This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Brett Slezak
The alarmists will tell you that machine learning and artificial intelligence are a recipe for a dystopian post-apocalyptic world where Skynet-esq refrigerators and internet enabled hair-dryers will serve as our robot overlords. Talk to the blind-faith technologists and they will tell you that technology, with its perfect algorithms, crowd-sourcing techniques, and ability to democratize information, will automatically usher in a new utopia where hunger & poverty cease to exist. However super unlikely either of these scenarios are for coming true, it is important to remember that there is a huge intermediary in how technology will shape the future: Humanity.
I often hear in my network of educators and tech enthusiasts that a popular way to look at technology is to see it just as a tool. The thought is that technology is just something that makes our lives easier and more efficient. And the time found through this efficiency allows for more time to dive deeper into learning. A pencil makes writing faster. A camera records an image in time. The internet transfers global information at unimaginable speeds. There are parts of this “tool” analogy that surely resonate with me, but when you think you have a hammer in your hand, you start to see all the problems in the world as nails right?! Over the past year with the Fluency Project, I have spent some time seriously ruminating on what makes a tool, well… a tool.
Pondering “technology as a tool” in countless reflection sessions, I have come to realize just how important our individual human experiences are in assigning the functions that we give to “tools.” Let me provide a less-wordy, more direct example of what I mean by this. As a kid of about 7 or 8 years old, with little knowledge of common construction tools, I would often watch my dad use an 8” x 8” steel plate connected to a long wooden pole to flatten cans in our driveway to make them more compact for our recycle bin. For years my observed experience with that tool assigned it the function of crushing cans into aluminium pancakes. Knowing how my dad was “creative” with his tool use, I always knew there had to be another intended function for a steel plate with handle, but I just never bothered to learn it. It wasn’t until later in my life that I realized that he was using a hand tamper meant for leveling earth to “level” my pop cans. However, in that case it was my personal human experience that defined what that tool could do and the purpose it served. If we see technology as just a tool we have to remember that it is our human experiences that are going to shape the way we use it.
That is why I like to take the “just a tool” analogy a bit further and look at technology, especially in our schools, as more of an “instrument” than a tool. When I start to imagine technology as an instrument, I start to see it as something more flexible, with more nuanced ways of finessing its intended use. I think about a guitar in this scenario. As a person, I can take my emotions and life experiences, combine them with nearly infinite pairings of notes, chords and rhythms, and express something new that has never existed before in song form. However, my personal humanity and how I “know” how to use the guitar still limits me. Put the guitar into the hands of someone truly visionary, in this case let’s say Jimi Hendrix, now all of the sudden the instrument is being played in ways that the world has never known. On the flip, put a guitar in the hands of someone who has never seen it or heard music, and they might come up with other unassigned uses (like crushing pop-cans with it). When we start to think about kids using technology in school with a more open-minded mentality, we can start to give students the agency to use technology as a way to elevate their own voice and create something in a way that makes sense to them. However, in order to channel this “instrumental” way of thinking, there needs to be some type of framework to guide it.
So all of this hinges on one big important idea. Our humanity and how we decide as people to engage with it is how we will end up using technology. Understanding this, we have decided at our district to reimagine our technology philosophy to a values-first, technology-second approach. In the edtech arms race of public school, it is easy to get caught up in using technology that is new, flashy & brings great press but totally miss the mark where it could have deep and lasting impacts on learning. I’ve been known to do it myself. To help stay grounded and focused, we have come up with the following core values that are meant to be a framework, from kindergartner to superintendent, on how we aspire in our district to engage with and make decisions around technology. The values are specific to our needs as a district for sure, and should certainly look different in your organization. Our 7 core values are:
I tell our staff that these 7 core values are not policy, but ideals to strive for on a daily basis. We are using these values to help students move from consumers of technology to creators through technology. They are guiding our conversations we have about purchasing and allocating resources. The values provide common ground on how technology can be integrated into teaching and learning. It helps us reframe risk taking and failure as part of the learning process with technology, and they are certainly ideals that we will never fully actualize. Although the values do not tell us exactly where to go, they do point us all in the same direction.
Therefore as we embark on trying to reshape how to put our humanity before our technology needs, I think about the terminator toasters and the altruistic algorithms. It will be how we use technology to funnel and amplify our human experiences, not the technology itself, that will create the future we will all live in. Knowing that, I would much rather give our teachers and students a framework to help shape and create their own future, than sit idly by and live in someone else’s.