To use screens or not to use screens…Is that the question?

Certainly, there are arguments to be made on both sides of the topic when it comes to children and technology use. Does access to the latest technology in the classroom setting open doors for them or does it expose them to potential harm? If every child has a tablet, will they learn and grow from its use or will they become addicted and distracted? What is truly the best thing for the developing mind of a young child? THAT is the question.

A local, public school in the suburbs of Memphis is touting the delivery of over 2500 iPads to be distributed to students in grades 4-12. All students will also be issued an email address, and 6th-12th graders will be expected to complete homework solely on their devices.  While the administration of this particular school views the recently-acquired 1:1 technology as a positive step for the students, not all parents agree.
“What if my son can break through the security firewall and gain access to sites that I do not want him to visit?” said the mother of one 7th-grade boy who attends the school. “He is a smart boy, and I doubt it is a foolproof system.”

She went on to express her dissatisfaction with having no input into the decision. “No one asked me if this was something I wanted for my child. I personally think they are too young to have exclusive access to their own devices. There is too much potential for negative impact, and it is just not necessary. Give the kids paper and pencils instead; make them get creative.”

Some education experts agree that the push to equip classrooms with computers is unwarranted because studies do not clearly show that it leads to better test scores or other measurable gains.  A 2015 assessment of digital skills conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that “countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results for reading, mathematics or science.”[1]

Across town in East Memphis, a small, private school is choosing to keep technology out of the classrooms until well into the upper grades. Westminster Academy is a classical school, whose model of education is based upon millennia-old teaching methods.

“The goal of a classical education is to teach a child how to think and to love learning.  This is best done in the context of a loving relationship, filled with give and take,” said Headmaster Ralph Janikowsky. “Students need to experiment, play, solve problems, create, and pursue trial and error, guided by a teacher who asks questions and requires the child to do the work of thinking and learning.  For the young student, technology often shortcuts this process and denies the child the opportunity to work through challenges.”

Those who endorse the technology-free approach say computers and screens inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction, and can shorten attention spans. Debbie Frazier, head of the Grammar School at Westminster Academy, agrees. “Screens have cut us off from one another, their use promotes isolation instead of interaction. In getting their hands dirty, observing, and playing with objects, children truly understand how and why things work. They discover, instead of just taking in words on a screen.”

Students using Big Blue Blocks to problem solve

At Westminster Academy, students are using Imagination Playground™ Big Blue Blocks to work out problem-solving techniques, team building, and executive function instead of swiping with a simple finger stroke. Engaging their core muscles to move these large objects while simultaneously solving a puzzle is all part of the approach to employ body and brain together.

In the classroom, teachers are using the Socratic method to engage students in classroom lessons and challenge their thinking even further. The lessons “stick” because the child is present, engaged, and interactive with their peers and teachers. “Teaching is about human contact and interaction,” said Ian Young, a teacher at Steiner Academy Hereford in a recent article for The Guardian. “I don’t think we are doing children any favors by teaching them through machines at that young age.”[2]

Students parading to the Colonial Ball.

Field trips from elementary school days stick in adult minds because they brought the lessons to life. That is the goal throughout the entire education process in a classical school. Westminster Academy second graders transport back to ancient Egypt with an elaborate feast after studying customs of the day. In third grade, students bring the first Greek Olympics to life with chariot races, games and plays. Fifth graders transform their learning space into a Valley Forge encampment for their history lesson. Books come alive in every grade, throughout the year by allowing the students to participate in events such as a prairie-day party after reading Laura Ingalls Wilder or a black and white affair after completing Mr. Popper’s Penguins.  These activities in the daily lives of students are what truly bring learning to life. “School is a learning journey and you want to make it as complex, rich, and interesting as possible,” said Sarah Thorne, head of the London Acorn School, in a recent article. “The problem with instant information is that the ease with which you can get from A to B and find the answers doesn’t reflect real life.” [3]

And what do the standardized tests say? Are students who are being taught in the classical model being left in the dust by their tech-savvy counterparts?

As of 2015, classical schools had the highest SAT scores in each of the three categories of reading, math, and writing among all independent, religious and public schools across the US[4]. In Memphis alone, Westminster Academy boasts the highest composite ACT score of all co-ed schools in the city[5], and 100% of Westminster Academy students over the last five years have been accepted into college. And so, while there are differing approaches to technology in the classroom, these end results prove that experiences over swiping and typing are tried and true when it comes to instilling a love of learning and deeper understanding in graduates.