When I was a child, one of the games we often played was floor hockey (or “street hockey” if it was outside) . We played it at school in the gym in P.E. class, on the play ground, on the road, and even at boys’ clubs at my church. I have distinct and unpleasant memories of the sting of the hard plastic ball and the smashing of the knuckles as we vigorously imitated the NHL players so many of the boys adored. Of course, we played without gloves, pads, helmet, or mask (which made playing goalie very unpopular). Never-the-less, it was a very popular past time. In gym class, the students would be instructed to grab a stick out of the barrel of battered school issue (government approved plastic) hockey sticks. The first thing the boys would do is start bending the blade to the chagrin of the teacher. We all loved curved blades because it helped us control the ball better. The curve made our wrist shots look sweeter and even seemed to help grab the ball from opponents faster. The benefit of the curved stick has not been lost on professional players and as such the NHL has put restrictions on the amount of curve permitted. (In the eighties a beloved player, Wendell Clark of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was known for being one of the few players who still played with a perfectly straight stick. It allowed him to shoot and pass back handed with devastating accuracy. He was considered “old school” but ended up Captain of the Leafs for several seasons.)
The funny thing was that despite the advantage of a curved blade, the best hockey players in our gym class were still the ones who practiced and trained. I could work a plastic blade into some unusual u-shape but still it would not guarantee that my play was sufficient to defeat some one who knew what they were doing.
I think the curved stick in hockey can be analogous to improved or increased technology. I am certainly in favor of technology (I’m writing this on a laptop and expecting you to read it electronically), but I don’t view technology as an educational panacea. Adding a computer doesn’t fix educational weaknesses any more than bending my stick really made me a better hockey player. Bending my stick just covered up some of my deficiency in skill. I remember playing at my church against a fellow who repeatedly would flick the ball up over my stick against a wall, go around me, and pick it up again on the other side. He used this maneuver repeatedly to my frustration and humiliation. Perhaps I am a slow learner or I just didn’t have a mind for the game or the ability to combine moves or tactics. A better tool did not necessarily produce a better user.
This understanding is what is behind our decision to downplay technology in the early grades at Bradford Academy. Essentially we have wanted the students to learn the skills necessary to write or compose well before using the technological aid. While spell check can catch some errors, the autocorrect may actually cause some unintended mistakes. There is no replacement for knowing the skill. For example, witch which is wich? Or is it which witch is witch? You get the point. Me and my sister could never get that write. Your not going be able to catch everything. As a matter of fact my spell check only cot one of the many previous errors in this paragraph. (How many did you catch?)
Additionally, we have wanted the students to learn to read well, think well, and create well, without aids and before they had access to the internet. They have to learn how to discern and filter information before their exposure to information overload. My thought is that we wouldn’t ask our children to take a sip of water from a fire hose nor should we give them unfettered access to do research online at a young age.
Technology in school has been a rallying cry for education reformers for years. Unfortunately, there has been numerous studies demonstrating that increased spending in technology in school and increased access to broadband internet has actually correlated with a decline in math and reading scores.1 Steve Jobs himself famously avoided letting his kids have iPads and admitted, “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”2 Oddly enough, this seems to be the trend among many high-tech executives. The NY Times reported that many of the most influential tech CEO’s limit screen time to only 30 minutes to 2 hours on weekends and none during the week for kids under 10. They limit their older kids to “homework only” on weekdays. More importantly, the Times article reported, “…there is one rule that is universal among the tech parents I polled… rule No.1: There are no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever.”3 The Guardian recently reported on a similar trend in Europe.4
Again this is not to say technology is in itself wrong or dangerous, but as one tech writer put it, “Technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces…”5 That is to say, if you already have good things in place, technology can increase its effectiveness and efficiency. However, conversely if you have poor or weak things in place, technology may also amplify those weaknesses.
So what are the tech skills we want for our students at Bradford Academy?
- We want the students to think and problem solve well. How do we achieve that? By implementing a strong mathematics curriculum that emphasized computation in the early grades and moves into more complex abstract thinking as the students mature.
- We want the students to think and compose written output well. How do we achieve that? By emphasizing grammar, spelling, sentence and paragraph structure, exposure to and imitation of good writing at young ages and working towards greater complexity and excellence as the student matures.
- We want the students to read and comprehend well. How do we achieve that? By teaching them the importance of the written word and giving them the guidance and practice necessary to understand and discern both the obvious and subtle messages found in text. As they grow we add the mental discipline of logic.
In all these areas we want to foster creativity and excitement. Thankfully, we are seeing these skills growing among our students and in time we hope to add the tools that will amplify these skills. But until then, we will persevere with paper and pen. We will have our students do the heavy lifting by way of mental exertion in order to develop strong minds and a spirit of diligence. Peace and grace.