Superpower or Power Gone Sideways?

I sat down recently with Maxwell Beers, co-director of The Providence Studio digital and fine arts program, to discuss what it means to develop tech-savvy skills and to use those “superpowers” ethically, responsibly, and practically. From engaging with social media to altering images in Photoshop, Mr. Beers trains and equips students to create content that is edifying, moral, and truthful. – Elaine Rottman, Recess and Rhetoric editor


R&R: At Providence, we seek to develop a “tech-savvy” habit of the mind in our students. What does that mean?

MB:  We all want to use technology. It’s the new fun thing or the new fad. But, oftentimes, we use technology in an almost reactionary way, as opposed to proactively asking the question, “Why?” Technology has this really fascinating hold on us. It’s something we consume every day, whether it’s on purpose or accidental. I think our goal with developing  tech-savvy graduates is accomplished by facilitating opportunities for students to take an everyday, unintentional occurrence and make it pragmatic, make it intentional, make it thoughtful. 

The cell phone we hold in our pocket is exceedingly more powerful than the computer used to put the first spaceship on the moon. (According to the science and journalism website, The Conversation, modern cell phones have more than 1 million times the memory and over 100,000 times the processing power of the Apollo computer.)

We are teaching students who are moving into a world where technology is omnipresent, whether it’s in the car or built into their eyeglasses or used on their watches. Maxwell Smart having a shoe phone is no longer a novelty. 

Teaching students to be tech savvy is partly keeping up with the trends, but it’s also doing it so that it’s done well, and strategically, and ethically. It’s about using technology not just because it’s available, or because it’s just something all their friends do, but in a way that is intentional and actually merits Kingdom values. 

R&R: When you work with students, do you find that they are already pretty confident with design and presentation programs or do they have a lot to learn?

MB: Today’s high school students are our digital natives. They grew up with this stuff. You and I can remember rotary phones and dial-up modems and our first cell phones, but since they’ve grown up with these devices they believe everyone has always had them. That can be frustrating.

I remind myself with my own children: we have to teach general common sense, even when you think what makes common sense is obvious. Even though our students are digital natives, they still need to be taught the very fundamentals, like how to save a file with the appropriate extension, which program to put it in which folder, and even how to access files. Sometimes I over-anticipate they know the fundamentals because they grew up with this technology.

Students today are more inclined to let go of old technology. Ask anyone in their 30s or 40s about Facebook and they’re still actively using it, but if you ask any 16 year old, they’ll laugh at you. Teenagers adopt quickly evolving technology with frequency and ease. That’s a little concerning. Do they know why they are making changes, such as no longer using Facebook or Twitter? Is it just because something new is trending?

When MySpace and Facebook first launched, people were going there to read about other people. And then we got lazy and Instagram became the thing and users no longer had to read, they just had to look at pictures. And then the pictures themselves weren’t that interesting and users wanted to watch little videos. And then it was, well, there’s too much, so they want to watch only really short videos. And you can see how the trend went from Instagram to Vines or even Snapchats, and then all of a sudden now we just want to consume someone else’s TikTok. 

Right now students are using BeReal, which is a simple online photo archive. Every day at a different time, everyone captures a photo within two minutes, creating a daily diary of their life that is stored on the app. What’s interesting is that when you hold up your phone, it takes a photo from the front and rear cameras at the same time. And you can flip between the two. You can take a selfie, but you also take a picture at the same time of the people you’re with. And so the assumption is, just be real, just be yourself. This is what’s happening in your everyday life and this shows who is in your life. As you look back over your archives, you can see this person and then that person, and then no longer that person, and then this new person.

In some ways, it’s great. But are we only doing it because everyone else is doing it? Or do we use it because we actually care about looking back at our personal history and seeing what happened our senior year? 

The questions to ask are what’s the next iteration? What’s the next thing that will come out? Are we prepared? Do we anticipate new trends and do we know why we choose to adopt them or are we just being reactionary and following the crowd? Are we trying to be intentional about what we’re using and why we’re using it? 

R&R: Do you think students use social media primarily to focus attention on themselves? Or are they more interested in consuming entertainment?

MB: I think it’s more the latter. Personally, I think my generation (people in their 40s), were the ones who used Instagram to put themselves out there as though they had a perfect angle on whatever they were doing. For students today, social media is not as much about showing off but about being relevant and being available online wherever their peers are. 

R&R: For the work you do in The Studio teaching design and presentation skills, I know it’s important to you and your colleague, James Daly, to teach “ethical content making.” What does that mean?

MB: We actually had a big conversation about this the other day. When you learn programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, and even really good technical drawing skills, it can feel like you have a superpower: you can create what others perceive to be real. And you can claim that a photo or an illustration or a drawing depicts the truth. That truth, however, can so easily be manipulated with very, very basic skills, especially in Photoshop. I can change hair color, eye color, size, and weight. I can choose a perspective from which to draw that manipulates the truth. There is a lot of power in that.

Teaching technological skills is one thing, but teaching how to use those skills appropriately is a taller order. When our graduates go out in the world they’re going to be the ones telling that truth. And people are going to be buying into that truth as something our culture values. Using those superpowers can quickly go sideways.

R&R: How do you engage students in conversations about superpowers and truth when they’re struggling with skills like finding the right tool to draw a curved line? How do you get to the ethical content conversation?

MB: There’s this happy medium between assignments made for the sake of learning the tools and assignments made to promote those ethical conversations. Often the assignments overlap. For example, I give a celebrity swap assignment where students swap their own faces with a celebrity’s face. It’s fun and silly and students are learning the tools then they discover the difference between their own face and a celebrity’s face is just shapes. After you swap the shapes you sit back and think, “Wow, that could be me; I could be that person!” A conversation then emerges. 

When I demonstrate that simply clicking the healing brush or a clone stamp can erase acne, students don’t usually question the ethical implications. But how quickly does that choice turn from black and white to gray? How much acne should be removed from someone’s face to make it look like that’s what they really look like? The same goes for hair color, eye color, or body shape. With a very simple tool on a very simple assignment we open a conversation about the superpower of being able to manipulate truth. 

The Dove beauty line has fabulous commercials I have students watch about the essence of beauty and what it means to be a girl. We then have a conversation about the ridiculousness of assuming what we see in magazines is 100% real. At the same time, though, there’s some really cool things you can do with photo illustration skills. Those tools are like dynamite! And as a tech-savvy user, you get to decide when to use them.


“When our graduates go out in the world they’re going to be the ones telling that truth. And people are going to be buying into that truth as something our culture values. Using those superpowers can quickly go sideways.”


R&R: How do you see the fit between the goals of intellectual preparation, spiritual formation, and strategic influence that are part of a distinctly Christian education with what you teach in The Studio? Specifically, I’m wondering about strategic influence. Have you seen students invest their talents in that area?

MB: We look for ways to implement the skills students learn in The Studio within the school itself or within their local communities. Right now, I have a student who is using Illustrator to make designs for custom pieces for her church that can be produced on the Cricut. A student made the digital watercolor art for the school Christmas card. Another student is making funny short videos that are public service announcements about bullying. 

R&R: How does what you’re doing in The Studio fulfill the school’s mission “to prepare students for lives of purpose, equipped with knowledge, wisdom, and character found in God’s unchanging truth?”

MB: If technologies function as truth-tellers, as I believe they do, students must first have a fundamental understanding of what truth is. Then they need to challenge the constantly evolving technologies and discern well. If we have students in our classes long enough and we practice discernment and model that for them, they’ll know which programs they shouldn’t choose and how far they should take using other programs to manipulate truth.

R&R: Are we talking about an absolute truth? I could see that with technology everything can so easily become relative.

MB: We humans are fickle. We change for change’s sake. We crave novelty. I don’t like the term “timeless truth,” but I acknowledge there is a bedrock, a cornerstone, of what constitutes identity, relationship, and God’s Kingdom. It’s like a strainer for pasta: while students are at our school, they’ll always have stuff being poured in and through them. Ideally, in our Studio program and throughout the curriculum, they will build up a network of overlapping realities, of intersecting lines of truth, identity, and relationship, so that when things start pouring through the sieve they have the ability to catch those things that are good and necessary and to pass through the things that aren’t and could be damaging. The bigger the holes, the more stuff falls through; the finer the holes, the less stuff falls through. 

I want to give students a breadth of opportunity to see what’s available and out there so they can develop more and more defined, overlapping lines within that stainer. That grid takes away fear in encountering and using technology. If we don’t encounter some of those issues in class and show students ethical use, they won’t know how to discern later. 

It is so fun when students get it, when I see them create something with a sense of both purpose and truth. They take pride in having done that and their work reflects something they believe in, something they know, something that has value for them.

Even when I’m teaching very simple design edits and I say, “You’re going to do this thing,” and students respond that there is no way they can do what I ask of them, I encourage them to practice and try different techniques, with the opportunity to fail. I just want them to have that exposure to a new experience. And then they go in and change a dog’s eye color in a photo and they see how real it looks. Suddenly, they realize they have this skill that can actually change reality.

Whether it is in Bible class or humanities or math, when a student discovers that one thing they can really use, that skill or idea or tool that can really make an impact or change reality—when you see a student get that concept, it’s cool. That’s when I feel like “I did something today. Let’s go home.”


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Maxwell Beers
Maxwell Beers

Mr. Max Beers teaches Upper School Bible classes, co-directs The Providence Studio, and creates outstanding designs to enhance Providence School branding. His favorite school traditions are any faculty vs. student competitions. As a Minnesota native, he is a fiercely competitive lunchtime street hockey player.

 

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