Computer Fix (Revisited)

I am re-blogging a slightly modified post I entered well over a year ago because it is still timely. In fact, our obsession with electronic toys has grown by leaps and bounds and those who keep “updating” our schools by supplying all the kids with computers are ignoring the facts. This was brought home to me recently when reading a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The story recounted the determination of the St. Paul School Board to put iPads in the hands of every student from kindergarten through high school. The district recently passed a referendum that allowed them to allocate $9 million a year for the next few years for its “Personalized Learning Through Technology Program.” I kid you not! $5.7 million will be spent this year and $8 million a year thereafter to make sure no students are left behind (as it were.)  According to spokespersons, this “would make learning more engaging, hands-on, and tailored to the needs of the students on their own digital turf.” I hasten to note that this person is speaking about “wants” and not “needs,” since it’s not clear that the students need to be met on their own digital turf. Rather, they should move from that turf and seek something higher, something that will actually make them smarter and not just indulge their current urges. What they need is better teachers who are paid a living wage. But a $9 million referendum that might be used to raise teachers’ salaries would surely fail to pass. Parents may agree to build more buildings, put toys in the hands of their kids, and expand the sports programs; they will never agree to pay the teachers what they are worth. And this explains a great deal about why America’s schools are in the dumpster at present.

But, the spokesperson, responds, “Our students are millennialists who have tremendous digital fluency and we must tap into that.” To which I simply ask “why?” Why should we tap into a fluency they already possess? Shouldn’t we seek to develop skills they do not already possess? How else can they grow? But of course, the name of the game these days is to lower the bar and meet the students where they are even though this means they will remain where they are. The point was made by a pundit in the same paper who agrees with me that this is a complete waste of money and totally wrong-headed.  Joe Soucheray points put that “First of all, iPads are not learning tools. They are toys. It is not plausible that the average kid handed a free iPad is going to do anything with it but play games and get deeper and deeper into the social media funk, while, meanwhile, perfectly good books are going unread and unknown and gathering dust on the shelves.”

It seems as though every photo we see showing a modern classroom puts the smiling kids in front of a computer screen: we have become convinced that these tools are indispensable and of unquestioned value to all students of all ages. But this is not the case. We are being sold a bill of goods. The good folks in St. Paul, Minnesota have been sold a bill of goods. And, I dare say, other communities will want to “keep up” and will soon decide that their kids need more technical toys as well. The problem, as Jane Healy pointed out years ago and which has been corroborated numerous times since, is that mounting evidence shows these devices leave the left hemisphere of the child’s brain undeveloped and they are subsequently unable to develop speech and thinking skills. There are a number of “windows of opportunity” that are open in the child’s early years. Once those windows are closed by replacing reading and story-telling with TV and other electronic toys, it becomes nearly impossible to open them again. This strikes me as a problem worth pondering again.

Professor Healy, whom I have referred to in these blogs before, has written a book Failure to Connect that comes out against computer assisted learning, especially in the early grades. Her message comes through with considerable conviction and persuasive power. One of the reviewers on Amazon who knows whereof he speaks gave the book high grades:

“As a person who grew up in the technology age, who has over 10 yrs of experience in industry, who has two young children in public schools, and who happens to be working on a Ph.D in issues of technology and society, I am directly involved with the issues she raises. Healy’s research and argumentation leave something to be desired, but her basic conclusions are correct: there is little or no justification for the use of computers or other high technology devices in schools, especially elementary and middle schools. [Those] who are critical of Healy are not addressing the main points: (1) there is little evidence that computer-aided instruction improves academic performance; (2) there is sufficient evidence, although no proof, that computer usage can be both physically and mentally harmful, and this justifies great caution; (3) the idea that kids need computer experience ‘to get ready for the real world’, or ‘to be competitive’, is a complete myth. Everything a child needs to learn about computers can be accomplished in the last few years of high school. Children in K-5 especially have virtually zero need for computer technology, and no one I have come across has provided arguments to the contrary.

“Too many teachers and parents mindlessly follow along with the trend of computerizing our schools. In a debate dominated by one side, all opposing views are welcome. Healy provides an accessible account of the anti-technology case, and this alone makes her book well worth reading.”

I quote the comments at some length because they are both well stated and also to the point. It is certainly the case that the argument in favor of using computers in the classroom has been made, for the most part, by those with a vested interest in their use — to wit, the corporations that stand to profit from computer sales. Parents and teachers have also found it a way to keep the kids occupied, and it appears as though they are a terrific aid to learning. They can be, but only if we equate “learning” with “collecting information.” Real learning requires good teaching and the asking of pertinent questions. Healy, in contrast with those who defend the toys, has no axe to grind. Further, she has had considerable classroom experience and has also taught in schools of education. She started her career in complete support of computer-assisted learning and after years of hands-on experience and considerable research decided that putting computers in the hands of young kids is a serious mistake. Listen up, St. Paul, Minnesota!!

Healy has for years given careful thought to the question of what we are doing to our kids’ minds. Modern brain scan devices have provided us with mounting evidence of the damage these toys can do and that evidence is strong, as the reviewer above suggests. We should pull back and rethink our fascination with things technical: they appear to be damaging the brains of those who use them, especially young kids. Whether or not we buy Healy’s thesis, prudence would urge caution, surely, though it’s a bit late for that in St. Paul.

Is there any better way for a child to learn than to have them in a room with a dedicated teacher who listens, asks questions, and carefully explains what kids need to know? Surely not. It takes work and a devotion to what one is doing, but computer toys simply cannot replace dialogue. We need to think again about our mindless conviction that what is newer and faster is ipso facto better. What can technical wizardry possibly promise that would in fact improve on human contact and interaction? Nothing.

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6 thoughts on “Computer Fix (Revisited)

  1. this is great food for thought for any parent. it’s sad when the teachers are at the bottom of the priority list… what is wrong with this picture? lots! i hope that your words jolt some people out of their electronic fog!…

      • Hugh, fewer people want to read and would rather see pictures and videos which proves your point. Your material should be read by many, but the fact that not enough do, is a shame and their loss. I have the same frustration. Please know that your words are appreciated here. All the best, BTG

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