Joe Clement and Matt Miles, Screen Schooled, by Margaret Crocco
I’m one of the “digital immigrants” who came to the use of computers late in life, that is, as a New Jersey high school history teacher back in the digital “dark ages” of the 1980s. Perhaps you remember the Apple IIE? The first Apple Macintosh? Oregon Trail software? During these long-ago years, a fellow history teacher (Neale McGoldrick) and I collaborated on using “desk-top publishing” software to produce historical newspapers with our students and created an historical monograph on women’s suffrage that was distributed to schools and libraries in the state (Reclaiming Lost Ground: The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, New Jersey Historical Commission, 1993). We were enthusiastic about what educational technology was making possible in our classrooms.
Thus, when the federal government provided funding to teacher education institutions over a decade later, under the auspices of its Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology grant program, I signed up to explore the possibilities, what we call today the “affordances,” of teaching with technology for our master’s degree students in the Program in Social Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2000, the USDOE provided $48 million for close to 100 grants “to address the challenge of developing technology proficient future educators,” according to archived materials at the PT3 website (http://www.ed.gov/teachtech/). This investment in moving technology into schools rapidly became only a drop in the bucket of what has been spent since 2000 in promoting educational technology by both public agencies and private vendors.
Lots of us got onboard the technology train, hoping to find some “value added” in using technology to teach our subject matter. To be sure, we have found quite a few benefits. For example, anyone who remembers hunting in libraries for primary sources, the ability today to construct a “document-based question” by using an online database from the Library of Congress or National Archives is nothing short of miraculous. The educational research accumulated in the CITE Journal (www.citejournal.org) is only a fraction of the work that has been done chronicling the impact of technology use on the teaching of school subject matter and on teacher education.
So, let’s be clear that neither I nor the authors of the book I want to call to your attention are Luddites. Nevertheless, claims such as the opening line in a USDOE “Dear Colleague” letter dated January 18, 2017 that asserts: “Technology can help transform learning when used with innovative instructional approaches” leaves a lot unsaid and more unsubstantiated. Even if one thinks that the use of educational technology might be a powerful lever for enacting student-centered, inquiry-oriented pedagogy (something that remains in short supply in many social studies classrooms), the promise of ed-tech in improving student learning is increasingly looking like a lot of hype. Moreover, we are coming to see that the cumulative effects of so much screen time on today’s youth may be jeopardizing the health and well-being of the “iGen” “— that is, kids born after 1995— (Twenge, 2017), both inside and outside the classroom.
In a fascinating – and troubling – new book, Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber, Joe Clement and Matt Miles (Chicago Review Press, 2018) perform a public service in calling teachers’ and parents’ attention to the hype of the ed-tech industry (and, I would add, their cheerleaders in policy circle) and its promotion of ever more technology use in schools. Assembling extensive research on the effects of screen-time on young people’s brains and drawing upon their own insights from years of teaching, the book serves as an indictment of the notion that the best way to teach “digital natives” is to infuse more educational technology into schools.
Here are just a few examples of the alarming research they present:
- A study that found that children who have more than “one to two hours per day of screen time show a 50 percent increase in psychological disorders” (p. 149);
- A study showing that “a person’s ability to develop friendships is biologically diminished the more he or she replaces face-to-face human interaction with screen interaction” (p. 150);
- A study that showed that “the heavy use of screens causes young people to lose the ability to understand the emotions of other people” (p. 151);
- A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics that “found that people who spend more time playing video games have more attention problems” (p. 178);
- A study that showed that computer technology is associated with “statistically significant and persistently negative impacts on student math and reading test scores” (p. 184).In the introduction to Screen Schooled, Clement and Miles start out by offering their “street cred” in authoring this book. As they write: “While we are teachers, we are neither curmudgeonly, angry, or anti-technology…. As far as our comfort with technology, I (Joe) was a UNIX system administrator before becoming a teacher. Matt was an IT major in college before a last-minute switch to education” (p. viii). Nevertheless, they’ve watched schooling change over the last couple of decades to the point where “teachers are encouraged to use laptops and iPads in every class. Instead of introducing education through educational software, teachers are now struggling to cram education into the technology.” They rightly ask: “Is this what is best for students?” “Should we do this? Ed tech-firms, with their large marketing budgets, have convinced parents and educators alike that their products are necessary for future student success” (p. ix). The book aims to question this assumption, and to argue instead that the push for technology use in schools is undermining not supporting the aims of high quality education.In 10 highly readable chapters, the authors take a sober look at “kids today” and the “myth of the technology-enhanced superkid”, the impact of social media in raising anxiety, the need for parental support in setting limits on technology, and the contribution of technology to the achievement gap. Throughout the book, the authors address the effects of technology on social-emotional functioning as well as cognition and intellectual development. Children, even toddlers, who spend hours staring at screens lose capacity for using the imagination or problem solving, which are key to critical thinking.Finally, let’s be clear that powerful inducements exist for schools to jump onboard the technology train. The ed-tech industry has numerous inducements (free iPads, anyone?), which are especially attractive to school districts burdened with shrinking budgets. The marketing firepower of the ed-tech industry is masterful in creating a sense of “needs” in place of “wants” that, like all advertising, drive parental anxieties about getting that toddler into an Ivy League school down the road. In several places, the authors use phrases such as “tech addiction” to focus the reader’s attention on how ed-tech products are engineered to create dependencies. Thus, it’s no surprise at the end of the book that the authors compare the marketing by ed-tech companies to that of tobacco companies.
- At the end of each chapter, the authors provide “takeaways” for parents, teachers, and students with practical suggestions for addressing the issues raised in each chapter. For example, at the end of the chapter entitled “The Education-Industrial Complex,” they cite the recommendation for a “screen fast” of Dr. Victoria Dunckley, whose book Reset Your Child’s Brain encourages a time-out from technology in order to let children “get their brains back on track” (p. 205). They advocate alliances with parent-teacher organizations to push for sensible policies regarding the use – and over-use – of ed-tech tools in classrooms. The authors cite lots of research along the way, such as the well-known contributions of Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age and Alone Together), who have been sounding alarms for years, but write in a way that knits together personal experience with this research to make a highly readable case for the need to bring a more critical perspective to the place of ed-tech in schools.
- Of course, what’s fueling the push to infuse technology into schools is the huge opportunity for making money. Whether it’s Amazon, Google, Microsoft or one of the hundreds of other lesser known companies seeking a share of this market, the opportunities are legion. The authors confirm their love for capitalism and profit, but return again and again to their basic message—that is, the negative impact of the seductive hype and aggressive promotion of ed-tech in schools. They write: “we need to think hard about profits earned by selling schools products that make it harder to learn” (p. 192). They insist that the lack of scientific evidence behind either the notion that the way students learn is changing or that learning via digital technology is superior to non-technology assisted ways (p. 193) needs to inform future decision-making about spending public dollars on education.
- As teachers who have seen their students’ ability to interact with others, contribute to classroom discussion, and focus on learning, Clement and Miles call educators’ and parents’ attention to the Trojan Horse nature of what they refer to in their second-to-last chapter as the “education-industrial complex” (p. 187), along with its sly inducements such as the pitch for “personalization of learning”. The authors echo the concerns raised by writers such as Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who documents in her book that the “the iGen are “super-connected” but “less happy,” and the findings of researchers such as Kirschner and DeBryckere (2017), who title their recent piece in Teaching and Teacher Education, “The myths of the digital native and the multitasker”.
One can only hope that books such as Screen Schooled and efforts such as #Show the Evidence (https://www.the74million.org/article/showtheevidence-building-a-movement-around-research-impact-in-edtech) will eventually result in raising many more hard questions about the impact of digital technology on today’s youth. The authors are on the right track in providing answers that rest on the accumulation of solid, scientific research and teachers’ own classroom experiences, rather than from the companies eager to sell these products to schools and parents. This effort won’t derail the train, but it might slow it down so that it navigates the curves ahead more safely for all concerned.
Teachers Comment on Screened Schools by Clement and Miles
Nicole Waid, SUNY Oneonta: As new technologies emerge, there is a debate about whether infusing technology into instruction improves or distracts from classroom learning. Teachers sometimes shy away from new technologies because they do not know how to use them so they do not explore ways that they could utilize them in the classroom to enhance student learning. With proper training for pre-service and veteran teachers on how to integrate emerging technology into their lessons technology can invigorate instruction. Social Studies teachers typically like to talk about content and spend a lot of their class time lecturing. Some teachers ask students to write DBQs at home after hearing classroom instruction. This traditional model of learning might not be the most effective way of meeting the students’ needs. Students could listen to micro-lectures created by the teacher using a program like Screencast-o-Matic at home and answer questions on the essential points of the lecture without teacher support. Social Studies teachers who uses this model will take time in class to briefly review the main ideas of the lecture; then they can use a majority of their class time doing activities that require higher-order thinking skills such as document analysis or other activities that require an application of knowledge. The benefit of the flipped classroom model is that the teacher is available to offer support to students when completing challenging assignments rather than having students do the work independently at home with no assistance. When the flipped classroom model is used correctly, the students go from passively using lower order thinking skills taking notes in class to applying higher order thinking skills in the classroom. This model does not have to implement every day, but it could be used a couple of days a week to allow for activities that require more support and more critical thinking.
Olivia LaRocca, Syosset High School: A generation is growing up over-exposed to digital technology. In the classroom we see students who become agitated if they do not have easy access to their cell phones. As soon as the bell rings to end a class, they rush to get the latest updates on social media. I find it challenging to teach students who become so accustomed to instantaneous gratification. Digital natives have difficulty in understanding and disseminating new information because they fail to recognize its importance unless they receive it via twitter. I do use technology in the classroom for illustration, but fundamentally I want my students to be related to me and to each other, not to some electronic device.
Megan Bernth, Bellmore-Merrick School District: Everyone entering the teaching profession today receives at least some instruction in the uses of classroom technology, and usually more than just “some.” It has become impossible to navigate school without confronting new and newer digital technologies. But just because digital technologies are everywhere does not mean they are beneficial to learning. Too often technology-based assignments are gimmicky, and can be completed in more meaningful ways without using the latest technology. The best way to show what you learned about Thomas Jefferson is probably not to create a Thomas Jefferson Facebook page. When I was in middle school, back in the earlier days of technology, we received Mac laptops to use during the school year. Theoretically the computers had software that would allow our teachers to monitor what we were doing and would prevent us from going off-task. In reality, this software was seldom used and many of my classmates spent learning time playing video games and messaging their friends. Eventually some of the teachers refused to allow students to use the laptops in class.
Nabila Khan, Deer Park High School: As teachers, we confront a new generation of students who are “digital learners” and “native digitals.” Parents and teachers too frequently assume that using technology will make students smarter and more accomplished multitaskers. The danger is that other aspects of intelligence, when not used, will atrophy. I use PowerPoint, videos, and online simulations in my classroom. They offer new opportunities for “hands-on” learning and modifications for students who have different learning needs. I am just concerned that students become dependent on excessive technology; we are in essence creating new learning disabilities. I also witness too many students lost in digital fantasy worlds or buried in their cell phones. The cell phones definitely do not belong in the classroom.
Ashley Balgobind, Half Hallow Hills East High School: I use technology to illustrate points, mostly brief videos and animations. I plan occasional webquests where students search for information using prescribed links. During these lessons I have witnessed how some students ended up being distracted by the technology. Technology in the classroom can be a positive, but too much is definitely too much. Unfortunately, there has been such a big push to include educational technology in school instruction without evidence that it benefits student performance. The biggest beneficiaries of the switch to technology are the tech companies that sell the software.
Carrie Hou, Hofstra University: Digital technology is just the latest evolution in human communication, although it does bring a series of new problems hat need to be resolved. Instead of searching and thinking, students simply Google, meaning Google gets to decide what is important to know and even what to think about things. A big part of the problem is that teachers and parents are just as addicted to digital technology as the students. Teachers cannot be the police force of the digital world, not if parents permit children unlimited access digital technology when they are outside of school. Personally, I like to use technology to teach and learn. As we figure out how to more effectively utilize it in the classroom, it can become the teacher’s best friend.
Arwa Alhumaidan, Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Screens are a ubiquitous part of people’s lives. There is an addictive quality to them. Children watch screens while eating breakfast and in the car or bus on the way to school. Unfortunately, watching is sedentary, which is a problem, especially for younger children, who need more kinetic activity and socializing. We are establishing patterns of behavior that will place health at-risk as digital addicts move into adulthood and then middle age.
Steve Rosino, Whitestone Academy, Queens, NY: Students are having a hard time tuning things out that are not social media related. I teach students that it is important once in a while to turn everything off and just breathe in deeply and meditate. Downtime is essential if students are going to do their best work. Too often multi-tasking means no tasking at all.