Intentional Technology Use

BY ANDREW DAVIS

“Hard things are hard.” President Obama kept a plaque on his desk with these words to remind him of the importance of not taking the easy road. These words resonate with me as a parent and school leader. Being a parent is hard. Academic studies show that the two easiest paths to parenting – the strict and controlling ‘authoritarian’ and the laissez-faire ‘permissive’ – are less effective at raising well-adjusted children than an artful blend of the two, ‘authoritative.’ Authoritative parenting requires that we balance control and independence, authority and warmth. In my experience this balancing act is hard, and I don’t even have teens yet. Indeed, hard things are hard.

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Technology use in schools is, I believe, a hard thing and requires a similar challenge of balancing two competing “easy” forces to yield the best results. It is tempting to put a device – whether iPad, chromebook, or laptop – in the hands of every child. With our students on screens in each class we would look like a school “of tomorrow.” However, research is showing that our children are only getting more and more screen time. This screen time is, in turn, having an impact on social skills such as empathy. And, skills like note-taking are proving to be more effective when done by hand rather than digitally. I recently watched our students build and test helicopters as they learned about air resistance. Their hands-on simulation was just as, if not more, effective than an online-simulation. And, over the course of the period, the students practiced how to work with others rather than click a mouse. It is not just the adults who are recognizing the downsides of ubiquitous technology. I have worked with middle school students in a 1:1 environment who bemoaned that every assignment was on their iPad and that they were too often distracted by YouTube and games, just a swipe away.  

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As the pendulum has slowly started to swing away from constant connection, including during the school day, some Silicon Valley leaders – those we would expect to endorse technology –  are sending their children to schools with no educational technology or trying their best to limit access to screens for as long as possible. A tech-free school and life, though, also seems too “easy.”  At school, technology can deepen understanding. At MTS, students are able to learn the thinking routines and skills of a programmer with a computer and robot. English and humanities students get real time feedback on their writing from teachers and peers on a writing assignment. Math and world language students are able to get “reps” at just the right level using a blended learning platform such as XYZ or Language Nut. Technology can even further learning in the arts – this week the Scene Study class is using iPads to record, watch, and critique their own performances. Furthermore, when our students start 9th grade at just about any high school, they will be required to interact with teachers and peers using technology.  

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So what is the future of educational technology at MTS? Like ‘authoritative’ parenting, there is a sweet spot in the middle between ubiquitous computing and a Luddite refusal to use technology.  To me that balance is best described as “intentional” technology use. Our goal is that our teachers have the training and support to recognize when technology could deepen student understanding and the devices to implement those tech-enabled lessons. We do not want students using technology for the sake of using technology, even if it looks like something a school in 2018 “should” be doing. We also do not want our students missing out on opportunities to grow in the classroom because we don’t have the support or the machines to enable this growth.  

I am thrilled to work with Mike Taverna, our Director of Instructional Technology, as he builds relationships with teachers and shifts more of his time to helping teachers implement effective uses of technology. And, like parenting, technology integration is not always perfect. There will be lessons where we use technology and the learning objective is muddled by the machines. There will also be lessons that, in hindsight, could have been strengthened by a digital tool. We will always, though, keep our eye on finding the balancing point of “intentional” technology use that prepares our students for their future while maintaining the strength of face-to-face and analog learning. Intentional technology use is hard. Hard things are hard. And, we are committed to getting this hard thing right.