Technology in the Classroom, a 180

There are few trends in education that generate more focus and discussion than the use of technology.  This is with good reason.  Technology is fundamentally changing the way we live and learn and this trend is only going to continue, if not intensify.  There is no lack of thoughtful blog posts out there on the benefits and uses of technology in the classroom by people much more knowledgeable on the topic than I so I will not even attempt such a post here.  What I want to do here is take a step back and look at the idea of technology in a broader sense.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as:

  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.
  2.  Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.
  3. The branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences. 

Think back for a moment to when I mentioned technology in the first sentence of this post.  What did you think of?  It was computers and Skype and blogs and… right?  It is funny how the everyday use of the word technology has taken on an additional point of definition not found in the  dictionary definition here.  Technology in the everyday use is positioned with an orientation looking forward, viewed as new technologies.  Perhaps we are orientated this way by the threads of the Enlightenment narrative of perpetual progress.

Here I want to ask, what happens if we go back to the dictionary definition of technology when we ask, what are the benefits of technology in the classroom?  What happens if we make a 180 degree turn and view teaching and exploring technology in the classroom as also having an orientation to the past?  Not in a sense that is pejorative towards new technologies, just in a sense that opens up new, or maybe I should say old, possibilities.

I will look at two examples, both of which I carted halfway around the world in my suitcase when I returned to India last August.  First a record player and second my parents old rotary telephone that they kindly lend me.   The  ideas here bare  some influence from the responses given to me by my P4 (Grade 1) students when I asked the same question to them.

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Record Player

  • Things can take more time.  The music doesn’t start with the quick click of a button.  You need to take the record out of the sleeve, place it on the turntable, start the record player, cue up the needle and lower it.  Then, and this always surprises the students, you can turn it over and repeat the whole process again.
  • You can see the science happen.  In computers and cell phones the science behind the technology happens behind a hard, shiny, tightly sealed case.  We essentially have to take it on faith that there is technology going on because we cannot observe any of the actions with our senses, other than the result of the music appearing.
  • Music/sound is vibration.  This is closely related to the previous point but deserves to stick out on its own. Grooves shake a needle, that shaking gets turned into sound.  Then you can crank the music up and put your hand over the speaker and, vibrations.  True, you can do this with computer speakers but it is just so much cooler with a record player.
  • Things are fragile.  Luckily, we have not learned this in a tangible way yet, no one has scratched a record – but we have come close.  Yes, an ipad that a six year old may play music from is fragile, but not in the same way a thin needle riding around in a thin groove is.  If a student is asked to flip the record, they need to slow down.  The fragility is also something for the teacher who has bought the record player and carted choice records around the word to remember.  How will I react if a student scratches my Nat King Cole album?
  • Music my Grandfather listened to is not so bad.  One of the highlights of the year so far was playing Benny Goodman in the background while the students grouped popsicle sticks into bundles of ten, as I walked by a six year old I heard her humming along, she new the song.  She said “my dad likes this.”  I envision a day when they are twenty and they hear  Louis Armstrong and pause, and have a momentary flashback to being six, then carry on.  I have to admit, one of the reasons I wanted a record player in my classroom was that so when the kids bound out for recess, I can pause, slow down, and listen to Fred Astaire.

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Rotary Phone 

  • Again, things take time.  I have borrowed my parents old phone and it still has a sticker on it with emergency phone numbers.  A student asked “why is 911 the number for an emergency if the 9 takes so long to dial?  Why isn’t the number 111?”  The best answer I could come up with was “because we didn’t think it took a long time to dial 9.”
  • Sometimes you need to remember numbers.  No speed dial here.  We all remembered seven digit numbers.  Do kids practise memorising numbers that long today?
  • When you talk to your friend, you need to stop and maybe even sit down.  I talk on the go.  In the cereal aisle, going up an escalator…  Does this make the conversations more functional, what if I stopped, would I talk, would I listen more.
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