Thoughts on One of the Most Important Education/Parenting Books You Really Need to Read
“They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”—Steve Jobs on How His Kids Liked the iPad
Distracted. Disengaged. Unable to follow simple directions. Poor executive functioning (the ability to plan, organize, and carry out tasks). Inattentive.
These are just a few of the adjectives that I’ve heard from teachers and substitute teachers who worked in various schools last year when asked to describe how they were finding students who returned to the classroom post-pandemic.
One high school English teacher instructed her long-term substitute to not assign chapters of the novel students were reading for homework. One might think, but don’t they need to do that so that they can engage in follow up activities about the readings together in class?
“They won’t bother to do it,” she said. “You’ll be listening to the book together in class via Audible. Then they’ll complete the follow up material about each chapter on their Chromebooks.”
Do students still pull out a book they’re reading for pleasure when they finish their work? Rarely. Most don’t bring one to class. Some high school and junior school high teachers even allow students free time on their phones when they finish their work.
The culture in schools is changing. The deleterious effects of school closures through COVID have certainly accelerated this, but the transition was already in place before.
After reading Screen Schooled by Joe Clement and Matt Miles (Chicago Review Press) in 2018 I brought my copy to the school where I was teaching and actually carried it around on campus for a few days, eager for an opportunity to share it with my admin staff. It articulated so clearly and thoroughly what I believed!
I never did that. Chickened out.
I must have sensed that the push toward putting every child on a laptop in the classroom was already in full force and that my concerns might not necessarily be welcome. The book’s message challenges the direction we were heading as a school.
What Do Kids Really Need?
As it turns out, the message of Screen Schooled runs increasingly counter to the mainstream in educational America in both the public and private spheres today. If in pre-COVID days the water was rising, we’re now in full flood mode as any considerations about the negative effects of the proliferation of technology in the classroom appear to be swept away. In our post-COVID world back in school, kids are on personal laptops and iPads even more than they were before the pandemic.
And as Screen Schooled explains so effectively, there is a cost.
The authors, two high school teachers, are no Luddites and actually quite techie themselves. Clement was employed in the tech industry before becoming a teacher, and Miles was an IT major in college before switching to education. He serves as his department’s “technology representative.”
The authors, then, are not anti-technology, nor am I. It can be extremely useful in furthering learning goals in the classroom if used purposefully, and its use was essential in keeping teachers connected to students and able to deliver lessons during COVID lockdown.
Yet, Clement and Miles have witnessed the damage that screen “overuse and misuse” has wreaked on our kids— even before schools shut down—and they are alarmed about it. Their concerns have to do with this fundamental question:
What do kids really need?
“Make a list of ten things that kids today need. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Thanks for doing that. Now look at that list. Does it include “more screen time”? I didn’t think so. Mine doesn’t either. If I had asked you to make a list of twenty things kids today need, would “more screen time” have been on that one? How about if it were a list of a hundred or a thousand things kids need? The point is that while there is nearly universal agreement that kids today do not need more time on screens, schools are doing what they can to make sure kids spend more time on screens.”From the Introduction
Their conclusion, based not only on their experience as teachers, but also on their deep dive into research and data, is that our children’s current screen saturation is damaging their healthy development both socially and cognitively.
If “More Screen Time” Isn’t What Kids Really Need, Why the Push into Classrooms?
If this is the case, and I believe most thinking adults would agree it is so, then questions must be asked. One of the things I most appreciated about the book is that it addresses, head-on, this elephant in the room:
If more time on screens is not what kids really need, then what is driving the push to integrate technology into nearly every discipline of K-12 education?
One reason is the misguided claim that children who experience low-tech education will lag behind their technology saturated peers and be unprepared for the future world of work.
The authors address this fallacy by pointing to the educational choices parents who work in high-tech industries are making for their own children. Like Steve Jobs (see quote above), these are the people who deeply understand the extraordinary products they create. They know the wonders of technology and they also know what the repercussions can be for misuse in the hands of a child whose brain is still developing.
The Waldorf School’s philosophy emphasizing hands-on education, in-person social interaction, and creative problem solving is increasingly popular with the tech community in Silicon Valley. Technology use is rejected both in and outside of school, and some schools even require parents to sign contracts promising to limit their child’s use at home.
“Back-to-school nights at Waldorf schools are a who’s who of the technology world, with executives from eBay, Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard…Seventy-five percent of Waldorf students in Silicon Valley have ties to the tech industry.” p. 175
But don’t these tech titans worry that their screen limited children will fall behind their peers, unprepared for their tech-dominated futures? Apparently not. They understand that the purpose of early education is to develop foundational, developmentally appropriate skillsets that will always be useful, regardless of future trends.
“As Alan Eagle, an executive at Google who is a Waldorf parent and has a computer science degree from Dartmouth explains, “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.” p. 175
The second reason for the push for technology-centered education is explained in a chapter titled “The Education-Industrial Complex.” The reality is that, inasmuch as teachers don’t typically see it this way, education is a business, and a great deal of money is at stake.
Millions of dollars have changed hands as schools have spent to upgrade their hard and software, and technology and publishing companies both large and small have scrambled to create and market their products.
Industries, government entities, and decision makers in education work hand-in-glove to make decisions and shape curriculum. The story of how Common Core Standards came into being through the involvement of Bill Gates and Microsoft, former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and several D.C. based organizations is just one example of the inbred decision-making that drives educational practice and affords lucrative benefits for the prime movers.
What Kids Really Do Need
Neither of these two reasons for technology’s push into the classroom actually address the question of what kids really need.
The authors do, however. Their final chapter, “Ideal Education in a Modern World” outlines the key principles that should shape educational decisions: Keep it Simple, Focus Instruction on Skills (real, not virtual), and Foster Face to Face Social Interaction. If the use of technology supports or enhances these principles, great. If not, teachers should not feel pressured to impose it into their instruction.
The goal is that students will develop real-world skills, learn to think deeply and critically, and learn how to collaborate. In other words, the things kids really need that will carry them into an unknown future.