Saturday, April 25, 2020

Technology Manifesto Revisited

The right tool for the right job for the right reason at the right cost at the right age for the right amount of time with the right awareness of what it adds and what it takes away.

This was the opening to an article I wrote many years ago. Now that Zoom is our new best friend and days spent glued to screens is one of the ways we’re staying connected while sheltering in place, one might think that the table is spread for me to eat every word I ever spoke to caution us against the use of too much electronic technology. 

In fact, I think coming out of this time will be the perfect time to reflect deeper on what we’ve mostly mindlessly accepted. I imagine we’ll be so grateful for every precious section of actual physical contact with fellow human beings and the great satisfaction of live conversation and the even greater satisfaction of group music-making with no screens in our way that we might think twice about settling for chats and tweets and Zooms when we could be out dining, walking, playing with each other. 

Of course, I, like so many right now, am grateful for the ways some of our technologies are allowing us to keep certain things going. But note how this is entirely line with my manifesto in italics above. “The right reason” could not be clearer at the moment. Since we can’t be physically with each other while sheltered in place, this is the right reason to use these available technologies. And as mentioned above, we are becoming aware how horribly clumsy online learning can be compared to kids in a real classroom, how when given a choice, it is often the “wrong tool” for the job. 

And new positives are being revealed as well. Only 30 to 40 people could or would come to my workshop in San Francisco, but 150 people from anywhere with a close-enough time-zone theoretically could attend. As friends from Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Finland, Thailand and beyond actually did for a workshop I was supposed to do in New Jersey. And while the live workshop is irreplaceable, such ongoing supplements might indeed become a practice beyond the time of our sheltering. I’m open to it! 

I reprint below the body of a Technology Manifesto I posted a few years back (of course, you remember that, don’t you?) and hope you might find it interesting as to what holds up. I’ll let you decide! What is below comes after the italic quote above.


The right tool acknowledges that technology is a way of knowing through tools and we would be wise to find the one best suited for our goals. Not just figure out how to use what someone demands we use, but decide for ourselves which tool is most effective and efficient for our purposes. A xylophone is a technology as well as an i-Pad and can get more musical neurons firing than any slick pre-packaged music program with button clicks. As we now know, e-mail is a terrible technology for intelligent and communicative argument, but a fabulous tool to arrange and announce the workshop. Examples abound.

The right job is our vision of what we consider important, the cart that the horse pulls. Once we’re clear about that, then we can intelligently choose which horse to pick.

The right reason to use any technology is that the choices we’ve made will deepen our students’ understanding and get their neurons firing, their bodies engaged, their imagination percolating and their hearts excited.  Using computers just because the school bought them and needs to justify its purchase is not the right reason.

The right cost means factoring in the limited resources and budget of any school and deciding if the bang is big enough for the buck. But that cost is not just the price of the machine, but the expenses of upgrades, replacements required by planned obsolescence, increased security in the school building, electric bills and hiring people to maintain and fix the machines, train the students and staff.

The right age means educating ourselves about the developmental needs of young children and the damage using the wrong tools at the wrong times can cause. 14-year olds using an i-Pad for research is quite different from 4-year olds bonded to machines.

The right amount of time means taking into account the limited time we teachers have with children, the amount they need to follow nature’s developmental agenda, the amount they already spend in front of screens at home and after-school.

The right awareness means reflecting on how technologies change the body, change the brain, change culture. No technology is neutral. Each leans towards accenting certain human faculties and potentials and neglects others. Mostly people dismiss the question by casually saying, “it depends upon how you use it.” While the latter is true to some extent, the reality is much more complex. And if we are to use it consciously and not just reflexively, we will need some help. There is no training in the machine manuals that give you warnings (Danger: This technology has proven to be addictive!). There are no required classes before purchase to assist you in using appropriate restraint, for yourself and particularly for your children. Now there are camps for children that serve as rehab for electronic addiction, testaments of our failure to foresee the consequences ahead of time.

As for schools, I think it's time for experienced teachers to trust their knowledge of children, of their craft, of their field of interest and decide for themselves how much electronic technology to use and when and with whom and for how long without anyone mandating them or making them feel that they're not "21st century" if they don't go with the trend. How can we teach children to think critically and make wise choices if we ourselves are not doing so?

What would make sense is for each teacher to reflect on the points above and for each school to collectively consider them as springboards to further discussion. Do some research (consult me if you need a reading list) alongside personal reflection and actual observation as to how computers have already impacted the kids you teach. In a matter as delicate as children’s minds and bodies, we can’t afford to mindlessly invite machines in without due diligence and proper skepticism.

And particularly when the whole deal is tied to money. “Follow the money” is the first dictum of analysis as to how decisions get made and there are lots of people and corporations making lots of money from schools who know nothing about kids and education and may or may not even care. It’s not too late to just say "no, thank you" or "maybe, I'll think about it" or "yes, but…" to the wholesale acceptance of computers in schools. If this article can help move things in that direction, well, hooray for that.

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