As a former chair of student council at her daughter’s Toronto public school, Stacie Smith helped raise more than $40,000. Most of that money went into increasing technology in the classroom, including buying a set of iPads for the kindergarten class, laptops for the grade-six class and SMART boards for the teachers who wanted them. Three years later, Smith regrets that decision big time. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d make a different choice,” she says, adding that she feels the money could have been better spent on sports equipment. That’s because Smith has since learned more about the negative impact of technology on young learners—thanks in part to her position as a marketing and communications consultant for the Toronto Waldorf School, a private school that famously eschews technology.
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While most public school boards across the country are working fervently to outfit their classrooms with everything from laptops to iPads, there’s a whole other contingent of educators who believe we shouldn’t be so fast to embrace technology in the classroom, especially in the early years. They claim it inhibits creativity and critical thinking and shortens attention spans, while limiting human interaction. And while they are by no means anti-tech, they believe parents should be asking more questions about how it’s being used to enhance student learning.
“Obviously we use technology in our everyday lives; I’m not opposed to it,” says Michael Zwaagstra, a research fellow at Winnipeg’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy and co-author of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them. “But if you’re bringing technology into the classroom, there needs to be a real purpose behind it. I question if that purpose is really there.”
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Zwaagstra says that when he raises concerns about the effectiveness of technology in the classroom, he receives the greatest support from engineers and computer programmers. “These experts note that in order to be good at their jobs, you need to have a solid grasp of the academic basics, particularly math. There is plenty of time later in their schooling to learn how to operate computers.” (Interestingly, a recent article in the New York Times reported that many employees of Silicon Valley’s biggest players, such as eBay, Google and Apple, send their children to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula precisely because of its lack of technology.) “You need to focus on the absolute basics and fundamentals first,” explains Zwaagstra. “There are always times in life where you don’t have a device of some kind within arm’s reach, or where it’s simply not working. We don’t want to be a society that’s so dependent on technology, we’re not able to multiply six times six without help.”
When Gail Baker co-founded The Toronto Heschel School in 1996, she and her team put computers in the kindergarten and grade-one classrooms. But after observing their negative effects on students, they decided to remove them. “A computer was like a magnet for children—that’s all they’d want to do,” she recalls of those early days. “They weren’t engaging with the teachers or with each other or using tactile material because they were so focused on the computer. They were really being controlled by it—lights would be flashing and they’d get excited. One of the other big problems we noticed is that it was really impacting the children’s ability to sustain attention and develop resilience. With any piece of technology, you can switch to something else—a new game, a new level—if you’re bored or if it gets too difficult. And so we decided that, yes, children have to know and understand technology, but there’s a time and place for it.” For example, Heschel’s grade-two students Skype with kids in Uganda as part of a special unit called “Children Around the World.” As Baker explains, “It was a way to bring the two communities together visually and in real time. So we will certainly use technology, but we do so very carefully.”
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Darren McKee, executive director of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association and board member of C21 Canada (a national organization that advocates for 21st-century models of learning in education), says technology gives students some unique and amazing opportunities. “For those kids who may never have an opportunity to see Mount St. Helens [an], teachers can download a virtual field trip onto the server,” he says.
However, Todd Royer, a grade-five teacher at the Toronto Waldorf School, believes technology cannot replace hands-on learning or real-world experiences. “For children especially, they’re just beginning to learn about the world,” he says. “If you’re walking along a mountain trail and you come across a rattlesnake, that’s a much different experience than if you’re googling ‘rattlesnake’ or watching one on TV.” Royer thinks that the bigger issue is the effect of screen time on children’s brains. Research has shown that early exposure to TV can negatively stimulate the developing brain, disrupting healthy neurological and psychological development, and causing it to function at a slower rate, leading to shorter attention spans and, possibly, cognitive difficulties. So, asks Royer, what’s to say the same thing isn’t happening while exposing them to any type of visual media? “There are epidemic amounts of ADHD in our schools. You have to ask how a child learns to bring sustained attention to something when he’s having profound amounts of media exposure. I think there’s a direct correlation.”
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Of course, few of us could imagine daily life without a smartphone by our side—never mind computers and iPads—so it makes sense that most parents want their kids to attain a level of proficiency. But it’s not yet clear whether we’re doing our kids a favour or a disservice by ensuring they have access to technology in the classroom. “It’s really uncharted waters here,” says Zwaagstra. Studies haven’t shown proof of radical improvement on achievement—or major detrimental effects on learning. As Zwaagstra explains, “All too often the school system rushes headlong into the latest educational fads, whether supported by evidence or not. While technology in moderation is positive, the evidence does not support the notion that it will revolutionize education. Parents need to be proactive about raising concern.”
Even some of the strongest advocates for empowering students through technology know that we can’t just dump computers or SMART boards in the classroom and expect teachers to know how to use them effectively. According to Ron Canuel, president and CEO of the Canadian Education Association, schools need to devote time and money to educating teachers on how to best use these digital devices. “Computers are one of the most powerful tools ever invented. The key question is not does technology have a place in the classroom. It’s how can we take such a tool and create exciting environments in classrooms,” he says.
In 2003, Canuel was instrumental in providing free wireless laptops to the entire Eastern Townships School Board district in Quebec. It was the first project of its kind, and Canuel says the goal was to enhance the teaching environment and engage students in learning. The results were unprecedented: Dropout rates were drastically reduced from 42 to 23 percent over five years, says Canuel, adding that they spent $2 million dollars exclusively on teacher development.
Most schools don't have the resources to train their teachers so extensively, which means that their SMART boards aren’t always being put to good use (one public-school mom told me her four-year-old uses it to watch TV during “quiet time”). In 2011, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation collaborated with MediaSmarts in an ongoing research project, and all of the teachers surveyed indicated that their students loved working with smartphones, iPads, computers and other networked devices, but lacked the skills to use them effectively for learning. Teachers went on to list a “shortage of professional learning opportunities on technology integration” as a major obstacle to making the best use of the technology provided to them.
But who decides how much money goes into classroom technology and training? Most school boards are responsible for approving budgets and determining local priorities. Michael McEvoy, president of the Canadian School Boards Association (CSBA), says that in his experience, most parents have expectations that the school will provide their kids with some fluency in technology, including appropriate use and safety. He's quick to point out, however, that some schools have parents who can raise the funds necessary to get computers inside every classroom while others, such as those in rural Canada, don’t even have access to broadband Internet.
While McEvoy is all for incorporating technology into schools, he believes it’s about balance. “At the end of the day, it’s just a learning tool. It’s a means to educate our kids, but it’s not the only means.”
Parents are confronted with stats on the dangers of screen time, and there was a time when school was a place that gave our kids a break. For most of us, that time has passed. What happens next is a new frontier, but not one we should walk into blindly. Tech skills can be easily taught as kids grow, while critical thinking, creativity and imagination cannot. As Waldorf consultant Smith puts it: “We’re programming our children to be addicted to technology.”
A version of this article appeared in our October 2014 issue with the headline, "The low-tech classroom," p. 54-6.