THESE students will be fine in the future 21st century world…

There’s been another installment to The New York Times series, “Grading the Digital School.” This time we learn about a school in Silicon Valley that makes screen time illegal and argues that its students are better off for it (see my previous responses to articles in this series here and here).

In all the hubbub about technology in schools going on around us right now, it definitely grabbed my attention to see a school refusing to play along. And I was skeptical–why refuse to engage students with technology when our world is demanding facility with technology as a basic literacy?

“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” said Alan Eagle, 50, whose daughter, Andie, is one of the 196 children at the Waldorf elementary school; his son William, 13, is at the nearby middle school. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”

I agree with Mr. Eagle. I don’t want my kid learning to read or do math on an iPad either. But Mr. Eagle is missing the point here–technology in the classroom is NOT simply about the kind of instructional software that you might find on an iPad. There are far more important reasons to use technology in the classroom.

And the fact that Mr. Eagle’s children go to a Waldorf school tells me that his kids will be okay in their 21st century future even if they don’t use technology in school.

Why?

Well, the students we’re talking about at this school are likely highly privileged:

The Waldorf experience does not come cheap: annual tuition at the Silicon Valley schools is $17,750 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $24,400 for high school, though Ms. Wurtz said financial assistance was available. She says the typical Waldorf parent, who has a range of elite private and public schools to choose from, tends to be liberal and highly educated, with strong views about education; they also have a knowledge that when they are ready to teach their children about technology they have ample access and expertise at home.

These students’ homes are likely full of communication technology already and they’ll learn how to use it even if they’re not using it at school. So they won’t lack critical literacy skills to find success in their future. But here’s the problem–I worry that some will take this Waldorf school as justification to pull away from technology. Remember,

Some education experts say that the push to equip classrooms with computers is unwarranted because studies do not clearly show that this leads to better test scores or other measurable gains.

Some may find this Waldorf school as reason to avoid technology expense, especially if the ever-important test scores aren’t going up. And the schools most concerned with technology expense (and test scores) are likely the ones struggling for resources anyhow–public schools, that serve the kids whose families aren’t sending them to expensive Waldorf schools, whose families may not have the resources to teach technology literacy if the school doesn’t teach it–kids who will enter the 21st century world, severely lacking basic literacies that they need to find success if their school doesn’t teach them.

And beyond this basic equity issue that I don’t think the article addresses fully enough, I (once again as it goes for this NYTimes series) think that this piece is missing the mark in how it talks about the value of technology in the classroom:

Absent clear evidence, the debate comes down to subjectivity, parental choice and a difference of opinion over a single world: engagement. Advocates for equipping schools with technology say computers can hold students’ attention and, in fact, that young people who have been weaned on electronic devices will not tune in without them.

Paul Thomas, a former teacher and an associate professor of education at Furman University, who has written 12 books about public educational methods, disagreed, saying that “a spare approach to technology in the classroom will always benefit learning.”

“Teaching is a human experience,” he said. “Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”

Technology is not simply about engagement. That completely minimizes the realities of our world. Yes, our world needs our students to possess literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking. And technology is the critical tool now to get our students there. Literacy itself includes facility with information and communication technology. And as for numeracy and critical thinking–classroom technology can get students there efficiently and effectively, in ways not possible without it. And the deluge of information in our world now created by internet technology demands a whole new set of critical thinking skills–recognizing bias, knowing how to read a URL to understand who is hosting a source and how that might affect source credibility, synthesizing across a wide variety of sources to be able to make an argument… the list is endless. And these skills are impossible to teach outside of the digital context.Well it might not be impossible to teach, but students will only see a slice of the bigger picture if not learning these skills within the landscape of the internet.

I agree that engagement IS key, absolutely:

“Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers,” said Pierre Laurent, 50, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft. He has three children in Waldorf schools, which so impressed the family that his wife, Monica, joined one as a teacher in 2006.

Yes, engagement is about human contact, with the teacher, with peers. I engage my students through relevant, critical thinking tasks that require them to work with their classmates and with me as their teacher. The better I know them each as individuals, the better able I am to invite them into the curriculum in ways that are meaningful to them. And the kind of classroom technology I use enables these connections in ways not possible without them.

Ive had students unwilling to speak up in class discussions post long, thoughtful responses to class content in our shared digital spaces, thus connecting them to their classmates in ways not possible without that technology. Google docs makes the peer revision process seamless–students connect with one another over their drafts of papers and provide more feedback and more thoughtful feedback to each other than I have ever seen via any other way I’ve asked them to look at each other’s papers. Last year I had an autistic student in class–whenever I sat down to conference with him while he worked on his writing in class, we wouldn’t get very far. But then one day he emailed me in the afternoon asking if I could look at his paper. I was working at my favorite local cafe, and from there I opened up his paper in Google Docs and we used the chat window in the side to conduct a virtual writing conference. Here the technology connected me to this student and allowed us to have a meaningful conversation about his writing–something we had not been able to do face-to-face in class. And Google Docs has allowed other kinds of interactions I’d never imagined–like what I wrote about what happened in my creative writing class one day a few weeks ago. And the websites I use for my classes have enabled me to communicate course expectations and requirements and daily happenings to students (and their parents) more fully than I’ve been able to ever before.

In short, the technology I use in my class actually permits me to connect to my students better than I’ve been able to ever before.

And none of the technology I’ve mentioned above costs anything for me to use, by the way.

The article closes with this:

And where advocates for stocking classrooms with technology say children need computer time to compete in the modern world, Waldorf parents counter: what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills?

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

Well that may be the case for students whose parents know this already. And again, I’m not worried about these Waldorf students and whether or not they’ll possess the digital literacies they’ll need in their futures. It’s all the other students out there whose schools may look at this NYTimes article and use it to justify not spending money on technology. But trust me, Google Docs, for example, is not totally intuitive to everyone. It took me a while to wrap my head around it, and every year I see my students struggle with it when we begin working with this technology if they’ve never seen it before. These technologies are not as easy as toothpaste.

My students can all use Facebook to make their plans for the weekend, but I’m interested in them learning how to use emerging information and communication technology to work on shared projects with colleagues who may not even be in the same country, for example. As our world becomes more and more global (as technology connects us across miles that used to separate us), literacy with these technologies becomes more and more critical.

These critical literacies are not the ones our current achievement tests measure, so we must begin to look beyond that metric to justify money spent on classroom technology. And that money should not necessarily be spent on instructional software. Though I know there is some great instructional software out there, more than that our students need computers in their hands so they can learn to navigate the digital world in all its complexity.

The Silicon Valley Waldorf students will be okay. Their parents will put computers in their hands.

We must fight for all the other students in public schools across the country–especially the ones who don’t already have access to computers at home–to be certain they too are ready to compete in the complex 21st century world.

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