An Extra Jolt of Fear
I gave an Ignite talk (5 minutes, 20 slides, ready-or-not auto-advance every 15 seconds) at this year’s CMC North conference in Asilomar. (Video of the talk is here.) It was quite possibly the most fun I’ve had at any math conference. In the hours leading up to the event, I was more than a little nervous. Then I saw the speaking order:
Just before we went on, one of my co-igniters asked whether it was possible to ruin one’s career in just five minutes. We hoped not. As it turned out, we did alright. In fact, from where I sat, the other nine presenters were all amazing.
To Script or Not To Script
After preparing my slides, I wrote out a script of what I intended to say. I’ve never scripted anything before, but then again I’ve never done anything with such an unforgiving format. I imagined myself falling silent for an entire slide or two. That make-believe mental picture wasn’t pretty, and scripting seemed like the answer. I struggled to get past 80% memorized, so I abandoned the “word for word” approach, didn’t look at my notes at all on Saturday, and made it my goal simply to drive home the main idea of each slide. For anyone who skipped the Ignite talks (shame on you!), or for those who attended but are curious how my live presentation (and occasional bumbling) compared to what I originally had in mind, here are my slides along with what I would have said if I had been able to stay 100% on target.
Slides and Script
Here’s my goal for the next five minutes: To convince you that some of what passes for innovative use of technology in the classroom is actually dehumanizing and therefore destined to be ineffective. And what better way to kick things off than to waste two slides on a blue police box.
For those not addicted to Doctor Who, that’s the TARDIS. An amazing box of infinite potential. It’ll take you anywhere in space, and any time in history. It’s basically a time-machine-powered promise of total freedom.
Here’s another set of boxes with a similar promise. Bigger on the inside? Check. Ability to take you anywhere? Well, sort of. Time travel? Not so much. Anyway, a few years ago one of the box-makers spent billions of dollars developing a shiny new box.
Then they announced that they were going to change the world. In particular? Education. Their game plan? To revolutionize the textbook. Well I watched the seven minute infomercial. And I’m not going to lie. I was stoked. The future looked amazing. And seemed like it was just around the corner.
But then I watched the video a second time. And a third time. The shine wore off. The promise disintegrated into a few gimmicks. “Textbooks got you down? You need some pinch-to-zoom action. And flash cards. And sorting activities where students don’t actually sort anything.”
Needless to say, I was bummed out. “You and me, Apple, we were going to change the world. And all you did was tech-wash the idea that teaching consists mainly of sending the right sequence of letters and images, or in this case, 1s and 0s.”
The problem with this approach is that it treats students as passive. As consumers. Worse than that, it actually trains them to be that way. And what we end up with is more of what we don’t want. Indifference. Apathy. Isolation.
But there’s one part in that video that still resonates with me. They said that if we can stimulate curiosity, we’ve got the spark for learning. Amen to that. But what is it that stimulates curiosity? Digital flash cards? Using a stylus instead of a pen?
Or maybe this: A grid of more than 900 skills begging to be mastered—with on-demand help from Uncle Sal whenever you need it. If you weren’t inspired the first time, just pause, rewind, and play it again. That should do the trick. Did you know you can play YouTube videos at quarter speed? As if normal speed wasn’t painful enough.
I’ve seen one version of our tech-saturated future, and it terrifies me, because it looks like this. All headphones and no heart. Everything that makes us most human just put on pause. This isn’t the revolution I want for my students.
It certainly isn’t what I want for my own kiddos. When they come home from school I want to ask questions like: “What made you curious today? What did you create? What inspired you?”
So here’s what I propose: Let’s use technology in ways that foster—rather than stifle—what is most valuable and most human in us and our students. Here are four ways we can do that. #1, let’s replace indifference…
…with curiosity. Let’s break out our smartphones and capture strange, thought-provoking things we find in the world. In the kitchen, in the checkout line, a dying battery on your phone, or just aimlessly wandering the Internet… Keep your eyes peeled for the things that hook and engage and provoke.
#2, let’s replace consumption with creativity. I have never had a student email me to say “Hey, I just spent a week binge-watching Khan Academy videos. And it was awesome.” But out of the blue, a student of mine did send me this boat he made with an online graphing calculator. He was so proud of what he’d done.
And not because he earned some boat badge. He was stoked because he made something. And making things is awesome. You know paint by number? How about paint-a-minion by equation. All 424 of them!
#3, let’s replace competition with collaboration. I’m less interested in energy points and clicker quizzes, and more excited to see students using things like Google Drive to create and revise and collaborate.
#4… If I ever write my own young adult dystopian novel, it’ll include a scene from a K-12 classroom with 109 students. At one point the hero (an amiable hacker named Eli) will redirect every kid’s browser to student.desmos.com…
In other words, let’s replace isolation with conversation. Headphones and computer cubicles isn’t progress. We need more discourse and more arguments in math class, not less.
If you want to flip the classroom, here’s my model. Let’s flip tech-induced indifference, consumption, competition, and isolation, and replace them with tech-inspired curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and conversation.
In the end, technology is just one tool among many. It’s as powerful or as useless (or worse, as damaging) as we make it. Let’s wield it well. Thank you.