Technology is sold and bought as an unmixed blessing, the assuring proof of progress, intellectual evolution, and the emblem of American supremacy in the world.  We call kids “digital natives,” and accept it as a matter of fact, the way it is, or, in any case, the way it most certainly will be.  We never stop to ask whether “digital native” does not constitute a diminished state of being.  How could it?  It is our reward for staying in the game so long.  Yes, more than a matter of fact, it is the way it ought to be. “O, brave new world,/ That have such people in ’t!”  Results are sure to follow, we feel certain. Technology is all good—that is our first false premise.

Our second false premise is this: Schools are failing, and teacher incompetence, so suddenly endemic, is the reason.  Top-down, outside-in reforms make their inroads, and the first domino falls.  Agendas are set, district leadership takes its cues, and principals are “trained” to reeducate teachers, to bring them up to speed, to bribe or coerce them out of their old-dog ways.  Those teachers who question or resist are not asked their reasons.  They are called names instead: old guards, ostriches, luddites—anything suggesting lazy, scared, stupid or even uncaring, if not all four at once; and they are treated as nuisances.  Principals are told to draw a hard line with these enemies of progress, and then the cure-all is introduced: pour on the technology, and accommodate “digital natives”—escort them back to the mental ruts from which we would formerly have considered it our unequivocal duty to free them.

Other dominos fall, and others still as schools are increasingly forced to compete with each other, sifting, selecting out losers, along with first principles and better principals of education.  Even good administrators, who know, as does Paul Thomas (Associate Professor of Education at Furman University), that “teaching is a human experience,” and that “the spare approach to technology in the classroom will always benefit learning,” draw their hard lines like the ones drawn for them, and allocate sorely needed funds to sell their schools in concert with the premises of the tech industry, making saints of rich left-brain genius drop-outs and practical martyrs of the country’s best teachers—of our children’s greatest hopes.  Synergy, they want to call it.

Or perhaps Douglas Rushkoff, in his Program or Be Programmed, describes the thinking more accurately: “…we tend to think less about how to integrate new tools into our lives than about how to simply keep up… [S]chool boards adopt ‘laptop’ curriculums less because they believe that they’ll teach better than because they fear their students will miss out on something if they don’t.  We feel proud that we’re willing to do or spend what it takes to use this stuff—with little regard to how it actually impacts our lives.  As a result, instead of optimizing our machines for humanity…we are optimizing humans for machinery.”

However it works, whatever the actual thought behind “21st century classrooms” is, whatever prompts us so, the premises survive their own lack of positive outcomes.  Something has been sold, indeed.  Perhaps teachers—our newest ones are “digital natives” too, newly “trained,” and cannot begin to see the value of what we “digital immigrants” once thought we could afford to take for granted—perhaps they, too, are convinced that there is no sense in telling kids to put their phones away, to take their ear-buds out, or to at least try to be more than pretend people isolated from all non-avatars.  Dominos fall.  It is easy to see and follow.  But however understandable it is that we should be at this point, it is nevertheless ultimately inexcusable—on all our parts.  For we do not get to start these games over.

Schools must come into their own in this day and age, become castles upon the hill, places of leadership and of refuge for humanity, where the largest and most crucial dominos, the parents, can come to understand the push and withstand it—they can refuse to fall.  But parents must actively seek to reverse the present trend, and help schools bolster themselves at their foundations—help teachers regain the natural esteem they enjoy in almost every other culture in the world.  And teachers—they must learn a lesson indeed—one necessitated by our ubiquitous new means of communication—a lesson they never were forced to learn before, but which now determines their effectiveness almost completely.  They must learn this lesson—learn how to better articulate and pursue their primary purposes, their students’ well-being along with their disciplines of study, and thereby earn again the trust and appreciation of parents.

What is the lesson?  No, it is not how to trade out older teaching methods for newer ones, analogue for digital, faces for screens, maximized human development for mere immediacy.  That, ironically, is all that is meant by “innovative teaching,” and however less adequate or debilitating, or, in the best cases, however much the equivalent they are to the “old” methods, the “new” methods are pushed for merely seeming new, lauded and applauded as the gateway to what we dream we might still become.  We are being fooled and are fooling ourselves if we believe such “teaching” is necessary preparation for the future, and we are doing far worse if we think it warrants cross-curriculum integration of new technologies—converting all our courses to variously titled Tech Eds.  Using and using and using screens again, and being used by them, in every class, as well as at home, is not preparing, but programming our children, shaping them in ever-narrower ways, enabling them, sure, but away from greater maturity and autonomy.

No, we teachers must learn how the rules of the game have changed, and how just letting kids get the job done by whatever means preferred is not necessarily, or even likely, doing our own jobs.  We must recognize that we are, as we always have been, if unwittingly, more teachers of “how”, than of “what”, coaches of process, models, not data disseminators, nor mere plug-in facilitators.  Not so long ago, during what is sometimes misconceived as the golden age of American education, there were fewer ways to operate—fewer ways to get to the curriculum—to the “what” of our lessons, but now there are different, domineering modes—newer, but in almost every instance, not better ways to process or learn—not better for the development of children.   Thus, the charge upon the teacher of the 21st Century is not in adjusting, as any neophyte can, to the new modes of being, but in preserving the modes by which we become more fully human.  We are as we were even in Aristotle’s day, instructors in “the art of living well,” but now we must understand exactly what that means.

“Recognizing the biases of the technologies we bring into our lives is really the only way to stay aware of the ways we are changing in order to accommodate them, and to gauge whether we are happy with that arrangement…”

– Douglas Rushkoff

Neither as parent nor teacher, do I accept, willy-nilly, what others either embrace or merely accept as inevitable—always the last and most pitiful pitch of our tech providers.  Just as the fact that I am going to die one day does not convince me to get on with it, so I say, “No, people, we still have much to do—much we can do!” But we must start doing it, the sooner, the better.  One of the choices still before us is how schools will function—how they will help us provide for our “most sacred obligation.”  How can teachers become again the parents’ best partners, and again be recognized for what they signed up to be: children’s best advocates?  What can parents do to support teachers and help give children their best chance in school—their best chance to lead successful and fulfilling lives?  The way we are presently answering these questions is not working.  Our approach must change.

Teachers are not so much to seek the correct balance of mediated and unmediated interaction and engagement in their classrooms as to seek to help students and their parents understand why such a balance, in their private lives especially, is not just desirable, but necessary.  Keeping the full context of our students’ lives in view, teachers should be wary of adding weight to poor habits of mind and body—to a terrible and terribly informed imbalance.  “Differentiation,” a key teaching concept, used to mean challenging students; now it merely means accommodating them, feeding them ice cream every night for dinner—because they and their parents have come to believe they “need” it.

And English teachers, in particular, are not to shuffle off extended writing assignments and person-to-person interactions simply because research shows that kids nowadays prefer texting to talking, and, I recently read, even to emailing (—the asynchronous communication, while still safely removed, is too roundabout, too human, uncomputer-like a process, I guess).  Truly, consider what such acquiescence sacrifices.  Should we also forfeit great literature because people now prefer what is recent to what is relevant?  What does a course in Language Arts stand for anymore?  How insipid would greatness become in the hands of today’s titillated taskmasters?

“Meeting kids where they’re coming from,” using grammar to teach YouTube videos, inserting screens into group discussions, pretending movies help children with their reading assignments is like letting kids use forklifts in weightlifting class, or Machu Picchu iPad apps in the sandbox.  Permitting kids to use the tools they cling to like crutches is hardly helping them.  No, the lesson is the mode, the “how”, the process.  Teaching is modeling— at root, it is genuine enthusiasm for life and learning, and always for the sake and love of the learner.  It is continual encouragement to seize upon and develop the tools within oneself, the very tools short-circuited by new media.  There is nothing new here.  Just missed or forgotten.  Nothing Dewey, Vygotsky, Froebel, Aristotle or Confucius did not already tell us.  The heart of our whole enterprise is in the truly present, unmediated connection.

This is what a teacher should provide—especially a teacher of younger children, but before we could not get away from this mode, much less be “encouraged” to get away from it.  Now, our job, in every conceivable way, depends on just how well we understand its importance and how well we keep it intact.  Steve Jobs, himself, declaims, “You don’t need a computer to get a kid interested.”  I would go further and say, if a kid, inculcated since birth by one of Jobs’s inventions, needs a screen to get interested, he or she is a less, not more capable kid.  The screen, as no eminent practitioner ever could, will force all teachers to become masters and maintenance crew of the processes by which human beings become ever more completely, and beautifully themselves, as Steve Jobs in many ways did.

Sure, like Douglas Rushkoff, I can see the case for teaching kids “how to write software,” rather than just “how to use software to write,” but elective courses in Middle and High School, Tech Ed or Computer Science for instance, is the proper place for that, and much more than sufficient.  Learning how to “program,” Rushkoff explains, is “something any high school student can do with a decent paperback on the subject and a couple of weeks of effort.”  But my English class should focus elsewhere, as should the rest of the classes in school, in as much as all teachers are to consider and address the issues brought before them by our students’ inveterate use of new media.

“Recognizing the biases of the technologies we bring into our lives is really the only way to stay aware of the ways we are changing in order to accommodate them, and to gauge whether we are happy with that arrangement…”

If a teacher, in other words, is unaware of how a technology’s “bias” is reconstructing his or her own classroom and purpose, the integration of it is worse than time wasted.  Children can be no more witting than those who guide them, and they have never needed to be more witting than they must be today.  They need, that is, to become media conscious, and they need teachers who know how to mindfully approach technology—how to properly incorporate Media Studies into our schools and classrooms.

As my title suggests, the bulk of my effort here is a detailed collection of 31 consecutive lessons for a Media Studies unit in my senior English course.  Indeed, I hope it is an easily, immediately adaptable plan for my fellow teachers, whatever their levels or disciplines of study, whatever the demographics of their communities.  As I will specify later, and as my lesson plans hopefully make clear, it is much less important than most people suppose, far from necessary actually, to integrate new technologies into our classrooms.  On the other hand, it is vitally important that every teacher in every school knows how best to address the specific challenges newly raised by our technological advances and how to lead his or her students in addressing them as well.  That a student in this new century should have no practice analyzing media and the kinds of relationships people might and do form with them is dereliction, plain and simple, on the parts of teachers.  And so, yes, I offer this senior English unit as a conversation-starter for teachers of all students, high school or younger, and maybe also as a beacon towards which we can deliberately and gradually tend.  It might serve as well for a compliment, if not the backbone, of elective courses oriented around screen media, say, perhaps, a Media Studies course in high school, along with preparatory courses in preceding grades (hint, hint, hint).

But I am also writing with a wider audience in mind.  I am speaking to school and district administrators, to teachers of teachers, mentor teachers and department heads, and, most importantly, to students and their parents; and what I am saying is that we all must do better than we currently are—and we can.  I am, myself, the father of four-year-old triplets, and the research offered here, together with the guidance it lends, is sought with and for the perspective of a parent too.  It goes without saying, there is no more impactful role any of us can play in the upbringing of a child than that of a parent.  The schools do represent our best chance to systematically meet the challenges of our culture’s shifting and shifted modes of living, which is why the schools receive so much attention, good and bad, from me and from everyone else.  But the primary effort of any school or district must be to solicit the understanding and support of parents.  For the home is key, and it could never be too early to turn a family’s focus to the issues surrounding the integration of technology into our children’s lives.  This also is why I propose a “Media Exposure Chart” for the proper technology use at all stages of childhood, for the home as much as for the school (Appendix B).  Despite our culture’s deplorably politicized and profit-driven approach to education, in which teachers seem more and more only able to fulfill their partnerships with parents as scapegoats, I still call for greater collaboration.

The fact is parents are ill-served by the advertisements of tech and software companies, and the schools only make matters worse with their endorsement, whether tacit or trumpeted, of the simple premises being pushed.  To help our children better navigate the numerous and potentially disastrous pitfalls of their inextricably connected world, parents and teachers must forge a greater, more trusting relationship, one focused less on what technologies can do than on what children should do, according to what we know and are still learning about their developmental needs.

The scientist Patricia Kuhl says that with new tools “we are embarking on a grand and golden age of knowledge about child’s development.”  I am saying, with psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair and “media theorist” Douglas Rushkoff, and with many others I quote and excerpt in this project, we should not be more excited about “new tools” than about the “knowledge” they impart, which, indeed, so frequently extols the tried and true modes and methods of “older” ways of being and doing.  Such “knowledge” again and again directs us not so much to a new coordination of all our efforts as to a newly revitalized coordination, without which, as we have seen, all our new tools will serve only to highlight the needless and most lamentable sacrifices of our collective potential.

My thinking is ultimately not backwards, but forwards, already there—there beyond the present mendacity and mistrust—there at the meeting ground of the greatest responsibility we share and have always shared—there at a golden age of American education, where new tools and greater knowledge are deployed to preserve and promote in the same instant what is best within us.  I am there and back again to meet us on our way.  My chart, along with the rest of my efforts here, while admittedly paltry in comparison with such rhetoric, is still, I hope, the opening of a way—the beginning of a conversation between educators and parents, between older and newer generations.  I hope this work helps form a better plan than has yet been implemented—hope it, at least, anticipates the sorely needed, more intelligent, truly beneficial approach to schooling in the 21st Century.

“That’s why this moment matters,” Douglas Rushkoff states in his “Introduction” to Program or Be Programmed.

“We are creating a blueprint together—a design for our collective future.  The possibilities for social, economic, practical, artistic, and even spiritual progress are tremendous…  What is called for now is a human response to the evolution of these technologies all around us.”

The “human response,” as you might guess from his title, must not be more enthusiastic than cautionary though, and our new findings in neuroscience make this clear.  Indeed, there is a “conversation that needs to be started now,” away from the din of all our endless commercials and distractions, and, hopefully, my effort will help all of us at least begin a better answer to Rushkoff’s call.