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Living in the Future
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With a mechanical whirr, the robot lurches across an unfamiliar landscape, its treads digging in to provide traction as it follows its programmed course. The robot’s operator, checking its progress against the numbers on her screen, tsks in frustration: the robot has veered off the fairway and into a sand trap. She reaches down to pick it up, plugs it in to her laptop via a USB cable, and adjusts the code. This is a par 4 hole; she can’t waste any moves. Knowing the number of inches that the robot progresses with each revolution of its wheel, she adjusts the second command to 3.5 revolutions forward instead of 3.75. With that minor edit the program succeeds, and the robot pushes its whiffle golf ball to the hole triumphantly.

I share this introduction—which is my narration of a moment in the robot golf tournament that took place in D2 science a few weeks back—for two reasons. The first is just my own sense of awe at where we are and what is possible in our use of technology—my somewhat tongue-in-cheek phrase for it has been that we are living in the future, per the title of this post, and there are many days when that sentiment rings very true. The second is to pick up on a thread in a conversation I have been having a great deal with parents this year and in years past—about how to engage with our kids’ use of technology in a thoughtful, forward-thinking, and supportive way.

Another anecdote came my way recently from Landis, who sent along an email from another head of school who had a student show up to school wearing a Google Glass device. (I have to share, having just typed that sentence, that I struggled with what article and noun to attach to Google Glass—Google seems to have branded it as a singular thing, one that resists the indefinite article ‘a’.) The concern in the email was about how to address the spectacle of these spectacles, as well as any privacy issues they might call into question. This story is noteworthy only for its newness; certainly we can imagine a nearly-here future where Google Glasses or whatever we’ll call them will be as normal as iPhones. Such is the march of progress.

For now, we remain on a technological cusp, where things like Google Glass and 3D printers are a bit of a novelty. Of course, we’re in the dot-matrix era of 3D printing—no doubt we’ll look back on the hours and days in takes to create simple plastic objects with the same fond derision we feel for the tear-away edges of continuous stationary. And Google Glass in its current iteration is easy enough to mock, as Fred Armisen did to hilarious effect on Saturday Night Live. (The story I like to tell to poke fun at Google Glass is the woman I saw on the train in Palo Alto wearing one, who had to ask me what connecting train she should get on—the not-so-impressive debut of wearable Internet access!)

But all jokes aside, there is a real beauty to this technological moment. While we all struggle at times to make sense of the mediated social landscape of our children, it is not hard to marvel at the ways they use that media. Watching some of our D2 students using Instagram on their phones to record moments from their trip to Olvera Street for Dia de los Muertos last fall—and not just record but share with each other, then submit for a photo contest in Miguel Alferez’s Spanish class—I found myself deeply appreciative of their native connectivity. The Habits of Perspective, Connection, and Evidence, after all, ask our students to problem solve from multiple viewpoints, to look for patterns, and to sort relevant information—all of which are modes of thinking our kids engage in every day while they busily swipe through photos, jump from link to link, and text one another about what they’ve discovered. As Thomas Friedman noted in last Sunday’s New York Times, these are the kinds of cognitive abilities that Google and most other innovative companies have as hiring criteria. When paired with our Habits of Heart—service to a common good, collaborative work, and ethical citizenship—these are also the capacities that will allow our children to change the world for the better.

I often think about this through the lens of the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, who was the subject of my father’s dissertation as well as his collaborator. Freire described education as a process of coming to “critical consciousness” of the world. One of the important facets of this model of education is that students and teachers learn, question, and make meaning together. In the process of coming to consciousness in this age of networked intelligence, I believe it is more important than ever to let our students and our children guide us. Their native facility with the technosocial world of the Internet represents a shift in the way we act, interact, and think as human beings—it is who they are, as the picture that opens this post has it (from a piece of student art in the hallway), and we must love them for it. As Freire writes:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

We can’t know the entirety of the future that we can peer at through the shimmering lens of Google Glass or golfing robots. All we can do is work today to empower our children and students to become those women and men who will deal critically and creatively with reality, who will work together to transform our world.

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