims on a web site. Examine the intent, explore the bias, strategize response, and invite the students to develop a solution.
Every parent and educator wants students to make sensible decisions when they are on their own, out in the world. But students are deprived of precious learning opportunities if schools and parents block their access. Adults end up looking like Scrat the squirrel to the students. This does not inspire trust; instead, it breeds cynicism and drives a deeper wedge between students and adults.
Schools are obligated to cultivate a sense of community. But, the community has changed. Instead of a monolithic, one size fits all approach to block and filter, schools need to articulate a clear approach and customize filtering based on developmental needs of students. No matter how many times schools scramble the Rubik’s cube of filtering, students can find their way back in two steps or less. Students can just type “bypassing school filters” into Google and find thousands of how-to-guides. The last thing schools want to do is encourage a game mentality of how many different ways students can come up with to break the filter.
The bad news for schools is that the technology is not going away. In fact, it is only getting more futuristic. The recent demonstration of MIT designers of a sixth sense prototype, with holographic touch screens, only reinforces the notion that blocks are futile. The design allows users to use their fingers to take pictures, make phone calls, and learn everything about a person they meet for the first time, based on their web profile. Images of words aligned with Facebook pages, Google searches, and blog postings layer across the body of the person. Pretty soon, there will be nothing to block. The walls are disappearing.
To avoid the fate of Scrat the squirrel, schools have to change course. The glacier is too big and it is only getting bigger.
A graduate of Teachers' College, Columbia University, Matt Levinson is the assistant director and head of the middle school at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, California. Prior to moving into school administration, he taught middle and upper school history for fourteen years at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey.