Three Samples Why Hillcrest is Low-Tech On Purpose

Many school districts place screens in the hands of each student. For some, it is to enhance cross-cultural communication, classroom learning, and communication in the classroom. Research is showing technology comes with side-effects.

But, rather than focus on the negative aspects of technology, Hillcrest sees technology as a great tool for students to learn to use. Hillcrest is low-tech on purpose, giving students a platform to build proficiency in their use of technology. The following quick truths are a few of the fundamentals we've employed with technology in the classroom.

Building Basics

This week a student plopped down in my office with a scowl on her face. She proceeded to tell me how things were so frustrating because she couldn't have her cell phone when she wanted it. she felt completely disorganized because we don't use tablets in school.

Through our conversation I began to see that this student's former school did her a disservice. Calendar reminders placed in her online learning platform by teachers reminded her when to do homework. Because the textbook was always at her finger-tips in the digital platform, the student didn't need to internalize the concepts she was reading about. 

School is fundamentally a place where students wrestle out eternal truths. They understand concepts in mathematics that have always existed. They ask questions that were historically recorded in works by Homer, Plato, and Aristotle. What I have seen from students who use digital platforms in school is an inability to think and reason apart from the direction of their digital platform. It has become the magic ball that directs thinking, learning, and communication.

If you sit in Hillcrest classrooms you will see a lot of dialogue. Students are greeted by their teachers and connect with friends in class. As they turn to their textbooks, their eyes waft up to the teacher. The textbook is designed to communicate complexities, the teacher leads conversation to unpack these complexities and uses the intercultural environment at Hillcrest to pull in the varying perspectives. A true global education is at students' fingertips, and it isn't because of the internet.

If you move into the science classroom you will see students using technology to gauge acceleration. They are doing labs and taking quizzes with clickers in hand. These forms of technology allow the teacher to see the eyes of students while gaining insight into what they've learned in his class with periodic quizzes placed in the lecture.

The building block students are learning in Hillcrest's socially interactive classrooms is communication of ideas. They are seeing complex concepts unpacked before their eyes through the words of their teachers and friends. In addition to this, they are learning the fundamentals of organization, balancing varying classes with planners, calendars, and teacher reminders that they need to organize themselves. This causes them to wrestle out a hierarchy of priorities that enables students to place value on homework time, time with friends, and see a correlation between the two.

Low-tech environments allow instructors to manage the students rather than the students' use of devices. Attention in the classroom is much different, as teachers have sacred space where learning, listening, and sharing is eminent over self-gratification and amusement. There is a building of the basics in a low-tech environment. A building of how communication works and how school subjects impact every day life.

Codifying the Amplifier

A Barna study some years ago reported that technology is an amplifier. The study illuminated technology's impact on the family. It found families that built fundamentals in communication in the home benefitted when technology was introduced. Texting and Snapchat helped families who knew how to communicate. However, families that didn't build strong relationships before using social media saw technology disintegrate relationships.

Most students are underdeveloped in their ability to have conversation. The natural time to develop ideas and opinions, and learn to share them appropriately, is in the high school years. If we see technology as what it is, a simple amplifier, we will understand why many students make social mistakes and communicate poorly through social media and texting.

To codify or organize technology we remove the amplifier and allow the students to practice communicating in the classroom. Students learn to navigate nuance and clarify comments from friends, helping hone their ability to communicate. Students who use classroom chatboards through tech. driven schools can have a hard time understanding that they need to communicate because most classrooms require students to post a handful of times to achieve a certain grade. Communication becomes about attaining points rather than clarifying understanding.

At Hillcrest we see students building deep personal friendships with classmates from around the world. These friendships hinge on students' ability to communicate. Students are learning to have actual conversations in the classroom, where a teacher presents a topic, the students formulate an idea and ask questions, initiating a volley of conversational exchanges that fortify concepts in communication that are fundamental, existing outside technology. We call these fundamentals device independent skills. The amplifier is only used when we have developed something to communicate. The amplifier is codified in an organizational structure in communication. It is not the main form of communication students need to learn. It is a tool. Don't give a jackhammer to a student who doesn't know how to use a crowbar.

Cultivating Communities

Sherry Turkle is an MIT professor who studies technology's impact on society. She is a 40 year veteran in the field. Her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, says comfort with vulnerabilities is essential in happiness, creativity, and productivity. In her 40+ years of study she has shifted from being a big fan of a technology driven world to a lone professor crying the dangers.

Among the myriad of topics she discusses in her book, she pulls out a few false lessons students glean from time on a screen. Notably, studies show that students learn that negative emotions are something unsuccessful students have, rather than normal emotions that need to be worked out. In traditional technology-infused environments it is easier to turn to the tablet than the teacher. The tablet can't sort out feelings, and thus the students are subtly trained to see emotions as negative because the tablet can't help them with that.

Secondly, Turkle reveals how technology-centric environments teach students that interruptions are natural and expected. As students write a paper on a device they will receive possibly hundreds of notifications that will pop-up. A friend texted them to see how they're doing. Snapchat buzzes their phone to let them know their favorite celebrity is posted something. In this world of distraction students are pulled from focused time to disruptive connections with screens. 

Studies show that when students hear less adult talk the students talk less. And with 80% of students sleeping with their phones, 40% saying they never unplug, even for religious services, It is clear that technology is greatly shaping their world. There is a clear empathy gap that Turkle states is a key factor in the rise in bullying seen in many schools.

Students have learned that emotions are challenges to avoid with their device and technology is a distraction from dealing with these emotions. In this, students are less empathetic because a significant amount of their day involves holding a glowing rectangle to see the world. This is a primary reason Hillcrest creates sacred space in classrooms. Students cannot hold a device during the school day unless directed as part of their classroom learning.

The best part of Turkle's book is the hope she gives. She breaks down the change seen in students who put down the device and have real conversations. Human interaction is proving able to overcome the negative results of a world bathed in technology. Human interaction is constant in Hillcrest's school day, because we are low-tech on purpose.

There are many other aspects that guide Hillcrest's low-tech approach. The instances listed above are a quick hit on three of them so you can see why so many students love school and love the Hillcrest experience. We focus on treating every student as an image-bearer of God. God is relational, so Hillcrest's classrooms focus on relationships as we learn about God's world. We see that technology impedes teenage relationships, because teenagers are learning how to have conversation and communicate with technology rather than humans. So, we are low-tech, on purpose.

Wayne StenderComment