From taking attendance, to tracking student behavior, to dissecting frogs and learning geography, no element of the learning process lacks its virtual accomplice. Edutopia, a popular education web site, recently ran an article titled, “Teach with your iPhone: Apps to use in the Classroom.” The article featured eight applications performing functions that most teachers could discharge without a device. For example, one app, “Pick a Student,” generates a menu of names so that teachers can randomly call on students.
There were others, including articles titled “11 Virtual Tools for the Math Classroom” and “7 Apps for Teaching Coding Skills.”
Edutopia is just one of many such sites that offer these lists. At TeachThought.com, I read about “41 Resources, Tools, and Apps to Improve Writing Skills.” It included ten apps for drafting writing assignments and grading papers. I was interested in this until I saw “11 Essential Tools for Better Project-Based Learning,” which had me hooked until I noticed “29 Apps for Teachers: The Educator’s Essential iPad Toolkit.”
But how, I came to wonder, do those relate to “The 55 Best Free Education Apps for iPad,” also on TeachThought? Does “best” involve anything essential? Can I get by with 29, not 55? What if I read something else that puts the number at 38?
Let me acknowledge: Some of these apps are very useful, both professionally and personally. And schools must look for ways to benefit from sophisticated new learning platforms, online or otherwise. But the more we embrace an “app-for-everything” mentality, the more we marginalize the human role. It is one thing for teachers to incorporate apps as supplements, as study aids that reinforce what students learn in the classroom. It’s quite another matter to treat the teacher as the supplement, to think of the teacher as the iPhone assistant.
That subservient role, however, is where our app love is leading. It’s a trend of outsourcing, with teachers relying on a blend of technology and gadgetry to fulfill their roles. It is the school equivalent of the self-checkout line. Eventually, teachers will serve mainly as monitors, observing minds get scanned, assisting occasionally, but remaining mostly uninvolved.
This shift is problematic for a number of reasons. App developers design according to criteria – efficiency, productivity – applicable to business but not necessarily education. The “Pick a Student” app, for example, makes it easier for teachers to arbitrarily select students, but it encourages a corresponding disengagement from those same students. In the few seconds it takes to walk around and scan the room, deciding whom to call on, teachers can learn valuable information from faces, posture, or scribbles on a notebook.
The same goes for other apps. Even a program that generates grammar exercises leads to detachment. When I personally craft an assignment, I gain a much better sense of what I ask of my students, and I am able to sympathize with their difficulties. Moreover, as good teachers know, even something like grammar exercises are never just grammar exercises. Even in the creation of those seemingly minor tasks, there is the possibility for epiphany. Even in those moments, teachers can shape the material to meet a need they know of only because of their direct involvement with the class.
Resisting full-scale app-evangelism also prevents teachers from becoming embarrassingly, inexcusably device-reliant. After all, do we want math teachers who cannot generate equations? Do we want English teachers who, having depended so long on software, can no longer explain semicolons, who can no longer create sophisticated sentences that showcase various usage rules? I hope the answer is a unanimous "no."
The underlying point concerns the intentionality that great teaching requires. Calling on students to participate in discussion should be no more arbitrary than a football coach’s decision to play one player at running back and another at wide receiver. Outstanding teaching reflects all acts of outstanding leadership: it is purposeful, focused, and strategic. It results from leaders who personally engage the people and the material entrusted to their care.
This isn’t to say that teachers should not rely upon textbooks, apps or other resources. Even in theology class, technology has a place. But those resources must remain just that: resources. They must remain secondary. The teacher must lead, not the device. The teacher must shape the lesson plans, not the software.
The expansion of education as auto-checkout implicates more than a minor change. It deprives students of the fullness of the academic experience. That’s because education is not simply about the transmission of knowledge. Education is about stirring a hunger for truth, a truth that finds its beginning and end in God. It’s about forming young men and women to live thoughtful, compassionate lives, where every act carries the freedom and intentionality of a classical composition.
That kind of learning requires wise and prudent guides. It requires men and women who evoke a love of inquiry. It requires teachers who know when to challenge and when to console and who offer advice more ennobling than what students see on social media.
All of this is not tangential to the curriculum; it is intrinsic to the curriculum. But none of it can be outsourced. None of it can be downloaded. It can only be lived, every day, by teachers confident in who they are and who care deeply about what they do.