An Interview with Alan Singer: Teaching and Learning Social Studies via Digital Technology

About Alan Singer

Alan Singer is a professor of Teaching, Learning and Technology and the director of social studies education programs. Dr. Singer is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and is editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. He is the author of Teaching Global History (Routledge, 2011), New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions, 2008), Social Studies for Secondary Schools (Routledge, 3rd edition, 2008), and editor of a 268-page secondary school curriculum guide, New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance. In 2011, the Long Island Conference for the Social Studies awarded Dr. Singer the Mark Rothman Teacher Mentoring Award, for his commitment to students and continued excellence in education. He received his Masters and Doctoral degrees from Rutgers University.

Professor Singer, you like me, grew up and attended school before the emergence of modern digital technologies. What are your general views on the use of technology in the classroom today?

I work with students who either plan to become teachers or who are beginning teachers. I joke that I am a “technosaurus,” a dinosaur when it comes to the use of technology in the classroom. When I was in high school we were not allowed to use pocket calculators on state assessment exams – because they had not been invented yet. But I am not anti-technology. My in-laws gave my family our first computer, an Apple 2E in 1982 and I had no idea what to do with it. I quickly realized I could type and save lesson plans, activity sheets, and tests for future use, and I could edit them. Within months my wife, who was also a teacher, and I bought a second computer.

When I completed my doctoral dissertation I typed, retyped, and retyped again, an arduous and time-consuming task. I finally paid some one to complete the final version for submission. Today, not only typing, but most of my research, is done using computers. I am currently reading the 1940 manuscript census for a small town in Central Pennsylvania online. While I remain a “technosaurus” on many teaching issues, I have desktop computers in my home and work offices, a laptop, a kindle, and a cellphone. Digital devices are useful tools, but they are only tools. When they interfere with emotional development, learning, and academic performance they become a problem.

A recent book, Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber (Chicago Review Press, 2018), warns about the hype of the ed-tech industry and the psychological impact of too much technology in the lives of children. Unlike me, the authors are not “technosauruses,” but they are very worried about the negative impact of the aggressive promotion of ed-tech in schools and the lack of scientific evidence to support corporate claims about improved student performance.

There is even concern within the tech industry about the impact on children of the proliferation of digital devices. On January 8, 2018, the New York Times Business Day column was headlined “Apple Investors Warn iPhones and Other Technology May be Hurting Children.” In an open letter to the Board of Directors of Apple Inc, an activist hedge fund and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which together control $2 billion worth of Apple stock, cited several research studies on the negative impact of laptops, tablets and smartphones on children. One study was based on interviews with over 2,00 teachers. The teachers overwhelming reported that their students were distracted by digital technologies in the classroom and that this frequently resulted in a decline in their ability to focus on educational tasks.

The teachers also reported that corresponding to the increased use of these technologies they witnessed increases in the emotional and social problems children were grappling with, problems that were affecting learning. Another study reported on in the letter to Apple was downright frightening. “U.S. teenagers who spend 3 hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely, and those who spend 5 hours or more are 71% more likely, to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than 1 hour.” More and more young people have hundreds of Facebook friends and Youtube followers, but less and less real human interaction. The letter to Apple Inc. is worth reading in its entirety. You can access it online – Ha!

You train secondary social studies teachers – how do you use technology?

My approach to secondary school teaching, and to teacher education, starts with three questions. What are our goals as teachers? What is important to know and why? How do we engage students in social interaction, discovery, and understanding? Thinking about these questions comes before I consider how I will construct the lesson and introduce students to material. Unfortunately, in too many classrooms teachers feel pressure to use available technology. They plan their lessons backwards starting with the technology they want to use, packaged PowerPoints, videos, online simulations, which leads to technology shows that can interfere with significant learning. Entertainment replaces engagement and thinking.

Digital technology as a tool has its uses, important uses. I promote writing as a form of edited thinking. Writing essays using Word makes editing and rewriting easier. We want students to support arguments with evidence. Technology supports the marshalling of evidence. It also presents them with alternative interpretations. As teachers, we can use this to challenge students to think critically about information and conclusions.

Digital technology contributes to a teacher’s ability to provide multiple entry points into a topic and address the needs of different types of learners. I like to include a brief video (max five minutes) coupled with guiding questions and an occasional song in lessons. The internet also makes it possible to respond to student questions by pulling up a map, image, or quote that they can analyze, rather than me.

Digital technology provides ongoing and interactive contact. I can post PowerPoints, documents, and homework assignments on the class website. Absent from class is no longer an excuse not to do your work. Student teams, if you work in a district where students have home computers and reliable internet access, can also continue to work together after school.

 Is there a real “app gap,” and how would you describe it?

I had to look “app gap” up – online – to be sure what you were asking. A study by Common Sense Media makes two important points. All children do not have the same access to technology at home. For example, “Two percent of low- income children have an iPad or tablet in the home, versus 17 percent of higher income children” and “38 percent of lower-income parents say they don’t know what an app is, compared to just 3 percent of higher income parents.” That is clearly an “app gap” that parallels the much reported on economic class digital divide. But the other factor they considered is the educational quality of the “apps.” All apps are not created equal. Educated parents in higher income families tend to be more selective about the “apps” their children use. In lower-income families and less-educated parents tend to be less informed and less selective. In these families, children often spend much too much time playing mind-numbing games. This is digital technology at its worst.

Are our students being “PowerPointed to death” or do most instructors have a great bag of pedagogical tricks?

I hate PowerPoint presentations heavily laden with text. They led to boring read-alouds or equally boring bullet-point lectures. PowerPoints are most useful when they offer students a limited number of images (cartoons, maps, or paintings) or a brief quote for analysis. I have witnessed too many lessons where students copy from a PowerPoint. It saves teacher effort because they no longer have to write on the board, but it is a waste of teaching time and students experience it as punishment. My first question to the teacher or student teacher when I see this is, “Why don’t you just email them the notes or post them on a class webpage?”

In your mind, what is the most important technology tool?

I have a friend, Gary Benenson, who teaches about technology to public school teachers at the City College of New York. Gary argues that we define technology much to narrowly. Pencil and paper are a form of technology. They may be “primitive,” but they still may be our most important teaching tools.

I recommend a very funny video called “The Medieval Helpdesk” about the discovery of the book. It is in Norwegian with English subtitles. There is also an English language version. It is about problems with all new technologies.

But that probably is not what you were asking about. As a teacher, researcher, lesson planner, and historian, my most important tool is the internet. It allows me, and my students, to access the world, and challenges us to decide what is important and what is reliable.

At the secondary level, what technology skills do you feel students really need?

Pen and paper in class, occasionally a laptop. But I insist that the laptop be closed until we are ready to use them. At home, students need a laptop or desktop computer with internet access. Cellphones in class are the biggest distraction. When they are out and on in class it becomes impossible to monitor how they are being used.

The learning curve of your teacher education students – how quickly do they pick up on new devices and applications like Skype and Zoom for video conferencing?

I confess, I make limited use of Skype and Zoom in my teacher education classes. On rare occasion an absent student has skyped into class. I am not sure how effective this would be in a secondary school classroom. I have used Skype for television interviews and Zoom for a conference with other historians, some of whom were in Ireland. Skype can be used to bring guest experts into your classroom. I like the idea of video conferencing with classes in other parts of the country or world, but I have not used it yet. I don’t know any teachers in my secondary school network who have made them a major part of their pedagogy – yet.

Is there a place for a technology “second life” for social studies teachers?

The best part of being a teacher is that we are always learning along with students. It is not easy for teachers, even those who are willing and interested, to learn or teach about technology in a universe where technology is continually changing. Before my youngest child grew up and moved out, I learned most of what I know about computers by looking over his shoulder.

Now I learn from my grandson who set up my YouTube channel. I eventually realized I could adapt that strategy to learn from my students, both in high school and teacher education classes, as they become technology experts and teachers in my classes. Every year I recruit a student assistant to update my webpage. To teach and use technology in the content area, I recommend meeting regularly with an expert group of students that can help you figure out what needs to be done, is able to master the appropriate skills, and then work within their own cooperative learning teams to ensure that all students in the class develop necessary competencies. It is the best way I know to keep up with the students.

What have I neglected to ask?

Where do I access the latest technology learning standards? Check out the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

By the way, the “technosaurus” was actually a real dinosaur. It was about three feet long, weighed in at twenty pounds, and lived over 200 million years ago. Its remains were discovered near Texas Tech University, hence its name. The university has been lobbying to have the “technosaurus” declared the official dinosaur of the State of Texas.

Michael ShaughnessyAbout the Author
Michael F. Shaughnessy is currently Full Professor at Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales, New Mexico, where he also directs the New Mexico Educational Software Clearinghouse. He has authored, edited, or co-edited approximately 30 books and authored or co-authored approximately 500 articles in various journals and online publications.

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