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Teaching Human Values in a Digital World

Human values need to be learned now more than ever

I recently met with a few dozen principals from an Ontario school board to talk about digital wellness. I began by asking the group a broad question: do you think devices are helpful or harmful for students?

Most answered vaguely at first — they can be helpful in some cases, and harmful in others. They spoke with enthusiasm about how devices can be great collaboration tools, can make tasks more efficient and easier, and bridge gaps for students in need of greater access.

And while these answers may be true, most were canned responses educators are readily prepared to say when describing twenty-first century learning.

So when I probed the group to describe why devices may be harmful, more emotional and unscripted statements began to spill out.

“I’m so scared about what it’s doing to us,” one principal says, sharing concerns about her own children as well as the students she sees on her campus.

“Maybe we’ve been doing it wrong — maybe technology shouldn’t come before other values,” describes another.

Another chimes in, “I’m so frustrated. But is it just a generational thing and we’re the ones not adapting?”

I told them that this is actually the more innovative way to be thinking. Their concerns are in line with much of what we’re hearing from researchers and medical experts, tech executives and investors — all of whom have been vocal about our increasingly dangerous relationship with our screens and what needs to be done about it.

At Google I/O last month, the company turned its focus to JOMO — the Joy Of Missing Out — by sharing its latest innovation plan for new features designed to help measure and curb excessive screen time.

And at WWDC earlier this week, Apple announced its Screen Time feature to be released in September, designed to provide weekly summaries of phone usage and the ability to set limits on apps.

This notion that our relationship with technology and that humans should be finding more joy in time spent offline is more innovative and forward-thinking. In contrast to this, however, the unimaginative thinking that plainly described the benefits of technology in learning seemed hardwired.

It has been. For nearly a decade, schools have been pushing screens into learning, advocating in curriculums and district plans that this is the greatest path for the twenty-first century learner. Teachers and schools that use Twitter and have full 1:1 classes are put on a pedestal — leaving lower-tech educators in the dust.

But innovation in twenty-first century education is not just about using technology — in fact, I would argue that learning in a digital economy isn’t about technology at all. Some of the most effective people I know are not the most proficient tech users nor the speediest Googlers; rather, they’re the strongest communicators and the most creative problem solvers. They’re the most resilient, the most imaginative, and the most curious. They’re the most resourceful.

They’re not using technology to solve big problems. They’re using whiteboards and brainstorming and having face-to-face interactions because they’ve learned to be comfortable engaging this way.

The more that technology takes precedence in the way we learn over the development of these strong human values, the more I worry about people. Communication, creativity, curiosity, openness, motivation — a world driven by technology alone is none of these things. And in this digital age, where all of us spend an increasingly dangerous amount of time online rather than facing the real world or even the person next to us, these values are only going to become more important.

Educators who recognize this in their pedagogy are putting their students in a better position to be successful. For example, some of the most engaging and innovative educators are using Flipd to teach students to appreciate spending time offline. “They learn they can survive without their phones. They learn that you don’t need to be on your phone all the time — when you’re in class, when you’re crossing the street,” says Syracuse University Professor Kivanç Avrenli, who sought to promote time off screens during his classes.

Over the next few decades, the most innovative educators will find creative ways to instill timeless human values in their students — most of which involves stepping away from our screens. Their students will grow on to become strong leaders, to start great companies, and to guide humanity into the next century.

And no, these students won’t get left behind — they’ll become proficient at technology all on their own. They’ll flourish, because being taught the values that make us human will be what makes them succeed.

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