“Fitting in” Childhood: Technology’s Place in Schools

This piece was originally posted at Cyborgology on 10.30.11:

One of the things I find most striking about discussion around technology’s “place” in schools is that adults treat technology as if it is a hot-potato bomb tossed around among young people.  In some senses, I think it is a bit of a ticking bomb: when used in schools, new technologies show that society’s norms about their “appropriate” use are still being formalized. Moreover, when new technologies are used in the classroom, they reveal how both teacher authority and the construction of childhood are themselves unstable – schools are charged not only with the role of enforcing appropriate use of technologies, but they must also maintain that they offer an ideal learning environment for children. In classical sociologist Max Weber’s terms, schools’ current use of technology reveal cracks in teacher legitimacy, fueling a panic whereby parents and teachers suggest these technologically-infused settings are contrary to the needs of young people.

In a recent series of op-eds in the New York TimesGreg Simon argues that a Silicon Valley Waldorf School, one of a number of esteemed and very expensive K-12 schools here in the U.S., is a model for education because it privileges creativity and imagination over the infusion of technology in classroom instruction.  For Simon, technology and childhood are dichotomous entities: technology serves only to debase kids’ need for free-spirited play. Moreover, because computer images, games, and ubiquitous technology dominate in the adult world, they serve as distractions to children and cannot “fit” in schools.

I think Simon is actually on to something. Teachers are struggling to integrate technology in the classroom, but we would be at a critical loss to ignore the real opportunity provided by the current disjuncture between use of technology and existing norms in schools. Existing school practices, when interfaced with the many new media technologies, reveal just how unstable the construction of childhood is as well as the processes through we currently legitimate the strict authority of adults and teachers over young people.  When technology fails during classroom instruction and the teacher has literally no idea what to do in front of a room full of students, teachers panic. The kids see that the teacher doesn’t know something that they may in fact know better, and the authority of the teacher is called into question. Arguably, this threat to teacher authority is at the root of the classic panic – attributing technology to the destruction of schools and, even, of the development of children’s very imagination. The classroom is not merely a place for learning but is the site of a deeper struggle to establish the legitimacy of and to enforce the dichotomous power-relationship between student and teacher.

Panics about technology in the classroom, like Greg Simon’s and others, result from the threat that use of instructive technologies currently pose to rigid classroom practices aimed at maintaining teacher legitimacy. Yet, as a consequence, we are missing a real opportunity to integrate new technologies into the lives of young people. Although at many schools, existing practices –i.e., the rules that schools depend on to both maintain authority in teaching and to deem their classrooms appropriate for children – make the use of technology in these contexts difficult when they could be used instead to encourage critical thinking and trouble some of the very boundaries that inhibit kids’ agency and learning.  Perhaps, for once, schools should try tolerating a little trouble.

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