Because life is a series of edits

Why Johnny Can’t Write (Part 2)

In Church, Education, Humanity, Internet, Technology, Thought, Web/Tech, Westminster, Young Ones on March 14, 2010 at 8:29 am

(Continued from my previous post on the topic; sorry for the delay/random smatterings. Can't believe it's taken two weeks, but I'm guessing you found other things to read).

With regard to the problem of teaching and learning the Bible, David Nienhuis sums up the problem nicely: "Biblical literacy programs need to do more than produce informed quoters. They need to produce transformed readers."

Most Scripture memory programs focus on the imperative verses (what to do), almost completely ignoring the indicative verses (what is true). In other words, we in the church spend more time telling kids (and ourselves) what to do for God rather than what God has done for them (and us). In the evangelical church, we're all about the what and how, and hardly about the when, where, and why.

But let's not pretend that decontextualization is just a biblical literacy problem specifically; in today's postmodern world (or post-postmodern world some would say), it is a literacy problem in general. Here's where we come back to basic reading and writing
skills, and these skills' corruption by the very thing so many proclaim will help – technology.

There is, after all, a difference between learning something and learning how to search for something. Is one better than the other? That's a debated question: does a kid really need to learn when or where or why an historical event took place, or does he just need to learn how to search for it effectively with Google? How you answer this question has everything to do with your pedagogy, and while I don't think the two answers are mutually exclusive, I do think the former gets short shrift compared to the latter.

Think about this: nobody memorizes phone numbers anymore because we can just input them into our phone, press the name of the person we want to call, and dial the right number. This works great…as long as we have the phone. But what happens when we lose the phone or the phone stops working? How do we get a hold of the person we're trying to call? What do we really know? We know that we want our phone back and working again, and we realize how lost we feel without it. (Note: For the other two of you in the world who, like me, don't own a cell phone, apply the idea to losing your Web browser bookmarks…it can seem like the most helpless feeling in the world.)

The point is that we live such a wi-fi-enabled, out-sourced, off-site, backed-up life that we use our brains for little more than remembering where we store our passwords than what it is (stories, ideas, responses, reflections) they protect. Ours has evolved into such a non-oral tradition "tradition," that the thought of memorizing sonnets from a poem or narrative stories from the Bible for meaning and not information seems archaic and unnecessary. If we think we need it, we can find it; we don't need to learn it. And if we don't think we need to learn it, well, who cares?

The result of all this (or at least the result I see in the classroom) is a student who struggles to write or process ideas that take more than a paragraph to explain (see this Onion article for a humorous version of the problem) growing up in a culture that validates his multi-tasking dysfunction despite studies like this one and articles like this one that question it as a good means to deal with life. As an educator, I suppose I risk becoming suspect to students and parents (and perhaps colleagues and administrators) in calling for moderation and (at times) sobriety when it comes to drinking the technological Kool-Aid, but when I watch a program like Frontline's Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, it confirms my concerns. Again, I'm not down on technology, but idolatry is a different matter.

Maybe it's because of the subjects I teach (New Testament and Ethics) or the experience (or lack thereof) I've had in the classroom, but depending on technology instead of using technology to teach seems ridiculous for many reasons, not the least of which is this: what if the power or the Internet goes out? If I can't teach apart from my laptop with its Keynote presentations and Web-access and wikis and online forums and Skype conversations and YouTube clips and ITunes access and podcasts and Scripture software – all of which I use in the classroom – then I'm not sure I'm really much of a teacher.

I need one more post to respond to some of your questions about how we try to apply any of this here at home with our own kids. I promise I won't take another two weeks to get to it, so hang in there. In the meantime, here's a link to the blog of one of my students who has the increasingly rare gift of being a sophomore in high school and able to utilize technology while still thinking and writing meaningfully. Enjoy.

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  1. Being compared to Mr. Keating, from Dead Poets’
    Society, is quite a compliment! Obviously, the two of you teach students to think and process, not to regurgitate. Most teachers should work on this.

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