Swimming against the educational tech tide
Wednesday, July 11, 2018
"Make learning awesome!" and "Fully capture the attention of all your students!" urges marketing copy for new educational technology offerings.
Such products are becoming commonplace in schools around the country — with no end in sight. The school computer and software market is projected to reach $21 billion in sales by the year 2020, reports The New York Times.
However, children attending a handful of private schools intentionally bucking this trend will have none of these promised "powerful pedagogical experiences" with technology, or with what’s commonly touted as edutainment.
It may come as no surprise that some parents aren’t on board with technology in the classroom. What’s notable here is many of these parents happen to be key players in high-tech companies.
The choice of tech industry leaders to limit their own children’s exposure to technology at home and at school has triggered media attention along with questions on how much the push for technology in K-8 education is about business rather than educational benefits for youngsters.
Awesome, captivating and low-tech learning
A peek into a day in the life of one such school revealed a learning experience that some would call awesome. Business Insider’s 2015 exposé of Brightworks, housed in a San Francisco Mission District warehouse, shows students fully captivated as they tackle self-developed projects that may involve using power tools but rarely a tablet, computer or iPhone.
One wires his own remote control quadcopter, others learn averages and estimation by cracking open oat seeds, an older group builds a hydroponics system from scratch, and others are seen working independently writing their own novels and creating tile mosaics.
"School should be empowering and set [children] up for a life of learning and curiosity," explains Brightworks school founder Gever Tully in a Financial Times article that notes that children whose parents work in high tech make up 60 percent of the school’s enrollment.
Tully, a self-taught programmer, elects not to encourage the easy distraction that technology offers. While the school does not forbid technology, he tells students if they want to play a video game, they have to make it.
Concerns about what technology displaces in the school day
Key abilities and traits parents who opt for schools with a technology-free curriculum hope their children gain are creative problem-solving, innovative thinking and perseverance. In educational projects like Brightworks, kids learn from experimenting, with the opportunity to make mistakes and gain valuable experience from them.
One concern with incorporating technology is that it may take the place of more productive learning activities.
Writers of a 2015 OECD study, Students, Computers and Learning, which showed no significant improvement in student achievement over the past 10 years in countries that invested heavily in education-related IT equipment, stated that computer use in classrooms and at home can displace other activities that are conducive to learning.
For children under the age of 12, hands-on learning of core subjects along with music training, play, outdoor education, cursive handwriting, storytelling and art are the focus of Waldorf education — regularly featured in the news for its strong stance on technology and electronic media. Children develop their natural ability to learn in any context, through communication, interactivity and creativity, and without the distractions of technology.
To touch upon what’s truly important, it’s helpful to recall highlights of our own education. Beverly Amico, leader of outreach and development at the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America asks in a Guardian article, "What do you remember as a child in the classroom? It is usually field trips, getting your hands dirty in a lab or a beautiful story. Those are the things that stay with you 50 years later."
Along with encouraging children to solve real-life problems, less exposure to technology helps promote greater interaction and cooperation with other people including teachers. Key to the Waldorf (also known as Steiner) pedagogy is a nurturing teacher-student bond.
"Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers," said Pierre Laurent in a New York Times article. A former employee at Intel and Microsoft, he currently works at a tech start-up and has three children in Waldorf schools.
"Teaching is a human experience," said Paul Thomas, a former teacher and associate professor of education who has written 12 books about public education methods. "A spare approach to technology in the classroom with always benefit learning. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking."
Must children be tantalized into paying attention?
The assumption that children need to be entertained by quick, flashy images that mirror screen games played at home in order to pay attention in class needs to be questioned. Yet, this may be one reason the attention spans of large numbers of today’s children are remarkably short.
In a recent study, pediatrician John Hutton compared brain MRIs of young children when they were being told the same story in three different formats — pure audio, a storybook with illustrations and an animated video format.
The animated format showed the lowest level of comprehension and the least connectivity between the brain networks Hutton was observing. Hutton shared in an NPR article, "Our interpretation was that the animation was doing all the work for the child. They were expending the most energy just figuring out what it means."
Sarah Thorne, head of the London Acorn school, which has strict timetables for the use of technology to help students develop cores skills such as executive decision making, creativity and concentration, explains, "School is a learning journey and you want to make it as complex, rich and interesting as possible. The problem with instant information is that the ease with which you can get from A to B and find the answers doesn’t reflect real life."
She notes that students tend to chat very little among themselves in class because they are engaged in their learning process.
The high degree to which the children are absorbed in their work she believes is a result of being given uninterrupted time and space. This has lasting effects on their ability to concentrate and learn.
In the next article in the series, we look at the flipside, how students can be empowered with technology in the classroom.
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