Since the pandemic, most schools have been utilizing technology more than ever to reach and teach students digitally. In fact, without technology, schools would not have been able to function outside the traditional classroom when shutdowns and school closures changed everything.
Considering technology has kept us afloat for the last 18 months, it might seem counterintuitive to talk about dialing it back now. But it’s precisely because we have become so technology-dependent and digitally overloaded that American education should re-examine its role in the classroom–particularly in the younger grades.
America tends to have a “the sooner the better” approach to education. This is certainly true with technology. Since we want our students to be digitally literate by the time they graduate from high school, it only stands to reason that we put iPads in the hands of kindergarteners.
Or does it?
As a high school and middle school teacher, I would argue that the more technology-free learning we can give younger students, the better prepared they will be to learn in high school and beyond. Here’s how too much technology too soon can impede students’ learning.
1. Technology dulls the senses.
When young children are given a steady diet of digital learning with all the animation, flashing lights, bells, whistles, and instant rewards, they can become dulled to “regular” learning. No matter how animated or engaging the teacher, it’s tough to compete with a cartoon hippo or an animated wizard.
Some argue that since many kindergarteners are already hooked on screens, this is the only way schools can engage them. This is a dangerous notion. While educating children who have had iPads practically since birth is challenging, our students’ over-dependence on electronics is another reason to limit it. Giving digitally-dependent children more screen time only increases their dependence on digital stimulation. This makes it harder for them to focus. By using technology to engage kids who are hooked on technology, we exacerbate the problem and perpetuate the cycle of indifference toward other forms of learning.
2. Technology is addictive.
Some children are overly dependent on technology. Others are downright addicted. As with drugs, our brains receive a dopamine response from things like reaching the next level in a video game or receiving LIKES on social media. And while it’s unlikely that a few rounds of Kahoot will lead to addiction, many educational games and learning tools operate on the same principle of instant reward.
The satisfaction and intrinsic reward of finishing a book, writing a sound paragraph, or solving a math problem pale by comparison to getting the top score in a video game (even an educational one). The brain doesn’t receive the same little high that it does from many forms of electronic learning. This isn’t to say teachers should never use games to teach and review material. But if we want to keep kids plugged into non-digital learning, technology should be an occasional treat rather than a routine staple.
3. Technology inhibits the formation of good habits.
Even less flashy forms of technology like Google Docs and Microsoft Word have taken their toll on learning. Studies show that both children and adults learn and remember more when they write by hand. That alone should be enough for us to limit the amount of time young children spend working at a keyboard. But another problem with doing work digitally rather than by hand is that makes kids inattentive to their own work.
Ask anyone who teaches older students, and she will tell you. Middle and high school students have handwriting that looks like that of second-graders. They lack awareness of basic sentence structure, and they often ignore rules for capitalization and punctuation. We have created an over-dependence on technology at the expense of foundational skills. Students learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, but they don’t really have to commit them to memory. They don’t have to form the habit of following these rules. Kids don’t know how to write well because the computer does half the work for them.
Too much computer work prevents students from learning the importance and habit of attention to detail. People who used to handwrite assignments or use typewriters paid attention while writing to avoid having to erase or deal with White Out. We were less inclined to rush–because we didn’t want to mess up. Because computer work doesn’t require the same attention to detail as handwritten work, many of our students have developed lazy habits that carry over into other areas of learning.
Should elementary students know how to use a keyboard and create digital documents? Probably. But this should not be the primary tool they use for writing or working on other assignments.
4. Technology can limit creativity.
There are a lot of cool apps, programs, and games that allow children to make fun things digitally. But these are not a replacement for glue, scissors, paint, and all the other hands-on joys of childhood. Art should have texture and smell and make a bit of a mess.
Like other forms of digital learning, children like graphic design because of its ease of use and instant gratification. After all, it’s often more difficult for young children to create something impressive with a paintbrush than it is with a computer program. Too much experience with graphic design is likely to make some children impatient with the creative process.
5. The risk of distraction and abuse is too great.
Keeping students on track while they are at the computers will always be a problem, whether they are 5 or 25. Some argue students should learn at a young age to focus on the task at hand while learning and working online. But it makes more sense to teach students to work hard and stay focused offline before putting the powerful temptation of the internet in front of them. Teachers in upper grades know that more technology does not make students immune to distractions. It only makes them better at getting past the safeguards.
6. Technology in the classroom is first and foremost about money.
Ed-tech companies, not the best interest of students, have been the driving force behind the use of technology in the classroom. According to this 2016 article in TIME, there is little reason to believe that technology is the key to student success, but plenty of evidence that points to the harm that too much technology and overstimulation can have on children.
We live in a digital world, and technology is here to stay. We can’t and shouldn’t completely shelter our students from it. But what if during the elementary years, we kept technology to a minimum? What if school was a place where students got a break from digital dependence instead of a place where that dependence was reinforced? And what if our students spent their childhoods developing good habits and healthy attention spans, relatively free (at least during the school day) from the draw and distraction of the internet? What if screens didn’t dominate their days?
If we limited screen time in elementary schools, the 6 years between 7th and 12th grade would be plenty of time for students to learn to navigate the digital world. When it comes to technology, the “the sooner the better” approach is doing our children a huge disservice.