Computers in Classrooms Can Wait

We might as well have full disclosure upfront:  the article mentioned for this week’s At Issue is preaching to the converted over here.  My son attends an public alternative school that focuses on educating the whole child.  To do this, they blend four teaching approaches, including Waldorf (the other three are Montessori, Emilio Reggio, and inquiry-based learning).   The website for my son’s school offers the following description of a holistic education, as expressed by Ron Miller, one of its major thinkers and contributors to the field:

holistic education is an effort to cultivate the development of the whole human being.  Where conventional schooling views the child as a passive receiver of information and rules, or at most as a computer-like processor of information, a holistic approach recognizes that to become a full person, a growing child needs to develop – in addition to intellectual skills – physical, psychological, emotional, interpersonal, moral and spirited potentials.  The child is not merely a future citizen or employee in training, but an intricate and delicate web of vital forces and environmental influences.

So it ought not be a surprise that I support a computer-free classroom.  I’m not savvy with computers, as anyone who knows me will tell you, but I’m not anti-computer, either.  They are extremely useful and yes, I am aware that they are here to stay.  I want my kids to know how to use one and think older children should have access to computer labs.  But I don’t like them in a classroom for young children mostly because they’re a distraction from richer learning experiences.

On what am I basing my views?  To a degree on some persuasive reading I’ve done about alternative learning approaches like Waldorf, but primarily on what I can see with my eyes.  When the class computer was on at my son’s old kindergarten, the four and five year olds swarmed around it and passively looked on.  They lost interest in anything else in the room, including each other.  In another scene, I recently passed another school’s library and saw a class of 20 children sitting side by side looking at 20 different computer screens.  They were staring in front of them, the room was silent, and the teacher was looking down at her own Blackberry.  In both situations, there was no vibrancy in the room and I was dubious as to the value of what they were being exposed to (I can’t use the word ‘taught’ there, because I couldn’t see anyone doing any teaching).

I don’t think computers in the classroom would always be so dismal, but I don’t really see how they enhance the academic and social life of grade school.  Computers are by their nature fairly solitary affairs.  I’m sure they can be used for educational gains, but so can conversation.  There are computer programs for math, science, and nutrition, but you could also learn the same concepts by planting a row of peas.  Baseball on the Wii can teach hand-eye coordination, but so can, well, playing baseball during gym.

A certain common sense and intuition tells me that doing real things with real people is a richer educational experience than that provided by a screen.  Like when I sit with friends over a drink and talk, I feel good.  As opposed to a lunch with seven relatives where five of them looked at their handheld devices.  Even if they were all doing Really Important Things, and we all know they weren’t, it leaves me wondering.  Screens are fast, flashy attention-grabbers.  If adults have trouble assessing how to appropriately use computers, how are children supposed to know?  Early computer skills might be nice, but aren’t life skills even better?

If computers are a limited learning tool in comparison to real experiences, and it’s difficult to establish boundaries for them, then what exactly is the rush to get our children onto them?  Computers are increasingly user-friendly.  Point and click does not take long to learn.  What is the fuss about?

What is most important to me (and what is no small task) is that my children retain their love of learning while at school.  That they remain curious and encouraged as they discover who they are and where their passions lie.  Interacting with people and having real experiences are better suited to help reach that goal than computers are.  If that love of learning holds and my boys know where and how to direct their energies, they’ll be motivated to learn whatever is needed to do what they want to do.  Including how to use a computer.