Stop trying to figure out if screentime is good for students

11/4/2013 12:00:00 AM
Brian Finke for The New York Times

You may have read the recent New York Times story
No Child Left Untableted. Like others before it (Seeing no progress, some schools drop laptops), these stories have the wrong focus. They narrow in on the tool itself, and draw apocalyptic conclusions -- Technology May Be Destroying Children! -- rather than drawing attention to the goal of the learning experience, and how the tool may best help achieve it.

Conducting device-focused research makes as little sense as doing research on pens, papers, folders, book-binding, and three-ring notebooks. Where are the papers, studies and statistics on the negative impact of chalk dust, calling for blackboards to be limited? We must understand that it’s not about “the thing;” It is about what we do with the thing and what the thing can do for us.
To put it in perspective, think of it this way...

  • We don’t research the effectiveness of paper in relation to learning to read…
    • instead, we focus research on strategies that support reading i.e. phonics
  • We don’t  research the effectiveness of pens in relation to learning to write…
    • instead, we focus research on strategies that support writing i.e. writers workshop
What we need to do is scratch beneath the doom and gloom predictions of what these devices might mean to students. When we do, we can discover how these devices are being used to support traditional classroom methods. Unlike the single function-devices used in the past, we now have multi-purpose devices. One device serves as a library of books, a typewriter, gives us limitless worksheets, regular and graphing calculators, and even a watch (have you noticed most young people no longer wear them?). Beyond their usefulness as multifunction devices, they also provide powerful opportunities for discussing, writing, receiving instant feedback, and perhaps most exciting something which couldn’t be done before... connecting with, and publishing for a global audience.  

Unfortunately, we are not focusing on this. Rather than studying whether our children should have access to devices in school, we need to study what happens when students use these devices to connect, develop, grow and create. We also need to understand that success in the 21st century can not be measured by the bubble tests that were created to measure an industrial model of schooling.

When we acknowledge what we are left with after the fascination with two Dixie cups and a string fades, we realize what we have is a line of communication to more information, more people, more passions and more discoveries than one person could fulfill.  Do we want students to read, write, calculate, receive instant feedback, make global connections, develop a learning network, publish to the world? Of course we do.

The fact that we still discuss this is ludicrous. Simply ask yourself, “Is school is supposed to be preparing students for career success?” Of course!  There are few careers where you would hear a debate about the need for access to technology. It’s a no-brainer that to be successful in the world, instant access to knowledge, people, and tools of communication are necessary.  This is no different in our schools.
The aforementioned NY Times article, features a teacher saying, “I just don’t like the idea of looking at a screen and not at the students.”  Perhaps this teacher is concerned about a possible future where she looks at kids’ work through screen-monitoring programs; perhaps she sees herself as funneling her teaching techniques through a tablet. Both would be worthy of her unease.

But is this what we’re talking about? No.

Any good teacher knows it is not effective teaching to have a class full of students watching you lecture, day in and day out. Of course, there can be discussion during a lecture; and lecture time during a hands-on project. With technology, as any flipped classroom teacher can tell you, the lecture part can be consumed anytime/anywhere so that class time can be used, for example, with whole group, small group, and one-on-one discussion. But educators also need to reconsider the role of the lecture.  

Ideally, however, students are not spending time in school consuming factoids, but doing, making, conversing, and creating. Their eyes are not locked on a teacher, but are connected to their work and those with whom they are working. Their goals are clear in their minds, and they are using the tools at hand to reach them. The tools happen to have a screen with which the student receives information; it also has a keyboard used for participating and interacting with resources and people.

This is a good thing. As Sugata Mitra, research scientist who advocates for self-organized learning environments says, “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”

So, while “all eyes on me” may be more comfortable for a teacher, it is not the way all students prefer learning. In fact, if given the choice, many students say they’d rather just get information from Google, a friend, or figure it out for themselves. A study done with school age children indicates that even when they are home, it is not their parents, but rather Google, that they go to to get information.

Student Jack Andraka is a great example of the power of Google. In school, his science teacher scolded him for reading a scholarly science journal rather than writing the essay she assigned. She interrupted his learning and confiscated the journal from him so he would do her work.  Since there was no time or way for him to learn his way, he left school and turned to Google.

This teacher didn’t consider Andraka’s learning priorities. Had she not demanded learning her way, perhaps this Andraka's story wouldn’t be one of a student who credits Google, not any teacher, for helping him to discover a method for early pancreatic cancer detection.

We know the power of technology, but still we get ridiculous warnings like these:  From the article...“Links between screen time and childhood obesity raise public health concerns.” It’s not the screentime that causes obesity! When we have kids locked up in classrooms all day, and locked inside with homework at night, how can we possibly blame the screens? If we want our kids to be fit, we can rethink homework, bring back significant recess, and let kids go out and play.

The Times article warns us about the effect of screen time on how children learn to be members of a human community. For insights on this, they turn to the bald and graying Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who specializes in the study of adolescents. It appears this researcher does not have an interactive online presence, so it’s no surprise that he says, “a lot of our brain activity is devoted to social interaction with other people, and an enormous amount of the change in the adolescent brain is about socialization.” He asks, “What if we’re inadvertently interfering with development in ways that will show up in 20 years in ways we didn’t expect?”

Gield doesn’t get what educators like Courtney Woods know. Online platforms enable students to connect with the world in new and more meaningful ways than ever previously possible. Unlike Gield, researcher Mimi Ito who specializes in media literacy at UC Irvine, understands as she explains in this video that the socializing and play students do online is an important part of learning.
Carlo Rotella, the author of the article shares his anti-technology bias. “I would strenuously oppose any plan by their school to add so much screen time to my children’s days.”

But think about this the next time you hear someone with such opposition. Would we oppose children having too much time reading, writing, calculating, researching, connecting, discussing, communicating, finding answers, creating, publishing,and sharing?

If you answered no, you understand that it’s time that we stop focusing on the screens and start naming what the real issues are. Anyone who gives this a little bit of thought knows, that while traditional educators may not yet be comfortable giving up control, access to screens and all they offer, is essential for the success of most people in our modern world.  

Thanks to Lisa Cooley for her contributions to this post.

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.


Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.
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