The technological Trojan horse

May 2, 2018 Staff Writer

Technology has dramatically transformed the classroom, and students along with it. But that change might actually be detrimental to the education of our students, and perhaps, to their mental and physical health as well.

By Jonathan Robinette

Not long ago, I could only dream of the instructional wonders of a wireless, technologically integrated classroom. At that time, my classroom was entirely “analog,” dependent on the adopted textbook and any ancillary materials I could scrounge from the internet or veteran teachers. I had an overhead projector that I barely used because it barely worked, one 26-inch television mounted in the far corner of the class, and a VCR. That was the extent of my technological integration.

In less than four years, my classroom has been transformed into a veritable digital paradise. I now have an HD projector and giant screen with surround sound, a mobile cart filled with 37 Chromebook laptops connected to high bandwidth Wi-Fi, access to a class set of iPads, a personal tablet and new desktop computer, AppleTV and Netflix – not to mention more than 80 percent of my sixth graders own personal smartphones.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to integrating technology in my classroom. Up until recently, I praised the decision to thrust my classroom into the digital age. After all, lesson plans once dependent on pencil, paper and textbooks could be easily replaced by laptops and interactive computer simulations to create the “highly engaging digital classroom.” In essence, the new technology would allow instructors to teach the way this generation of students expects to learn, rather than forcing them to learn the way we’ve been trained to teach. More important, this newfound student engagement would, theoretically, benefit both learners and teachers.  

As soon as the cart of laptops arrived, I started to abandon old school pedagogical devices and replaced them with interactive websites that not only assessed children on presented content, but also enthralled them with glowing primary colors and background music. Kahoot trumped pencil/paper quizzes, handouts were replaced with Nearpod interactive presentations, and vocabulary lessons were uploaded to Quizlet and available to students through smartphone and tablet apps. Student scores were easily downloaded from these sites and transferred to my gradebook, greatly reducing my workload and increasing teaching efficiency. For a time, it seemed that there was absolutely no downside to this technological revolution, and I embraced its rapid progression.

Unfortunately, the digital age delivered a swift, yet massive, epistemological shift, driven in part by the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Although most every district in the country would suggest otherwise, justifying the massive expense of digital integration, it has become increasingly apparent to my colleagues and I that this change might actually be detrimental to the education of our students, and perhaps, to their mental and physical health as well.

The classroom has been dramatically transformed and, indeed, students have changed along with it. What is most frightening is that it seems no one has paused to ask if this is actually a beneficial change, especially to the already digitally aroused developing brain.

Navigating the shallows: Brains at the end of their arms

The current group of sixth graders, born mostly in 2005, are the first kids who grew up completely inundated with the immediacy of digital “infotainment.” The iPhone was introduced just in time, and just the right size, for mom and dad to quickly place it in their 2-year-old’s hands to help quiet a tantrum, sooth a scraped knee, or lull them to sleep at naptime. This is the first group of kids, perpetually overstimulated by the ubiquity of electronic screens, that have never learned to become a captive to their own imagination. Many of these kids have never been bored.

I started noticing a distinct change in my students in just the last few years, and I believe it closely parallels most districts’ Chromebook/iPad adoptions, coupled with the pervasiveness of smartphones. Our system is rapidly changing from educating children most efficiently with proven pedagogy, to presenting interactive digital kibble disguised as deep work.

Previous generations were expected to memorize “The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution” or the “Bill of Rights,” repeatedly write vocabulary words until committed to long-term memory, and strictly read and follow the directions for a chemistry lab. Chromebooks and smartphones allow students the freedom to use Google as a replacement for rote memorization, spellcheck instead of repetitive practice, and YouTube as a substitute for didactic reading. This degenerative habit greatly restricts the depth of students’ education and, more important, could forever alter their ability to focus and learn. 

Bloom’s taxonomy. Step one: Remember

Since the adoption of Common Core State Standards, numerous education experts and administrators have argued that memorization is no longer a valid instructional tool – even though it’s impossible to graduate medical school or earn a law degree without well-honed memorization skills. Yet, research on neuroplasticity contradicts their assumptions. Brain researchers have found that “the more times an experience is repeated, the longer the memory of the experience lasts.”

Repetition encourages consolidation. In 1970, when noted neurophysiologist Eric Kandel and his team examined the effects of repetition on individual neurons and synapses, they discovered something amazing. Not only did the concentration of neurotransmitters in synapses change, altering the strength of the existing connections between neurons, but the neurons grew entirely new synaptic terminals. The formation of long-term memories, in other words, involves not only biochemical changes but anatomical” (Carr, p. 184). 

On the surface, removing rote memorization from curricular expectations, or at least reducing the reliance on memorization, seems justified in today’s technologically omnipresent era. After all, children have access to this information on tablets and smartphones almost as fast as they could recall it from memory. This shallow habit not only reduces their capacity to retain more information for longer periods, but actually degrades the neural circuits that were once used for deep thought and concentration, while at the same time strengthening those used for cursory reading and multitasking. Conversely, applying memorization exercises to one subject can positively affect performance in all subjects.

In his best-selling book, “Deep Work,” Cal Newport states that, “a side effect of memory training, is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate. This ability can be applied to any task demanding deep work”.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the dwindling ability of my students to adhere to step-by-step directions. Over the last few years, my science lab directions have gone from one set per lab, being written exclusively on my whiteboard or overhead for the students to follow, to being posted on each wall, my website, a copy handed to each student, and a “pre-reading” of the lab and my expectations. Still, compliance to the directions is markedly decreasing, and this is by no means exclusive just in my classroom; my colleagues agree that this group of children insist on asking for guidance, instead of dedicating time to read the directions they know will answer their questions. Teachers are becoming the oars to help students navigate the shallows. 

Metabolic syndrome: Exacerbating childhood obesity

“The brain appears to be designed to 1.) solve problems, 2.) related to surviving, 3.) in an unstable outdoor environment, and 4.) to do so in nearly constant motion. I call this the brain’s performance envelope” (Medina, 2008).

Our modern day classroom design runs in stark contrast to the way our evolutionary brains were designed to process and retain information. In his book “Brain Rules,” John Medina suggests that if one wanted to design an environment detrimental to learning, they would develop something eerily similar to the average American classroom: predictable, artificially illuminated and physically confining. Force the inactive child to stare at a computer screen in that cognitively restrictive environment, and you exacerbate the problem. 

The brain works best when in motion because exercise increases the amount of oxygen to the brain; while exposure to natural sunlight has been shown to improve mood, restore disrupted wake/sleep cycles that are the direct result of too much artificial light from computer screens, and positively impact metabolism (Garber, 2013).

Today’s average teen is spending up to nine hours per day in front of a screen – thanks in part to classroom computers and tablets. That’s a shocking statistic, but even more disturbing when research shows that screen time is directly responsible for weight gain, high blood pressure, high fasting glucose, and elevated triglyceride levels. Unfortunately, the effects of metabolic syndrome may only be remedied with a screen time reduction. Diet and additional exercise alone cannot undo the damage. “High screen time was associated with an increased likelihood of (metabolic syndrome) independent of physical activity, diet and other important covariates” (Mark and Janssen, 2008).

The dangers of electromagnetic radiation

Today, very few people are completely insulated from the potentially damaging effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF’s). Children, however, are even more prone to its dangers because their growing bodies naturally absorb more radiation. Unfortunately, many of today’s classrooms are ground zero for electromagnetic radiation: computers, tablets, cell phones and Wi-Fi all emit EMFs in similar frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Emerging research is studying the effects of manmade electromagnetic fields: “Whatever the mechanism, tangible evidence of the EMF-stress relationship exists for both systemic (whole body) stress reactions and cellular stress reactions. Exposure studies have demonstrated systemic stress reactions in the form of high blood sugar, low heart-rate variability, altered circadian rhythms, disruptive sleep patterns and impaired cognition. Cellular stress has been evidenced by increased levels of heat shock proteins (HSPs, whose function is to stabilize other proteins when the cell is exposed to stress), oxidative stress (free radicals), breaks in DNA strands, and excessive unbound calcium inside the cell (Dunckley, p.301).

In my first period class alone, there were 26 smartphones, 37 laptops, numerous personal tablets (as well as a cart of 40 shared with other classes), a desktop PC, and high speed Wi-Fi – not including the EMF’s emitted from the rows of fluorescent lighting. It’s only slight hyperbole to suggest today’s classrooms are like Hiroshima fallout to developing bodies and brains. EMFs have been shown to elevate blood sugar in certain diabetics, disrupt sleep patterns and impair cognitive performance, damage retinal epithelial cells, and increase oxidative stress. In addition, the “use of laptop computers connected to the internet through Wi-Fi decreases human sperm mobility and increases sperm DNA fragmentation” (Avendano, 2011).

Is it any wonder the French government has banned the use of Wi-Fi in its preschool childcare facilities, and many other countries have set strict exposure limits? “Countries like Switzerland, Italy, France, Austria, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Israel, Russia and China have set RF exposure limits 100 to 10,000 times less than the USA. They recognize that there can be non-thermal biological effects from wireless radiation” (Worldwide countries taking action on wireless, 2008).

Unringing the bell

It will be nearly impossible to go backwards, especially when so many school districts have invested billions in technology’s potential to increase test scores. Very few decision-makers have paused to address the possible ramifications of digital integration or study the ominous pile of emerging research on the detrimental effects of computers, Wi-Fi, and exposing children to additional screen time.

Many educators insist, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” I must admit that I theoretically agree with that ubiquitous, yet slightly syrupy, teacher affirmation. But only to some extent. To many stakeholders, “teaching the way they learn” means to place the students in front of yet another glaring flat screen because kids are really good with computers. However, it’s a mistake to think that children learn better with computers simply because they are proficient with computers.

Indeed, technology can enhance the learning experience and open up windows to vast amounts of information. But, it can also increase the likelihood of cellular damage and oxidative stress, increase childhood obesity, deter the consolidation of long-term memory and become another entertaining diversion from learning. 

As Neil Postman said, we are running the risk of “amusing ourselves to death.”

Resources

• Avendano, C., Mata and Doncel (2011). “The use of laptop computers connected to internet through Wi-Fi decreases human sperm mobility and increases sperm DNA fragmentation.” Retrieved Feb. 2, 2017 from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

• Carr, N.G. (2010). “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains.” New York: Norton, W. W. & Company.

• Dunckley, V. (2015). “Reset your child’s brain: A four-week plan to end meltdowns, raise grades, and boost social skills by reversing the effects of electronic screen-time.” New York, NY, United States: New World Library.

• Garber, L. (2013, Jan. 18). “5 benefits of sunlight you probably never knew about.” Retrieved Feb. 7, 2017, from Benefits, http://naturalsociety.com/5-benefits-of-sunlight-vitamin-d-you-dont-know.

• Mark, A.E. and Janssen, I. (2008). “Relationship between screen time and metabolic syndrome in adolescents.” Journal of Public Health, 30(2), 153–160. doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdn022.

• Newport, C. (2016). “Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world.” United Kingdom: Piatkus Books.

• Worldwide countries taking action on wireless (2008). Retrieved Feb. 7, 2017, from www.parentsforsafetechnology.org/worldwide-countries-taking-action.html.

 

Jonathan Robinette M.Ed is a science teacher at Folsom Middle School.

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