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Facebook, GPS and Laptops: Some Questions

April 6, 2016

Phase 1 of The Pillar: Foundations (Issues 1-11) explored the key convictions and commitments undergirding the Millis Institute.  Phase 2: Explorations (Issues 12-25) examined the educational terrain we cover, from grammar and logic, to geometry and music, to literature and theology.  With Issue 26, we're excited to launch Phase 3: Formation, addressing how we actively and intentionally seek to form students.  Phase 3 will be sent out every three weeks. 

Look around a Millis Institute classroom and you’ll notice what may be a surprising absence: laptops.  Why do we encourage our students to bring pen, paper and books to class rather than iPads and laptops?
Simply put, technology isn’t neutral; it shapes the way we think and learn.  If the goal of education is formation (and not just information), we need to acknowledge the way that computers and digital screens form us.


Nicholas Carr presses this point in his recent book The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us, which contains a fascinating chapter on GPS devices.  There Carr quotes an executive in Google’s mapping division: “[Thanks to] Google Maps … No human ever has to feel lost again.”


While that certainly sounds appealing, Carr notes that, “If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are.”  By over-relying on GPS systems to navigate, we can lose the skill—and satisfaction—of apprehending the world around us and understanding how to locate ourselves within it. 
But the ability to read a map or get around on our own isn’t Carr’s only concern.  He points to recent scientific research that suggests that the area of our brains that accounts for our sense of space and location (the hippocampus) also plays a central role in memory formation.  This raises the possibility that long-term reliance on GPS devices may contribute not only to a weakening in spatial awareness but also to memory loss. 
We need to examine similar kinds of effects flowing from other forms of automation, including the (over-) use of computers in classrooms.  While these devices offer certain advantages and efficiencies, what unintended consequences might they have on certain skills and ways of thinking?  
Do computers strengthen or weaken students’ awareness and attentiveness?  Do automated spell-checkers increase or decrease attention to detail?  Do iPads shape critical thinking ability as much as the expectation (or even demand) that lessons be eye-catching and entertaining ... or that lessons take the form of lectures vs discussions?
Raising such questions doesn’t equate to a Luddite rejection of technology.  But we do need to ask them, lest when it comes to education we blindly assume that faster, easier, and more efficient necessarily means better.


The Australian recently reported that the head of Sydney Grammar School has banned laptops from the classroom because they tend to distract from discussion and debate. “One of the most powerful tools in education is conversation,’’ he said. “[Laptop use is] making it difficult for children to learn how to disagree, how not to toe the party line, because they can’t question things--the possibility of questioning things has been taken away from them.’’


Like Sydney Grammar, the Millis Institute will continue to engage certain technologies, but we will seek to have them become the servants rather than the masters of education.  We discourage laptops in class, but we are launching a new Facebook page.  We send out The Pillar via e-mail, but we encourage our students to build up a library of real books.  And we will continue to use GPS devices, although I also provide students with written directions to our Millis Institute dinners (see below)…in hopes that they not only avoid getting lost, but also cultivate a sense of place and exercise their hippocampus!


Celebrating Easter

On Thursday 24 March, Maundy Thursday, Millis Institute staff and students celebrated with a special dinner.  Amidst good food and fellowship on a beautiful evening, we discussed the Passover meal that Jesus celebrated with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.  Speaking personally, this was a wonderful way to start the special holiday weekend of remembering and celebrating Christ's passion and resurrection!     




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