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Teaching Critical Technology Thinking

 

As the end-of-school bell rings, middle schoolers immediately reach into sweatshirt pockets and colorful backpacks to reunite with their smartphones. Suddenly, the frenzy of voices is joined by the ding of new messages. Amidst the clanging lockers, students pose for photos with friends and giggle at the latest Snapchat filters. Even goodbye waves are accompanied with reminders to send messages or add each other to the latest group chat. 

 

In their personal lives and in schools, most students eagerly embrace innovative technology and quickly gain tech fluency especially when it comes to smartphones. While proficient technology use is important, it’s not enough to prepare students to make thoughtful decisions. As the world’s future decision makers, our students must wrestle with the costs, benefits, promises, and perils of technology. National Geographic reporter Robert Draper points out that technology often offers the best and worst at the exact same time. In other words, most new tech isn’t all good or all bad.  New infrared cameras can help save endangered pandas, for example, but they can also subject us to Orwellian surveillance.

 

In order for students to critically evaluate the technology they use, they need more than how-to classes. Proficient smartphone use doesn’t mean you can reasonably consider how it’s impacting your life or when you should put your phone away to focus on other things. Learning to code is great but it doesn’t prepare you to consider the way algorithms shape the social media world. Instead of just teaching students how to use technology, let’s also teach them how to think about it.

 

Below, I offer a few suggestions for where to start if you want to integrate critical technology thinking into your classroom.

 

Take a Reasoned View

 

Before you jump into tech conversations with your students, take a moment to examine your own views. Are you preoccupied with a new app’s possibility for bullying? Are you enamored by the ways a new device will make your life better?

 

Dana Boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, points out that teachers, along with most adults, are typically divided into two tech-thinking camps: techno-utopians embrace technology as the solution to massive world problems while cyber-dystopians panic over the dire possibilities of each new change. Both schools of thought have merit, but neither is enough to teach our students how to thoughtfully analyze technological possibilities. When students think about miniscule new cameras, for example, they must use both views: On one hand, the smaller cameras may allow citizens to expose harsh government actions but they may also broadcast personal conversations without consent. Instead of falling into an extreme view, adopt a reasoned approach that considers benefits as well as costs. 

 

Teaching Tech Through Literacy

 

Teaching how to think about technology doesn’t mean that you just load up on expensive computers or equipment. When we consider critical digital consumption as more than a how-to guide, we can build the conversations into lessons in many subjects.

 

During a recent fellowship at Tulsa Institute For Teachers with Dr. Denise Dutton, I researched ways to teach critical technology skills without being tied to a specific piece of technology. Literature, for example, offers plenty of opportunities. Consider Jean Craighead George’s 1959 novel “My Side of the Mountain,” a text I used in my own 5th grade classroom. In the fictional, pre-internet world, protagonist Sam Gribley runs away from home and makes a life in the woody Catskill Mountains. The book offers a perfect backdrop to discuss how tech has changed the coming-of-age experience. How would Sam’s experience be different if he could just use GPS to find his destination? Would he have avoided mistakes and their accompanying discoveries if he could watch a Youtube tutorial for how to make a fire?

 

A novel written before a new technology comes into vogue isn’t out-of-date; it’s an opportunity to discuss how technology changes the way we live and interact. Mine your bookshelves and library turntables for texts that work for your class.

 

 

Read Up

 

While you probably can’t cover every area of technological influence, there are plenty of smart books about the way technology is changing our students’ lives. If you’re concerned about the way that devices impact student interaction, check out MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s work. Her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age  focuses on how technology impacts student talk. Alone Together, also by Turkle, is a research-heavy take on how technology impacts relationships and peer connections. Another text to check out is Alan Lightman’s recently released book In Praise of Wasting Time in which he analyzes the cumulative impact of the constant connectivity made possible by smartphones, laptops, and smartwatches. A quick trip to your library or local bookstore will yield additional options.

 

No matter what subject you teach, consider integrating critical technology thinking. You don’t have to be a master coder, viral Youtuber, or cutting-edge social media user to guide students towards thoughtful digital consumption. Instead, think about how to leverage books or lessons that you already have. Our students need more than new gadgets to navigate the ever-evolving world of technology.

 

Written by Marissa King

Marissa teaches 5th grade at Tulsa Public Schools where she spills tea and misuses the coolest slang. She is also a Yale National Fellow.