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Mindful Teaching With Technology

This post is by Dennis Shirley.

I was recently in Singapore, where I was invited to speak at a conference on mindful teaching with technology. On the morning of the conference I was having trouble getting a good wi-fi connection for the prezi presentation I prepared. The problem was with a video that was embedded in the presentation. At one point I counted eight technical assistants fiddling with different possible wi-fi solutions before we finally found the right one, and my presentation was underway.

Now, imagine a school teacher in a classroom filled with restless youngsters. The teacher has spent her weekend creating an online prezi presentation. Come Monday morning she is trying to get the wi-fi connection up and running in her school and it just isn't working. There are no technical assistants available to help her--not one, let alone eight! At some point the teacher has to make a decision to admit defeat and to turn back to her good old trustworthy friend, the textbook, accompanied by a homespun lesson plan that may lack technological flare but at least is accessible and ensures that the students can be guided to master the given curriculum content at hand.

Sound familiar? You'd have to be a Rip Van Winkle of educational change not to have observed that new technologies are sweeping into our schools. A triple whammy of consumer demand, corporate marketing, and policy proliferation are changing the nature of learning in schools. With the right blend of strong support and unwavering encouragement, teachers can use these new technologies to initiate conversations with students in other schools half-way around the world, to engage in scientific experiments with field stations in remote rural communities, and to model molecular compounds that are much easier to understand when they can rotate on a screen than when they are displayed on a static textbook page.

At the same time, the hyperventilating hyperbole of technophiles has left many educators cold, and not just because they are opposed to change. Many school districts, states, and even whole nations have found that their investments in technology have produced disappointing results in terms of student achievement. The infusion of technology only exposes how little control educators have over teaching and learning that should lie at the center of our profession.

What might be the answer to these dilemmas? In The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence (Corwin, 2012), Andy Hargreaves and I try to find a commonsensical middle way between technophiles and those that oppose them. We call this "mindful teaching with technology," aspiring to initiate conversations within and across the education profession that will enable us to explore when and how we should use new technologies and when we should avoid them altogether. Beyond endorsing technology, questioning it, or sheltering students from it, we can see before us a rich and abundant new terra incognita for educational change. But this will only hold true if we make sure that our conversations aren't driven and controlled by the corporate interests that stand to make profit from pushing new technologies. It can't be driven by policy makers, students or parents either, although they have important roles to play in democratic deliberation. Here is a key terrain for conversation and debate within the profession, informed by our classroom observations and research, and animated by real moral purpose.

And now, back to my prezi presentation in Singapore. When I finally did get my prezi up and running, I showed a brief clip, "disconnect to reconnect", a plea to not become so immersed in our technologies that we miss out on the most rewarding moments of companionship with family and friends. The audience was engrossed in the film until an unexpected pop-up advertisement appeared marketing sexual services. The audience exploded with laughter, and I had to grapple with yet another paradox: even in using new technologies to critique new technologies the medium has its own way of taking control of the conversation!

To this day I still am wondering: Is mindful teaching with new technology even possible? If so, how would we recognize it? Your ideas are welcome!


Dennis Shirley is a professor of education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. Follow him on @dennisshirley and @JournalEdChange.
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