Swimming in the Deep End

I’m late to the Cal Newport bandwagon, but better late than never.  I’ve about finished Deep Work, and coincidentally ran across this tweet earlier this week:


It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Great Hearts Academies, and classical education, in general.  The question of how technology is best used (if at all) in classrooms is a heated one, and I’ve written about it a little bit here.  I’m heartened but not surprised by the growing number of reports (beginning as early as 2011) that the engineers and designers of most useful (and addictive) technologies are limiting their own kids’ exposure to these very products.

There are situations in which I think tech can be very helpful, especially in some urban and rural areas, where it is often difficult to find funding for a teacher of advanced math or foreign languages.  Giving students access to highly competent teachers via video-conferencing gives them opportunities that they would not otherwise have had.

But it has always irritated me to hear that kids “need” technology in classrooms in order to get ready for 21st century jobs or some such.  The truth is that they (even students from the lowest income backgrounds) have loads of exposure to technology outside of school.  Part of the point of iPads and iPhones is that they are “closed gardens” in the sense that they are idiot-proof and also hard to hack.  If that’s the case, how much time does it really take to learn how to operate today’s tech?  It’s super easy.  Kids catch on and surpass grown-ups without so much as darkening a classroom door.

In other words, if you’re really trying to get kids ready for the 21st century, take a page out of Deep Work and help them develop the habits and taste for deep work.  Help them develop the space within themselves to think the revolutionary and disruptive thoughts that will lay the groundwork for 22nd century jobs (and beyond).  Help them learn what their elders can’t seem to do — develop the self-control in a context of digital distraction to go deeper than this generation can.

Learning to read a hard book, write a report, take apart computers and put them back together, hold an extended and deep conversation — these are the real advantages that some kids will gain to as part of their formal education.  The question, as the NY Times article above asks, is which ones?

The best ways that technology can truly improve education should probably be invisible to students, or as seemless as possible, and integrated into very human interactions and as part of a rhythm that allows for deep work.

If we treat tech as a “quick fix” for systems broken by profound and long-standing social, political, and economic issues, we shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t deliver.  We shouldn’t be surprised when it does what it does best — amplify and extend human wisdom and weakness.

In many ways, tech in education is a boon and a blessing.  I’m personally involved in some efforts to make the classics more accessible through technology.  Finding the right way to integrate it will take time and wisdom and reflection.  We humans invent new tools and then figure out what they’re really for.

Let’s not assume that they way the big tech companies envision (or prefer) their products being used in classrooms will be the real and best application of these tools to the ed space.

And let’s be careful of cronyistic schemes that give large tech companies leverage over the lives and minds of students who are not operating in the context of true educational freedom.  Let’s strive to give all families the ability to choose schools that support their beliefs and values, including their preferences about how much screen time their kids get.


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