Devices in the classroom

Open letter to the South Kingstown, RI's School Committee, Superintendent, and Curtis Corner Middle School principal:

Dear Superintendent Stringfellow, Principal Aull, and the South Kingstown School Committee:

This letter is in regard to devices in the classroom and, incidentally, about "bring your own device" (BYOD) also.

I am not opposed to educational use of devices and other information technologies. I want to understand the pedagogical imperatives that are driving the continued expansion of devices in the classroom and now the BYOD policy. As a parent, I see the expansion being pushed by a small and vocal group of parents. They are well intentioned, “how couldn't a student benefit from have the Internet immediately available?” but not holistic.

Educational research has often been in the vanguard of new ideas and processes. My first job in the late 1980's was helping Brown University's students and faculty to use high performance, networked workstations. I did this for eight years and so I have a fair amount of experience with the use of technology in education. Overall, it was not an effectiveness use of resources. Where it was successful, its success was due to great teachers and motivated students -- an always-successful situation. From my continued readings on the topic I do not see a marked difference in the results achieved today. Then, as now, the technology gets the student's immediate attention but without improving their long-term retention.

At the same time that I was working with technology Theodore Sizer's "Coalition of Essential Schools" was also centered at Brown University. Its "Common Principles", while not antithetical to technology, did not see technology as a requirement of a good school. It is well worth rereading the nine principles when opening any educational discussion. See

A classroom filled with knowledgable teaching, rapt student attention, and dynamic discussion is wonderful to experience. It is also rare. Why? In part it is because of the ever-present constants of maturing teen bodies and their daily energy cycles. We also live in a time of significant and accelerating change for their families and our communities. Our children are present in this no matter how much we try to shelter them.

Through all of this secondary education has attempted to keep abreast of the changes and to incorporate appropriate devices -- that is, hardware, network, and software tools -- for teaching. The perspective from which "appropriate" is considered seems to have been only the administration's. I am sure some teachers want to include devices in their classroom just as I am also sure some teachers opposed it with all their might. Any change in the classroom must first address the pedagogy.

The demands on teacher and student time, attention, and energies have grown enormously over the last decade. Linda Stone writes about our culture's "continuous partial attention." We don't want to miss anything. Continuous partial attention is a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, by coping with not missing anything we have given up understanding a few things well. Secondary education must firmly instill knowing a few things well.

For example, I want my children to understand Algebra 1 well. I want them to understand it without resorting to Wolfram Alpha or any other software aid. Algebra 1 is not rocket science (but it is hard.) Putting pencil to paper has a proven track record of success and new research reports a strengthening of understanding and retention when both physical and intellectual effort is exerted. What do you remember better, the equation worked out on paper with all its missteps, crossings-out and corrections or a cleanly typed and retyped of the same? The former expression has a history while the later only has an end. You need the history to understand how to get to the end.

How is the classroom teacher going to keep the students attention when these devices beckon -- literally and figuratively? They do come with an "Airplane mode" but they do not come with a "Classroom mode." Consider that we can't keep teens from texting while driving and that action is actually life threatening. All that a device in the classroom does is perpetuate the attention deficit and, far worse, it separates the student from the teacher.

In this letter, I am not addressing the disparities that will arise due to family income. Nor does it address the difficulties for teachers having to prepare classroom materials for a diversity of devices. These are very serious issues that have social and professional costs. Even if these issues were solved, however, we, a community of supportive adults, still need to know how a student looking down at a screen -- sometimes described as "a world under glass" -- instead of looking across a classroom of peers to a teacher at a whiteboard is an improvement to educating our children?

Yours truly, Andrew Gilmartin

For related postings see one-to-one.