Making Friends with Tech in Schools
By Erica Bigelow, Philosopher-in-Residence at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, WA & University of Washington Philosophy PhD Student
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been one of the inaugural philosophers-in-residence at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle. The residency, which is among the first expansions of PLATO’s philosophers-in-residence program into high schools, has raised plenty of question for me about my own pedagogical practices (in precollege and collegiate classrooms), about the ways that we can make even higher education philosophy classes more conducive to lasting communities of inquiry, and about the ways that even complex philosophical ideas and debates can be made accessible to precollege audiences with little (if any) modification.
More than anything, though, working with these high schoolers has led me to reevaluate my attitudes toward technology in the classroom, and to consider new ways that we – as philosophy instructors – can come to terms with the fact that our students are in and of the digital age.
I’ll begin with a confession: upon first starting in-person precollege philosophy classes a couple of years ago, I was a bit taken aback by the presence that smartphones have in classrooms. Smartphones were a thing when I was in high school, to be sure – I think I got my first iPhone my sophomore or junior year – but my school and teachers held strict policies which ultimately decreed that our phones couldn’t be visible in school. Many of my college students, too, will have their phones on their desks and occasionally check or respond to something. I take no issue with this. I’d seen articles and social media posts in recent years lamenting the omnipresence of technology in K-12 classrooms, but it wasn’t until coming face-to-face with groups of middle- and high-schoolers that I fully realized what was being referred to.
Plenty has been written questioning the impacts of cell phones on learning outcomes and presenting quantitative results; I don’t want to rehash that here. What I want to do instead is to question some of the horror educators might feel upon seeing phones in class. I want to ask, at the risk of angering my colleagues, whether we might make use of this inescapable technology in precollege philosophy instruction. What I offer is, in essence, a defense of the teen who seems unable to look up from their phone in a lesson.
This defense is partly inspired by Stephen Miller, the teacher whose classes I work with. In a Theory of Knowledge class last year, we talked about discerning audience, algorithms, and how the advertisements you’re shown depend on what a social media platform’s algorithm “knows” about you. Upon noticing that several students were having a hard time pulling their eyes away from their phones, rather than lash out, Mr. Miller decided to buy in, asking the class to open up TikTok (or their social media platform of choice) and scroll until they came across an ad. We then used these ads to try and determine what the algorithms “knew” about the students. The conversation was ultimately fruitful; it was a philosophical chat not simply about tech, but with and through it.
There’s a sense, then, in which the technology that’s at students’ fingertips can actually provide them the raw material for philosophical analyses. Nevermind the ways that texts and ideas can be accessed online; even nonacademic digital content can be looked at through a critical lens. Moreover, I think that the embeddedness of social media in their lives and the sheer quantity of information they’re exposed to can make the tools of philosophical articulation ever more accessible.
Granted, I only get to interact with these students in their Theory of Knowledge classes, so I’m not sure how well this extends to math or science, or even literature, but I’ve been awed by the sophisticated ways that students are able to talk about their own identities and experiences with social injustice and the ways that these identities and experiences bear on their philosophical (in the context of this class, often epistemological) claims.
Engaged, applied philosophy is more important than ever. I see students gaining a new lexicon from social media for making sense of and explaining their experiences. They can talk about structural injustice, they can talk about how social structures enable phenomena like exploitation, boundary-setting, and pernicious ignorance (á la Kristie Dotson), and they can do so in terms that their peers understand–terms that empower conversations to move forward. What’s more, often, they’ve learned and experimented with these terms online.
There are two main critiques I can see arising here. First, are students who don’t have access to smartphones at an unjust disadvantage in conversations that use the technology as a philosophical tool? Though this is an important question, it’s one that I’m wildly underqualified to give economic policy advice regarding,so I suppose we can only hope that as smartphones become even more of a fundamental utility, access to them will become easier. Second, having access to certain concepts or phrases doesn’t ensure that students are going to use the concepts correctly or well. However, adults are just as liable to misusing or weaponizing purportedly-neutral language as children are; in fact, one chapter of my dissertation is on the weaponization of what’s come to be called, as an internet colloquialism, “therapy-speak.” But I think this criticism can be dealt with more charitably, too. I think we can say that having conversations about injustice is important, even if those conversations are sometimes done in somewhat clunky terms. An important conversation, even if not perfectly-executed, is like a rough draft of a paper; it leaves us with material that can be edited and refined. Silence, on the other hand, does not.
I don’t think I feel strongly enough about smartphones in classrooms to make a strong claim for or against them, but I think that their presence is something we instructors need to reckon with in creative ways. Philosophy instructors are uniquely situated to gain (pedagogically) from our students’ online presences, and that the students I’ve encountered are, on the whole, better philosophers because of things they’ve encountered and tools they’ve cultivated online.