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David Smith on Asking the Right Questions about Tech in the Classroom

May 14, 2020
The challenge for Christian educators will be to learn to ask good questions and not settle too quickly for quick-fix answers.

Dr. David I. Smith, author of On Christian Teaching and Professor of Education at Calvin University, is one of our leading voices on faith and education.

His most recent book, Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools (Eerdmans 2020), asks how digital technologies are affecting Christian education, and how we might respond. In this short interview, David discusses the findings of the research done in preparation for this book.

Get some practical tips on navigating classroom technology use, discover the most common misuse of tech in the classroom, and get insight into how we might move past simplistic should we/shouldn’t we paradigms in adopting new technologies.

Your new book, Digital Life Together, is grounded in a multi-year in-depth study. What kind of questions were you asking in this study?

The project was sparked by seeing faith-based schools going through rapid change in terms of their learning technologies and struggling to articulate what was Christian about their new learning practices. The pace of technological change seemed to be challenging their ability to keep their practices intentionally tethered to their faith commitments. Since then, of course, change has only accelerated further, and the current situation more than ever tempts us to over-invest in quick emergency responses based a quick judgement that they seem to get the job done.

Our research questions grew out of a desire to get past superficial judgements about what works. We were not very interested in narrowly pragmatic questions (Will using laptops make the math score go up?). Instead, we wanted to focus on what happens to our ability to develop intentionally Christian practice when our technologies of learning go through rapid change. Instead of fixing on one or two questions ahead of time, we gave space for questions to emerge out of the research itself, and we ended up pursuing a range of questions.

How might technology contribute to the mission of a faith-based school? When schools suggested that technology helped students be creative as God’s image bearers, could we see evidence of that happening? What did it mean to teach learners Christian discernment with technology, and was this happening? How did students’ formation change as technology changed, and what kinds of faith practices were teachers adopting? How did relationship patterns change, and what was the impact on the practice and experience of Christian community?

These became some of the leading questions. We were interested in a range of ways in which technology might change and challenge a Christian learning community.

What did you find to be the most compelling results from this study?

It’s impossible to summarize the results briefly. Since we had a range of research questions, there are many specific findings in our book. Some of the findings I found most interesting came out of the discovery of points at which it seemed as if the community could be asking a different question from the ones that captured their focus. For example, in focus groups with parents, we heard plenty of concern about increased risk of exposure to harmful material, especially pornography. Parents were concerned that students be taught how to stay away from “internet bad things,” and a similar concern had fed into the use of filtering and monitoring software to screen students’ internet use.

Now porn is a real concern (though the Christian school students we studied seemed to be doing better than national averages). Yet porn use on school devices seemed to be quite rare, while it was not difficult to observe students surfing online stores during class. As one administrator put it, “if the laptop truly degrades the Christian walk, I think materialism is a far greater danger to the vast majority of the Christian school crowd.” Students who spoke about the temptations of pornography did so with an evident awareness that it was wrong. Yet shopping in class was talked about more openly and blithely. When students have learned to divide the internet into good and bad “internet bad things,” online stores do not look like examples of the bad.

There are questions here about how consumerism, learning, and spiritual formation connect. But that’s just one small finding out of a range of topics.

Is the stereotype true that tech is partially to blame for students’ greater tendency to distraction?

We saw a lot of distracted behavior going on that was centered around device use, and some fascinating things to think about surrounding it. Many students, for instance, exhibited a rather individualistic mindset in which someone else’s technological distraction (and any resulting failure in school) was their business, and it was not their role to comment or intervene.

We also saw teachers finding strategies for helping students to grow in this area. Some had designed intentional learning curves. For example, this semester you will place your phone in a box when entering class. Next semester, doing so will be voluntary, but with extra credit as a reward. The semester after, it will be voluntary with no reward. Students expressed appreciation for these kinds of intentional efforts to help them learn to live well with their technologies. This kind of learning practice seems preferable to nagging.

One very simple but effective antidote to distraction was to assign more than one student to a device. We have learned to instinctively think of digital devices as individual items, to be used one to a person. But if two or three students are collaborating around a laptop, one of them cannot play video games.

How do we weigh the genuine gains and losses of working in the digital space and make wise choices about when to go digital and when to abstain?

This is a big challenge right now. Most of us are currently learning really basic, practical things, like how exhausting Zoom meetings are and what working at the kitchen table for hours will do for your back. Sooner or later we will have to start thinking in a more principled way about where it is we are actually trying to get to as Christian educators and how our current technologies factor in, just as we did a few centuries back when books and school rooms became a thing.

I think that this will mean we have to learn to think in more nuanced ways than “should I use this technology or abstain.” Sometimes abstaining can be helpful. But more of the time, I think a key question is going to be: given that we need to engage with this tool, what kinds of intentional practices will give it a constructive role in our formation and help it to contribute to our learning. This might not be the most obvious use of the tool or the one promoted in its marketing. Families already do this in the home when they make simple moves like limiting children’s time with video games, or not letting them keep a phone by their bed, or watching movies together rather than in separate rooms.

The goals of learning are complex, and the challenge for Christian educators will be to learn to ask good questions and not settle too quickly for quick-fix answers. We hope that our research, based as it is on watching thoughtful Christian teachers over several years, can help to model this process.

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