Technology as the Spawn of Satan

Back to the issue of technology in the schools… The recent spate of books condemning technology and insisting that it’s ruining our kids continues to grow. In Glow Kids, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras argues that “age-inappropriate screen tech, with all of its glowing ubiquity—has profoundly affected the brains of an entire generation.”[1] An addiction expert and former professor, he looks at brain imaging and clinical research to prove the negative neurological impact of the epidemic of tech usage. In Reset Your Child’s Brain, child psychiatrist  Dr. Victoria Dunckley ascribes many behavioral issues of children to Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) from the everyday use of interactive digital devices. She prescribes an extended fast from digital devices.

I have just finished exploring  Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber by Joe Clement and Matt Miles. They, too, insist that overuse of technology has harmed students, and that schools are complicit in their commitment to technology regardless of its purpose and the harm it causes. They claim that American teens spend almost nine hours a day on screen time and too often see knowledge  as information without a context. They point out that teens ages 12-18 go through a significant period of growth and pruning in the prefrontal cortex that’s very important for higher-level cognitive skills. If they’re underutilizing the portions of the pre-frontal cortex used to solve problems or think critically, teens could end up pruning that section and grow synapses used for gaming and social media instead.[2] They write, “If you consider the fact that technology is designed to solve problems for us, it should be introduced only after students have mastered the ability to solve problems on their own.”[3] They argue persuasively about the value of inactive time to support thinking. Like the other books mentioned, they do offer action steps to help parents reduce school and home use of technology.

I am concerned when I read these tomes [often on an e-reader, I’ll confess!]. I am concerned when colleagues describe their students’ insistence on using phone screens in class and secreting them well, making intervention challenging. Technology has changed the classroom – we can all agree on that.

But I find the one-sided arguments of these books frustrating. Clement and Miles complain that technology encourages a false sense of multi-tasking and hurts focus. That may be true, but then isn’t this a teachable moment to teach focus directly and counteract that tendency? We need to counteract our society’s vision of multitasking for everyone, and focus should be a significant part of the curriculum. The authors condemn a shift from problem-solving to lessons in how to use technology – but that’s an avoidable choice. Schools could and should commit to teaching problem solving effectively. These authors also point out that it’s easier for students to plagiarize without acknowledging that it’s also easier for teachers to identify that plagiarism. The real problem is not the technology itself but its misuse by well-intended but perhaps misguided districts and educators. With effective guidance, schools and teachers should be able to identify opportunities for technology to enhance teaching and learning, and limit its use where that enhancement doesn’t exist.

So… what to do? For me the turning point was reading that Clement and Miles would have students first learn mathematical processes without a calculator. I came of age during the slide rule era and confess I never fully grasped its conceptual base. We can and should teach learners the basic mathematical processes, but the amount of time students like me spent on computation seems pointless now. My husband argues that his strong pre-calculator background helps him recognize likely errors and estimate in his head. We can still teach learners to do that. But I’m far more interested in whether they can determine what numbers to explore to solve a given problem than their ability to compute those numbers freehand.

Technology can be transformational for teachers and learners. I’ve written before about its impact on my own writing and the way I taught writing. The ability to connect with students and parents improved my rapport and their understanding. If teachers post homework and students persist in bothering them to find out the assignments instead of checking the post, then teachers need to practice tough love and send them to that posting. Technology has created numerous challenges and frustrations for teachers – I get that. But it has created great opportunities to transform teaching and learning at the same time. It’s up to all of us to figure out how to mine those opportunities even as we limit the distractions and waste. We need to engage young people so they are less prone to turn to their screens mindlessly. My parents limited television viewing time; my son and daughter-in-law limit screen time. They also provide appealing alternatives. Teachers can and should provide appealing alternatives. Wholesale dumping of technology is neither realistic nor productive. Let’s work to use it wisely and set limits on it use. That’s a win-win scenario.

[1] Amazon review

[2] Screen Schooled 59.

[3] Screen Schooled 70.