The main response to concerns over screen time and children that I have run into is that educational screen time is not the same as entertainment screen time. I take the point, but I have my doubts. One of my chief concerns is the blind belief in the goodness of technology. Anand Giridharadas illustrates this in a recent interview with Krista Tippet. Giridharadas points out that in Silicone Valley
“there’s this thing of dropping out of college because…they feel they have the technical knowledge they need to get started. And part of what they’re dropping out of, in many cases, is the liberal arts education that is precisely designed to give you these kinds of frameworks to understand things like, history is cyclical, and good things have bad effects, and things go ways that you couldn’t anticipate, and just this normal understanding of how the human condition,…works.
When you have people with that much power over humanity, that much power to decide more and more how children learn and how commerce works and how power functions, and they basically have a naïve, childlike understanding that any tool that they invent will inherently make things better, you go to a very dark place.”
I share his concerns. Teaching literature, the human condition is an obsession, so this resonates with me (plus, I believe in the philosophy of a liberal arts education), but I’m putting my doubts aside for the moment to consider how to maximize the positive potential technology offers the classroom. I want to illustrate a framework for technology in the classroom (or anywhere else).
Recently a friend of mine offered this distinction summarized from Andy Crouch: humans, as inventive, industrious, and inventive beings regularly use tools, devices, and instruments. The distinctions work as follows:
A tool is a piece of technology that, in order to be effective requires one to bring part of their humanity to it. By way of example, when I use a hammer properly it becomes an extension of my arm—it does not replace my arm, nor do the two of us become something greater. We remain an English teacher with a hammer—for better or worse.
A device, requiring nothing other than our attention, reduces our humanity. Because it requires less, it encourages passivity and mainly consumption.
Whereas an instrument becomes the best of a tool and device, an instrument requires your full humanity, full attention, becomes an extension of you and in concert, potentially something larger than the instrument and the human is created. Therefore, a hammer in the hands of my wife’s grandfather could become an instrument (I’m pretty sure he could build a lovely house with that one tool). Or (by way of an example closer to home) a pen is a tool, and when it is used to write poetry, it becomes an instrument.
My suspicion is many people are convinced a computer can be an instrument. My hope is that this is true. My fear is that this is impossible. I harken back to Neil Postman. The medium is the message. If the medium is designed to distract, to deluge, to overwhelm, to advertise–an it do anything else? In the hands of a few computer technology seems an instrument: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the folks in Silicone Valley. But more and more voices in this group are becoming concerned. Take Justin Rosenstein. If ever there was someone who could use a computer as an instrument, he must qualify. He engendered the “like” feature of Facebook. Arguably, a positive technological feature creating a sense of goodwill and community and connection. But Rosenstein has become a critique of his own product. He is concerned “everyone is distracted. All of the time…” and what the effect might be on society as a whole. He has paired back his own technology use, and points out that Silicon Valley’s top schools typically ban the products their student’s parents design and sell. The reality is the internet has become the largest advertising space humanity has ever known. We are living in the “telescreen” world George Orwell foresaw, but the difference is we pay money for the screens that fill our time and spaces, they are not forced on us.
Phones, ipads, and the like are designed to consume. They are unlikely instruments, and even if they have this potential we don’t use them for it. We use them to pass time, avoid social situations, coordinate and pan. Creation is not their intention—consumption is.
Computers are more of a gray area in this regard. As impressive as phones are a full computer still has far more capacity and uses. How can I guide students to use computers as tools and instruments? Even as a device, they can be an efficient method of gathering straight facts. How do I move them beyond the notion that they don’t have to know facts because they are readily accessible, to understand that to build knowledge, and develop understanding they will have to align facts within their own minds and bodies, then use those facts in their own combinations to make something larger than themselves? To do this well is to help them see the world in a new way; to help them make something intelligent, useful, and/or beautiful; to extend the realms of human possibility of intellect and art and community.
I think all of this is what the educational screen time is superior to entertainment screen time. And I agree with it in many ways. Computers bring together the opportunity to place fact and creative mechanisms in one place faster and more efficiently than ever before. On a computer, I can research, study, gather facts and write, publish, mass-produce anything I want. All from my desk stuck in the corner of my children’s playroom. Students have the potential to do this in the classroom too.
When thinking about leveraging technology to help students engage with the layered and complex world they live within, these distinctions (tool, device, instrument) seem vital—hopeful even. I think a mindful blending of physical activity and creation and the addition of thoughtfully implemented technology can help develop healthy screen time habits for students and genuinely help their learning.