I placed an iPad into the outstretched hands of each of my third-grade students, and a reverent, tech-induced hush descended on our classroom. We were circled together on our gathering rug, just finished with a conversation about “digital citizenship” and “online safety” and “our school district bought us these iPads to help us learn, so we are using them for learning purposes.” They’d nodded vigorously, thrilled by the thought of their very own iPads to take home every night and bring to school every day. Some of them had never touched a tablet before, and I watched them cradle the sleek devices in their arms. They flashed their gap-toothed grins — not at each other but at their shining screens.
That was the first of many moments when I wished I could send the iPads back.
Some adult ears might welcome a room of hushed 8-year-olds, but teachers of young children know that the chatter in a typical elementary classroom is what makes it a good place to learn. Yes, it’s sometimes too loud. These young humans are not great conversationalists. They are often hurting someone’s feelings or getting hurt, misunderstanding or overreacting or completely missing the point. They need time to learn communication skills — how to hold your own and how to get along with others. They need to talk and listen and talk some more at school, both with peers and with adults who can model conversation skills.
The iPads subtly undermined that important work. My lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe.
My colleagues and I had tried to anticipate all sorts of issues before the new tablet initiative rolled into our third-grade classrooms last year. What happens if the children lose them? Break them? Forget their passwords? How will we clean the screens? Charge them all at once? Which lessons lend themselves well to iPads, and which ones don’t? We had meetings, made plans and did our best to embrace the new — both because we had a sense of the potential and because asking questions about the efficacy of one-to-one classrooms (with a computing device for each child), or wondering aloud whether more tech for little kids was supported by research, was not only unwelcome, it was illogical. The money was spent (more than $100,000 for each grade), and the iPads were happening.
Our planning helped, but there was so much we didn’t anticipate: alarms going off randomly throughout the day, bandwidth issues that slowed our lessons to a crawl, username issues followed by password issues followed by hundreds of selfies. All these things sucked instructional time. This at a school serving many students new to English or otherwise behind in their communication skills. They couldn’t afford to lose a single minute of learning. So I wrote lessons two ways: one in case enough iPads were working and one if too many weren’t. I tried to harness the benefits and overcome the avalanche of distracting minutiae the devices brought.
Veteran teachers of tablet-friendly classrooms will tell you that these were simply rollout problems. They may mention how tablets can help teachers tailor lessons to each child, or how they can provide an instant snapshot into whether a child understood a concept. They talk about apps that connect classmates to one another and to students across the globe, that foster creativity and a sense of newness that makes over a stale classroom.
Those early-adopter teachers are right: Tablets are portals to a million possibilities. Even with my rookie stumbles, my students did wonderful things. They made faux commercials that aired on our school’s morning news; they recorded themselves explaining math problems; they produced movies about explorers, complete with soundtracks. I recorded mini-lessons for my students to watch at home, so we could “flip our classroom” and discuss the information in small groups the next day. And I knew we were just getting started.
But did the benefits offset what was lost?
Sherry Turkle, the author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” writes about how we are sacrificing connections, one quick check of our screens at a time. Her research finds that college students, with their ubiquitous phones, “are having a hard time with the give-and-take of face-to-face conversation.” Eight-year-olds with iPads have the same struggles, minus any filters or perspective people might gain as they age. At the same time I was trying to encourage my students to appreciate the subtleties of human interaction, the iPads I gave them threatened to overwhelm their understanding.
Turkle writes that just the presence of a phone, even one turned off or flipped over on the table between speakers, gets in the way of conversations — we only bother with discussions we don’t mind interrupting. Switch the setting to a classroom, and we may only engage in learning that we don’t mind interrupting. It can be hard for kids to sustain their attention in a small group discussion when their own personal portal beckons from the back of the room.
One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.
I knew that the lure of the screen would continue at home each night. Many of the students had screens at home already, but this one was different: It was their very own, it was portable, and it carried the stamp of approval of teacher, school and district. Do the adults in their homes still feel the authority to tell them to put that screen away and go outside and play?
Districts all over the country are buying into one-to-one tablet initiatives, and for younger and younger students. These screens have been rebranded “digital learning devices,” carrying the promise of education success for millions of our communities’ education dollars. Yet there is some evidence that tablets can be detrimental to learning.
A study released in September by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development looked at school tech initiatives in more than three dozen countries (although not the United States) and found that while students who use computers moderately show modest gains over those who rarely do, heavy technology use has a negative impact. “Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics,” the report concluded.
We have also known for years — at least since the 2012 report “Facing the Screen Dilemma” from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood — that screen time for younger children in particular comes with a huge opportunity cost, depriving them of hands-on learning, time outdoors and “face-to-face interactions with caring adults.” Digital-savvy parents in Silicon Valley made news way back in 2011 for enrolling their children in steadfastly screen-free schools. They knew that their kids would be swiping and clicking soon enough, but there are only a limited number of childhood years when it’s not only really fun to build with Legos, it’s also really good for you.
Some proponents of one-to-one initiatives portray “analog classrooms” as gray spaces where bored teachers hand worksheets to uninspired kids — and tablets are the energizing cure. The One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that helps school districts go digital, says on its Web site: “Research is clear that to ensure student success, education must move from a teacher-centric to a learner-centric approach. One-to-one programs create the opportunity for authentic personalization of teaching and learning for each student.”
But jumping from the “sage on the stage” teaching model to a screen for each kid skips over critical territory in between, where children learn from, and build their social skills with, one another. Classrooms run by worksheets won’t be magically transformed with tablets, and classrooms where teachers skillfully engage their students don’t need screens — and the extra baggage they introduce — to get great results.
Teachers striving to preserve precious space for conversation are not lazy, or afraid of change, or obstructionist. They believe that if our dining tables should be protected for in-depth discussion and focused attention, so, too, should our classrooms. They know that their young students live in the digital age, but the way children learn has not evolved so very fast. Kids still have to use their five senses, and, most of all, they have to talk to each other.
My students already had so many challenges and so much ground to cover. We put tablets in their hands and made their loads that much heavier.
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