Teleology, Technology and Learning
By Mac Bogert
Teleology is the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve, rather than the cause by which they arise.
I started sailing with my father when I was five. After realizing we weren’t going to die, I felt like we were flying and I wanted to know why: What’s this for? Pop was patient and he loved showing me what he knew.
I still love sailing. Part of my attachment is because everything on a sailboat has been developed for utility—nothing wasted, all essential. A fully-rigged ship during the age of sail would use five miles of line (what landlubbers call rope), every inch important. My father explaining what’s this for? to me sparked a lifelong excitement about discovery.
Everything that makes the sailboat work has a purpose. Thousands of years of lessons, the tension between tradition and innovation, and a clear bottom line: if it doesn’t serve sailing, it gets left behind. Some things on sailboats haven’t changed much in thousands of years, others are recent, and every new technology gets tested by the same strict rule about purpose.
A sextant was revolutionary analog technology. Before civilian GPS, this is how I navigated on ocean journeys. A close friend had explained the purpose (and trigonometry) of the device to me. When I opened the box, all the parts of the instrument made sense to me, because I already comprehended the purpose of the sextant.
Technology and Learning
Much of the technology that entered the classroom in the past made perfect teleological sense in a time when school’s primary function was sharing information. Chalkboards, mimeograph machines, microfiche readers, encyclopedias, 3 X 5 cards, and libraries were information platforms that were unavailable to most people outside of the school building. Classrooms were children’s IT.
Teachers, besides managing the classroom, tracking students, providing evaluation and guidance, spent years gaining subject knowledge that most students did not have access to otherwise. Teachers were the primary technology of the classroom. We still are, though within a more exciting frame.
With our pocket computers (we misname them cell phones), each of us has independent access to all recorded human knowledge. But as Picasso suggested, “Computers are useless. All they can give you is answers.” While laptops provide access to data, teachers provide insight—the connection of information to purpose.
Many students have limited access to technology due to poverty, sketchy internet access, or social conditions. Yet they will all use myriad technology, numerous apps and avenues, most not yet invented. For them to use new technology rather than be used, they need learning that embraces possibilities rather than single answers, within a framework of value—teleology.
The Four Tests for Tech
I am in no sense a Luddite. I am entirely grateful for access to research, digital cameras, podcasts, blogs, webinars, mp3 and mp4 files, every bit (and byte). My responsibility as a leader and a learner—I don’t consider myself a teacher, but a student with a permanent self-funded scholarship—includes a healthy skepticism toward current practices as well as about new technology. Just because we’ve always done it doesn’t mean it’s useful. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s useful either.
Consider how we can align change to purpose:
Does our approach to learning technology contribute to a sense of Community? Technology, e.g. social media, can disconnect as well as connect. Addiction, sociopathy, and violence all spawn in isolation. What can we do to bring together our staff, students, administration, and parents in the wonderful (full of wonder) journey of learning and shared development? Does our vision of our new environment nurture this? How can we weave new technology into a sense of connectedness?
Commencement is a much more powerful word than graduation. How are our learners entering that larger world after school? Other than their having reached a certain age or having passed certain tests, how have we increased their capacity for curiosity, connection, and healthy skepticism? How can we establish emerging technology as a vehicle for useful, continuous learning?
What changes can we make to give everyone we guide the opportunity for Contribution? How can we use technology to create avenues that simultaneously embrace a sense of alignment (see Community above) and encourage differences? Meaning is critical to learning, and meaning, though it always shares some commonality, is individual. Unique, individual contribution serves the root meaning of the word education, which is not to put into, but to bring forth.
The human capacity for Creation is extraordinary. Yet if we focus on replication (traditional lessons and tests) rather than discovery (possibilities and a range of answers), we limit that capacity and can even damage it. How can technology help to remove barriers to the fluidity of the creative mind?
How we frame and use technology gives us a chance to revitalize our schools. Let’s proceed joyfully and with a close attention to purpose.
For a podcast on this topic (with some added insights!) simply click on the link below:
About the Author
Mac Bogert is President of AZA Learning. He began his career as an English teacher. For the past 25 years, Mac has focused on the intersection of leadership and learning. In between, He is a Musician, professional actor, yacht charter captain, staff development consultant, curriculum designer and author of Learning Chaos.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.