This summer, on a whim, I picked up Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. This book could not have come into my life at a better time. I was in the throes of trying to revision our Teaching and Learning in the Digital course that we’ve taught at Appalachian State’s College of Education for over a decade as part of the core courses for every Education major, BK-12. This course had focused on media literacy and pedagogy, and I wanted to keep those strengths while simplifying the course enough to get buy-in from such a wide range of preservice teachers.
This book opened my eyes to a possibility. What if the road to preservice teachers thinking deeply about technology and media in their own teaching actually rested on this new(ish) philosophy? After all, we had always had a type of Digital Sabbath as an activity in the course, but this seemed to add a real depth to that idea. What could this philosophy offer my students?
Well, a lot, it turns out. Newport’s focus on how we might interact with technologies in new ways as we foster more life-sustaining activities and relationships has a real appeal, not only in my own personal life but also in my teaching. And, though not always easy, the way Newport suggests we go about shifting our relationship to technologies is so straightforward and well-articulated.
So, what does digital minimalism mean. According to Newport, digital minimalism is:
a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else. (Newport, 2019, p. 28)
He advocates three principles to this philosophy. The first is that “Clutter is costly” (pp. 35-44), in which he asserts that when it comes to social media, we need to think about the amount of life we are exchanging for our extensive use of these media and whether the cost is worth it. The second principle, called The Return Curve, rests on the idea that we can optimize how we use technologies to get the benefits we want to get from it. The last principle is the foundation for the others. In this principle, the goal is to figure out what we value the most then work backwards in how we decide to use technologies, if at all. The key question with digital minimalism is, then, “Is this the best way to use technology to support (our) value(s)? (p. 29).
This becomes a crucial point when we are thinking about the perspective teachers can take when integrating technologies into their teaching and into their students’ learning. In this view, I would like to offer up this expanded definition of digital minimalism for teaching. Digital minimalism is
[a] philosophy of technology use in which you focus your teaching time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities both with and without media that strongly support learning you value, and then happily miss out on everything else. (adapted from Newport, 2019, p. 29)
From my past literacies work, I have discovered how important modalities are in terms of expressing ideas, especially for young people and people who have been marginalized. So, when it came to figuring out how digital minimalism works with teaching, I went back to the basics. In our section of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, we are exploring how what we value pedagogically can be fostered using media in various forms based on different modes, namely sound, image, and gesture (body). We will culminate in a Teaching with Media Tools assignment, which is common to all sections, and a Teaching with Media Philosophy statement for my section. Along the way, we will do our own Digital Declutter assignment where I hope to foster some thinking about what we value in education as applied to the students’ own rethinking of digital media.
In our last class, we did some mind-mapping work with Newport’s ideas along with a really fascinating video from CrashCourse that explored social media. Then, we spent some time analyzing the teaching tool, Seesaw, to see how it might be falling prey to some of the pitfalls Newport talks about but also how it might be optimized for teaching and learning.
It’s going to be a very enlightening semester, and I can’t wait to see where this leads us.