11. A Socratic Apology in Favor of Educational Technology (1/2) – Best Practices for Education Professionals

Chapter 11
A Socratic Apology in Favor of Educational
Margarita Garcia-Notario
This chapter is an argument for a more critical understanding and use of modern edu-
cational technology. The author argues that ancient Greek technical concepts of tool
use and the Aristotelian doctrine of the habits can properly guide teachers’ decision-
making about technology to promote students’ learning. Technology (any way through
which we transform the world) is understood as a means, and its application in the
classroom is observed from the philosophical statement that the end does not justify
the means. This chapter intends to remind educators that whenever we transform the
outside world we get internally transformed, and that, as a consequence, omitting these
special considerations could make our educational technology inhibit what it seeks to
A few hours after being born, my paternal grandfather came to the hospital to
meet me. As soon as he picked me up, he held me with one arm and with the other he
reached for his pen from his pocket. He took my little hand and had it grasp the pen.
I was his rst grandchild and he had already decided that I would start the fourth gen-
eration of teachers in our family. And he knew that I needed a pen. That was my very
rst encounter with technology. Challenging the Socratic fear that if everybody would
learn how to write, we would spoil our memory, my grandfather expected me to guide
other generations by the dancing of this tool. My grandfather used to have a beautiful
calligraphy. He belonged to the generation that thought that well done things required
time, appreciated the beautiful results of hard work and did not take details for granted.
Maybe because of this early encounter with technology, and probably also because
of having a very practical mother always ready to declare war on wasting time, I have
always loved anything that would help me get things done faster and with less effort.
Who does not like a remote starter in sub-zero winters? Who does not prefer a camping
tent that has all the poles incorporated in the design and gets installed in minutes? Who
does not nd convenient a phone that keeps a record of everybody you have talked
to and all you have missed? We like anything that makes our lives easier, because as
humans, we have lots of chores related to our bodies, our houses, our payments, and
we want to do them fast and easily, so we can really focus on those tasks that make life
fullling: those tasks not done by necessity, but because we love them; they enrich us
and make us happy.
This chapter is entitled, “A Socratic Apology in Favor of Educational Technol-
ogy.” In English, the word apology, in its most common use, means “a written or
142 Best Practices for Education Professionals
spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, in-
jured, or wronged another” (Dictionary.com Unabridged, 2010). However, the English
dictionary also acknowledges the original Greek meaning of a word that names one of
the most important discourses in history: Socrates’ Apology. In this famous work, as
well as in the context of my chapter, the meaning of this word is: “a defense, excuse,
or justication in speech or writing, as for a cause or doctrine.” (Dictionary.com
Unabridged, 2010).
I do not expect modern academic publications to need an apology to justify the
use of technology, but I do believe that it is important to remember that old saying,
the end does not justify the means, and that means must be in service to the goal or
goals. In this chapter, education is the end and the so called educational or instruc-
tional technologies are the means. And if they do not serve or when they do not, those
means need to be put aside and re-evaluated. Personally, I prefer that title educational
technologies because instructional is intended mostly for the mind, while educational
seems to apply to the whole person.
We humans are not predetermined by the biological sphere to which we belong.
We constantly inuence the physical and psychological realities that surround us since
we constantly invent new needs and new ways to satisfy them. Humans are problem
solvers, and this results in the so-called productive action, or ΤέΧνη (techne) in its
original Greek name. Many philosophers have identied this productivity as the main
human quality that distinguishes us from other beings (Polo, 1991). We do not neces-
sarily follow the universal cause-effect pattern (although we can). The products that
we create become new realities. Human action constantly creates new opportunities,
ones that did not previously exist in nature. Our “doing” and/or “making” acts on the
world and transforms it, but at the same time, it transforms each of us as well. We
are the transformers, but as we transform the world, we get transformed because our
actions affect our being through what has been classically called “habits.” From this
perspective, our “techne,” the ways in which we transform the world is immensely
relevant, since it has a direct effect on ourselves. That is why we need to take a very
serious look at our tools, to the technology that we use in our lives. We cannot afford
to overlook the possible consequences. From a simple pencil to the most sophisticated
system of remote control, we need to observe the way our tools transform the world
and consequently transform us.
In this chapter I want to present the reader with a broad view on the role that mod-
ern technology plays in my teaching of foreign languages, literature, and philosophy,
and justify its use by the pedagogical improvements (or ends) that these technologies
have brought. However, I want to walk through this by Socrates’ side, or at least with
a Socratic attitude, because we need to be sure that we are not bringing the enemy
home. Modern technology is highly addictive and we could get lost at sea thrilled by
the singing of the sirens while our boat is headed to the reefs.
In his masterful book “Technopoly,” Neil Postman makes a very powerful state-
ment: “Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive: it is ecological (…).
One signicant change generates total change.” (Postman, 1992, p. 18). Any close ob-
servation of the history of the subject reveals the profound changes that technological
A Socratic Apology in Favor of Educational Technology 143
innovations have caused to cultural traditions and lifestyles, and how frequently they
have shattered the roots of a society’s belief system. The seriousness of these conse-
quences was well stated by Paul Goodman (1970), in his book New Reformation, when
he said, “technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.” (Postman, 1992,
p. vii). We need to be certain that the tools that we use to serve our teaching actually
serve our students and do not get in their way. So, before I focus on the technologies
that I use in my classroom and the ways in which their use has improved my pedagogy,
I would like to dene the larger moral context that makes a teacher, in order to keep
a critical observation on our teaching tools and to ensure that we do not lose our way.
As teachers, we have a very powerful commitment to learning, one of those el-
ementary actions that make us human. “Learning is not a thing, it is a process.” (Sarason,
2004, p. ix). And in that process, the teacher is only one part of it, which fully de-
pends for the achievement of any results, on the good functioning of the other part:
the learner. Our principal and most challenging goal is to get our students to want to
learn, ideally, as desperately and passionately as they can. Because we know that if our
students are passing tests but not learning, we have failed in our task.
How do we get our students to want to learn? And, how do we get our students
interested in our subjects, if they feel that they only need our class for passing a gen-
eral education requirement? I would claim that teachers are only successful when at
the end of the class students feel (independently of the grade that they may have re-
ceived) that it was worthwhile to attend our class and learn our subject. It is easier to
understand this point of view when one leaves the position of the teacher of higher
education, and wears for a moment the robes of an eternal teacher: the parent. Most
parents will validate their children’s teachers by what their children learn and by the
fair judgment that a teacher makes on their children’s results. Most parents know their
children’s capabilities and ask that teachers cooperate in getting that potential to its
summit. They also know the level of effort that their kids are capable of. Most of them
do not expect miracles, but do expect a well done job by teachers; after all, they have
put their major investment, their children, in teachers’ hands. And all parents know
that their children can achieve much more––regardless of the particular child’s capaci-
ties––when that child is guided by a loving hand and challenged by an inspiring and
entertaining guide.
The adjective “entertaining” has not been included here at random. It is a strongly
intentional addition to my last sentence. With this chapter in mind, I have asked many
times to my children and to their friends over the last four months: do you have a
favorite teacher? Of course, they do. There is nothing more grateful, bright, and forth-
coming than a child. And when I ask them, why a particular teacher is a favorite, I
keep encountering the same answer: She/he is fun! He does this She does that …,
they say, and the kids are lled with joy and amusement when thinking of these special
teachers. And, very soon, as in a pattern, I also hear that this teacher is kind and doesn’t
get upset, or make fun of them. And that she/he lets them have a break … squeezing
in their very demanding schedule some game or a few extra minutes of recess, or of
peer chat.
144 Best Practices for Education Professionals
Children love to learn and are the best and fastest ones at it. They embody a human
nature that can still freely identify what is pleasing and what is not and characterize
it as such. Children are unimprovable judges of a good teaching job. One will scare
them or terrorize them and get decent results out of fear. Or one will make them shine
and respond with extreme interest and loyalty to any challenges, if soaked in kindness,
patience, and compassion. The same children who melt our hearts with their expres-
sions of love and who make us explode laughing with their incredible ideas are still
in our classrooms. Some of them do not look that enchanting to us any more, but they
are our children. And maybe, we did not look that enchanting to our parents either at
some point. We need to remember that our youths are crossing a dreadful time when
they are trying to play the adult game, forcing themselves to be “somebody.” They
are following the society’s rules to be worthy: they are coming to college with the
expectation that this is what is required from them to be respected and valued. Many
are insecure and scared, and they are still looking to us as a point of reference. They
want us to explain why learning is worthwhile. They still want to be loved, cared for,
respected, and entertained. Do not we all? And, certainly, they want to be challenged
because they need to learn what they are able to accomplish. There is one Spanish say-
ing that goes “The one who challenges you takes you seriously.” Our students know
that and expect it. I strongly believe that the use of modern technologies, which are
so familiar for most of the current generation of students, is very helpful because it is
a part of their daily communication tools. We need to be sure that when we use these
tools we are facilitating the communication and making our students’ learning process
friendlier and more attractive.
As teachers, we are expected to spread enthusiasm and provide guidance and a
sense of direction. Only when people believe in us, do we feel that we can overcome
our fragilities. For some of our students, we might be the rst people who will show
them that we believe in their potential. And that demonstration of faith may prove a
life changing moment for them. Most people who were not loved enough, or whose
parents were not able to show the love that they felt for them, have been wounded
for life. But experts on stress and addictive behavior such as the Canadian physician
Gabor Maté, or the Swiss psychologist Alice Miller claim that a different experience
can transform and heal very deep traumas. In the context of the somewhat terrifying
responsibility of teachers as exemplary members of society, I would like to bring a
quote from Dr. Maté to strengthen this point:
Absolutely universal in the stories of all adults with ADD is the memory of never
being comfortable about expressing their emotions. When asked who they confided
in when, as children, they were lonely or in psychic pain, almost none recall feeling
invited and safe enough to bare their souls to their parents. They kept their deep-
est grieves to themselves. On the other hand, many recall being hyper-aware of
the parents’ difficulties and struggles in the world, of not wanting to trouble them
with their own petty and childish problems. The sensitive child, writes the Swiss
psychotherapist Alice Miller, has ‘an amazing capacity to perceive and respond
intuitively, that is unconsciously, to this need of the mother, or of both parents ...’
(Miller, 1990, p. 32)
A Socratic Apology in Favor of Educational Technology 145
When I explore with my clients their childhood histories, emerging most often are
patterns of relationships in which the child took care of the parent emotionally, if
only by keeping her inmost feelings to herself so as not to burden the parent. ADD
adults are convinced that their low self-esteem is a fair reflection of how poorly they
have done in life only because they do not understand that their very first failure––
their inability to win the full and unconditional acceptance of the adult world––was
not their failure at all. (Maté, 1999, para. 13)
Due to the peculiar nature of their job, many teachers have a strong role as counsel-
ors or advisors. Some students come to our classes already loving our subject. These
students exceed motivation and absorb like a sponge anything that we teach. These are
students who wait for us at the end of class, who want for us to clarify something that
we briey mentioned in class, who ask for extra readings We connect with these
kids and soon learn many things about them, things that may not have much to do with
the class or their capacities as students. In most cases the technologies that we bring
to the classroom work very well for these kids. And I am sure that many of those who
read this chapter will have asked a student at some point something of the nature of:
“Why do you want your major to be X, if what you are best at is Y, or what you can’t
live without, is Z?” Those can be life changing moments for some of our students
because they experience that somebody knows them, and values them. Maybe, there
is something good in them, they think, something that may not have been said or sug-
gested to them before. There are other students who will never approach us on their
own. Their work might deserve a passing grade, but it is unimpressive. These students
should be reached by the teacher at some point (the earliest the better). They might
have the potential but they lack motivation. They may also not be receiving much help
through the means that we use in our class, and they bring an obvious call to re-check
our technologies, and our tools.
Alice Millers research on the effect of childhood on adult life is astounding and
instrumental to our purposes here. In an article on the importance of the enlightened
witness she writes,
It was only by closely examining the childhood histories of murderers, especially
mass murderers, that I began to comprehend the roots of good and evil: not in the
genes, as commonly believed, but often in the earliest days of life. Today, it is in-
conceivable to me that a child who comes into the world among attentive, loving
and protective parents could become a predatory monster. And in the childhood of
the murderers who later became dictators, I have always found a nightmarish hor-
ror, a record of continual lies and humiliation, which upon the attainment of adult-
hood, impelled them to acts of merciless revenge on society. (Miller, 1990, para. 2)
According to Miller, the only difference between people who were abused as chil-
dren and became criminals, and those who were also abused but never committed any
crimes was the presence of what she calls an enlightened witness. She describes them
a person who loved them, but was unable to protect them. Yet through his or her
presence, this person gave them a notion of trust, and of love. I call these persons