Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Some Technology Leaders Worry about Children and Digital Devices: They Should

We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.

Bill Gates interview, 2017

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, Interview with Charlie Rose, 2009*

They haven’t used [the iPad]. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.

Steve Jobs, Apple, 2010 in reply to reporter about  his children using newly-released iPads

 

I do not know whether these high-tech leaders feel that way today (Jobs died in 2011) but there are other Silicon Valley dads and moms who work for Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and start-ups who wrestle with dilemma of valuing highly technology access and use but see the negatives of overuse of devices by their children. Listen to a manager for a Silicon Valley firm who limits his 12- and 10-year old daughters’ device time to 30 minutes a day yet he uses devices for hours:

“I’d give myself a B-minus or C-plus — and that’s up from a solid F at one point….The kids have called me out on it, for which I was grateful.”

The sting of parents considering themselves hypocritical in setting limits for their sons and daughters in using tablets, cell phones, and laptops at home while they are on the devices for long stretches of day and night-time (average daily use of mobile devices for adults was five hours while awake) is an ever-present issue in Silicon Valley and across the country. It pinches San Francisco Bay area parents  with devices even more so.

Sharael Kolberg says she was one of those parents. A Silicon Valley writer (her husband worked in marketing) describes an experiment they did with their daughter in A Year Unplugged: A Family’s Life Without Technology. She recalls: “We went back to the ‘80s, basically. I got out my record player and typewriter, we used the phone book and paper maps. It enhanced our relationships with our friends and family. Technology takes that away from us.”

Few parents and their children are going to go cold-turkey for a year regardless of what Kolberg writes and medical associations recommend. But many parents will try to reduce use of their devices and the ones they buy for their children because it cuts down on family face-to-face communication particularly when both (or single) parents use devices daily (and nightly) for their work (see here).

And other parents will avoid conflicts with their kids in trying to limit use.

But conflict is inevitable since the spread of devices has also swallowed schools. Although largely poor and minority schools have fewer devices than their suburban cousins, overall, nearly half of public schools now distribute one-to-one devices to students beginning in primary grades through high school. Screen time for children and youth has leaped ahead dramatically (see here and here).

Can parents do anything about schools doubling the screen time for their sons and daughters?

Schools can restrict use. There are a few schools that see the overall picture of home and classroom screen use and restrict use of devices. Google executive Alan Eagle whose children attend a Waldorf school spoke to a reporter:

[H]e says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

High tuition private schools with a clear ideology about teaching and learning and the place high-tech devices should and should not play in both have that latitude to reduce use of computers in elementary and middle school grades. That Waldorf school caters to affluent offspring of Silicon Valley parents, many of whom work at nearby companies.

Except for school policies banning cell phone use in classrooms–a policy that administrators and teachers are often ambivalent about and enforce erratically–few public schools have the luxury of restricting use of digital devices in lessons. In a society that loves technology and sees it as the solution to problems both private and public, school officials who raise questions risk strong backlash from parents, vendors, and students. Unless, of course, they are pressured by parents concerned about use of public funds for technology and increased screen time for children and youth.

Parents can raise questions with district and school administrators about use of digital tools for classroom lessons. There are straightforward questions such as why is the school adopting devices for all students (see here)? Then there are the questions that often don’t get asked: Is use of computers effective in increasing academic achievement? After the novelty effect of new tablets and laptops wear off, as it inevitably does, are devices used in daily lessons and in what ways? Can ever-rising expenditures for school technologies be re-directed to research-based options such as hiring trained and experienced teachers?

Such parent/school cooperation around screen time is rare although a few parents and school officials do raise such questions (see herehere, and here).

Those top leaders who founded and run high-tech organizations talk about how they reduced use of technology for their own children have yet to make the connection of total screen time now that schools have thoroughly embraced digital devices as must-have tools for daily lessons. Combined time watching screens at school and home for the young mirrors the work world where employees are always on call and boundaries between private and work lives are disappearing.

 

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*Interview with Charlie Rose, March 6, 2009–quote begins at 42.00

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...