A student takes notes next to a laptop. (iStock)

Every since computers began to enter classrooms and policy makers made wiring schools a top education priority, technology boosters have talked about the many ways that education and student life could be improved. E-textbooks could be unlimited in scope and easily updated, research could be conducted online, collaboration could extend around the world, and note-taking could be much easier in class.

Some of that’s true, but increasingly teachers at all levels of education are pulling away from the idea that allowing students to have laptops and tablets in class is a good idea. Why? Here’s a piece that answers that question, by Giles Scott, an English high school teacher for seven years at an independent school for the arts and sciences who is teaching in the upcoming school year at a private school in northern California. Scott explains why he has decided not to allow his students bring in laptops and tablets anymore.

By Giles Scott

A Wired article  by David Edwards, the Harvard professor and founder of Le Laboratoire, came up on our faculty listserv recently — the implication being that we needed to move with the times. Edwards basically argues that traditional ideas of education no longer serve the world we inhabit. As the article puts it, “our kids learn within a system of education devised for a world that increasingly does not exist.”[1] It’s hard to disagree with that, and the kind of stuff being done in the media and culture labs he advocates — stuff that involves an intersection of technology, arts, engineering and culture — takes the wind right out of you. It’s like Frida Kahlo or Igor Stravinsky having access to a digital maker space.

So, why then, as I prepare my syllabi for the coming academic year, am I asking students in the four, high-school English classes I teach to stop using laptops? At a school, no less, where most students are expected to bring some kind of device to class and most teachers are expected to utilize technology in their classrooms in some way some of the time.

I know that virtually all advocates of one-to-one programs truly believe they serve the students’ best interests — that to not be a one-to-one school is to ill-prepare students for the world bowing to meet them, and that we have a responsibility to equip our students with the ability to interact in meaningful ways with the electronic world and the social media inhabiting it. Who would argue with that? I mean, really. Beside ostriches.

But I’m not convinced that the best way to equip students with the ability to negotiate technology is to further attach them to it.

The current dean of faculty tells a story about touring the school as a job candidate and visiting one of the classrooms. He sat in the back of the class and tried to focus on the lesson while the girl in front of him spent the entire 55 minutes with her computer screen turned to “mirror,” checking herself left and right while working her “mirror” face. This an extreme example of a commonplace when students sit in a classroom in front of a screen. Maybe they’re taking notes. Just as likely, they’re watching YouTube clips of drunken ice-skaters or tortoise porn, both of which are highly entertaining to a young mind and hard to compete with.

But, as a teacher, I feel a responsibility to do exactly that: compete. Why? If a student is visually keeping one eye online while simultaneously listening to a discussion of the significance of Gatsby’s shirts, they’re, actually, mentally, doing neither. And YouTube clips and Facebook distract not just the immediate viewer but anybody within a three-foot visual circumference. And because of the number of studies (Mueller and Oppenheimer being the most cited) about how students retain more information when taking notes by hand as opposed to on a laptop.[2]

For me, the real difference, however, isn’t so much about multitasking, or 12 different studies that claim students retain more information when they take notes by hand: it’s about a classroom that acts like a community.

Students still use computers for writing outside of class, especially essays, but all writing in class happens by hand: notes from the whiteboard, notes from somebody’s discussion comment, notes about which shoes to wear to Jim and Julia’s party…. I tell them about the research, and, yes, they’re skeptical—of course they are. It’s like taking all their cuddly toys from the crib and convincing them it’s still a place called home. Yeah, sure, if I can have my giraffe back.

But at least I know they’re all present, if only functionally. I don’t need to constantly worry about what might be going on in screenland. The classroom feels more like a classroom than an office, the conversations stronger precisely because more students usually otherwise engaged get involved. If they’ve got little else to distract them besides half a dozen 9th grade social studies’ projects tacked to the wall then why not pay attention and participate?

It comes down to a sense of kids being present together in a unified space, a space that allows for communities and communication to develop. Romantic, yes, as students are rarely present in the ways we aspire for them to be, but at least without technology, they space-out within the confines of their own imaginations. For instance, doodling when distracted instead of resorting to a virtual rabbit warren of visual excitement. As doodlers they are makers.

Our classrooms should be places where we push back against technology, against a life largely circumscribed by screens. Most of these students, this generation, will breathe technology in almost every aspect of their lives for all of their lives. Technology will, in large part, define how they interact with and negotiate a world outside of themselves, and, more alarmingly, their own inner worlds.

Education’s task is, of course, to teach them how to safely negotiate this world, but it is also our task to provide them with alternatives. They need a space away from the space of digital technology.

Literature presents a space where they can step away from that screened life, where they can learn to be critically reflective so that critical reflection can then be brought to bear upon the very medium so integral to the construction of their social and emotional worlds. It’s why they shouldn’t read literature in a space where every confusing reference can be sourced on a Wikipedia page, and, instead, wrestle with the uncertainty that difficult reading brings.

Technology teaches them to move between things at a dizzying pace, to make connections between different mediums—the art of the breathtaking tangent. That’s what students do with consummate ease and skill. I can’t compete. But they struggle to pause, both as readers of literature and as readers of themselves. That work begins its shape in a literary space where they can judge, criticize, despise and adore without the fear of themselves being judged in quite the same way.

And when it comes to that kind of work, technology only presents a distraction. It’s work best done in a space that allows them to keep dropping, vertically, in one direction. The computer screen too often beckons horizontally with analogous if charming leaps. It’s not what they need. At least not for 55 minutes four times a week.

The kind of remarkable, mind-bending work David Edwards talks about happening on the campuses of America’s most prestigious universities only becomes possible if students first know how to think critically along a vertical axis. The bathwater first needs a baby.

[1] Edwards, David, “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.” Wired, 17 October, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2014/10/on-learning-by-doing/[wired.com]

[2] For my money, Cindi May’s Scientific American article does the best job of detailing the research and its implications. The article also contains a direct link to the actual Mueller and Oppenheimer research: Cindi May http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/[scientificamerican.com]