Teach­ers demon­strate the power of fewer screens and more hu­man in­ter­ac­tion

The Washington Post - - EDUCATION - jay.mathews@wash­post.com Jay Mathews

Joe Clement and Matt Miles teach so­cial stud­ies at Chan­tilly High School in Fair­fax County. They know a teacher who spent six hours jazz­ing up a les­son on old po­lit­i­cal car­toons with a Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tion. Stu­dents pulled lap­tops off a cart so they could fol­low and com­ment on the les­son on­line.

The class went well. But some­thing un­usual hap­pened, part of a series of Clement and Miles dis­cov­er­ies that threaten the foun­da­tions of the high-tech class­room and are re­counted in their new book “Screen Schooled: Two Vet­eran Teach­ers Ex­pose How Tech­nol­ogy Overuse Is Mak­ing Our Kids Dum­ber.”

The teacher men­tioned his suc­cess­ful les­son to an­other his­tory teacher. She told him about her sim­i­lar les­son, us­ing not Pow­erPoint and lap­tops but printed copies of the car­toons af­fixed to large newsprint sheets. Stu­dents walked around the room and made les­son-re­lated com­ments on the newsprint.

He de­cided to try it her way. The les­son took 15 min­utes to pre­pare. What had been a good if quiet class ear­lier, with stu­dents star­ing at their screens, be­came a bois­ter­ous, in­volv­ing dis­cus­sion. Let­ting stu­dents in­ter­act en­er­gized the room, brought in more com­ments and added the phys­i­cal move­ment that many teens crave.

“In short,” Clement and Miles con­cluded, “this les­son was su­pe­rior in nearly ev­ery way com­pared to the more com­plex tech­nol­ogy-en­hanced les­son.”

Their book is so con­trary to con­ven­tional wis­dom I won­der what the mag­nates of ed-tech — the widely used short­hand for the ed­u­ca­tional tech­nol­ogy move­ment — will do if the prac­tices ad­vo­cated by the au­thors gain mo­men­tum. I am del­uged with ed­u­ca­tion books, but this one was hard to put down.

Their idea began with mus­ing over their best lessons, the ones they can’t wait to teach ev­ery year, so en­gag­ing that their stu­dents are shocked and sad when the bell rings. They asked them­selves how much ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy is in­volved in those lessons. Their an­swer, and the an­swer from the vast ma­jor­ity of teach­ers they sur­veyed, was lit­tle to none.

They have come up with three core prin­ci­ples of good teach­ing: “(1) de­liver in­struc­tion in the sim­plest pos­si­ble man­ner; (2) fo­cus in­struc­tion on what stu­dents are able to do; and (3) foster face-to-face hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties for com­mu­nity build­ing.”

They don’t want to dis­pose of iPads, YouTube, Prezis and Google Docs, they said, but “these tools in and of them­selves do not make for bet­ter teach­ing. In fact, as we have seen, more use of tech­nol­ogy — inside and out­side the class­room — can make it more dif­fi­cult for stu­dents to learn and teach­ers to teach. . . . The fo­cus of the les­son of­ten is method of in­struc­tion (how to turn on the iPad, or the twist­ing and turn­ing of the Prezi) rather than on the con­tent or skills be­ing taught.”

Clement and Miles are not sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian stegosauru­ses like me, dream­ing of younger days. Clement, 48, was once a UNIX ad­min­is­tra­tor. Miles, 33, was an IT ma­jor be­fore a last­minute switch to ed­u­ca­tion. They know the key fact about the new class­room tech­nolo­gies: There is no re­search show­ing they have sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased achieve­ment.

The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for screens in class is rea­son­able, at least on the sur­face. Clement and Miles said they are of­ten told “that since so much of mod­ern life is de­pen­dent on tech­nol­ogy, schools must teach these tech­nolo­gies.”

“This might be an ap­peal­ing idea, but it is folly,” they said. “Stu­dents need no help from schools de­vel­op­ing their tablet, smart­phone, or Twit­ter skills. They are do­ing this on their own. What they need help with is crit­i­cal think­ing, prob­lem solv­ing, and com­mu­nity build­ing.”

They think teach­ers do bet­ter pre­sent­ing in­struc­tion, face to face. Freed of a pre­planned pro­gram, they can stop talk­ing and an­swer spon­ta­neous ques­tions. They can back­track if stu­dents seem lost. They can adapt their lessons from class to class. They can query stu­dents to make sure they get it.

Most im­por­tant, they can de­velop so­cial con­nec­tions, so cru­cial with teenagers, to res­cue them from the screen ad­dic­tions that Clement and Miles de­scribe in chill­ing de­tail. Next week, I will get into what they say can be done to turn back the acidic dis­trac­tions of the tech rev­o­lu­tion in our schools, and save just the stuff that works.

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