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Posted at 3:23 PM ET, 11/ 7/2010

Why technology scares (some of) us -- and what to do about it

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Bill Williams, who has taught in public and private schools for more than 40 years. He leads workshops and writes a blog on creativity in schools and in the workplace. He is a founder of Andy’s Summer Playhouse, a children’s theater in New Hampshire.

By Bill Williams
I just went to a workshop where the discussion turned to the ever-increasing presence of technology in how we learn. Conversation moved quickly from Facebook to Twitter to SCVNGR to foursquare, then extrapolated into the future. Finally feeling overwhelmed, one of the participants said, “It’s scary.” Curious, I asked why she was afraid (not that she shouldn’t be). Her response had to do with how much there was to learn. There was a sense of apprehension that she might not be able to do it.

We live in a rapidly changing world, which requires us to learn and adapt on an ongoing basis. Having been nudged, dragged, prompted and coached on my own path from Luddite to a tech competent and tech curious Baby Boomer, I’ve spent some time thinking about what it is that scares us and inhibits us about mastering the various new technologies we encounter.

I have a hunch that we drag old school wounds and scars along with us in ways that unnecessarily complicate our current learning, or worse, block us from even trying to learn. Our attitude toward learning is as outdated as the classrooms we were taught in and the information we learned.

Kirsten Olson discusses this problem in her book, Wounded by School – Recapturing the Joy In learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture.

Even in something as mundane as learning how to program a DVD, we get anxious, out of sorts, and frustrated. Then ask our kids to show us how to do it. We adults assume we’ve got to learn it right away, worry about looking bad while we do it, and agonize as if we were going to fail some imaginary test on DVD recording.

We act as if we’re going to get graded, sorted, judged and valued by how we learn, as if a failure in DVD manipulation might be recorded on our permanent transcript.

My 21-year-old son and I recently got new cell phones together. They are exactly the same model. I went immediately to the instruction manual to figure out how to operate my phone. My son flipped his phone open and started playing around with it. That’s been his way of learning about such things ever since he was a little boy messing around with computers and playing computer games. Essentially it’s a push-all-the-buttons and see-what-happens style of learning.
It's playing with the device, "play" being a key word.

My son and I continue to compare notes on how to operate our new phones. There remains something to be said for consulting the directions. There is plenty to be said for exploring confidently, not being afraid to make mistakes, adopting a “game mentality” of incremental mastery that is dependent on no one’s timetable but one’s own. And there's plenty to be said for collaborating, so that we can learn from each other.

My son and I will never have a cell phone final exam. We’ll never sit in a room with a proctor looming to make sure our work is our own. But too often, I think, we older learners handle the future by going backwards. We consign ourselves to the anxiety of some exam room from the past whenever we’re confronted with something new to learn, or at least something we feel we have to learn. It's like getting an “assignment,” to dredge up another old school term. We create a present fiction based on past wounds in order to cope with the future.

For older learners our fear of failure is sometimes so acute, we don’t allow ourselves to fail during any step of the process. At least when it comes to technology, younger learners seem to have an ease about failing early and often on their path to mastery. It would probably serve us older folks well to remember the following:

We don’t have to learn it all at once.

We can learn it at our own pace. It’s not a race.

We can learn something together with other people.

We can make as many mistakes as we need to until we master what we want to know.

Maybe we older folks could even relax enough not to force some of our old school values on today’s children. Do we really need to use school to test and to grade and to sort and to rank quite so much? Is learning a race? How will our children ever win a race to the top if they learn to fear getting started?


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 7, 2010; 3:23 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Technology  | Tags:  baby boomers, facebook, foursquare, technology, twitter  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Must we have the digital vs. print battle?
Next: A public school teacher’s distress


The writer uses an old/young analogy here when adventurous/cautious or tech/non-tech inclined or stubborn/flexible or interested/uninterested or motivated/unmotivated analogies might serve just as well, depending on the tech application at hand.

People are different, but we all need to keep up with new things at some level and find our own reasons and methods for doing it - or not.

Posted by: efavorite | November 8, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Williams:
Your blog is very helpful, and I'm happy to have found it.
I have one criticism; when you write,"We create a present fiction based on past wounds in order to cope with the future." you are wrong. Present fictions do not help us cope, they help us think, erroniously, that we are capable of avoiding the future. The only way to avoid the future is to die, and I can't reccomend that solution.

Posted by: seanconnor1 | November 8, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Enjoyed the article. The author encourages our curiousity to embrace new ideas while reminding us of the need for patience and understanding for ourselves as well as others.

Posted by: billdore | November 8, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

I think technology is can be incorporated into the classroom and can be very beneficial to students. Teachers who do not feel comfortable using such technology can always take courses on how to update their teaching styles in order to use the technology available to them. Educators need to learn to adapt to their current students and the way they learn.

Posted by: rebholzr1 | November 8, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Technology plays an extremely important part in today's school system. Educator's need to understand that students depend on computers, and other forms of technology, to learn new things. Teachers' should learn the technology their students will use in a classroom and should be able to help them when they are having problems. Technology is at the fingertips of many of today's youth and will only continue to grow.

Posted by: scstone2 | November 8, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I agree. Like it or not technology is all around us. We are teaching a generation who has grown up with technology so we need to start incorporating it into our classrooms. I am in school right now and am taking a technology class. I have stayed up many nights this semester trying to figure out how to complete assignments and wanting to throw my computer across the room. Learning something for the first time and not getting it right away, can definitely be frustrating. However, it is totally worth it. I have learned so many new ways to teach these students (who have grown up in the technology era) and are now able to get them excited about learning. Some ways that I suggest including technology in the classroom: blogs, wikis, podcasts, and WebQuests. All of these (if set up correctly) can require collaboration and higher order thinking.

Posted by: remleyd1 | November 8, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Technology is what is feeding our children. They seem to have a never-ending desire to obtain it. All teachers should be able to find some way to incorperate technology into their classroom. Fears? Teachers should'nt be affraid of being graded or judged but be affraid of the volnerablility social networking creates online. Information stays there forever and I think that is what scares most teachers away.

Posted by: kenny01h | November 8, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

This blog is very good for teachers in the classroom. Educators need to learn about technology and be able to teach with it because the students are always going to be using it. Educators can learn it at their own pace because it’s not a race... teachers can learn something together and then insert the technology into their classroom. Technology is advancing all around us and if we don't learn it, we'll be left behind.

Posted by: kcurr0408 | November 8, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

I heard an interesting comment from a student who was given an LD status and ultimately earned several graduate degrees. This student learned how she learned and used this infomation to succeed in the world. We have to shift the paradigm in education from getting grades and passing exams to discovering how we each learn best. Then the sky is the limit. Check my Education Update blog: The Future is only for Lifelong Learners:

Posted by: vickicobb | November 9, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I believe that technology should be incorporated into the classroom because these kids going thru the school system have grown up their whole lives with technology; ranging from the iPad to the Kindle, along with all the gaming systems. These children are computer savy at a very young age, and the times are changing. When I was growing up, I owned a computer since I can remember. I got bored in the classes that used the old black board and chalk. The computer and technology kept me interested throughout the younger days of my education. I believe that technology in the classroom is a great thing to incorporate, and should be incorporated as much as possible.

Posted by: smithr5 | November 9, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

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