Technology – friend or foe in our children’s world?

John Cowan spends an hour with Juliet Small

Modern life has a new ‘normal’ – we all reach for our devices, all the time. I will grab my phone to check the weather, then to check whether a restaurant is open and then the best way to get there and so on. Technology has become an integral part of our daily lives and this is certainly true for our children too. Saying ‘no’ to this change is not an option anymore. Rather, we need to ask how we, as parents and teachers, can support our children in this new world.

Embracing technology is challenging for all of us because the landscape is constantly shifting. This is as true for social media platforms as it is for education. When I was at school, the emphasis was on rote learning – I had to learn everything off-by-heart. It was also teacher-led learning – the teacher would say, “This is what you are going to learn about”, and he or she would be considered the expert, the fount of all knowledge. But now, because of technology and the accessibility of information, instead of ‘rote learning’, we now have ‘inquiry learning’. The great thing about inquiry learning is that it can be so much more individualised – children can pursue their own questions, along their own pathways.

When inquiry learning was introduced, there was apprehension among some educators that academic results would drop. But in fact, results have improved. Everyone shifted up – the students who were not excelling with traditional pen-and-paper skills had new ways to learn and express themselves, and the top students started performing even better. Of course, children still need to learn their times tables, to read ably and to read for meaning, and there is still a huge emphasis on written and oral communication in the classroom. The basic knowledge is still being taught – the difference is in how we teach it. If we taught the way we were taught, and taught the things we used to teach, we would not be doing our children a favour. They need to learn how to navigate life in the modern world.

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As teachers, this means we need to stay ahead of the game. It is not unusual for a student to know a lot more about a specific aspect of technology than us, and a huge percentage of our time is now spent learning about technology, both formally and through informal dabbling, feeling our way into this  space.

While this comes with its challenges, personally, I am excited about what technology is doing for our children. Initially schools reacted against technology – banning gadgets and blocking websites – but we now think it is wiser to help kids to cope and thrive in this digital world. In many schools, educators talk to  kids about being ‘creators’ with technology, not just consumers. In their presentations they can add sound, video and animation. They can capture themselves talking, make pictures, create mind maps, and they have so many choices when it comes to how they present their work. I saw an art project recently where the students – primary school children – had enhanced their art with technology to make the work speak, as if the artist was talking to the viewer. I was inspired.

Children can also use technology to collaborate as pairs and groups on projects, using things like Google Docs and One Note. Instead of seeing devices as isolating our kids, we can help them discover technology’s capacity to bring people together – even from a distance.

Alongside the new opportunities provided by technology are also new responsibilities. As teachers, we need to equip children with the skills to scan and sift through all the information at their fingertips. As we all know, information is incredibly easy to obtain online, but the internet is full of rubbish too. Children might say, “I can Google that topic!” but we need to train them to think about their sources, and help them to develop discernment so they can determine what is true and reliable. So we teach critical thinking and logic as research skills, even to young children. They are taught to ask, “Is this a good source?” “Are these facts reliable?” “How do we know?” Early on, they learn to look for research-based information rather than just opinions and internet hearsay – to always use critical thinking, plus check, check, check. This is something parents can reinforce at home too.

My personal opinion is that it has never been more important to teach our kids about values and ethics than it is now. Not only is there unhelpful and inappropriate information out there on the web, there are also inappropriate people, and we need to ensure our kids’ safety. It is great when the approach in a student’s home harmonises with a school’s standards. The Netsafe website is a fantastic resource for us and a great guide for parents as well. Parents can also assist in ensuring children have a healthy balance in their lives – ensuring screen-time is balanced with lots of physical activity and running around outside.  I do know how important example is around our own technology use and the balance in our lifestyle. If the rule for the children is, “No gadgets at the table”, then parents should model that themselves.

One thing that has worked very well at school – and probably would at home as well – is looking at our general ‘best practice’ statements and adding ‘online’ to them. For example, “We seek to be positive” – online, “We encourage courtesy and respect” – online, and so on.

At the end of the day, we are equipping our young people with the skills and knowledge they need for all of life – online and offline.

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About Author

Juliet Small

Juliet is the Principal of Saint Kentigern Girls’ School in Auckland. She has taught across all age groups from new entrants to intermediate level at schools in London, Hamilton, Invercargill and Auckland. She has 14 years of experience as a principal in Auckland primary schools and holds a Bachelor of Education, Diploma in Teaching and Post-Graduate Diploma in Counselling Theory. Fun fact - Juliet is also an accomplished violinist, playing with the Auckland Symphony Orchestra for eight years.

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