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A Call for Fewer Screens in the Classroom

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A colleague of mine recently invented a new buzzword: "screen-free reading." It refers to the act of reading a book, article, or short story with words printed on paper. It is a guaranteed break away from the eye-fatiguing, familiar blue light on which students' eyes are glued at school and at home.

In a day and age in which professional educators are trying out new tech tools, and students are increasingly huddled around screens, a return to paper seems almost innovative—particularly since research comparing reading and writing on the computer vs. on paper supports screen-free classroom time to promote learning.

I am not arguing for an abandonment of technology. Plenty of research supports the use of screen reading when it's used to differentiate instruction for students effectively. Check the hashtag #edtech on Twitter and you'll also find a deluge of teachers and administrators praising Google add-ons and touting the benefits of apps that promise to engage students, promote collaboration, and transform formative assessment. In my own classroom, I pilot new tools like Padlet and Socrative, and I rely on mainstays like Google Docs and Schoology. I like that English-language learners benefit from dictionary look-up functions in e-readers, and I won't deny the convenience of apps that help students to annotate articles online.

But I also won't deny the power of paper to engage students and transform learning.

Promoting Collaboration

A common argument for the use of technology in the classroom is that it promotes collaboration. When students write in groups using Google Docs, for instance, it's easy for them to build on ideas and divvy up work. It's also easy for me as a teacher to track their contributions and see their writing process. However, the interactive nature of technology platforms can also be illusory.

It's easy for students to remain in their own discrete spaces and to avoid the difficult nature of interacting with peers when a screen functions as a mediating force. When my 7th grade students sit side by side without a screen I notice that the dynamic is, well, different. They make eye contact with each other more. They negotiate physical space and make a series of small decisions like: Who will hold the pen? How will they orient themselves so that multiple people can write at the same time?

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I think these small interactions might hold significance. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Computers in Human Behavior found that screen time has a negative effect on the ability of preteens to read facial cues. This study raises serious concerns about the long-term consequences of technology use on social skills development among school-age children. As our students spend more and more time in front of screens at home and in school, it is worth considering how classrooms can be a space for students to initiate spoken dialogue and to practice reading body language.

Increasing Focus

A 2016 study at Michigan State University found a correlation between laptop usage in university classes and lower test scores. Even students who were bright and motivated couldn't resist the temptation to peruse social media sites and read emails in class. In a K-12 setting, teachers often more closely monitor students’ internet usage. However, it seems naive to assume that an engaging lesson paired with a clearly stated internet-usage policy is enough to prevent inappropriate multitasking.

The fact remains that an open Instagram window is infinitely more interesting than any lesson to a typical teenager—who may be a pro at getting around a school's firewalls, but not a pro at self-restraint. I agree that students need to learn how to use the internet appropriately and to be critical readers of digital content.

But does that mean that they need to read and interact online in every class, every day? It's worth considering the daily classroom experience of a typical student over the course of an entire day, week, and month to determine the appropriateness of internet usage in classes. Asking students to close their laptops is like closing a window that opens onto a noisy street.

Improving Student Learning

What this discussion boils down to is a concern about student learning and a skepticism regarding the idea that technology is always necessary or appropriate. New tech tools might promote engagement, but students might also enjoy colorful pens and giant pieces of chart paper as a change of pace in environments that are proudly, and rigidly, paperless. Virtual discussion boards might be crucial for drawing out introverted students; they might also give students permission to sit back and type canned responses.

In his 2003 book The Flickering Mind, author Todd Oppenheimer argued that education technology had failed in its promise to transform education and that it may paradoxically impede learning. Oppenheimer, a journalist who visited a range of schools and institutions in the United States to examine how technology was shaping education, found that educators often conflated sleek but content-thin presentations with evidence of deep learning.

Educators also erroneously assumed that the use of tools like PowerPoint counted as relevant skill-building for the workplace. Oppenheimer suggests in the book that students are more likely to prosper if they develop “strong values and work habits,” and master “the art of discussion."

Oppenheimer also expresses skepticism over claims that education technology always engages students. Tech tools simplify the work of compiling information and conducting research, but they also allow students to skip steps, which may cause them to miss out on crucial parts of the learning process.

Indeed, easier is not always better; rapt attention may not actually be evidence of engagement; and time that students spend scouring the internet might be better spent reading around course topics. Funds devoted to supporting technology could instead support the creation of drama and music programs.

When given the choice between an app that allows students to post on a virtual board or a stack of Post-It notes and a white board that allow students to stand up, I often choose the paper. A discussion board is often appropriate—but so is movement in the classroom. Technology could be used to accomplish the same task. However, it's difficult to pass up the opportunity to let students move paper around with their hands.

When determining the appropriateness of technology in the classroom, we need to focus on learning. What tool, we should ask ourselves, will promote critical thinking, interpersonal skills development, and problem-solving skills? We should embrace the tech age, but with caution.

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