Today we're delighted to be speaking with Dr. David Smith. Dr. Smith is director of the kaisers Institute for Christian teaching and learning, and Professor of Education at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He's also co author of the study that we'll be reviewing today digital life together the challenge of technology for Christian Schools, available in 2020. Dr. Smith, thank you so much for joining us.
You're welcome. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Smith, if we can jump straight in digital life together is a treasure trove of information and counsel on the application of technology specifically to Christian Schools. Who do you intend as your primary reader for this informative study,
we thought of the readership as a series of concentric circles. So the, the the inner circle, if you like the primary readership is anyone who is involved in teaching people in educational contexts in connection with technology, so that would be school administrators, teachers, curriculum planners, anyone who's trying to deliver education using digital devices. Now, we also worked pretty hard to make the even though it's a very research based book, we tried hard to make it accessible. We tried to write the chapters so that you could read one in 20 minutes and have something to go away and think about. And so we're actually hoping also that a wider range of people who've got an interest in how technology is shaping schools, and how it's shaping the future of Christian education might also be able to, to access the book and find find things that are that are relevant to them.
Outstanding. And Dr. Smith, this book is the outcome of a three year research study, a very robust research study, would you be willing to describe for us the process of how the how you brought this study together,
it's what's called a mixed methods research study. And this is really based in the idea that any one research method that you you choose to try to study what's happening in a real situation is only going to tell you certain kinds of things, that the method itself constrains what you can find out. So if you use a survey you, you get big numbers, and you find out people's opinions, but it's not going to tell you whether what people are saying in the survey is what's really happening in the classroom. If you go and observe a classroom, you get a much richer sense of what's going on. But you're only seeing one classroom, you don't know whether this is happening in other classrooms. So each method you could use to gather data, places limitations on the kinds of things you could figure out. And what mixed methods research tries to do, is to, to get around that a little bit by using multiple methods simultaneously. And then looking for findings that show up across different methods to try to increase our confidence that we're really seeing something right, if you if you start to see a result showing up when you look different ways, then that maybe maybe it's a real thing, and not just an artifact of how you went about the research. So, so we used a number of different different angles into this. So we use direct classroom observations we made. I think it was 74 randomized classroom observations where we didn't tell the teacher until the morning off, that they were going to be observed so they couldn't pull out their best class. And we chose 74 different teachers across the year and just showed up on random days and observe the class recorded the class COVID all the different behaviors that we saw, analyzed what we observed in 75, different 7475 different classrooms. We also ran focus groups, we run I think 36 different focus groups with groups of teachers, administrators, parents and students. And that lets us have much more detailed conversation about what people think they're doing. Because when you when you when you watch a classroom, you you can't always tell what people were intending. You can see what's in front of your eyes. So the focus groups gave people a chance to speak at greater length about what it was they were trying to achieve in their educational work. And, and those were quite rich conversations. We also did multiple surveys of all of the human beings connected to the school system that we were studying. So again, we surveyed parents, administrators, teachers, students, that gives us a bigger statistical suite of results of that lets us check whether certain opinions so very articulate opinion might come up in a focus group and it might be just that person who thinks that so the surveys give us a chance to see whether that might actually be shared across a wide cross section of a school community or whether it's just a person with a bee in their bonnet. We, we also studied school artifacts. So during the course of the study, I had about 28,000 School documents on my hard drive of every conceivable kind. They gave me seven DVDs full of the hard drives, multiple school computers. And so that gave us access to things like PowerPoints that have been used for training days or letters that have been sent to parents or school magazine articles. Things that actually let us see across a 10 year period, how the school have been talking to each other about technology. And so let us build up a historical picture. And also let us kind of see what people wanted to present to each other when they talked about it. And then finally, we did, we did a half dozen case studies of individual teachers, because again, the problem with an individual classroom observation is you only see what happens in an hour. And maybe that was a weird hour, you so it's, you need some way of seeing what unfolds over time. So we chose six teachers who were identified by their peers as being particularly good at teaching the technology, and particularly thoughtful integrating faith with technology. And we went and watched them for a longer period of time, and did interviews with them with their students, and so on to get him to try to try to get more of a more of a time lapse kind of picture of what was happening in classrooms. So if you take those five sources and put them all together, then then the theory is that if you start seeing some of the same patterns coming out of more than one of these sources, you can you can maybe be confident that you're really seeing something and not just making stuff up.
This is a remarkable study. Thank you so much for helping us understand the the foundations of this very robust study. Dr. Smith, schools have certainly made progress in the last decade or so concerning their application of technology in the classroom and in their administration. And yet, educational communities are very often homes to people who are quite suspicious about the use of technology. In educational communities, we still have the opinion voiced hearing there that somehow techno up the technology is perhaps even antithetical to the learning process. How do you coach educational communities move forward with a unified vision of what technology is supposed to do in the context of a school?
Well, I think the first thing to do is to step back a little bit and think about what we mean by technology. So technology is, is a system or an artifacts that were created to extend our capacities in some way. So a pencil is a technology, a sheet of paper is a technology, a printed book is a technology, the chair that you're sitting on is a technology, the clothes that you're wearing are a technology. So So for a start, we can't have this conversation that says, should education use technology or not? Education uses 1000 Technologies every day. So it's not very meaningful to try to pick education over against technology. Now, it is a meaningful question to look at specific technologies and say, Is this a helpful technology to use in the classroom? So? So if we want to look specifically at using Tetris games to practice math skills, right, is that a good thing that that's a legit legitimate thing to argue about? Now, what that implies is we've got a sort of, we've got to look at Tech that specific technologies and ask things like, what kinds of behaviors do they tend to reinforce? What kinds of tendencies are built into them? What kind of usage patterns? So? And is it possible for us to build different practices around this technology that shifts those usage patterns? So this is the other thing about technologies is technologies don't just do things to us, we build up practices around technologies that affect how they shape us. So television as a technology comes into people's homes, some people put a television in every bedroom, some people have one television in the family room and restrict the times in which they watch it. Well. It's the same device in both homes, but it's probably having a different impact on family life and on people's formation. So there's also this question of what kind of practices we build around technology. So a really simple example out of our study, we did see one of the things you would expect is that when students were working with laptops, a lot of the time, we saw a lot of distraction behavior. And it's not hard to see this happening in classrooms, you know, what one students sort of goes off task and starts up a video game or starts up Facebook or something and, and pretty soon the student Mexican's looking over their shoulder. And so you get this ripple effect. Students were very good at task switching when the teacher walked by and getting back from the social media to what looked like the lesson. So we saw a lot of distraction behavior. But one very simple solution that some teachers have found to this was to push back against our ingrained assumption, because it's the way devices are built and marketed. That devices should be one per person. So if you take three students and put them around the laptop and give them a research project to do one of them can't go play video games. Because Because there are shared tasks, and they're working on the research together, and so on, we found that eliminated a great deal of the distraction behaviors. So instead of having this trying to have this sort of principio question, like, are we for or against technology, like, you know, unless you're living in the rain forest somewhere, and in fact, even then, we can push this all the way down, you're not against technology, you might be right to be suspicious of certain technologies and the behaviors they tend to foster. And the question then becomes, can we build constructive practices around that technology for moving in the opposite direction? Or are we better off staying away and and sticking with the practices we've got? In a sense, this is part of what provoked the study because our sense was that the tech Knowledge is being used in schools were changing faster than the ability of the schools to re articulate their practices, right? When change happens fast enough, it becomes really hard for you to actually take decisions and decide how you're going to live with it, rather than being swept along by the constant move to the next device on the next software. And then you're in danger of getting sucked into the default usage patterns that it's sort of marketed to provide without really testing whether they're what you want for the kind of growth or the kind of learning that you're looking for. Dr. Smith, what is your view? Can you imagine a future where almost all of our schooling is done online? Well, I can imagine it. Because, you know, I think the last two months has taught us that lots of different futures can happen. And and I think it's also the case that there is difference between the best in all possible circumstances and the best under the circumstances, right. I think I think what, what many of us in education are doing right now is the best we can do under the circumstances. That doesn't mean we think it's the best way of doing education in any circumstances. But it's the best we can provide right now. So I can imagine a future in which online education for many students is the best we can do. Right. And, and I also think online education does solve some educational problems. So in some cases, it solves problems of access. You know, if you're living on a remote farm in Australia, that's, that's a very long way from the nearest school, for instance. So but the flip side of that is, it also creates challenges of access. So we already we've already seen this in the last two months that if you're poor, if you don't have a fast internet connection at home, if you don't have a nice computer at home, if you're dealing with certain kinds of learning disabilities, if you if you have addictive tendencies that make it difficult for you to work with, with with sort of high attention grabbing digital devices, there are all kinds of ways in which the media might also disadvantage particular students. So the kind of question that people in education start out start asking with this is sort of, again, it's not not can this device deliver education? But if we're using this device? Where do we started advantages and disadvantages? What kinds of learning become easier? What kinds of learning become harder? And how do you start trying to shift it more to where you want to get it to? There are some things that worry me about things going fully online. So I think online learning often tends to, at least the default way we're doing it now tends to turn learning into information transfer. And I don't think education is just about getting the information down. It often tends to encourage us to break information up into bite sized bits. You know, you can sit for five hours with a with a book, it's harder to sit for five hours with a zoom meeting or, or, or a PDF document. So I worry about what modes of engagement is encouraging and discouraging? Is it building in us the capacity to engage thoughtfully and to engage intensively, rather than breaking things down into bits and consuming them? What's it doing to the way we interact with each other we learn to interact with people in certain ways in classrooms, social learning, going on. classrooms are in public places, there are embodied signals, gestures, postures, you know, what, what? What does it mean differently in a classroom, if you start class with prayer, and you kneel, for instance, it's a little hard to do that on a zoom meeting. Right? So those kinds of embodied signals. So there's a lot of bandwidth that we're losing. That doesn't mean I couldn't imagine a circumstance in which that's where many of us are right now. We have to do a lot of teaching online, and then we try to figure out how to do it well. So once again, disappointingly, it's neither a blanket yes or no, answer it. So you deal with the circumstances and try to do something wise with them.
Dr. Smith, you published your book, digital life together the challenge of technology for Christian Schools. I think it was January of this year 2020, just a couple months before the outbreak of covid 19. What is your advice to Christian Schools concerning what COVID-19 is doing to the educational process? What's your message to Christian Schools in this crisis?
Yeah, we actually got copies of the book about two weeks into the crisis in in late March. So So yeah, it really arrived almost at the same time as the lockdown at least here in Michigan. I think we're going through phases at the moment. So I think it's understandable that for the first month or so of the crisis, we were all in emergency mode, we were all in figuring out what to do next mode. And so a lot of things happen that weren't necessarily the best long term plan for education. We were all just trying to figure out how to keep our classes going, how to keep students engaged, how to serve families, who were suddenly dealing with having their students at home. And you know, when you're doing that, you cover a lot of things together. And then you use whatever platforms going and whatever it looks like it works and there were a lot of long zoom meetings and so on. So I suspect different institutions are at different places now. But the challenge now is to start emerging from that and Start actually going back to the question of what it is we're trying to achieve and being more intentional about it. Because there's a chance, there's a chance we might still be teaching online in September, we, we don't know how this is going to play out. So we've got a little window of time now to start thinking more intentionally about what kind of formation we want in our students in which parts of that we can start tackling in an online environment. So a small, small example of that, that I've been going through just in the last three days, one of one of my somewhat, I mean, summer courses has suddenly turned into an online course, course for teachers actually. And so I've just been writing the syllabus, and I've been thinking about which kinds of skills I can still ask students to work on in an online environment. And in the context of a Christian course. And so I've been writing into the syllabus, some some things for students to be thinking about, about how we read, and how our reading practices reflect Christian forms of engagement. So have you read with patients with charity? How do you do justice to what the author says even if you disagree with it? How do you maintain humility while you're reading and not assumed by page seven that you know better than the author? And how do I foster those kinds of engagement in an online environment where we can't sit in the classroom and read together allow us and what are the equivalents going to be? Well, I can start designing tasks where I actually asked my students to step away from the computer and go read something twice, or read it slowly and time themselves. Or we didn't go as somebody that on the road to read a paragraph as well and see what they think it means. So just the fact that I'm teaching online doesn't mean I'm limited to the, you know, the the distance learning interface straight, my students still live in a world around them, that I might be able to leverage to get the kind of learning that I'm looking for so so that's kind of process I find myself going through and right. And I've still got some of the same goals for my students learning. How do I start shifting those into a way that they're still going to work rather than accepting the default of what the online packages are pushing me to do?
And Dr. Smith, if I can ask just one follow up question. So we're all guessing too, as concerning to what the future looks like from here, but let's say that things do get back sort of to normal. What are some of the things that you hope that Christian Schools would learn in this time where we're doing everything online through the because of the covid 19? pandemic? What are some of the things that you hope Christian Schools would learn from this time and permanently embed into their processes,
we don't go back to normal because, you know, schools are not perfect as they currently exist. We've all started learning some new skills with with we all started to realize there might be a slightly different way to do the thing that we used to do, you know, the same way for years. So I hope that part of what gets taken back. It's just a question about routines, and the questioning about habits. And a wondering whether whether the way, we're used to doing things in the classroom to actually maximize learning. So I was actually speaking at a conference in Australia over the internet a few weeks ago, and one of the things I was talking about was how, you know, we talk a lot about social distancing, and how the social isolation has been created, and how to how we can minister to that. And yet, a couple of years ago, I was I was doing some writing around how most school homework practices tend to isolate students in the evenings. Because the way that homework is designed tends to be read something, write something or research something on your laptop. And homework is always designed to be done alone. And we found it very fruitful for our family, when we had conversations with some teachers, I know in the area about that. And they started assigning homeworks that require conversations with family members that required discussions with, with grandparents that require students to give a presentation for their family, I'm actually sort of worked on using the homework to create family connections. Now, that was an example way before COVID, where there was an educational practice we had that tended to isolators in that time that we had an evening when we had time as a family, where kids disappeared off to their rooms to do their homework. And parents really were only given the role of being the policeman to make sure that homework on time. And that suddenly we've got this enforced isolation, and maybe it's a chance to start thinking about, even when we're back to normal, are we actually good at creating connections between people? Or do we create isolation even when it looks like we're living normally? So that kind of question, I think we should go back to normal not assuming that we knew how to do normal. But maybe asking questions about about the educational practices that we have beforehand, how close were they to what Christian learning would look like?
Dr. Smith, thank you so much for that reply. Dr. Smith, one of our goals in this interview program is to allow Christians from different speaking from different parts of the Christian tradition to speak about the commonality of what the church's mission is and what the church is as a as a theological entity. We've been speaking about Christian education Which is obviously something that the church all over the world is relearning how to do in this present context? If I can close with this question, it's a question we've been asking all of our interviewees. What would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity? And what is it that we can do from wherever we are in the Christian church to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17,
I don't come at this primarily as a theologians, I don't have a sort of, you know, great, profound theological fix for the, for the church's disunity. But I have over many years worked with teachers and a lot of different kinds of Christian education, people working with Anglican schools, Catholic schools, Lutheran schools, evangelical schools, Pentecostal schools, in England and America, in Ukraine, in Australia, and so on. And what I've pretty consistently found is that when we're actually focusing on Be careful not framed as to reductively. But what it is we need to get done, like how do we how do we actually lock up all of our heart, mind, soul and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves in the way that we carry out education. But a lot of the things that divide us kind of melt into the background under the urgency of actually figuring out how to carry out our ministry in the world. And the when we kind of sit face to face arguing with each other about first principles that that kind of stuff comes up very quickly. But when we're trying to figure out, you know, what should homework look like for a Christian school? Or how should the Christian school use laptops or you know, what, what kinds of learning activities with digital devices are actually countered to Christian formation? And in our research, we did find some worrying things. I mean, you know, in fact, one of the interesting things was, we found some things that parents weren't worried about that the bat should have been worried about, that we saw going on with digital devices in schools. So how do we have rich enough conversations to actually dig behind our, our fear based responses or sort of our knee jerk go to issues? And instead of fighting about those to actually focus on what, what's really going on? How do we make it better? How do we provide something that might be called Christian education? I pretty consistently found that once we start working at a detail concrete level on that, that a lot of the differences don't seem quite as urgent in the moment of trying to move things forward. And so I actually find myself not having to worry too much about the Unity question when I'm working with groups of teachers, usually seems to seems to work, we find we've got a lot in common.
It's been a delight today to be speaking with Dr. David Smith, Professor of Education at Calvin University and author of the text that we've been discussing today, digital life together the challenge of technology for Christian Schools. Dr. Smith, thank you so much for joining us today. Welcome. Thank you for having me along.