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Two Views on the Role of Technology in Schools

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Should We Limit ‘Screen Time’ in School?” by Daniel Scoggin and Tom Vander Ark in Education Next, Winter 2018 (Vol. 18, 31, p. 54-63),
“What if today’s connected youth are not well served by spending school hours in front of screens?” asks the lead-in to a pair of articles in Education Next by Daniel Scoggin (GreatHearts Charter Schools) and Tom Vander Ark (Getting Smart).
Here is their point-counterpoint:
• A skeptic – “How does the current array of technology in schools fit with the ages-old aspiration of forming thoughtful and reflective young men and women who will strive for a greater good beyond themselves?” asks Scoggin. He has no problem with schools using technology to support good teaching and content, performing mundane tasks, serving as a “coach-tutor” assessing learning and responding to students’ needs, facilitating student research, bringing dramatic videos and world-class guest speakers into the classroom, and allowing teachers to share best practices within and among schools.
But technology does best in areas with right and wrong answers, he says, and less well for higher-order thinking and social-emotional skills. We should use low-tech approaches for “shaping not just our students’ ability to persevere and solve difficult problems but also their character – their empathic connections with others, their capacity to see our shared humanity, and their ability to problem solve with others for the common good… The scarce quality among our children today is not intelligence but rather the ability to deliberate carefully, to see the multiple sides of an issue, and then to exercise sound judgment according to grounded values and proper ends.” In other words, wisdom.
Can’t technology and social media serve these ends? Scoggin doubts it. He believes that, as with parenting, these qualities must be nurtured through direct human interaction. He quotes David Brooks on the distinction between “thin” institutions that are anonymous, ephemeral, transient, and transactional, and “thick” institutions that engage the whole person – head, hands, heart, and soul – in physical locations like the family dinner table. “The best schools have qualities in common with an extended family, a traveling sports team, or a military platoon,” says Scoggin. “They are thick communities, where students and teachers celebrate and suffer together; where you know when someone is having a bad day and ask what you can do to help; where in the classroom adventure and risk, cheers, and even embarrassment are experienced directly; where the wrinkle of a brow and what is not said means just as much as what is spoken; and where disagreement can squat in the room like the elephant it usually is and not be mouse-clicked away.”
In the charter school network he founded, Scoggin says students use technology where it’s appropriate, but every day engage in two-hour Socratic dialogues on literature, philosophy, history, and other subjects. Students put away their devices for part of each day and “engage with one another and the subject matter, to think, to laugh, and even, sometimes, to be bored and figure out what they are going to do about it. They are asked to leave behind the neurochemical high of skimming, surfing, texting, and Snapchatting, and engage the frontal lobes of their brains, the executive functions of deep reading, intuiting first principles, problem solving, and recognizing the inherent value of the human beings in front of them.”
• An advocate – Vander Ark (formerly with the Gates Foundation) believes that more important than the question of how much screen time students should spend is, “are students engaged in powerful learning experiences and, whenever possible, given voice and choice in what, how, and when they learn?” He believes digital technology “can powerfully facilitate this process, if thoughtful adults deploy it wisely.”
The problem, he says, is that computers surged into schools at the same time as the national push for standards, assessment, and accountability, and the combination was not good for either initiative. For 25 years, many schools were locked into teaching to the test with grade-level cohorts and “valued seat time over learning, proficiency over growth, and consumption over production. We learned that good teaching matters but forgot how important it is to give students agency over their own learning. Instead of encouraging innovation with the newly available tech tools, accountability systems based on narrow and dated measures tended to clamp down on new approaches.”
But we have entered a new era, says Vander Ark, featuring five key developments: worldwide connectivity (soon 20 billion devices will be linked); intimate computing (where your device knows you and can continuously learn about your information needs); experiential computing (immersing students in augmented and virtual reality); tech-facilitated personalized learning (diagnosing proficiency and adjusting instruction to students’ performance); and competency and credentials (allowing students to demonstrate proficiency in specific skill sets anytime, anywhere).
The key to getting school screen time right, says Vander Ark, is asking, “What should young people know and be able to do? What kinds of experiences will help them develop important knowledge, skills, and dispositions?” Having answered these questions, pioneering schools are using technology to forge ahead with individually paced, project-based learning that promotes a full range of competencies – critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, and taking responsibility for one’s own learning. “These new models,” he says, pointing to the 200-school New Tech Network, “blend learning activities – long and short, online and offline, individual and team, production and consumption, discipline-based and integrated – into a productive sequence of personalized learning experiences.”
What’s essential to effective use of technology, Vander Ark concludes, is wise management and oversight: “Technology is an amplifier. It can make good parents, teachers, and experiences better – or it can have the opposite effect. Mobile devices, games, and social applications are potentially addictive and can lead to unproductive or even dangerous behaviors… Appropriate limits are essential.” He believes very young children should have little or no access to screens and schools need to have guidelines for cyber-safety and security.
It’s time for teachers and parents to “lean in rather than push back,” says Vander Ark. Too many students are bored, tired, and stressed in school. “Rather than focusing on grades and test scores, students need opportunities to take on big issues, work with diverse teams, and produce innovations that will make their communities proud. Technology can help motivate and accelerate learning. It can help young people create and invent, launch social movements, and even contribute to solving global problems.”

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