By Julia Wickes
Since SCCS opened its doors, our curriculum has never relied heavily on the use of technology. While our older students (third grade and up) learn typing and the light use of internet and email, you will never find an SCCS student holding an iPad in lieu of a pencil and paper. Many primary schools spend a lot of money to put computers or tablets into the hands of even their youngest students, but our attitude has been to hold back. We are advocates of the low-tech school day because our vision for learning prioritizes hands-on experience, face-to-face interactions, and mental stamina with minimal distractions.
As screens and technology become more ubiquitous, we believe that keeping school (mostly) screen-free has great advantages for the developing minds of children. Here are seven reasons why we are proud to be a low-technology school.
1. Hands-on learning supports memory and comprehension better than screens
Research shows that the more the senses are engaged, the better children learn and remember. Interactions with objects and materials that have real weight and texture provide more input about the real world and create more neurological pathways and connections in the brain than the slick surface of a screen. The more active, hands-on, and challenging an activity is, the more the brain is active and engaged.
One example of this can be seen in a study that asked pre-literate children to copy a letter of the alphabet in three different ways: by free-hand, by tracing, and typing. Of the three, the brain was most active and engaged when the children were re-creating a letter freehand.
At SCCS, we use the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum, which builds up to cursive. Our students create reproductions of artistic masterpieces and collect objects of every shape and texture for their classroom’s nature table. Our older kids create physical models of the things they’re studying–from the solar system to human cells. First graders create wax models of the ladybug life cycle and second graders learn origami. We use the abacus for working out math equations and card games for learning math facts. We weave, sew, water plants, and measure. It could be argued that with all of these hands-on activities going on, there is just no time for screens during the school day, and that they are even boring by comparison.
2. Face-to-face interactions are irreplaceable
In the book Growing Up Social, authors Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane discuss the necessity of social skills for long-term success in life. To acquire these skills children need psychological mirroring and personalized, real-time feedback from the adults in their lives. Screens cannot contribute much to children learning how to get along with others in the real world because they foster instant gratification and passivity. Real relationships require effort: eye contact, managing frustration and annoyance, delayed gratification, and empathy. Screens cannot teach children how to say please and thank you, to give and receive compliments, to apologize, or read nonverbal cues. If anything, too much time spent in front of a screen undermines these skills–it is known to make kids lose interest in real relationships and withdraw from the challenges of real life. For all of these reasons, it is important to carve out a space in which the adult-child feedback loop can do its work.
3. Screens have an addictive quality that calls for caution and restraint
Neurological research is showing more and more that screens have an effect on the brain that is similar to drugs. Internet and video game addiction is real and, in some instances, a public health crisis. Screens give a hit of dopamine that makes them powerful, potentially addictive stimulants.
“We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does,” says Dr. Nicholas Kardaras in this New York Post article.
Screen addiction–like any addiction–can render children ill-equipped to deal with life on life’s terms. Growing Up Social tells an anecdote of a boy who loves a basketball video game, so his grandparents innocently buy him a real basketball, thinking his interest might translate into a love for the game in real life. When the boy picks up the real basketball and tries to make a basket, he doesn’t experience the flashing lights and rewarding cheers that the video game supplies and he quickly loses interest.
4. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends media-free zones
In the AAP’s Children and Media– Tips for Parents, the necessity of creating firm boundaries around media use is emphasized. Media in many forms can easily encroach on the activities that are essential for healthy development: good sleep, exercise, and face-to-face interactions. According to the AAP, “It is important to emphasize to parents that the higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play, as well as responsive parent–child interactions.”
It can be very challenging to create the perfect boundaries around media at home. For this reason, sending children to a school that is set apart as a “zone” that privileges the kinds of activities known to nurture healthy, well-adjusted children can be a great consolation. It gives parents more flexibility to manage their children’s screen time in the way they think best at home, without worrying about school time adding to their kids’ overall screen load.
5. Access to nature– not technology– is arguably more conducive to academic success
Richard Louv, an advocate for nature in childhood and author of Last Child in the Woods, has written an interesting blog post about the connection between the greening of schools and gains in academic scores. The post begins with the story of a school in Atlanta that saw big leaps in their test scores in both reading and math after a move to spend one-third of their school day outdoors. The blog post also says:
A six-year study of 905 public elementary schools in Massachusetts found that third-graders got higher scores on standardized testing in English and math in schools that had closer proximity to natural areas. Likewise, preliminary findings of a 10-year University of Illinois study of more than 500 Chicago schools, comparing green schools with more typical schools, indicate similar results, especially for the most challenged learners. As it turns out, greening schools may be one of the most cost-effective ways to raise student test scores.
SCCS makes space for the outdoors through our vegetable garden, nature walks into Tower Grove Park, phenology (the study of nature through the seasons), recess, picnic lunches, and taking learning outdoors when the weather permits.
6. What would Charlotte Mason have said?
Charlotte Mason lived long before the advent of computers, but she had some interesting things to say about the tendency of the mind to jump from one thing to another. Of all the mental habits, she says that the habit of attention is the most important. She knew that the habit of attention had to be cultivated in resistance to the mind’s natural tendency to stray. In Laying Down the Rails: A Charlotte Mason Habits Handbook, she is quoted:
You talk to a child about glass– you wish to provoke a proper curiosity as to how glass is made, and what are its uses. Not a bit of it; he wanders off to Cinderella’s glass slipper; then he tells you his godmother who gave him a boat; then about the ship in which Uncle Harry went to America; then he wonders why you do not wear spectacles, leaving you to guess that Uncle Harry does so. But the child’s ramblings are not whimsical; they follow a law, the law of association of ideas, by which any idea presented to the mind recalls some other idea which has been at any time associated with it– as glass and Cinderella’s slipper; and that, again some idea associated with it…. Now this law of association of ideas is a good servant and a bad master (51).
This sounds a lot like what happens when, as adults, we sit down to check our email and find ourselves an hour later reading product reviews on Amazon, not sure how we landed there. If, as adults, we know that the internet derails our mental trajectory, we can be sure it will do this in children, who have not yet developed the mental habit of sustained attention. Teachers especially are tasked with keeping children’s attention on track, training them to control their impulses, and reign in the desire to blurt out random comments during a lesson. If this was a challenge in Charlotte Mason’s time, how much more challenging now, in a media and advertising saturated world? We know that internet, texts, emails, digital ads, and hyperlinks force our brains to make split-second decisions and scatter our attention as adults, so it makes little sense to put these tools into the hands of children during the school day.
In the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr cites multiple examples of how screen use shortens our attention span, causes our focus to jump around, and keeps our brains from settling into a calm place of deep concentration where we can pursue a sustained intellectual goal. One study cited in the book showed that the more hyperlinks a text contained, the less readers were able to remember what they had read or answer questions about it. In this study, the group that read a traditional, printed copy of the same text were able to recall and comprehend more than all of the other groups. Carr says, “The internet gathers our attention, only to scatter it (118).” When we are on a screen, our brains are in a different, more erratic place than when we sit down with a book. Those who study the shifts of technology on a large scale and from a historical perspective are saying that the advent of the internet is a technological shift larger than any since the invention of the printing press, and our brains are changing accordingly. Perhaps this change is inevitable, but there are still some very good arguments for restraint in the use of technology, especially in childhood.
7. Creating high-tech classrooms is not the best use of our financial resources
In a study called Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, the Alliance for Childhood called for “a moratorium for the further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education.” The study argues that schools have rushed ahead to fill classrooms with computers based on assumptions–not evidence–that high-tech tools are superior for learning. The study also calls into question whether or not the push to fill schools with computers is not motivated by the technology industry itself. While we may not know everything yet about the role of computers in early childhood education, we do know that they are a costly resource, with little evidence so far proving a worthwhile return on the investment. Given that we believe in tactile learning anyway, we think it wise to channel our resources into the tried and true tools of education.
By making our school a space where children can concentrate deeply and settle into a task– whether reading, writing, or handwork–we believe that we are cultivating mental habits that are necessary for success–especially for children who will enter into a technologically advanced world. We hope that the time they spent in their early years cultivating a love for reading, using their hands, and connecting with nature, will anchor them and set a precedent for creating boundaries in a world fraught with distraction. So while being low-tech makes our school unique and counter-cultural (and maybe a little bit weird!) we are proud to be champions of the low-tech school day.