Thoughtful Tech for Students & Teachers

I am on a serious podcast kick. My forty minute to an hour commute affords me ample time to consume almost a podcast a day. Vox editor, Ezra Klein, consistently refers to himself and his guests as “infovores” and while I wouldn’t dare put myself in a class with Ta’Nehisi Coates and Tyler Cowen, I would like to consider myself an infovore too.

Here’s what podcasts I’ve been tuning into lately:

  • S-Town – A strange saga of a small Alabama town and one of its eccentric denizens
  • The Tim Ferriss Show – Work and live smart, but don’t expect to be as successful or productive as Tim Ferriss himself
  • Recode Decode – Tech- and media-centered podcast featuring the incisive Kara Swisher
  • The Ezra Klein Show – The Vox editor interviews fantastically interesting and important thinkers and infovores (my personal favorite podcast)

Last, On Being with Krista Tippett has been a podcast and radio staple for years now. If you don’t know her soothing lilt and curious questioning, you should! Recently I listened to her discussion with Anil Dash, a serial tech entrepreneur turned thought-leader on tech ethics and purpose.

I was ignorant of Dash before listening to the podcast, and found it pleasantly surprising to come across an industry leader asking all the tough reflective questions that seem to go unaddressed each time a new iPhone iOS is released. Dash and Tippett cover the gamut too, including personal tech use and best practices, social media pros and cons, automation, self-driving cars and machine learning.

The whole conversation is worth a listen, but if you are an educator you should listen especially closely to the section where Dash describes his thoughts on how children should engage with technology. Below is a transcript of that section of their conversation:

MS. TIPPETT: So my children are, right now, 18 and 22. And even in those four years, there was such an acceleration. And it was interesting also in terms of the platforms they and their friends use completely shifted.

MR. DASH: Totally different tools. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And I’m actually — I find myself being really grateful that I’m not a parenting — we were still in that window where I could say, “No, you will not have an iPhone until you’re 14,” or something, which I just don’t think you can do anymore, right? And so they were already kind of formed before all of the technology entered their lives. And I know it’s changed so much now in the meantime, and you have a 5-year-old. I mean, I wonder how are you thinking about that question.

MR. DASH: We don’t have a very intelligent cultural conversation about how kids engage with technology at all.


MR. DASH: I think…

MS. TIPPETT: It’s like a guinea pig generation.

MR. DASH: Yeah. Well, it’s also — I also think of the concept of “screen time.” When you’re with young kids, you’ve heard this, right? “Do you limit your child’s screen time?” And it’s like, no. I engage

with what he’s specifically doing. I don’t limit his page time. I just choose whether he’s reading a book or a magazine or whether it’s something that’s like a bunch of — he’s 5 years old, so he likes poop jokes. But — how much of that and how much of, like, smart stuff? And so the idea that they’re both on pages and are therefore equivalent is absurd, and yet we talk about screen time that way. I’m like, is he playing chess on the iPad? Or is he watching funny YouTube videos of animals falling over? Which is also awesome, but different.

And so that really — that always sticks with me because I think it’s a very unsophisticated way to look at things, and then we carry that forward. And that’s when they’re very, very young, right? 2, 3, 4, 5. They first start seeing screens. And my son maybe spends 15 minutes a day on the iPad, and he loves it, and that’s all he gets. But that’s always been the rule for him, so it doesn’t matter. And I limit it mostly just because we limit everything. I mean, you just don’t let a 5-year-old do whatever they want, or you end up in hell.


MS. TIPPETT: Are you saying — so, this is a radical idea. You apply the same wisdom you apply to other things to technology?

MR. DASH: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, well that…

MR. DASH: Well, that’s the thing. It’s part of your life. I think that was the thing. I saw so many parents — and this is not judgment. I don’t judge other parents. Other parents are fine.

MS. TIPPETT: No, we’re all on this frontier, and we’re learning a language.

MR. DASH: But as we’re figuring it out, they treat it as if there is life — they say this — like, “This is real life, and then there’s computer world.” And I’m like, “That’s not the thing. That’s not how their lives are gonna be.” And I think I had an unusual perspective, in that I did start using computers before I was in kindergarten, just as my son has.

And he has way better programing tools. I was like, “Gosh, if I had these things.” He’s got — because we had to do these primitive blocky green graphics on the screen when I was a kid, and he’s got this Star Wars robot that he can go on the iPad and give it programming instructions, and it follows his directions to roll around the living room. And I’m like, “That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” Like, you wait until they go to bed so you can play with it.


MR. DASH: And that’s — no, he’s going to listen to this I bet. So — I don’t do that. I don’t do that.


MR. DASH: But the thing that I think about is that that’s part of his life. It’s not over there. It’s not an artifice. It’s not the virtual world. It’s just life. And I think about that with so many experiences where, when we were fighting for validating social media and social networking, saying these would be important, these would be part of our lives and there’s a reason to include it, it was about this idea that sharing makes something better.

I fully reject the argument — people say this all the time. You know, “I saw this young person in a restaurant on their own, on their phone, not interacting with anyone.” What do you think they were doing? They were talking to people.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MR. DASH: They were interacting with lots of humans all at once. And it makes me furious because I’m saying they’re being deeply social. It’s not in the mode that you know, but it’s actually better than when they were sitting alone at the diner with a book. And I think there’s been this misunderstanding and this misapprehension about what the tech is doing. It is connecting us to people.

And there’s so much attention paid — and with good reason — to the bullying and the other things, the cyber bullying and all those. A general rule of thumb is anything that begins with “cyber” is a lie. Like, if you say “cyber bullying” or “cyber crime,” it was probably — that’s one of those rare areas where they — it’s a behavior that existed before, and the “cyber” is not the issue. So children being unkind to each other…

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So nothing happens online that doesn’t happen offline.

MR. DASH: Right. And so being able to integrate it — now it can be worse because of the network effects. It can be amplified by the immediacy and the fact that it happens in your home. But the principles can carry across. And it has to be an integrated conversation, and that’s the key. It’s like, how much time do you limit your child talking to their friends? I don’t care if it’s on the phone, on the computer on messaging, in real life, in person, out in public, whatever it is. If you have a set of rules, they apply across these things. But that demands a literacy and a fluency that I think takes a serious investment in time and understanding your child’s context. And that’s the hard part.

A few key takeaways:
  • Screen time versus quality time on technology is the tech equivalent of blended learning versus traditional learning. We get tripped up thinking too much about the amount of screen time or the specific innovative model of learning, and forget that quality is key no matter what we’re talking about. I have always thought that I would limit the screen time of my own children, and I probably still will, but now I’ll remind myself that the important thing is the quality of time spent on a screen or in the neighborhood, and both can be positive for children.
  • “Nothing happens online that doesn’t happen offline.” However, the tech affect can amplify an experience in certain ways.
  • Mr. Dash: “But the thing that I think about is that that’s part of his life. It’s not over there. It’s not an artifice. It’s not the virtual world. It’s just life. And I think about that with so many experiences where, when we were fighting for validating social media and social networking, saying these would be important, these would be part of our lives and there’s a reason to include it, it was about this idea that sharing makes something better.

    I fully reject the argument — people say this all the time. You know, “I saw this young person in a restaurant on their own, on their phone, not interacting with anyone.” What do you think they were doing? They were talking to people.”

    This whole section gives me pause, because I’m not a digital native, nor do I desire to be. I want to leverage technology to serve me as a human, not the other way around, and maybe, just maybe, help create a technology that serves HUMAN learning, not machine learning. This leads me to bifurcate my life between the virtual, online world and the “real world”. While I realize that these two worlds are already indistinguishable in many respects, and I recognize that Dash’s son’s generation, the generation of my 2nd grade students, are going to see tech as a fully integrated part of life, I’m not yet comfortable with that. And I don’t know what this means for me as a teacher and ed tech user.

    Please let me know your thoughts on this tech educator dilemma if you can relate. And, if you know of any great and compelling education podcasts out there, please do share!

We feel, therefore we learn

This article originally appeared in the July issue of BiBimBap magazine, an online journal for EFL teachers in Jeollanamdo, South Korea. You can view the ISSUU version here.

The Emerging Science of Culture and Emotions in the Classroom

At our orientation in Gwangju, all of us JLP NET’s were introduced to the cultural framework of Geert Hofstede who, according to JLP coordinator Chris Devison, characterized Korea as “collectivist, slightly feminine, having large power distance and a strong avoidance of uncertainty”. Among the many implications that this unique Korean cultural makeup has in our English classrooms, Chris pointed out that, “What your students have learned when learning Korean is part of their identity and eliminating it completely may give the impression of threatening their identity.” Another important implication is that, “Korean students also have a strong avoidance of uncertainty and ambiguity. This causes them to seem quiet and shy as they prefer not to ask about the unknown and even try to avoid it if possible.” At one point or another, we have all found ourselves frustrated with the variety of Korean cultural elements at play in our classrooms.

Indeed, as Western Waygooks we all experience the cultural effects on education in Korea more acutely than the natives. We are able to compare and contrast against what we know of and experienced in our schools back home, as students and/or teachers. In addition to what we intuit about the cultural effect on education systems and learning styles, there is an emerging body of research that confirms and potentially clarifies that effect.

At the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is in the midst of a five year study of Latino, East Asian and bi-cultural students to see how culture affects the social development of the adolescent brain. Half way through the research period, Immordino-Yang claims there are already two big takeaways about learning; first, Immordino-Yang says, “Traditional educational approaches think about emotion the way Descartes did; emotion is interfering with your ability to do well in school, to think rationally. Neuroscience is showing us that that is absolutely not the case—when you take emotion out of thought you have no basis for thought anymore. So we’re trying to understand how socially constructed emotion shapes learning, academic development and identity.”

Second, Immordino-Yang says “There were no differences at all in how much these young adults’ brains were activating when they responded to our emotional stories—and no differences in the strengths of emotions that participants in the different cultural groups reported…But there was a strong cultural difference in how patterns of neural activity corresponded in real-time with participants’ experience—in how people became aware of their emotion.”

In other words, emotions play a big role in how we all learn, regardless of cultural or linguistic backgrounds, and yet those backgrounds do have a differing effect on our awareness and outward expression of those same emotions we all feel.

Based on my background teaching in Latin America, Korea and the U.S., these preliminary results of Immordino-Yang’s research rung true, and so I became interested in hearing how or if this study resonated with some of my fellow English teachers here in Yeosu. So I asked them. What follows is an abbreviated version of some of the highlights of that discussion.

How do you say ‘emotions’ in Korean?

Many of the teachers I interviewed expressed bewilderment at the fact that emotions were once thought to have no role in learning. Most seemed to believe that across cultures emotions play a significant role in learning, but that student emotions in a Korean classroom differ significantly from those in Western classrooms. For example, Alison Pirtle (Nam Elementary), said, “I find that it is more difficult here to identify the students who are experiencing big, emotional issues in Korea, than it is in the U.S. My lack of understanding the Korean language probably has a lot to do with that, but I also think it’s their lack of outward emotions as well. Back in the States, it’s often easy to identify students who are having emotional issues due to personal problems. Here, though, it seems that students internalize their problems so it’s harder to identify a student who really needs emotional support.”

The emerging results of the Immordino-Yang study confirm this anecdotal observation about East Asian students. In a cultural identity test students are asked to monitor their heart rate after performing a simple exercise. “What we find is that among the East-Asian American kids, it’s the kids who are not particularly sensitive to their heartbeats who are saying they strongly hold Asian values, whereas among the Latino kids, it’s those who have a better ability to feel their heartbeats who are saying they strongly hold Latino cultural values,” says Immordino-Yang. In other words, a person’s cultural identity may affect their sensitivity to or awareness of their own physical and emotional state.

One teacher went a step further regarding emotions in our English classrooms and brought it back to us as Western educators and cultural ambassadors in Korea. Melody Peters (Booyeong Elementary) said, “The biggest thing in any classroom in Korea is that to the students we don’t just teach English, we ARE English. We can have the best resources, technology, and curriculum, but if we don’t show up emotionally, if we don’t see ourselves as the biggest asset in their learning, then we offer little chance of the students to emotionally connect with the language.”

The Cultural Elephant in the Room

In the end, Immordino-Yang puts her study’s implications for learning fairly succinctly, “We’re learning that what’s happening on the outside—the same story, the same lesson—can be interpreted differently, experienced differently, by different learners. So we really need to start to unpack the roles of school culture and individual variability when we think about how children learn. We need to understand that the way kids feel matters.”

Not surprisingly, this is where my conversations with my fellow NET’s on this subject got a bit more critical of Korean and Confucian culture. Issues like the singular adolescent pressure of Suneung (수능) were mentioned, large class sizes, the lack of differentiation in instruction and too much rigidity in the curriculum. While the most watched TED Talk of all time is Sir Ken Robinson’s on creativity and schools, John Palmsano (Shinwol Elementary) wrote of Korea, “Creativity isn’t reinforced as much as it is back home. Asking them {students} to be creative with or modify their use of our language is something out of reach of all but the most advanced elementary speakers.”

Lastly, the Confucian undercurrents in modern Korean society are significant. Its emphasis on family and social harmony are evidenced positively here by the Han River Miracle and the high level of personal safety we all feel walking down the street. “It ensures that Korea is a strong society and community by ensuring everyone’s survival and collective success as a people. The teamwork of Korea astounds me as an American,” writes Ryan Hedger (Yeosu Information Science High School). The downsides, as we all know, are rigid social hierarchy, lack of individual identity and one-size-fits all solutions to all sorts of problems ranging from safety to English language acquisition.

In spite of the significant strengths of Korean culture, the questions that the Immordino-Yang study presents for Korean society and education remain. Is that initial progress and success brought about by Korean culture and the education system now being impeded by those same forces? Is it necessary to improve the quality and style of education in Korea in order to leverage student emotion? How can the strong and proud collectivist culture of Korea, which has assured their sovereignty and exported wonders across the globe, accommodate the unique learning needs of individual students in the education system? Should Korea even care about a Western academic study on culture and learning?

My answer to those questions is YES, YES, IDK and definitely! But, of course, I’m the one working in a foreign culture here.

GOOD Magazine on Immordino-Yang –

USC Rossier School of Education article –