Thursday, June 13, 2019

Already A Perfected Form

I'm currently reading Aldous Huxley's novel Island, the utopian follow-up to his dystopian masterpiece A Brave New World. Next up is Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees. I prefer traditional hardbacks, even as more and more friends have urged me to switch to reading books from a screen. I understand that e-readers are a little lighter and the books a little cheaper, but they are also another gadget that needs to be kept charged up, they break if you drop them, they're expensive to replace if you leave them on the bus, and I find reading from a screen far less pleasurable than from the pages of a well-loved book. In other words, for me at least, the latest book-reading technology, despite the hype, doesn't improve my reading experience, and in some ways makes it worse, so I stick with my hardbacks.

Our preschool uses very little screen-based technology. The adults have our phones on us should we need to look something up or take a quick picture, but we don't watch videos or play "learning games" or take tests or anything like that. In fact, our school doesn't have wi-fi or own a computer, not even for the adults to use. This doesn't mean we're Luddites. After all, we live in the land of Microsoft and Amazon, not to mention that Tableau's headquarters and one of Google's major offices are located only a few blocks from the school. A large segment of our families earn their livings from technology and many of us have been early adopters of everything from robot vacuums to battery-powered bikes (really the only way for a cycling-centric parents to haul around multiple children in hilly Seattle), things that improve our lives. 

No, we don't use screen-based technology in the classroom for the same reason I don't read digital books: we've yet to see evidence that using it will improve our educational experience. Indeed, so far it appears that there is not a single thing that children learn better through screen-based technology other than how to use screen-based technology. I try to keep up with the research and while there is no doubt that children do learn from screens, there is nothing to indicate that this type of technology offers an improvement to anyone other than the companies that profit from selling their soon-to-be outdated computers and tablets. 

And in many cases, the use of screen-based technology as an educational tool produces worse results. From a recently released international study:

The more students used technology in schools, the lower the nation ranked in educational achievement.

This isn't the first research to show that not only do these technologies not live up to the hype, they are actually doing damage. The only area in which the study found an advantage was in terms of performing research, which makes sense, and is how we tend to use it at Woodland Park.

Of course, most of the research into screen-based technology in schools has focused on such nonsensical things as test scores and the retention of trivia (a virtually useless skill in this era of smart phones). There has been precious little research performed on how these technologies impact the core of what education should be about: like the crucial citizenship skills of critical thinking, questioning authority, and standing up for oneself; or the acquisition of the traits required to be "successful," like self-motivation, working well with others, and being personable. What research that has been done has clearly shown that these skills and traits are best learned through the self-directed learning that comes from play-based environments like ours.

From where I sit, it looks like hardback books may already be a perfected form. I'll continue to consider the latest "advances," but I expect that we'll be taking old-school books along with us when we begin to colonize Mars. I feel even more strongly that play-based education is a perfected form, one that has evolved over millennia, since the dawn of life itself. Sure, there might be some technology some day that makes children better at taking tests or ciphering, and I'll continue to consider the latest information, but it's hard for me to imagine how one improves upon asking and answering ones own questions in the company of a community fellow citizens who are likewise asking and answering their own questions: learning through direct experience with the real world, negotiating, bickering and agreeing, making mistakes and finding success through perseverance.

Screen-based technology is here to stay, of course, but not, I expect, as an educational tool. It is destined, like every educational fad to, at best, play a peripheral role because the self-directed learning of a play-based education within the context of community is already a perfected form.

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