Today, we posted a rough cut of a video we shot at IS 339, a middle school in the Bronx that has reinvented itself in part through a one-to-one laptop program. While we were filming the piece, I was wrestling with the issue of technology in the classroom on a personal level as well.
I have a fifth-grade son who's graduating from his decidedly low-tech public elementary school in a couple of weeks. The search for an appropriate middle school for him consumed most of last fall, and by the time we had finished touring most of the public and private schools in the area, there were only two schools left on the list. One was a laptop school, and the other one essentially uses no technology at all.
If I'm going to be honest, I have to admit that the choice we faced mirrored my own ambivalence about the issue of computers in the classroom. On the one hand, I saw firsthand through my work on this project how exciting technology can make learning for children; how much more it allows them to do; how it can cater to all sorts of learners and how much more easily kids can tailor their education to their own strengths and weaknesses when technology is in the picture.
On the other hand, I found myself wondering if it was all really necessary. Our kids will be spending the rest of their lives at a keyboard. They already spend large chunks of their time in front of one. Isn't it now that we need to expose them to the things that they may not get a chance to experience otherwise? Things that take time, that don't split their focus, and that don't provide instant gratification -- like reading a book for hours, or writing a paper longhand, even though it makes their hand cramp up, or memorizing the Declaration of Independence?
In the interviews we've done with teachers and principals at IS 339 and elsewhere, they laud the skill of multitasking as an essential tool to success in the 21st-century workplace. Schools that don't acknowledge this essential reality, they say, are closing their eyes to the new world our children are already living in, and risk seeming irrelevant.
Agreed. But I also identify with Rose Porpora, the English teacher at Chatham High School we interviewed for Growing Up Online, who said: "They are so overexposed to the quickness of things and the immediate responses. It's just all at their fingertips. So when you have to reverse that and have them be quiet and give answers and carve out meaning, I think it's difficult for a lot of students."
In the end, we decided to send our son to a laptop school. For a bunch of reasons, it was the best place for him: closer to home, filled with kids he knows, smaller and more intimate. Truth be told, I'm still mixed about the laptops. I feel like I'm going to have to work that much harder to make sure he continues to indulge in the old-fashioned, technology-free pleasures he does now.
But I think I know my kid, and I suspect that no laptop in the classroom is going to fundamentally change him. For the most part, he still has the precious ability to slow down and lose himself in a task, and thanks in part to loudmouthed me, a mindfulness of how important it is to hold onto that.
With his permission, I'll continue to blog about this as he gets his first laptop and starts school in September. Stay tuned.