Last fall I sat at the back of a classroom, one of many visited to monitor student interns, and watched a teacher engage in a curious technological two-step while teaching her class. She would engage students for a few minutes, then give them something to discuss or write down, at which point her attention shifted to a laptop on a stand next to the whiteboard, where she was checking e-mail. A few minutes later her focus was back on the students.
We wanted to understand much more holistically how technology was changing the lived culture of Christian schools.
Her task-switching seemed adept, yet it is by now fairly well established that what we think of as multitasking is really task-switching, and it tends to degrade our attention to any one thing. Teaching seems hard enough with all our faculties engaged; what happens to our teaching when we are only partially present?
I begin with this incident because it punctures the tendency
sometimes visible in popular media to talk about digital technology as if it
were simply a matter of whether young people are using devices responsibly or
being harmed by their proliferation. The truth is that teachers, parents, and
administrators are all swimming in the same waters, and our own patterns of
technology use are just as caught up as those of our students in questions
about the promise or peril of digital devices.
When the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University secured the opportunity several years ago for a team of researchers to take a deeper empirical dive into technological changes happening in Christian schools, we were surprised by what was present and what was lacking in the research. On the one hand, we found a range of Christian books and articles offering insightful theological, philosophical, and pastoral advice about technology use. One helpful example is Derek Schuurman’s Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology, and he contributes an article on modern devices and ancient disciplines to this issue of CEJ. On the other hand, we found very little research that focused on how school cultures, shaped by parents, teachers, administrators, and students, were changing as a result of digital technology. There was a yawning gap in research about what is actually happening in Christian schools.
We established an extensive, multi-year project to carry out such research, focusing primarily on a Christian school system that was making significant use of digital technologies. We also included, to a lesser extent, a control school and college-age alumni. Across several years, we conducted thirty-six focus groups, multiple surveys of school community members, seventy-five randomized classroom observations, six teacher case studies, and analysis of over twenty-eight thousand school documents spanning more than a decade. We were not so interested in questions such as whether laptops made the math scores go up. We wanted to understand much more holistically how technology was changing the lived culture of Christian schools—their understanding and practice of mission, community, discernment, discipleship, learning, and Christian life. We wanted to know not only how students were doing but also what parents, teachers, and administrators were struggling with.
The results of this massive data collection are to be published in full in a book that will appear in May 2020, titled Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools. In this issue of CEJ we pull out specific findings, findings that touch upon whether technology use in school is overloading students with screen time (Steve McMullen’s article), how the most effective teachers approached teaching with technology (Kara Sevensma’s article), how teachers’ instructions and students’ devices interact to shape learning (my article), and how digital communication is changing teachers’ workload and parents’ sense of involvement (Marjorie Terpstra’s article). The discussion of these issues just scratches the surface of the complex changes affecting us all as we seek to work out our calling as Christian educators; yet each article suggests intentional ways that schools can respond, and in our research we did see such intentional responses making a positive difference in how students (and teachers) learned to live in a digital age.
David I. Smith is professor of education and director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also serves as coordinator of the Institute for Global Faculty Development and editor of the International Journal of Christianity and Education. His writing and talks can be accessed at www.onchristianteaching.com, and he can be followed at https://www.facebook.com/onchristianteaching