Educational consultant and video-game designer Marc Prensky hailed a new generation of "digital natives" who will remake our world. The headline on a piece by social-media scholar danah boyd (a lowercase person) said parents should "let kids run wild online" to lead us to a brighter future.
Joe Clement and Matt Miles, two social studies teachers, have been reading such prophecies by technology activists for years. But in their Fairfax County high school classes, Clement and Miles aren't seeing that. Their students use their devices almost entirely for recreation, not to seek brave new ideas.
"Hand a kid an iPad and now it's reasonable to expect him or her to use it primarily for educational purposes?" they said in their new book "Screen Schooled." "Only someone who has spent almost no time with children could possibly believe that."
Last week, I discussed their recommendation that teachers reject most of ed-tech and instead teach simply and directly to encourage understanding and thought. They want to improve student skills and human interaction, not show them how to look up stuff on Google.
They know what too much screen time can do. A student dozed in class because he woke up at 2 a.m., when his parents were asleep, to play video games. A study showed teens spending an average of nine hours a day on entertainment media. Clement and Miles estimated, based on several studies, that about 75 percent of high school students walk the halls with cellphones in their hands rather than in pockets or purses.
Citing much research, they concluded, "the new digital world is a toxic environment for the developing minds of young people. Rather than making digital natives superlearners, it has stunted their mental growth."
Social studies teachers, they reported, are being encouraged to move "to DBQs, or document-based questions, which are simply research papers where the teacher has done all the research for the students." Clement and Miles stick with real research papers, after students learn about different types of evidence and plan investigative strategies. Yet their students often become frustrated when devices don't lead them to a useful source right away.
What can teachers and parents do? When Clement and Miles complained to ed-tech supporters, they were told they just didn't understand the subtle wonders of new learning. Sensible parents keep screen time within reason at home. But with school boards and superintendents so drawn to tech, what can those parents do about trends that have gone so far in class?
The authors suggested asking questions at PTA meetings.
When administrators say, "We have to prepare our kids for the future," Clement and Miles said, ask them exactly how the latest devices help students learn to think, focus and build community. Ask if school officials have any research showing the advantages of using screens for instruction. They may have data on an increase in engagement, but that is not the same thing as learning. Playing a video game all day shows engagement, the authors said, but that is not evidence of increased academic achievement.
This suggested question was my favorite: "May I opt my child out of screen-based instructional activities?"
Most Washington-area school districts told me they do not have a policy on this. Irene Cromer, spokeswoman for Prince William County Public Schools, cited a complex regulation covering challenges of non-textbook learning materials, but said any request would lead the principal and teacher to "try to resolve the parent's concerns." Fairfax County officials told Clement that his children could opt out of bringing a computer home but still had to do any work posted online.
Asking the questions, the authors said, help those with concerns understand the situation before they try to mobilize other parents to loosen the ed-tech grip.
I am not sure that will work, but it's worth a try. In some instances, such as acceleration and remediation, online programs have a place if well designed. But so far, they appear to be a poor substitute for good teachers in classrooms.