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Modeling Critical Thinking Skills: Focus on the Research, Not the Hype, Behind Technology in the Classroom

by Anne Corcoran, Founder
“Americans had tricked out classrooms with interactive white boards, high-tech projectors, and towers of iPads. However, there was little evidence that these purchases paid off for anyone other than the technology vendors.” - Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World (2013)

When it comes the education of children, extreme care should be taken to ensure they are not used as guinea pigs for every interesting fad. Once gone, wasted time in education cannot be retrieved, and students will spend their futures living with the consequences.

Steve Jobs didn’t let his children use iPads.

Waldorf schools serve the children of America’s tech elite in Silicon Valley and other areas of California. The most notable facet of these schools? No computers.
 
A parent of two Waldorf students, Alan Eagle, has a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works at Google. He says it is a waste of time to teach students to use an evolving technological tool like the computer.

“It’s super easy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” he 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.”

Research backs up this stance. A host of studies, including several from the last few months, show that if learning, comprehension, and analysis are the goals for students, computers should not be in the classroom.
  • In April 2014, Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA revealed the results of three studies in the journal Psychological Science. Their conclusion: students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. The researchers found that laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words was detrimental to learning. This correlation continued even when laptop note takers were specifically told to try to reframe the lecture in their own words.

  • In July 2014, researchers presented findings that readers using a digital device performed “significantly” worse on comprehension questions than readers who had read the story on paper.  This study followed up the researchers' findings in a previous study that showed readers who read a story on an iPad had more difficulty with narrative coherence and empathy with characters.

  • In September 2014, a study was published in the journal Computers & Education showing that college students who bring their laptops to long lectures spent about two-thirds of their class time for off-task activities. The same study also revealed that students’ test scores went down when they multi-task in class on non-academic activities.

  • In 2013, the Computers and Education journal reported findings that multitasking on a laptop or even sitting near someone multitasking on a laptop during a lecture resulted in lower test scores.

  • Among countries that take the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), test scores are lower among students who use computers intensively, reports Charles Kenny in Business Week.

  • Among countries that take PISA, the relationship between educational achievement and the use of computers at home and school was negative for home computers and insignificant for school computers.

  • Analysis of the One Laptop per Child program, which hands out specially designed computers loaded with learning applications, has shown similar and consistently disappointing results. No impact has been shown on reading, math, and cognitive skills.

  • In the early 2000s, the Duke University economists Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd tracked the academic progress of nearly one million disadvantaged middle-school students against the dates they were given networked computers. Their findings? A persistent decline in students’ math and reading skills.

  • In 2008 the journal Computers & Education published the results of a study on laptop usage in class which found that laptop use negatively correlated to student learning, including attention, lecture clarity, and understanding of the course material.

  • A 2009 study on the cognitive ability of people who frequently multi-tasked with technology found that chronic media multi-taskers—people who spent several hours a day juggling multiple screen tasks—performed worse than otherwise similar peers on analytic questions drawn from the LSAT.
Advocating for the measured and thoughtful use of computers in the classroom does not mean one has a negative view of technology. Computers should be used when they are proven to be the best option. Here are five examples.
  • Practicing recall of basic facts as homework, such as math and geography facts.

  • Streamlining educational administration.

  • Online standardized testing that provides a quick and usable snapshot of data.

  • Use of a teacher computer with a projector to show texts, pictures, and video relevant to the subject matter.

  • Use of a computer by students to show PowerPoints, Excel spreadsheets, etc. for an oral presentation.
These are targeted uses for which other options do not approach the computer’s efficacy and efficiency. However, in none of these instances is a computer actually in a student’s hands for classroom learning.
The goal of student learning should always be front and center in any classroom, and research reveals computers are not effective at improving comprehension and analytical thinking in the classroom. So what does research show matters to classroom learning?
 
1. Teaching the Brain to Learn

How can analytical thinking be taught?  Three recently acclaimed books reveal important research on this issue: Daniel Goleman’s Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence; Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow; and Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Their findings show that critical thinking is a process resulting from concentration and past background knowledge. That’s why at classical charter schools you won’t find a lot of computers.  You will find excellent books, a planned curriculum, and teachers who are experts on their subject matter. This is purposeful.   Classical schools seek to create individuals capable of analyzing information, opinions, facts, and propaganda – and forming their own rational conclusions.
 
2. Teachers

A study released this week by the Center on Education Policy found that effective teaching was the most important factor in student learning. This should come as a surprise to no one. Many studies have reached this conclusion. That’s why in classical charter schools teachers are the primary focus of a classroom. Teachers must have a solid grasp of content and the ability to write and communicate at a high level. Without a strong teacher, the scope, sequence, and curriculum mean nothing.

Kentoyo Toyama holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Yale and is currently a professor at the University of Michigan. In between founding a computer science laboratory, championing technology in emerging markets, and co-founding a global platform for technology development, he has written extensively criticizing the “technological utopianism” epitomized by the One Laptop Per Child initiative. He has strong words for those who advocate for the use of computers in the classroom.

[A]ny idiot can learn Twitter. But, forming and articulating a cogent argument…requires good thinking, writing, and communication skills. Those skills might be channeled through technology, but they hardly require technology to acquire. Similarly, any fool can learn to “use” a computer. But the underlying math required to do financial accounting or engineering requires solid mathematical preparation that requires working through problem sets. Einstein didn’t grow up with computers, but modern physics would be delighted to have more Einsteins. We need to distinguish between the need to learn the tools of modern life (easy to pick up and getting easier by the day…) and learning the critical thinking skills that make a person productive in any information economy (hard to learn and not really any easier with information technology).

Until research supports putting computers in the classroom, Classical Prep will continue to rely on texts and teachers to provide students with the tools that, according to studies, do matter for learning. Schools should not just tell students to use their analytical powers to form independent, verifiable conclusions. They should model that behavior as institutions. Not only will this result in the best education, it will teach students that they can use their minds to reason independently of momentary hype and gimmicks, thus creating a better world for themselves, their communities, and future generations.

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