The Wisdom of Technology

by Peter Eckstein

In the past few weeks two articles were posted in The Jewish Daily Forward about how technology will not usher in the messianic age, at least when it comes to Jewish education. In “Digital Learners Can’t Do It On Their Own“, Barry Joseph explains how the human factor – the role of the teacher – is crucial in the process of education, despite the rise of the machine. In “Technology’s Limitations in Education“, Rabbi Barry Holtz, juxtaposes content knowledge with wisdom, pointing out that while edtech may increase knowledge, it is not a guarantee that wisdom will ensue. I agree with both writers. Knowledge doesn’t always lead to wisdom, but technology can be a tool that leads to that attribute, and the acquisition of that wisdom relies on the human factor.

The Oxford dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement”. Barry Holtz, describes it as “entering into a culture and cultivating a deep connection to that culture.” What’s crucial here are the phrases “having experience” and “entering into a culture”. Real learning, for me, is defined by the axiom “use it or lose it”. I can learn German, or how to play the clarinet. But if I never speak the new language or practice my scales, it’s as if I never learned anything. To learn is to do. That’s where wisdom comes from. Experience. And that’s how digital technology comes into play. It’s a platform upon which we can build understanding that leads to action.

Rabbi Holtz writes about how current love of technology is defined by three themes – what I call Holtz’s “Three E’s”: economics – the cost effectiveness of using digital tools; excitement – the motivational aspect and attraction of these “cool” means of learning; and effectiveness – that new technologies provide deeper platforms and environments that facilitate learning. While these “Three E’s” are relevant, I think they don’t tell the whole story.

Kids are learning to relate to knowledge differently then previous generations of students. The worn-out phrase “21st Century Learning Skills”, reflects the current reality of teaching and learning. Education today (and probably tomorrow) is being defined by reinforcing the skills of creativity; collaboration; critical thinking; being able to navigate modern networks, both digital and land-based; and what Howard Rheingold calls “crap detection” (here and here) – the ability to weave through the overwhelming amount of available information to find the piece of knowledge that is valid and true. Using modern technology, our students are navigating the universe of human knowledge and, this is key, learning to manipulate it. Project/Problem Based Learning is just one example of experiencing knowledge. Applying knowledge to real world examples and issues leads to wisdom. Digital technology is one tool that leads to wisdom. The Triple Revolution (go here for more info) of mobile technology, social media and the Internet, have opened the universe that will enable our students to have a greater grasp of reality. But, as Barry Joseph writes, kids can’t do it alone.

Anyone remember how they were taught to swim? How many of you were thrown into the pool/lake/ocean and left to fend for yourselves? I’m going to guess that very few of us dealt with the literal ramifications of “sink or swim”. Joseph, in his article challenges what he calls, “the myth of the self-directed student”. He maintains, and I agree, that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is fostered in a community, with peers and mentors. We learn together – whether it’s in the
traditional hevruta paradigm of Jewish learning, or in the new concept of the “Connected Learner”. Learning cannot happen in a vacuum. We don’t build knowledge and wisdom ourselves. We rely on others. That’s why digital technology will add wisdom to the world.

You see, in this new networked world, we don’t live in isolation from one another. We are in dialogue constantly, whether via tweets or Facebook status updates or whatever the social media du jour is. We learn from each other. We are, in a sense all Heschelian Text People. VoiceThread; animoto; Pinterests; Tumblr; soundcloud; Voki; prezi, are all our collective pages of Talmud upon which we write and collaborate and experience. We grow wisdom by doing, together. And in this world, experiencing can be face to face or via “World of Warcraft”.

In Hebrew, wisdom is Hohma. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, it’s related to concept of skill melded with knowledge. In Jewish mysticism, it is grasping the potential for what is – building something out of abstract knowledge. Digital technology is a tool – just a tool – like the VCR or slide projector or printing press, that enables our students to learn content and then together with their peers figure out what to do with it. It’s our job, as teachers, to help them in this endeavor of creation.

Peter Eckstein, C.J.E., R.J.E., is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens, Fl. and the Technology Integration Educator for the Commission for Jewish Education in West Palm Beach. He helps train teachers to integrate digital technology into their learning environments, blogs as The Fifth Child and tweets as @redmenace56.