Banning Technology: A Rebuttal of a False Savior


Disclaimer: Note that this blog entry does NOT say technology use in schools is bad, evil or we shouldn't be doing it anymore. It DOES try to include as much research as I could find about how it's NOT working the way we're doing it. And, I DO ask how can we get rid of the "edtech hype" that surrounds crafting effective instructional interventions in classrooms today. 
Like Tom Snyder of "The One Computer Classroom" said in an essay so long ago, there are a LOT of financial backed interests pushing their way into classrooms. The approaches they bring is insufficient, inadequate to the task of educating our children. I sincerely hope that as you read this, you also do not walk away with the perspective, "Miguel hates technology, edtech and everything else." Rather, I hope you say, "Wow, Miguel's perspective is evolving and he's being transparent, even when it looks messy 'cause learning is messy.



As we geared up for a quiet Labor Day Weekend, this tweet didn't quite ring true. Not that the person who tweeted it lacked conviction, but rather, that it lacked the research to make it true. It was an opinion. And, such opinions are expensive and dangerous at a time when educators are fighting harder than ever. Fighting what? That's what this blog is about.


I loved some of the conversation, Carl, kicked off, however. Erin Dinneen (@erind5) points out the following:
Children don't work in government offices, they go to school to learn. Adults work in offices, with skills they (supposedly) did learn.

This suggests to me that the edtech hype permeating our schools is dying out. Before I go much farther, let's define what "edtech hype" is.

Defining "EdTech Hype"

As an edtech advocate for many years, I see that edtech describes quite a few movements and approaches to using technology in schools. For me, edtech is composed of the following aspects:

Aspect #1: Technology as a productivity, tool for rapid prototyping and communications/collaboration at a distance tool.

This aspect of edtech focuses on replacing older technology, using technology advancements as productivity enhancers. Users may rely on it as a way to communicate and collaborate at a distance. It may also be used for rapid prototyping, such as with 3D printing, coding, design thinking. Traditional computer labs and makerspaces present opportunities for learners. Digital citizenship and appropriate use of communication technologies (e.g. social media, instant messaging, Instagram, Snapchat) fall into this area.

The EdTech Hype: "Kids can learn to read, write, do math, and think better THROUGH the use of these technologies. That's why we HAVE to use them." Edtech hype inflates the value of this aspect as THE way to achieve reading, writing, math, HOTS goals. Robotics, makerspaces all get lumped in as the wave of the future.

In the final analysis, as powerful as the benefits are, teaching and learning still occur effectively WITHOUT technology as a productivity tool.  Employed in the classroom with a focus on productivity, connectivity, collaboration, it  DISTRACTS from reading, writing, math and thinking. Little research appears to show how it accelerates learning at d=> .40.

What I'm NOT Saying: Note that I'm NOT saying this aspect of technology is something we should ignore completely in schools. It should not be our first, second, or third priority. This aspect of technology should be introduced but not for every single learning activity in the classroom. It should occupy less than 10% of the time students spend in the classroom. The other 90%? Focused reading, writing and math at higher levels.

Aspect #2: Technology to accelerate student learning.

This aspect of edtech focuses on using technology to develop higher order thinking skills (HOTS), to speed student learning. The goal is on Nor has use of edtech as a learning enhancer (e.g. Integrated Learning System) shown itself to do much more. Much of what commercial companies have spent money on has focused on pushing technology to do MORE of this (e.g. Jostens, Compass Learning, Successmaker). Anytime there is a claim that running kids through a technology program that facilitates remedial learning, credit recovery, or accelerates learning, it falls within this aspect of edtech.

The EdTech Hype: Using THIS technology will improve student learning in some magical, mystical way. It relies on approaches like Project-Based Learning, constructivist learning, discovery learning to underpin sketchy technology use that is task-oriented and does not reflect effective instructional strategies. You get the feeling that you're being effective, that kids are busy without the actual benefit of students learning anything.


Final Observation: We've seen so many of these types of solutions fail. Each represents an effort by some company to capitalize on using technology to accelerate learning. Or worse, it is an area where pundits write books with an unproven method to sell (e.g. PBL, Inquiry-based learning) and invitation to get on the bandwagon (e.g. John Seelye Brown with Passion-based Learning).

Wrap Up on These Aspects

These aspects of technology use are EVERYWHERE in schools today. Some suggest that the only REAL solution is to BAN them. Not because our kids lack the need to learn how to use technology appropriately, but rather, because schools are being distracted from their mission and focus. Students are NOT learning how to read, write, do math, or think. Why? Too many innovations that distract learners and subtract available time to learn in school.

What we see instead is an understanding that children must learn the essentials of reading, writing and thinking. But they are not. Why? EdTech is taking up the space.

Let's explore the claims Carl makes in his tweet. It's time to stop drinking the kool-aid. 

Claim #1: Banning Technology Isn't the Answer

In his tweet, Carl Hooker makes the point that banning technology is NOT the answer. However, research doesn't support his perspective. Having been an edtech apologist myself, I could argue on behalf of this perspective. One could say the following:
Technology is a tool that all students need to know how to use (teachers as well). Not knowing how to use technology translates into a lack of global competitiveness. What's more, they are using it anyway. As educators, we can't abdicate our responsibility to be the change we want to see in the world. 
We must model the appropriate, collaborative use of technology to our students. These are students who may never see technology used well anywhere, including their homes and among their peer group.
But this line of argument doesn't address the core issue of teaching and learning in schools. While someone should be teaching children how to use technology and social media, given the choice, would you rather they knew how to read, write, and think? I would suggest that education systems today have failed children insomuch as they have relied on technology-driven projects to facilitate teaching and learning.

In the simplest terms, our children have not learned to read, write and think. They've been too busy playing with their gadgets. In the meantime, they haven't learned to read, write, or think well.

Students Who Use Tech, Do Worse in School

As Jeremy Adams points out in this excerpt below, the emphasis on technology in schools has resulted in casualties.
In the 1970s, teens read three times as many books as today. In 1980, 60% of high school seniors reported that they read a newspaper, magazine or book on a daily basis for pleasure; by 2016 that number had dropped to 16%. Teenagers are more likely to read books at 13 than 17. (Source: Death of Reading)
If the citations included in the text are insufficient to sway you, consider these points from Keep: Technology in the Classroom Is Great — When It Works. 3 Questions to Help Determine Whether Ed Tech Will Boost Student Learning:

  • U.S. fourth-graders who report using tablets in all or nearly all of their classes are a full year behind in reading ability compared with peers who report never using tablets in their classes.
  • Internationally, students who report greater use of technology in their classrooms score worse on the PISA exam
  • High levels of technology use in the classroom tend to correlate with lower student performance.
  • One recent study found that over a third of all technology purchases made by middle schools simply weren’t used. And only 5 percent of purchases met their purchaser’s usage goals.

The Reboot Foundation says, "Our data suggest that technology may not always be used in a way that prompts richer forms of learning." Their findings make these points:

  • Schools and teachers should be more careful about when—and how—education technology is deployed in classrooms.
  • Moderate use of technology is often the most effective for younger students, and 
  • Experts recommend limiting the use of devices for young children
  • Technology seems the least helpful for younger students learning to read, and non-digital tools work better for younger students who are mastering the basics of language.
  • Digital tools that provide immediate instructional feedback can show high impact, and technology can be particularly beneficial for promoting richer thinking among older students.

Or, consider this perspective:
Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidizing access to high-tech devices and services...students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.
Source: OECD Publishing - Students, Computers and Learning Making the Connection

Mike Schmoker shares the following points in his book, Results Now:
  • 38% of all 4th graders in the USA (4 out of 10) read at the "below basic" level on NAEP (2005)
  • By 8th grade, 43% of poor students are reading at "below basic" level.
  • At the end of 12th grade, the average black or Latino student performs at about the same level as the average white 8th grader (2005)
  • Only 32% of college-bound students are academically prepared for college (2004). 
  • 78% of students wishing to attend college will struggle in writing, biology and algebra (2004)
  • "The truth is that many children read for a remarkably small percentage of the school day...children sometimes spend two and a half hours a day in reading instruction and only ten minutes of that time actually reading," says Lucy Calkins (1998) as cited
  • After 12 years of English, a third or more of college students need remedial English. In California State University system, that number is 46 percent (2002)
  • Barzun observes that the typical professor is "still trying in graduate school to get decent writing and intelligent reading out of his bright students" (1991)
  • 75% of students report that they don't do any writing in history or social studies courses (ASCD SmartBrief, 2003)
  • Most U.S. high school students graduate having never written a single extended history paper (2002).
  • 15 extra minutes of reading per day can lead to three months of additional growth
  • If 90 minutes per day is devoted to reading or language arts, a 4th grade who read very slowly--at the 2nd grade level--could be reading a novel like Stone Fox every week
  • Three to four weeks of effective, full-day literacy instruction would allow the average student to gain an entire year of academic growth (Haycock, 2005)
  • Few teachers are "modeling and demonstrating useful reading strategies" (Allington, 2001)
  • When students were asked to demonstrate their critical reading skills--in writing--they "demonstrated difficulty in providing details and arguments to suport interpretations of what they read" (Allington, 2001)

Let's not ban technology for teacher/student productivity and collaboration, but let's eradicate the edtech hype that has teachers and students genuflecting to ineffective instructional strategies. The more time spent on effective instructional strategies, the better.
"Generous amounts of close, purposeful reading, rereading, writing and talking are the essence of authentic literacy." -Mike Schmoker, Results Now

Claim #2: Technology and Social Media

In this second claim, Carl asserts that "Not teaching kids how to use technology and social media at a young age is akin to throwing them in a lake without teaching them how to swim." He then equates learning tech and social media with 21st Century challenges.

The "information age" places higher-order literacy demands on all of us...these demands include synthesizing and evaluating information from multiple sources. American schools need to enhance the ability of children to search and sort through information, to synthesize and analyze the information they encounter . 
Source: Richard Allington (2001), President of IRA, 2005-2006 as cited in Schmoker's Results Now

In regards to tech and social media, knowing how to interact with others is key. These "soft skills" equate to emotional intelligence plus. EI+ is essential in the future.  Those include the following 10 skills (Source: Future of Work-The Top 10 Soft Skills You Need to Succeed):

  1. learnability, 
  2. cognitive flexibility, 
  3. critical thinking and analysis, 
  4. creativity and innovation, 
  5. complex problem-solving, 
  6. emotional intelligence, 
  7. communication and storytelling, 
  8. time management, 
  9. service orientation, and 
  10. leadership
You can learn all of this in the classroom...not one that's focused on isolating and distracting kids with technology, but engages in back to basics approaches.

"Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives," says Richard Vacca.
Reading is The Answer
To be future ready, students need key building blocks to be prepared for a future with robots, artificial intelligence. Let's revisit those:

  • Stay engaged. Working through complicated texts, manuals, and video tutorials can be tough. Students need to learn to look for different clues and ideas in what they read.
  • Improved literacy. In studying manuals, texts, and websites, students may skip words they don’t know. Instead, they need to be able to figure out what they mean.
  • Enhanced comprehension. Students must be able to do more than decode text. They have to understand what they are reading (Source: Embrace Lifelong Learning)
  • Team learning. Students need to be able to learn on their own or in a group.
Students need to learn how to read together, discuss content in ways that cut through the fake or extraneous information. We know that approaches like reciprocal teaching need rely on dialogue between students, close reading of tough text, and honing strategies.
Schools need to learn the lesson that "best practice" in effective organization is rarely new practice. “The most valued people in the 21st century,” writes Howard Gardner (2009), are those who “can survey a wide range of sources, decide which is most important and worth paying attention to, and then put this information together in ways that make sense to oneself and, ultimately, to others . . . [they] will rise to the top of the pack” (Source: Schmoker as cited here)
Students in early grades can engage in content curation with paper and pencil activities. They go slow so they can go fast later. But throwing technology into the mix has deleterious effects as mentioned earlier.
When EdTech Goes Horribly Wrong

As a parent, my goal for technology and social media use is to ensure that digital citizenship principles are adhered to. As a classroom teacher, the expectation must be on teaching and learning through the use of effective instructional strategies, not spending precious time on fumbled technology initiatives.


Primary intellectual skills to impart to K-12 students, a.k.a. "habits of mind" and "standards for success:"
  • Read to infer/interpret/draw conclusions.
  • Support arguments with evidence.
  • Resolve conflicting views encountered in source documents.

If we want our kids to succeed, we need to show them how to read, write and think. We know what works in classrooms, so let's do what Schmoker suggests...forsake our love of "novelty, technology and complexity." Instead, engage in direct instruction that includes think-alouds, checks for understanding, and relies on effective instructional strategies.

That is, strategies that have been proven to work. That effort will teach kids to swim, no matter what environment they find themselves in.

Claim #3: 21st Century Challenges

What are 21st Century Challenges? The older I get, the more I realize that the skills and strategies I learned in my youth, leaned over a Mead composition book taking notes from a text, have served me quite well throughout my life. I can read and write fast enough to grasp new concepts and apply them. While I have my normal set of character flaws and drawbacks (alas, I am imperfect. Ok, moving on....), I find that my education served me well. That educational process is long dead, and may only be found in few classrooms.

When one considers what constitute the real challenges of the 21st Century, one realizes what incredible problems we've left our children in our rush for materialism, our fundamentalist religiousity, and other areas.

I suspect that Carl's adherence to the power of social media comes from how it's opened his eyes, as well as that of many educators. What educator in the last 20 years hasn't found social media to be a powerful force in their lives, in one way or another? No doubt, technology and social media will play a key role in solving many 21st Century challenges.

All The More Important

That key role, however, pales in significance to equipping students with reading, writing and arithmetic. For while technology may bring the world closer together, it makes knowing how to read, write and think all the more important. And, for human beings, that need not happen with a tablet in one hand.

Technology is not the savior for today's schools. EdTech is not The Force.



Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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