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Summoning the Spirit of the Dodo

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Dodo bird on rock

© Chris Franek, 2013

Chris Franek returns with a word of warning to teachers about getting caught up in the speed of technological change.

In a previous post I talked about the infamous dodo bird that mysteriously became extinct in the late 17th century and how we teachers should take care not to suffer the same fate due to our occasional blind love affair with technology. It’s quite funny. My girlfriend often affectionately refers to me as a dodo. More accurately, she calls me a “dodo bird” which is somewhat confusing because I don’t know if she’s referring to an extinct bird or an idiot. I suspect both.

It got me thinking about the evolution of the meaning of the word dodo. As I mentioned in the previous blog post titled, “Is the Teacher Going the Way of the Dodo?” I talked about how the original dodo was the infamous now extinct bird that inhabited a remote island off of the eastern coast of Africa. Over time, that original definition of dodo was replaced by the more modern definition we have come to associate with the word, which as defined by Oxford English Dictionary, is “an old-fashioned, stupid, inactive, or unenlightened person”. Neither definition represents a condition any of us would want to find ourselves in – extinct or being an idiot. However, upon closer examination, I wonder if we should be careful not to quickly dismiss today’s dodo out of hand for fear of overlooking some of its hidden merits. Although our modern dodo may not have been able to save its feathered predecessor, it may paradoxically hold the clues to preventing our extinction as teachers.

I drive an older model car. It’s a car that I have had for many years now. Over the last few years, quite a few people have suggested to me that I should buy a new car. In the beginning, I felt a kind of urgency to do it but over time, I’ve started to wonder exactly why I would want a new car. I’ve always kept my car in great condition and, to be honest, I am quite fond of it. Nowadays, everyone wants to drive a new car, when in reality, an older, well-maintained used car performs the same task – getting one from point A to point B – equally effectively. Often, the argument for getting a new car can be distilled down to the notion that a new car is more effective than an old one. However, although that may be the case in some situations, I believe that in reality, most people want a new car more for the quality of “newness” rather than effectiveness, sometimes to the point of wanting one where having one isn’t even practical. If you live in New York City, for example, it makes almost no sense to have a car.

Technology is the classic case of “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. We’re obsessed with making technology the solution for every problem – sometimes to the point of seeing problems where problems don’t even exist. We claim that the motivation behind pushing technology into the classroom is that it is more effective for the modern learner but in reality, it’s often because it’s more fashionable and new. We live in a society that prizes “the new “and rejects “the old”. Newer is always championed as being better and I think nothing exemplifies this frame of mind more than our obsession with technology. The technology cycle is incredibly fast. You can get a gadget that is the latest “game changer” and within a couple of months it’s already half the distance to obsolescence and relegated to yesterday’s news pile. It’s easy to slowly and insidiously allow ourselves to be hypnotized by the siren call of technology’s manic sense of urgency. Society basically shames us into feeling we have to keep up with technology’s pace or risk being exiled to the island of irrelevance. So are we as teachers “stupid” if we do not board the technology bullet train with unquestioned zeal? Are we just being “old-fashioned” or “unenlightened” if we refuse to get with the program?

As an ESL teacher, I’ve had so many students approach me to complain about the difficulty of communicating in English with native English speakers because of the rapid pace at which they speak. One phenomenon I will at times notice, especially with intermediate level ESL students, is that these same students will try to speak rapidly to me (with predictably a lot of mistakes in both grammar and pronunciation). In my observation, what I see happening in some situations is that the ESL student succumbs to the temptation of the sense of urgency that speed creates by trying to match the speaking pace of the native English speaker; in part because they want to give the impression that they understand and are able to participate in the conversation but also in part because that is the universal lure of speed. The student reacts to the urgency that speed always creates. As a result, their quality of communication rapidly deteriorates as they make more grammar and pronunciation mistakes. What I always tell them is something simple: I suggest that when they encounter a native speaker who is speaking at a pace that is too rapid for them to understand, to simply respond in a slow and measured pace.  This is a very subtle way to slow the conversation down to a slower and more easily understood pace that avoids having to literally ask the native speaker to slow down which is often embarrassing for many students.

There is simply something so mesmerizing and inviting about speed. It seems to play upon some innate impulsive desire we have to go fast. We are always in a hurry – in a hurry to get to work, in a hurry to eat, in a hurry to get through the commercials to get back to the show, in a hurry to grow up, in a hurry to finish college, in a hurry to get the next gadget, in a hurry to finish the week to get to the weekend, etc. Speed has almost become part of our DNA.  Unfortunately, speed has its unwanted trade-offs. One of my favorite authors, David Whyte, has this to say about the dangers of speed:

The great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities and responsibilities of existence is that very soon we cannot recognize anything or anyone who is not traveling at the same velocity as we are. We see only those moving in the same whirling orbit and only those moving with the same urgency. Soon we begin to suffer a form of amnesia, caused by the blurred vision of velocity itself, where those things germane to our humanity are dropped from our minds one by one.”

If we are not careful as teachers to avoid being swept up into the whirling funnel cloud of technology, the ones that will tragically be blurred to our vision are not only our students but ourselves.

As we get caught up with the frenzied sense of urgency to keep up with the never-ending breakaway pace of the peloton of society, it’s so easy to overlook the necessity of bringing our full presence to the life that is happening right in front of us, not only in the classroom, but in general. Presence is always associated with slowing down, not speeding up. It is only through the more measured and deliberate pace of conversations with our students that we can listen and respond to what their needs are. We have to be careful not to be bullied into accepting the value system that the current societal zeitgeist is promoting. It is this zeitgeist that is encouraging teachers to abandon their craft, which is as old as humanity, in favor of iPads and other technological gadgets, which wouldn’t even register as the last second of the last minute of the last hour of the last day on the timeline of humanity (to shamelessly borrow from Carl Sagan’s famous quote). Why is the timeless craft of teaching suddenly inadequate and ineffective now that the iPad has shown up?

As teachers, it is our job to be leaders, not to be led. Part of our task as teachers is to imbue our students with the capacity for discrimination and that can only be accomplished if we ourselves are discriminating. This means that we cannot be susceptible to riding every societal wave that comes along. We must take a vantage point that places us above the chaos of the surf so that we can have the necessary perspective that being decisive and deliberate calls for.  Perhaps being a little old-fashioned, stupid, inactive, or unenlightened in the metaphoric sense is exactly what we need in order to inoculate ourselves from the disease of speed so that we can get the perspective we need to use technology in our classrooms in a more imaginative and judicious manner so that the best interests of our students are not blurred. Perhaps each of us has a dodo inside that appears to have become extinct. Fortunately for us, this is a dodo that can be resurrected with the simple act of slowing down and being present. Now when my girlfriend calls me a dodo, I smugly smile to myself in realizing that perhaps being a dodo isn’t so bad after all.

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Author: Chris Franek

I run a language learning organization called Premiere Language based in Houston, TX. I have been involved in language learning for almost 20 years now and it's been a wonderful journey that has taken me to quite a few countries and allowed me to cultivate fascinating relationships with people from all over the world. These experiences have deeply informed a growing conviction in me that language and culture are inseparable and in constant conversation with each other--that language is born out of culture and that culture is a natural outgrowth of community. The classroom, in its best incarnation, is a microcosm of a larger community and ultimately, language instruction is all about connecting students to new communities. Visit the Premiere Language website Follow Chris Franek on his blog

8 thoughts on “Summoning the Spirit of the Dodo

  1. This is a timely post for me, as I recently discovered how much I live in the future at the expense of being truly present with the people around me. The distractions of technology aren’t helping! Thank you for the reminder that it’s OK, even necessary, to slow down and be present.

    • Thanks for your comments Robyn. I think that we often live in a lot of places that aren’t present to where we actually are–the future, the past, or just caught up in the dizzyingly dissociative blur of our busyness. American poet Robert Bly commented about the horizontal plane of time (which includes the past, the future, & the four directions) and the vertical plane (which is where we actually are in any given moment). We have a tendency to get completely engrossed in the horizontal one almost to the complete exclusion of the vertical one. Slowing down is the simple way to remedy that although admittedly, it can be much easier said than done.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this! Working professionally as “the technology person” in my organization, I definitely see this craze for technology. It can reach a point where you get too excited about too many different “awesome” new tools available at a moment’s notice, with very little risk, that your audience becomes numb. I like your analogy and mention of slowing down and being more judicious, imaginative, and purposeful about your selection of technology in business. I definitely plan on using this advice to help create a more powerful learning experience for our users. Thanks Chris!

    • Thanks for your comments Rebecca! It’s always nice to hear about someone endeavoring to leverage the power of technology in a mindful way–be that arena that of teaching or business.

  3. Reblogged this on English – Batteries not included… and commented:
    A wonderful article by Chris Franek – and a quick personal observation: sometimes you have to go back in order to move forward.

    • Thank you Christina. I really appreciate the support and your efforts to continue the conversation in another forum. I visited your blog and I like it! “Mymathimia”–quite the intriguing name!

  4. Pingback: Summoning the Spirit of the Dodo | English for work | Scoop.it

  5. Incredible points. Great arguments. Keep
    up the great work.

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