Expensive, Flashing Pacifiers

Houston, we have a problem.  For those with a Biblical worldview, it’s unsettling to see how content American Christian parents and teachers are to allow technology and media to do their job for them.  The problem, of couse, is that being a parent or teacher isn’t what technology was created to do.  Certainly it aids us in these responsibilities, but these responsibilities were granted to us by a gracious God and remain our own despite the many tools we have in our hands.  And yet the cultural trend among Christians is a continual abdication of those responsibilities and careful placement of them on the shoulders of the latest, greatest gadget we have on our laps or in our pockets.

When you think about the scope and sequence of history, television hasn’t been around that long.  Large scale television sales only began in the early to mid 1950’s.  With how fundamental it has become in our lives, it’s strange to think that there are people alive today who didn’t have this technology when they were growing up.  It’s a similar story with computers.  The personal computer wasn’t available in homes until the 1980’s and even then, they weren’t functional for recreation.  Laptops, like the one on which I type this blog post, didn’t show up until the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  When having a conversation about the impact of these technologies on our children and their education, we must realize that what we know is very limited when compared with other aspects of our daily life because, quite simply, they haven’t been around long enough for us to know.  Not only that, but they haven’t been around long enough in the same form for us to know their impact.  Certainly we can know, in part, the impact that Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers had on children who watched them on television in the 1980’s, but we can’t yet know of the impact newer shows (Yo Gabba Gabba, Dora! The Explorer!, etc) will have on children who use a different medium to watch them (3D TVs, laptops, Smart Phones).  The rapidity of change alone should modify the conversation.

While I think there are great benefits to introducing media to children during developmental stages, I am definitely a skeptic when it comes to the overall changes they really make.  I was only one generation removed from the introduction of the television.  I was one of the first groups of kids that grew up watching PBS programs specifically designed for children.  As I grew up in the public school system, we had a computer rotation in elementary school every week in conjunction with gym and music.  I remember going through typing lessons.  As I look back at all those experiences as a current teacher and soon to be parent, while those exposures certainly taught me something, I don’t know that any of them were a “game changer.”  Technology or mass media exposure wasn’t the silver bullet that solved developmental or educational problems.  Radio, television, and filmstrips were all supposed to dramatically change education in years prior.  And while each did, in it’s own respect, these advances have had little effect on the central practices of learning that were established hundreds and thousands of years ago.  This isn’t to say that mass media doesn’t have a role in the modern day development and education of children.  What I’m arguing against is the overemphasis on these technologies when the reality is that we don’t yet know what the overall impact is going to be one hundred years from now.  But, oh how content we are, even as Christians, to put all of our eggs in one basket and it’s not the basket of faithful parental obedience to a holy God that has been proven through the ages.

However, I do believe that mass media is useful for educational purposes when wielded correctly.  Majority of parents and families may be missing this point.  It’s certainly a running joke that while mom is doing laundry or making dinner, Barney or Dora or Elmo is the “baby sitter.”  Parents are using these technologies not to teach or interact with their children more, but as a tool to shut them up when they are crying or the parent has something to do.  These new technologies are flashier, more expensive pacifiers under the guise of “educational television.”  I am certainly not against using technology or mass media to educate our children, but I don’t believe they will be any more willing to share, be obedient, or be nice to their younger sibling if Mike the Knight, Caillou, or Little Bear tell them to.  And this all has seeped over into our schools, both public and private, as well.

Majority of schools are missing the point when it comes to inserting technology into the classroom.  Most people realize that if schools cannot change fast enough to keep pace with advances in learning technologies, learning will leave schooling behind.  In an effort to change this, schools are training teachers to understand and use new technology in the classroom, but only as a ornament to add to the dying tree of an old system in the hopes that it will attract the attention of their students.  I am certainly not against using technology in the classroom or against the efforts schools are making in trying to do so, but to be most successful at using technology in their classrooms, teachers do not need to learn to use it themselves.  Teachers need to know how technology can and should be used by students to enhance their own learning.  Students won’t want to read the book you assign them on a Kindle or iPad any more than they would want to read a paperback version.  I may have been trained in “Kindle and iPad Class” to add books to the library, highlight important sections, and define words with one click, but if I haven’t changed the way I relate the information to my students or how they relate it to their own lives, all the technology in the world won’t give me the results I desire.  The current school system does not help students develop intrinsic motivation to learn even if technology is used to make that current system flashier.

I don’t have a complete solution to the problem, but I think I have a few starting points that some Christian parents and schools could adopt when it comes to rearing and educating children with regards to technology in our modern context.

1. The first few general assumptions that children have about media and technology should be educational.  While their education should be entertaining, with positive and active mediation from their parents, children should see mass media as a tool for education and learning.  All too often I see a toddler or even older child being fussy or disobedient and a parent will hand them a phone to play Angry Birds or watch Youtube videos.

2. A lot of this stems from our use of technology as parents.  We don’t primarily use everyday technologies for educational purposes.  We use them for entertainment and so, despite the best efforts of Word World, The Little Einsteins, and Team Umizoomi, children are still being reinforced to use the television, computer, laptop, tablet, and smart phone for recreational rather than educational purposes.  I don’t disagree with using technology for recreational purposes, but I believe that we should primarily be teaching our children how to use them for educational purposes first.  Once they are older and understand the value of the tool, then we can begin to expose them to other aspects of the tool beyond education.  But the reality is, it starts with us as parents.  If we don’t want our children to solely use television for recreation, we need to model that behavior for them and be willing to correct them.

3. The emphasis we put on technology and media is either far to0 extreme or very misguided.  If we look back over the past 150 years at some of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and similar brilliant minds, majority of them have come before the advent of television and the reliance on mass media for the education of children.  If our reliance on technology for the education of our children is supposed to dramatically increase learning, retention, and things like this, why haven’t we seen brilliant thinkers like C.S. Lewis (b. 1898), Albert Einstein (b. 1879), Stephen Hawking (b. 1942), or Alexander Flemming (b. 1881)?  If exceptional minds like these occurred before our reliance on mass media for education, then surely we should expect even more brilliant minds to come as a result.  But I don’t see anyone of their caliber taking the stage.  To this day when you ask someone who the smartest person in the world is/was, Einstein’s name is almost always mentioned.

Could it possibly be that we have too strong of a reliance on television for education and we neglect doing it ourselves and prefer to simply trust the technology?  Could it possibly be that we would rather use these advanced pieces of equipment for recreation than education and we would rather teach our children to do the same?

At the end of the day, I think more parents and teachers need to realize that God’s commands to us are not to be burdensome or laborious, but to give and preserve life.  Put in the proper place, mass media and technology could have a profound impact on learning and education.  I’m confident that one day everyone will be awoken to the wisdom of God found in his Law.  However, with the way we have ignored it and treated technology with more respect than we do other people, we haven’t seen any overwhelmingly positive impact on learning, education, or cultural reform over the last 70 years and if we continue down this broad, paved, easy highway, I am skeptical about the next 70.

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