The Charisma of the iPad: On Technology in the Classroom


"Use this technology that's fun and indirectly and unconsciously you'll learn all the stuff we want you to learn."



Over the years a good many people have commented to me that John Keating -- the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society, that charismatic lover of and advocate for poetry -- surely had to be the pedagogical ideal, the teacher that every teacher, especially every teacher of literature, would want to be.

No, I always reply. That would be Mr. Miyagi, from The Karate Kid.

It's not easy being Mr. Keating. Many of his students aren't interested in his subject; others are interested but their parents don't want them to be. He has a lot to overcome, and though he does it by pure charisma, the achievement is costly: it's all-consuming for him and dangerous for some of his students. Too much drama is involved. I don't need that.

By contrast, look at the sweet deal Mr. Miyagi has: his pupil comes to him, and is so eager for the sensei's wisdom and insight that he's willing to undertake all sorts of menial tasks in order to apprentice himself. Mr. Miyagi can just go about his business -- or rather, his leisure -- in the serene assurance that Daniel is learning the skills he wants to learn while the sensei gets his house painted and his car waxed. Everybody wins.

Yes, that's the ideal situation for a teacher: having students who seek you out, who want to know what you know, who come pre-loaded with motivation. But of course it's a largely fictional ideal: it rarely happens in the classroom. And when students lack motivation to learn -- at any rate, to learn what we have to teach -- then what do we do? Well, for those of us who can't or don't want to be John Keating, often that's where technology comes in. Educational technology is a way to outsource charisma to machines. It's an attempt to co-opt students' desires for the teacher's purposes. And that raises a number of questions about what teaching is, and can be.

The core challenge -- the key question for educators -- is this: Is there an acceptable substitute for an interest in learning? Yes, I know that that's not how we usually phrase it: the typical question is, How can we get students interested in learning, or in learning my subject? Most teachers know that if you have a student who is genuinely interested in one subject it's not unusual to get her interested in a different one. But the generalized indifference that people have who don't really want to be in school at all -- who are there because their parents want them to be, or because they see school as a ticket to a job -- is extremely difficult to overcome. It may be even harder to change the students who are only interested in grades, since they are likely to believe, erroneously, that they're good students, eager for knowledge.

So whether we want to admit it or not, when we educators turn to technology we're hoping not to generate interest in learning but to substitute for it.

Strategies like Gamification and the handing out of iPads to all students are mirror-images of the Karate Kid learning experience. Daniel wanted to learn karate, but instead was taught how to polish cars. He was interested in one thing and made to do something else that he wasn't interested in so that he would indirectly learn the thing he wanted to learn after all. We're saying, instead, Use this technology that's fun and indirectly and unconsciously you'll learn all the stuff we want you to learn. We're saying, Do this thing you want to do and at the end of class you'll have amassed valuable car-waxing and house-painting skills. We know we're not Mr. Miyagi -- few of you came to us of your own accord -- and we fear that we can't or shouldn't be John Keating, so we settle for being Mary Poppins: "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down."

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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