Hidden in Plain Sight: Putting Tech Before Teaching

In my second year as a high school teacher, my school district rolled out its “iPad Initiative.” Each of our district’s five high schools issued an iPad to every student. Within a few years, students at the middle school and the elementary level would have them, as well.

Like so many other school initiatives here and elsewhere, before and since, the iPad Initiative was driven by a vague, yet unassailable belief that technology was “the future” and, thus, that any measure that brought more technology into classroom instruction was inherently good. According to the prevailing wisdom, new technologies were sure to unleash a cascade of new teaching superpowers. And teachers needed to utilize these superpowers as soon as possible because “students were different now.” They would no longer learn well from the old teaching methods like lecturing, reading, and writing. The only way to reach the 21st-century student was to integrate a steady stream of new tools into every lesson.

The iPads were “deployed” in September 2012 and the administrators made it clear that they expected teachers to use them. But they weren’t just sending us to the wolves. The district employed an iPad technician on each campus and required teachers to attend weekly “iPad Modules” that would teach us how to integrate iPad apps into our lessons. Teachers were told to be patient and to build plenty of time into each lesson in order to handle the learning pains that would undoubtedly follow.

That year, teachers tried everything. We spent hours making content-based movie trailers on iMovie and then teaching students to do the same. We had students research topics and build Keynote presentations. We made interactive iPad-based test review games. And for those so old-fashioned as to insist on lecturing, PowerPoint presentations could now be filtered through a nifty little app called Nearpod. But, as a look at Nearpod will illustrate, despite how magical these new apps often appeared at first glance, their benefits were almost always dwarfed by a bouquet of unforeseen complications.

Nearpod is an app that syncs teachers' slideshow presentations to their students’ iPads. With the swipe of a finger across a teacher's iPad screen, everyone’s slide changes to the next.

The obvious downside to sending a presentation to 25 screens was that students would now all be looking down, rather than up at the teacher. Students had also quickly developed a masterful capacity to toggle to other apps (social media, messaging threads, online game, and the like) and then back on task whenever a teacher approached. But Nearpod had an answer for this. A number in the top right corner of the teacher’s iPad screen told her exactly how many students were on Nearpod at any given moment.

Teachers would begin a Nearpod lesson by giving their students a code to access the specific presentation that they would utilize. After five minutes of handling technical difficulties—waiting on students to re-download the app (they were always deleting apps to gain storage space); recognizing that the Nearpod attendance number was lower than it should be; walking around the room trying to find the students who were not on Nearpod; and, finally, giving up as the attendance number changed too rapidly to keep up with—the teacher would proceed with the lesson. He would then guide the lesson while monitoring the number of students on Nearpod and intermittently cajoling them to come back “in.” Teachers also had to project and progress a standard PowerPoint slideshow for students who had forgotten to charge their iPad, had broken it, or claimed it had been stolen, etc. As you might imagine, this was all quite disruptive. To make lessons engaging, teachers must establish a degree of flow. This was hard to do, with so many different demands on their attention and that of their students.

Nearpod’s biggest selling point at the time was that it gave teachers the ability to embed checks for understanding within each lesson. For example, midway through a presentation, I could add a slide with an interactive multiple-choice question to see if students had grasped a concept and, in real time, I’d see the students’ results. Wonderful as this sounds, most teachers already had informal methods for assessing comprehension and, as with most Nearpod functions, adding these questions tended to reveal the ills of the iPad more than its benefits. Teachers often had to plead with students to get back on Nearpod so they could answer the question and they had to wait on those without an iPad to move their desks so they could answer with a friend. Ironically, it was often only these iPad-less students who knew the answer.

So, to recap, in an effort to take a slide show that had been plainly visible in the front of the classroom and place it on each student’s iPad, the teacher ensured that none of the students were looking at her as she taught; that all the students were a click away from infinite temptation; that time was lost to technical difficulties; and that the teachers themselves were distracted by the need to command two devices at once. And this was one of the more successful apps that most teachers settled on as their preferred method for meeting the iPad requirement.

In a perfect world, Nearpod and many other iPad tools could have been useful for teachers, but it is hard to overstate how destructive the mere presence of iPads was to the broader learning environment. Prior to the iPad, students would have had nothing better to distract them than doodling on notebook paper or passing notes between each other. Often by surprise, students found themselves engrossed in the story of 20th-century world history or in the puzzle-like process of balancing a math equation. After the iPad, however, teachers had to compete with all the world’s entertainment and the attention-hacking efforts of Silicon Valley’s most brilliant minds.

The district tried to ban distracting apps as quickly as they found out about them, but, within 24 hours, students had usually found a way to work around any new district block. Even if they couldn’t, there were always another dozen currently unblocked apps that everyone felt they had to be on. By ensuring that every student had an iPad available at every moment of the school day, we ensured that students would face a barrage of nudges to keep up with chat groups, participate in group games, curate their social media image, and neurotically check how their posts were faring. The sheer insanity of this became obvious every time I helped a student on his iPad and watched the incessant flow of notifications popping down from the top of his screen, each tempting him with juicy morsels of entertainment and social pressure. Most students were too consumed with status management to even consider paying attention, particularly as grade inflation continued to make school easier.

Near the end of that first year with the iPad, I met with my principal to explain these problems and to ask for her recommendations. The principal, at the time, was a company woman who seemed to always toe the party line. In this case, that meant fervent support for the iPad Initiative. Yet she also cared deeply about education. She took pride in running the best high school in this “A-rated” district and wanted her students to learn as well as possible. I can still see the horror on her face as I explained my experience with the iPad and the distraction it posed to students. She thanked me for my honesty and offered a few vague platitudes that we both knew to be meaningless. But that is as far as it ever went. She never addressed the subject again. Like a fundamentalist first learning about evolution, she seemed to push aside this inconvenient revelation, determined never to acknowledge the full weight of its implications.

Over the years, the iPad Initiative slowly faded away. But its legacy is still felt, particularly in the way it changed expectations regarding whether smartphone use was acceptable in school. Prior to the introduction of iPads, there was a common sense that mobile phones had no place in the classroom or any other part of the school day. Even the most lenient teachers maintained the school’s zero-tolerance policy. Students would tell stories about the times they forgot to silence their phones and they bonded over their shared fears that this might happen to them. These clear lines were removed with the introduction of the iPad, however.

Frustrated by the daily deluge of students who had lost or did not charge their iPads, our district implemented a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy that allowed students to use their smartphones as stand-ins for their iPads. Students who had grown accustomed to being on their iPads throughout class quickly became students who felt they could get away with being on their phones at any time. They became more likely to respond with attitude when teachers asked them to put their phones away or to defend themselves with claims like: “I’m writing a paper,” or “My mom is texting me.” Teachers quickly grew tired of policing devices, and, within a short time, incessant smartphone use had become the norm.

Many teachers came to appreciate the way smartphone availability operated as a sort of class-wide sedative. Rather than talking and moving about the class, students who finished their assignments early would simply descend into quiet, solitary scrolling. Most teachers began to allow their students to put earphones in as they finished assignments, as well. Students would now listen to Drake as they rushed through their work, eager to get back to video games, group chats, or even streaming shows. And the teachers, too, became flippant about texting or scrolling social media throughout class time. Almost overnight, it seemed the world had accepted that no one would be able to stay off their devices for any reasonable measure of time.

In its desire to embrace technology, our school district failed to recognize the social devolution that was taking hold of society. The iPad Initiative came right as smartphones became virtually ubiquitous among American teens and adults. Teens began spending over seven hours per day consuming entertainment media. Twelfth-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eight graders Adolescent mental disorders skyrocketed. And at this crucial juncture, we decided to begin allowing students to use smartphones throughout the school day. These students would not know how to set boundaries for how they used their phones. They’d have no understanding of the psychological vulnerabilities that tech companies exploited—no training in how to use their phone without it using them. Most of all, they’d have no environment where they could be free from the incessant psychic drain that had come to define their world. Oblivious to any responsibility to help students or their families adapt better, our schools helped facilitate the community’s descent into becoming screen-addicted, constantly distracted people whose cognitive skills and attention spans were being chipped away rather than cultivated.

I fear we’ve been engulfed in this world for so long now that the obvious solutions will sound extreme. You cannot allow an infinite device like the smartphone in the classroom and expect students to cultivate academic capacities that require an attention span. You cannot allow smartphone use throughout the hallways and cafeterias and expect students to develop social skills. And you cannot expect students, parents, or even teachers to navigate the incessant temptations of modern technology—to be anything but distracted pawns—without clearly defined limits and an educational campaign to teach them the boundaries required for healthy use. Every school district in America has some Band-Aid initiative to shrink learning gaps and respond to the surge in mental health disorders, yet few, if any, will address this most obvious saboteur.

Instead of recognizing the obvious, schools are doubling down on the same faulty logic that brought us here. In my district, the kindergartners now have iPads. A few years later, they will receive laptops. With the right goals and boundaries in place, these laptops could be fantastic tools. And, despite there being few boundaries, they were obviously essential for virtual learning during the early days of COVID-19. But, as it currently stands, they have added little more than another avenue for distraction. Busywork proliferates, cheating has exploded, and most students still struggle to type, attach documents to an email, or think well.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, increased access to powerful technology has not democratized education. Far from shrinking the gaps, the availability of more advanced technology has only widened them.

Welcoming an exponential amount of technology into the classroom was supposed to democratize education and create exciting, innovative new ways for kids to learn. Instead, it has ensured a widening gulf between those with the means and good judgment to adapt, and those without—in my experience, at least.

An overreliance on shiny new devices is not the only issue with public education in America. But it is ubiquitous and insidious. We’re rearing a nation of passive, sedentary, and constantly distracted people.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/04/22/hidden-in-plain-sight-why-we-should-stop-putting-tech-before-teaching/
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The moral of the story: Public education is working.

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A great article from the coal face. This is one of those examples of waste which goes completely over the heads of most people. Technology must be good, right? It’s like teaching kids to code (although there is some merit to trying to teach the methodology of thinking which goes into coding, because it is an approach which is useful in other domains). Generally, the older knowledge is the more useful it is- Archimedes Principle was true thousands of year ago and it will be true thousands of years from now (- one could probably even use it to calculate BMI)- whereas any code learned today will not be commercially valuable in ten years.

Besides, we know exactly what works to improve outcomes in education. A policy of strict low-level discipline within a school, enforced evenly across classrooms. A scientific approach to learning, paying particular attention to Cognitive Load Theory and the need to commit core elements of useable knowledge to long-term memory- without which people are incapable of performing cognitively complex tasks in Maths and Reading. And when it comes to investment one thing becomes incredibly clear- the thing to focus on is teacher training, most especially classroom practice skills, a professional approach to continuous improvement, data management and accountability. The evidence from London is so clear and compelling that one wonders why the approach hasn’t been implemented globally, or at least throughout the West.

One of the problems with the American dynamic is that it focuses a binary decision of firing bad teachers or protecting them- when in the vast majority of cases the answer is retraining, as well as a supportive approach which deals with problems of morale and any issues which may be arising as a result of personal circumstances. Sometimes it becomes entirely necessary to change the people, but more often than not the answer is to change the people.

As usual, my essays are to found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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“Educators” are very fashion-conscious, by which I definitely don’t mean that they dress well. Rather, they want to be sure they are doing whatever all the other Cool Kids are doing.

This is true to some extent in every industry, but it seems to be especially extreme in the Ed world

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My favorite articles are ones like this, a first-hand narrative. My answer to this issue: get with a few neighbors and homeschool.

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I have a strong suspicion the push to introduce iPads and the like into classrooms was at least in part driven by institutional incentives or perhaps simply the potential for graft. Your school district buys 3000 iPads at a time…that’s a big cash outlay. You can use it to push for permanently higher budget outlays for your district, because of the need for maintenance, repair, and replacement costs for all those iPads etc. Maybe this benefits administrators, in that some of the additional funds can be redirected to pet projects or simply used to justify higher compensation for those tasked with managing the administrative bloat.

And who know what goes on between the supplier and people in your purchasing department? Plus, maybe a few of them disappear just before or just after they’re handed out to students. Gosh, who’s to say what happened to those missing iPads? Just write it off as a loss and move on, folks. Nothing to see here.

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Here’s something Michael Schrage wrote many years ago:

What better way to breed cognitively spoilt children than sparkly tools that interactively cater to their impatience and short attention spans? Tears of frustration are an essential part of education. The ability to press on even in the absence of simulated cooing and “isn’t this fun?” encouragement matters. But most educational software has nothing to do with cultivating character. Character does not even rise to the level of an afterthought. It is all Rousseau and no Epictetus.

This absence of character is sadly revealing. Classroom computing offers less of a bold vision than a cowardly cheat by technocrats counting on technical innovation to shield themselves from hard questions about what schools should be. That sensibility is emblematic of a monied elite that would rather buy tools than go through the painful process of determining how best to use them.

Of course, computers in the classroom don’t have to be used as "sparkly tools’ catering to short attention spans…there are lots of other things one could do with them. But, given the overall nature of K-12 educational thinking in the U.S., the odds are that 95% of the time they will be used in the way Schrage fears.

“All Rousseau and no Epictetus”…great line, but I wonder what % of US professional educators have any idea who either of these men was.

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While its silly fun, I think the book “Ready Player One” had a very realistic idea on how technology might revolutionize teaching. In the novel, nearly everyone in the world has access to an extremely effective set of VR tools which can effectively transport them into another world. Naturally all students begin attending school via VR. So high tech and futuristic! However they attend school in these virtual environments by sitting at a virtual desk, in a virtual classroom, with a virtual teacher at the front of the class leading the lesson.

Using tech to enhance an already proven method of doing something is often better than flailing about trying to re-invent the wheel.

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They idolise Rousseau and know nothing of Epictetus. They also routinely misattribute Plutarch to W B Yeats, with the inevitable result that the most important nuance is left out.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”

vs.

“For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth"

We can see how the latter might be problematic, given that many eager types are casual followers of postmodernism, with its quintessential doubt of truth, or its knowability to humans.

This Marsilio Ficino quote is much better: “As the sky is to the light of the sun, so is the mind to the light of truth and wisdom. Neither the sky nor the intellect every receive rays of light when they are clouded, but once they are pure and clear they both receive them immediately… the divine cannot be spoke or learned as other things are. However, from continued application and a matching of one’s life to the divine, suddenly, as if from a leaping spark, a light is kindled in the mind and thereafter nourishes itself.”

Many thanks to this source (and, of course, the quote investigator to whom I owe singular thanks for disabusing me of so many of my favourite misquotes), I didn’t know the Ficino- I find it quite lovely.

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Scary. And dangerous.

Ban devices generally in your classes if you can.

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It actually is working in many places, including (it seems) the institution where the author is currently employed. It’s lazy and simplistic to blame “public education” when there are many exemplary teachers (and schools, and districts, and pedagogical approaches) in public systems and a plenty of subpar education in charter and private schools.

Well then, there is little cause to worry for the future of democracy. The fate of the republic is in good hands! Huzzah… etc. etc. etc.

I just trust in the fine ministrations of public education. A well-educated citizenry will clearly be the antidote to what ails us… Public schools are on the case! Be a man of faith and good cheer!

I’d say, more to the point… I don’t care to put as much energy into being right as some. As I said in our first encounter, I am just happy to share the space. I enjoy a good riposte and banter. Every now and again, I choose to put more effort into my remarks. I don’t mind wearing your critique at all! As for smugness… I call foul. I am a foul-mouthed redneck with a penchant for pushing buttons. Nothing more, and nothing less. I simply don’t presume that my presence, or the presence of anyone on a generally anonymous forum, is going to change hearts and minds. Nor do I presume that anyone here is of such noble bearing that they and their opinions can’t take a few hits to the belly… including my own!

Instead, I seek levity, interest and enjoyment (for myself, of course). When I stop enjoying myself, I will quit the QC as I have done in the past! Until then… I will continue about my business unabated and unmolested. I dare say, good day to you, kind sir. Good day! Harumph…

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