Joe Clement has been teaching U.S. government in a Fairfax County high school for 21 years. He is troubled by crumbling student responses since smartphones and other such devices were allowed a few years ago.
Before the invasion of the bright, little screens, his lesson on the Federalist Papers and the birth of political parties invariably “spawned one of the best discussions of the year,” he said. Students dug into not just what happened but also why they formed.
That’s gone, he said, even in honors courses. He still asks how Madison’s vision for minority rights is carried out today. But instead of thoughtful responses connecting the past and today, Clement usually gets non-answers — a Federalist Papers quote with no reference to today or something about modern minority rights with no link to Madison.
“They are good at telling me the who, what, where and when — anything Google can tell them,” Clement said. “The ability to make connections seems to have vanished.”
Clement and another Fairfax County teacher, Matt Miles, are writing a book about this decline in critical thinking as digital technologies grow. They admit they have mostly anecdotal data, but they are certain that brain research eventually will back them up.
They say the free periods that are part of their school schedule have deteriorated from lively talk among students and teachers to silent screen reading, each student in a little world. Online homework assignments are taking twice as long as they would if the student read a paper textbook, because programs are sometimes difficult to load and students cannot resist the temptation to play around on the same devices.
I have discussed parents’ complaints about school-assigned screen time. Some research seems to suggest too much of it reduces achievement. But Clement and Miles have given me the most vivid insights I have gotten so far from teachers. I would like more — my e-mail address is below — both from teachers who like the new devices and those who don’t.
Fairfax County schools spokesman John Torre said district officials think learning and electronics are interacting nicely, and he said data shows test scores are up at the school where these teachers work. “Teachers during classes, and for enrichment and intervention periods, can determine the type of technology and the frequency of use,” he said.
USA Today education reporter Greg Toppo, author of “The Game Believes in You,” said, “There are good teachers out there who are figuring out ways to use digital” education tools in ways “that can actually deepen a student’s experience.”
Clement and Miles said their complaints are valid and endorsed by several colleagues. Nonetheless, Clement said, “many decision-makers in Fairfax County public schools, indeed in every school system we’ve contacted, are convinced that technology in the classroom is unquestionably good.”
Students appear to feel the same way. When the free periods that Clement supervised became sterile and silent, he thought he could bring back the wonderful noise of teenagers helping each other with homework or talking about TV or their weekends by banning cellphone use during that time. “How did kids respond?” he said. “They stopped coming to my room.” They migrated to the many other free-period rooms that had no restrictions on sitting and staring at their screens.
As a journalist, my most pressured years are behind me. I can have a rewarding professional and personal life even though I don’t use smartphones or tablets, never tweet or don’t go on Facebook. I am excused of such eccentricities because of my age.
Research so far does not show the new emphasis on electronic learning is boosting achievement, but mid-career and younger educators can’t escape it. It is the fashion. Nonetheless, good teachers will resist whatever degrades school life. The rest of us must let them know whether we are seeing similar signs of these admittedly magical devices creating more distraction than understanding.