There is a famous Zen koan (a verbal, mental puzzle that Zen Buddhist adherents use for meditation and to deepen their practice) that offers a deadly paradox:
If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill him.
Being a few meters short of nirvana myself, I can’t perfectly articulate the meaning of the puzzle, but the general idea is this: “The way,” the path to enlightenment, needs to be individually traveled. If you meet the Buddha on the way, you cannot reach wisdom by slavishly following his path; you need to kill him (metaphorically) and follow your own way. A gathering of Buddhists isn’t about the Buddha, it’s about what the Buddha sought. There are useful guides to the way, but ultimately each of us must follow his or her own path.
This week, I’m helping host EdTechTeacher’s iPad Summit, what we believe is the first national gathering of educators pioneering the use of iPads and tablets in schools and classrooms. As I think about facilitating the event, I keep coming back to the idea that this event for iPad users can’t be about iPads. My own koan for the week is this:
If you meet an iPad on the way, smash it.
If this event becomes a meeting about how we got rid of power cords or extended battery life or solved workflow challenges or found some neat apps, then we fail. The iPad summit is not about the iPad.
The way we are seeking is one where we prepare young people for a life of civic commitment, of self-reflection, and of meaningful work and contributions to community. The way is about unlocking student talent, compassion, and humanity. If the iPad distracts us from defining the way, then we have to smash it.
Our introductory keynote speaker, Tony Wagner, will probably have nothing to say about iPads. Rather, he’ll draw from his recent book Creating Innovators, about the kinds of learning environments that nurture creative, entrepreneurial thinkers. He will talk about play, passion, and purpose as critical nutrients to fertilizing the soil where innovation can take root. He’ll share a vision of emerging educational spaces—like Olin College, MIT’s Media Lab, and High Tech High—that have developed effective strategies for fostering collaborative problem solving and creative thinking. His iPad-less introduction to our iPad summit is by design: we want to devote our attention to the “why” before we contemplate the “how.”
Once the way comes into focus—once we can imagine the learners we wish to cultivate and the experiences we wish to nurture—then we can think about iPads. Then we can think about how to put the affordances of the iPad in the service of our goals: how instant on functionality gives us the power, at any moment, to turn iPads off and focus our attention on each other; how the limitations of file storage force our students to learn to organize their work in the cloud; how a portable connection to the world’s information and the world’s Internet-connected population offers an unprecedented resource for problem solving; how a portable media creation device offers flexible ways for students to routinely demonstrate their understanding in multiple modalities.
I offer my best wishes to everyone headed to the iPad Summit this week, and this advice: If the nitty-gritty details of iPad use distract us from our larger mission, then we need to smash them. If we get to lost in the “how” of iPads in classrooms, then we need to stop and ask “why?”